False Allegations of Sexual Assault

In fact I have misrepresented who wrote the review here – the review was actually a report FOR the Direct of Public Prosecutions and the credit for conducting the review and writing the report should go to Alison Levitt QC and the Equalities and Diversity Unit of the CPS

In March 2013 the Director of Public Prosecutions published the findings from a review he conducted into false allegations of sexual assault in England and Wales which highlights the relative rarity of false allegations. In order to provide context for the figures they are considered here in relation to the number of reported sexual assaults for the same year.  However, it is important to point out that the review covered a 17 month period whilst the figures for the number of sexual assaults and police reports are for just a 12 month period.  Thus it is likely that the proportion of successful prosecutions of sexual assault and prosecutions of false allegations are both overestimated in my calculations that follow.  According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year 2011/12 there were an estimated 536,000 victims of sexual assault, of which 13% had indicated reporting to the police. That is, approximately 69,680 victims reported a sexual assault to the police.  For the period of review there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and sexual assault.  This equates to 8.1% of all reported sexual assaults leading to a successful prosecution.  During this same 17 month period there were 121 complainants of sexual assault who were suspected of making a false allegation which finally lead to 35 prosecutions. This equates to 0.17% of sexual assault complainants being suspected of making a false allegation and the rate of prosecuted false allegations being 0.0005% of all reported cases of sexual assault.

The finding that shocks me most and which is not highlighted in the review is that 29% of suspected false complainants are prosecuted. Thus it appears that complainants of rape who are suspected of making a false allegation have a far greater chance of being prosecuted than are suspects who have alleged committed a sexual assault.  Indeed, complainants suspected of making a false allegation are almost four times more likely to be prosecuted than are people accused of committing sexual assault. A trend which if publicly known might serve to dissuade genuine victims from reporting their victimisation.  However on a positive note, it might help quash the fears of all those men who are concerned about the ‘tendency’ of women to make false allegations against them.

It might be tempting to think that there may well be many more false allegations made than were brought forward for prosecution due to chivalry or compassion by the police and CPS towards those made by vulnerable people.  However, the Director of Public Prosecutions’ review clearly demonstrated that the actual cases brought forward often included these very people.  Eighteen percent of suspects were people with a diagnosed mental health problem or profound learning disabilities, and 21% were under the age of 18 years.  Furthermore 35% of the suspected false complaints were actually reported by third parties rather than the alleged victim his/herself.   Thus, suggesting that the number of truly vengeful and malicious false reports is incredibly rare.

Importantly, in relation to sexual revictimisation, the Director of Prosecutions noted that a number of complainants became suspects once it was found that they had previously made reports of sexual victimisation.  He suggests that suspicion was raised due to the lack of awareness among investigators and prosecutors of the existence and prevalence of revictimisation.  Unfortunately, they had erroneously used the lack of prosecution in response to the previous allegation as evidence of a false allegation on this occasion, despite this having no probative value.


Key facts in relation to police investigation of a complainant’s allegation of sexual assault

Victim Empathy in Policing:

Key Points


  • High attrition of sexual violence cases from the criminal justice system.
  • Nationally, only 5% of sexual assaults that are reported to the police result in a conviction (and only 14% of cases of sexual assault are reported to the police).
  • We have the lowest rate of conviction for sexual crimes in Europe
  • Attrition is highest for sexual crimes despite the fact that 86% of offenders are known to victims and thus do not need to be discovered through investigation.
  • There appears to be a systematic bias against particular cases progressing through the criminal justice system. Less likely to progress if:
    • Offence is characterised as an acquaintance/date rape
    • Victim had been drinking or using drugs
    • Victim has made a previous allegation of sexual assault (although revictimisation is very prevalent)
    • Victim is known to have a learning disability or mental health problem.
  • Other factors that impact upon the complainant’s perceived credibility include:
    • The complainant’s sexual reputation
    • Inconsistencies in accounts (e.g. between initial statement and information provided at a later date).
  • One of the largest factors contributing to attrition is victim-withdrawal of the original complaint.
  • Why do victims withdraw their complaints?
    • Fear/experience of secondary victimisation by criminal justice agents and medical professionals
    • Feeling disbelieved or blamed by the criminal justice agents to whom they disclose.
  • From a policing perspective – between ½ and 2/3 of complaints are considered to not be genuine – but research on the Met. Police records indicate that only 2.7% of allegations are in fact fabricated (genuine false allegations).
  • The notion that women reported rape due to regretful sex is a myth which is possibly based on historic rhetoric.
  • Why is the police response to sexual assault complainants important?
    • Disbelieve and victim-blaming are associated with higher rates of post-traumatic disorder 9 months post disclosure.
    • Police are typically the first officials to whom the complainant discloses – if they receive a negative response this is likely to restrict their help seeking from other organisations (e.g. medical, counselling etc.)
    • On average non-convicted self-reported rapists whose average age is 26 admit to committing assaults on 12 people. This low conviction rate leaves a high number of offenders free to create further victims.
  • Factors associated with higher rates of disbelief:
    • Complainants who are manifesting symptoms of PTSD
      • Showing high levels of shame (avoiding eye contact)
      • Having problems remembering details of the event
      • Not showing ‘appropriate emotions’ etc.

