Deny, Attack, Blame: The Prosecution of Women Reporting Rape

Women who report sexually victimizing experiences in good faith can become targets of investigations—and criminal charges—themselves.

Activists and survivors of sexual abuse protest the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Sept. 28, 2018, at the Federal Building Plaza in Chicago. Christine Blasey Ford had accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teens. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In September 2018, a woman attending the University of Kansas spoke to police officers outside a hospital. At the urging of her peers, the woman (name withheld to protect privacy) reported she had been raped by a friend of an ex. She didn’t want to press charges: Despite having bruises on her neck and arms, the woman had been drunk and her memory of the incident was still fragmented and murky, undermining her confidence.

Before heading in for a rape examination, she let the officers look through her phone at texts about the incident. The officers’ interpretation of the texts—which appeared to show the woman expressing regret that she had woken up in the bed of her ex’s friend—led them to accuse her of lying. She was arrested on three felony counts of interference with law enforcement for supposedly making a false report.

From 2013-2018, around 127 women in the U.S. were charged with making a “false rape” report. In the U.K., journalists identified 200 women who had been prosecuted for ostensibly lying about being raped between the years of 2008 and 2018, most of whom ended up serving time in prison. Many of these cases involved women of vulnerable social status, including teenagers, those struggling with psychological and addiction issues, and women with a history of previous victimization. Others were charged even though they never even named an attacker.

But not all “false rape” reports measure up to the unequivocally bogus nature that the name implies—as the Kansas woman’s story above illustrates. False rape reports are often reputed to involve deliberate and malicious fabrications made by women covering their tracks after regretted sexual encounters or seeking retaliation against innocent men. But the reality tends to be more complicated.

Cases where investigators believe the reported incident fails to meet legal standards for sexual assault can sometimes end up classified as false, even though reporting individuals had genuinely experienced sexual violation.

Reports that are recanted—i.e. taken back—by victims are also likely to be categorized as false. Victim recantation happens for a host of reasons. Sometimes victims withdraw their allegations out of a desire to protect their perpetrators or to avoid having to continue to deal with the investigatory process. Others may recant after being pressured or threatened by their perpetrators or by individuals attempting to protect their perpetrators. Reporting individuals can also face immense pressure to recant by law enforcement officials using interrogation-style tactics to obtain false confessions from victims. Consequently, recantations are often poor indicators that an assault did not occur.

Law enforcement officers might also mark cases false simply because they do not believe the victim—perhaps because those law enforcement officers are misinformed about the reality of gender-based violence. Research indicates police officers tend to greatly overestimate the prevalence of false rape reporting and may misinterpret victim behavior as signaling dishonesty. For rape victims, their fates often hinge on whether they are deemed credible by the officers taking their report—a tricky feat considering sexual assault victims frequently do not conform to the stereotypical image of a victim and instead act in confusing or counterintuitive ways after experiencing an assault. 

Police officers tend to greatly overestimate the prevalence of false rape reporting and may misinterpret victim behavior as signaling dishonesty.

Actual false rape allegations—that is, intentionally fabricated rape allegations—are rare. Research that parses out cases incorrectly classified as false finds only around 5 or 6 percent of reported rapes are about assaults that are likely to have never occurred. It is difficult to know how many women charged with making a false report belong to this small group, but reports on individual cases show that women who were truthful in their reporting have been unfairly prosecuted for allegedly making false reports.

The story of an 18-year-old Washington woman, referred to as Marie, is one of the more well-known examples of this. In 2008, Marie reported to police that she had been raped by a man who broke into her apartment during the night and bound and gagged her. The police didn’t believe her—they thought the inconsistencies in her retellings of her rape meant she was lying. After being questioned by police about the veracity of her story, Marie conceded she might have dreamed the rape happened. She was charged with making a false report to police, agreeing to a plea deal that placed her on supervised probation, fined her $500 and forced her to attend counseling for lying. It wasn’t until years later that police in Colorado, after searching a serial rapist’s home, found a photo of Marie bound and gagged in her apartment. Marie had not been lying—her confession about fabricating the report was the product of coercive police interrogations.  

Other stories regarding women questioned for making false reports don’t always offer this striking level of undeniable evidence supporting a victim’s report. But they do often underscore how quickly women who report sexually victimizing experiences in good faith can become targets of investigations—and criminal charges—themselves.

Women who were truthful in their reporting have been unfairly prosecuted for allegedly making false reports.

