Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore in Slate:
Because of the 18-year-old Hofstra student who recanted after telling police that five men had tricked her into a bathroom and then gang raped her two weeks ago, that question has been flying around the Internet. As Cathy Young notes in Newsday, the answers often fall into one of two camps. “Many feminists argue that the problem of false accusations is so minuscule that to discuss it extensively is a harmful distraction from the far more serious problem of rape. On the other side are men's-rights activists, claiming that false accusations are as much of a scourge as rape itself.”
But isn't the rate of false rape charges an empirical question, with a specific answer that isn't vulnerable to ideological twisting? Yes and no. There has been a burst of research on this subject. Some of it is careful, but much of it is questionable. While most of the good studies converge at a rate of about 8 percent to 10 percent for false rape charges, the literature isn't quite definitive enough to stamp out the far higher estimates. And even if we go by the lower numbers, there's the question of interpretation. If one in 10 charges of rape is made up, is that a dangerously high rate or an acceptably low one? To put this in perspective, if we use the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show about 200,000 rapes in 2008, we could be looking at as many as 20,000 false accusations.