How might empathy towards complainants enhance the rate of conviction?

  • Demonstrating empathy for victims is likely to lead to fuller disclosures (less contradictory information)
  • Complainants may feel better able to face the rigors of proceeding to court if they feel that the officers supporting them genuinely care for them.
  • Where victims feel cared for by the police they are likely to have a highly level of police satisfaction irrespective of the court outcome.

Enhancing empathy for complainants

  • We need to overcome a number of human errors in thinking that tend to promote victim-blaming or disbelieving tendencies. We normally engage in this erroneous thinking as a way of maintaining our own sense of safety.
  • Trust between individuals is central to feeling empathy – thus if you automatically distrust a complainant you are unlikely to demonstrate empathy
  • We need to be able to place ourselves in the shoes of the other to understand how they are thinking and feeling – and we need to recognise that we tend to find this difficult.
  • We need to recognise when we are being influenced by the prevalent but erroneous rape myths.
  • Remember that we might become desensitised to the suffering of others as we see it regularly – this their unique and possibly novel experience and they need to be responded to appropriately.
  • Remember complainants are not just a source of evidence – they have turned to you for support and protection – this may not be about securing a case

How do we demonstrate empathy?

  • Allow the complainant to tell their ‘whole’ story (not just the specific details of the event in question, but also circumstances that surround these events) and listen to them
  • Avoid questioning or responses that imply that the victim is incredible or in some way to blame for the events.
  • Comfort the complainant when they are showing distress. Eye contact, supporting smile, hand holding, hand or pat on the shoulder etc.
  • Respond to complainants as individuals rather than just cases
  • Keep the complainant informed of progress (or even lack of) on the case

Seeking research participants

Seeking Research Participants for an Interview Study


Unwanted Sexual Experiences Study


I would like to invite people to take part in an interview study which is exploring the lived experiences of unwanted sexual encounters across the life-span. The topics discussed will include the impact, coping strategies, memory for the incident(s) and experiences of telling others about the incident(s).

If you have experienced at least on incident of unwanted sexual intimacy, whether this was in childhood, adolescence or adulthood then you would be ideally suited to participate in this study. I would particularly welcome those who have previously experienced forgetting of the incidents and then remember them later in life.  However, I am also interested in including people who have always remembered their experiences.  The aim is to include the experiences of both men and women and people whose experiences of unwanted sex happened either a long time ago or more recently.  However, due to the conditions of the ethical approval for the study, I am only seeking volunteers for interviewing who are currently over the age of 18 years.  The overall aim of the study is to help inform the development of more effective interventions to prevent the re-occurrence of repeated incidents of unwanted sexual experiences.

The research is being conducted by Dr Nadia Wager from the University of Bedfordshire, with Jason Schaub from Buckinghamshire New University.  The project has been granted full ethical approval by the University Ethics Committee at the University of Bedfordshire and the Faculty Ethics Committee at Buckinghamshire New University.

If you think you might be interested in taking part, please email Nadia (nadia.wager@beds.ac.uk) for further information or to arrange to chat further about the study on the telephone.

I will post the full participant information sheet on this website.

Reflective accounts by adult survivors of child sexual abuse of the reasons why they didn’t disclose about their abuse during childhood.