The Netflix series Unbelievable, starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever, is Inspired by true events: After a young woman is accused of lying about a rape, two female detectives investigate a spate of similar attacks. (Netflix)

In some cases in which rape victims are prosecuted after reporting their assaults, criminal justice systems commit a particularly egregious form of institutional betrayal by engaging in institutional “DARVO“—an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.

DARVO was first identified by trauma researcher Jennifer Freyd in the late ’90s, who noticed sex offenders tend to respond with a specific pattern when confronted or held accountable:

  • deny their involvement in any wrongdoing, or deny their actions caused any real harm;
  • attack victim credibility by inserting doubt about their accusers’ motives and psychological soundness; and
  • promote a narrative positioning themselves as victims of false, reputation-ruining accusations.

We are psychology researchers who study DARVO. Recent findings from our laboratory show it is commonly used against victims of sexual violence. This perpetrator response leads people to view victims as less credible, more abusive and more responsible for the abuse.

DARVO is a compelling response. It begs observers to consider a reality where victims are ill-intentioned liars and perpetrators are innocent targets. Even small seeds of doubt planted by DARVO responses—maybe she’s not remembering what happened correctly, or perhaps she’s just overreacting?—can be damaging for victims and bend judgments in favor of perpetrators.

Perpetrators benefit the most from DARVO, but they are certainly not the only ones to use it. Victims who disclose their rape often experience unsupportive responses, like accusing the victim of lying. Responses like these are often variations of DARVO, which is linked to feelings of doubt and self-blame among those who experience it first-hand.

The use of DARVO as a response to rape disclosures reflects longstanding biases against victims of sexual violence. For centuries, suspicions about whether women are actually telling the truth about rape have been prominent in cultural discourse. This long history of doubt seeded DARVO as an accessible reaction to rape.

DARVO responses, like ones that label victims as liars, often reinforce rape myths—prevalent but inaccurate beliefs about sexual violence that excuse perpetrators and blame victims. Research indicates rape myths are associated with a host of antisocial beliefs and behaviors, including sexism, racism and perpetration of sexual violence. Studies featuring mock trials demonstrate that jurors who believe in rape myths are more likely to render “not guilty” judgments for rapists.

The idea that women commonly lie about rape is a rape myth with particularly strong roots in DARVO: It denies an assault occurred, attacks victims’ credibility and portrays perpetrators as victims of false accusations.

Other rape myths include the belief that men get carried away sexually and accidentally assault women, or that women somehow invite sexual violence through their behavior and appearance. Elements of DARVO are woven throughout these rape myths, too, as all rape myths are underpinned by the denial that women are ever truly innocent victims.

The prosecution of victims’ rape reporting is a disturbing manifestation of institutional-level DARVO. It uses the powers of the legal system to deny an assault occurred, attack and undermine the reporting victim’s credibility, and then treat the victim as the real offender to such an extreme degree that it is the victim — and not the perpetrator—who ends up with charges and, in some cases, even prison time.

Victimization happens on multiple levels: the initial assault, the shocking experience of DARVO from law enforcement officials, the subsequent betrayal by the justice system, and criminal punishments stemming from false rape report charges. The perverse result risks silencing many other victims.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The unjust prosecution of rape reporting can be addressed.

Our research suggests educating people about DARVO can lessen its influence: Third-party observers who have been educated about DARVO are less likely to be swayed by the tactic and consequently are less inclined to doubt victims. Providing a DARVO education to individuals who serve institutions of justice, like police officers and prosecutors, might minimize the role DARVO plays in investigations of rape reports.

In place of the persistent DARVO-like questioning that some rape victims endure while speaking with law enforcement officials—are you being completely honest? Are you sure it wasn’t consensual? Why do you keep changing your story?—non-coercive investigative approaches that do not operate under the assumption that the victim is lying or ill-intentioned should be used instead.   

There is no reason to believe that DARVO tactics, even used on individuals who are intentionally lying in their reports, are a more effective truth-finding strategy than non-DARVO approaches. In fact, as reports about the prosecution of truthful rape victims have shown, DARVO often compromises the truth.

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence—which began on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—the international community calls for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. Now and always, victims should not fear becoming the focus of their own rape investigation. The prosecution of women reporting unwanted sexual experiences is a chilling practice. The anticipation of being betrayed to this extreme degree by the institutions meant to protect them is often more than enough to discourage victims from seeking justice.

DARVO should have no place in investigations of rape reports. But, for as long as it does, victims’ fears of being treated and prosecuted as criminals are justified.

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About and

Sarah Harsey, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Institutional Courage.
Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD is Founder and President, Center for Institutional Courage, Professor Emerit of Psychology, University of Oregon, & Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine, Stanford University.