On Apr. 5, Rolling Stone issued a retraction of an article called “A Rape on Campus” written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that was featured online and in the print magazine in November. The article alleged that members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity gang raped a female student, referred to as Jackie in the story, on September 28, 2012. After an initial response of outrage in the media and the decision by UVA president Teresa Sullivan to suspend the activities of Greek organizations on campus, questions began to emerge about the details of the story as well as Erdely’s journalistic methods. Over the following weeks, an increasing number of discrepancies emerged, leading Rolling Stone to ask the Columbia Journalism School to review Erdely’s work. A police investigation that concluded in March found no evidence of wrongdoing at any fraternity house on the UVA campus.
While Rolling Stone‘s editors as well as Erdely have apologized, no one involved in the story is going to be fired. They have said that “[s]exual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.” There is certainly nothing wrong with this position, and many others in the media have pointed out the chilling effect that this incident may have on the reporting of authentic rape cases. But let us examine the flip side. This story amounts to a false rape accusation for which no one is being punished. The name of Greek organizations on the UVA campus in general and Phi Kappa Psi in particular have been dragged through the mud for no good reason, and this has resulted in damages for which legal action is pending. But defamation cases are difficult to pursue in cases like this, and monetary relief cannot restore a tarnished public reputation. Regardless of what ultimately becomes of the lawsuit, neither Jackie nor Erdely will face consequences nearly as severe as a convicted rapist or an organization that turns a blind eye to rape would. All of this has the unfortunate effect of telling future false rape accusers that neither they themselves nor those who spread their stories will face any serious punishment for doing so. There is a reinforcement effect as well; if fewer women who have been raped come forward because they believe that they will be demonized as liars, then the percentage of false rape accusations will necessarily rise.
Some people will try to argue that false rape accusations are not a serious problem. The Rolling Stone retraction links to a study claiming that such cases amount to between 2 percent and 10 percent of all rape accusations. This figure could be restated as 6 percent ± 4 percent, and a figure with an error bar almost as large as the figure itself indicates poor methodology, which is exactly what one finds when delving into the details. The sample size of 136 cases is rather small, the false accusations number of 8 is small enough to cause statistical concerns, and the sample was taken at one unnamed university in the Northeastern United States over a 10-year period (1998-2007) rather than in a multitude of places.
Even if there were no methodological problems with the study, its presentation is also problematic. One could infer from the way the media is using this study that rape accusations are provably true in 90 to 98 percent of cases. This is not a correct inference. The breakdown of the study is that 5.9 percent of cases were provably false, 35.3 percent of cases led to criminal charges and/or disciplinary action from the university, 44.9 percent of cases either lacked sufficient evidence, had an uncooperative accuser, or did not meet statutory definitions of rape, and 13.9 percent of cases could not be categorized due to a lack of information. If we apply the rate of false accusations in the cases that are provably true or false to the total number of cases, we get a total rate of false accusations of 5.9*100/(5.9+35.3)=14.3 percent.
There is also a logical case to be made for why false rape accusations are more prevalent than false accusations of other criminal activity. The vast majority of people believe that rape is a special kind of evil, second only to murder in the amount of psychological damage that it does to a victim. (This fact alone is sufficient to debunk the myth of rape culture, but when have radical feminists ever cared about facts?) It follows that a person who wishes to get attention or ruin another person’s reputation would most likely accuse that person of rape, as a murder accusation is much easier to disprove and other accusations are less serious. A false rape accusation is also more useful in certain situations than other false accusations, such as revenge against exes, getting rid of a current romantic partner, or covering up an extramarital affair. Finally, there are radical feminists who view such accusations as a legitimate way to attack men collectively.
To conclude, incidents like the recent debacle at Rolling Stone are not only counterproductive for dealing with the problem of rape, but move us toward a rape accusation culture where a woman can ruin the reputation of men or even send them to prison on baseless charges while suffering no penalty for doing so, all the while empowering the state at the expense of the individual.