Referring back to my community-based, web-survey, one of the questions I asked was; ‘If you attempted to tell someone of your experiences during childhood, how did they respond?’  In response to this question a significant number of participants chose to explain why they had not disclosed to anyone during their childhood.

Only 25% of the respondents who experienced CSA told anyone of this prior to the age of 14.

The person the respondents were most likely to tell was their mother, although this was slightly less likely when the perpetrator was the mother’s husband/partner/boyfriend.

Reasons given for not telling anyone included:

a) Concern for the effect that this would have on others (not wanting others to become unhappy)

b) Concern for what would happen to the perpetrator (sometimes excusing the perpetrator as they too had been abused)

c) A desire to maintain prosocial relationships with the perpetrator (e.g. the perpetrator also provided pleasant social interactions for otherwise isolated children)

d) Not knowing that the abuse was anything abnormal and thus warranting a disclosure

e) Self-blame and shame (and thus embarrassment) 

f) Belief that the adults already knew of the abuse so there was no need to tell them

g) Sense of hopelessness which was fuelled by the sense that they wouldn’t be believed.

h) A lack of opportunity – not easy to suddenly and ‘out of the blue’ start a conversation about abuse.  

Implications for the way in which parents might create the right environment for disclosures of abuse.

a) In their normal everyday interactions with their children, parents should avoid talking in ways that suggest that the children are responsible for the well-being of the adults.  Instead, they need to remind their children that they (the parents) are responsible for the children’s well-being and are also strong enough to look after themselves.

b) If a child appears agitated or reluctant to to something or go somewhere, they need to ask them why they are reticent or upset, and do so in a private space and in an inviting tone so that the child is actually given the opportunity to speak.  It is all too easy to tell the children that they must do something or that they are behaving irrationally (I have three children and I can relate to having done this).  Many of my respondents have said that if only someone had asked them why they were upset or angry, they would have been all too happy to tell of the abuse.  However, many of they found that they were never asked these types of questions in a way that invited an honest response.

c) Create opportunities for children to talk about taboo issues.  This can be done by watching TV together and discussing issues that are presented in a non-judgemental and sympathetic manner.  I have thought that the Witney case on Eastenders would provide a wonderful opportunity for parents to demonstrate their concern for Witney and their own desires to want to offer her emotional and practical support.  Importantly to use language that does not hint at any blame or disgust towards the portrayed victim.  Additionally, it is often wise in this case also not to talk too harshly about the perpetrator as children who are being abused are often in a complex relationship with the perpetrator and will often feel that they love them and care for them, whilst they dislike the abuse.  By showing strong negative reactions to the TV villian, it might mean that the child becomes more reluctant to tell when something is happening to them.


Researching sexual revictimisation

My research activities largely focus on the prevention of, healing from, and resilience in the face of, sexual assault. In particular I am interested in the phenomenon of sexual revictimisation, both in terms of understanding the causal mechanisms and developing effective interventions. This includes interventions aimed at survivors, their childhood guardians and potential offenders, and includes consideration of the applicability of various restorative justice processes. Additionally, some of my research examines the attitudes of other people towards those who have experienced sexual revictimisation.  My aim in this type of research is to develop training that helps to create a more empathetic response to survivors of sexual revictimisation.  Ultimately I hope that this will aid a greater proportion of survivors who choose to report their experiences to the police or other professionals to gain a sense of justice and to not feel retraumatised by these interactions. Finally, I have also been concerned with ensuring that I conduct research on this topic in a sensitive and compassionate manner.  Thus I have written several papers on the ethical implications of researching sexual revictimisation (Wager 2011; Wager 2012a).

So what is sexual revictimisation? Well, in the case of my research I have been using this phrase to refer to the phenomenon where some children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA) grow up to become sexual assaulted by different perpetrators in adolescence and/or adulthood. In the wider research literature the phrase also refers to people who have only experienced repeated incidents of sexual assault in adulthood, again at the hands of different perpetrators.  In terms of my published work I have written a book chapter (Wager 2012b) which discusses a number of theories that attempt to explain why sexual revictimisation happens in a way that doesn’t instantly blame the survivors themselves.

My first study which examined what factors are associated with a greater risk for revictmisation was a community-based, web-survey which attracted 481 adults who responded to the invitation to participate.  To-date this study has revealed a number of previously unknown findings and has provided further support for the findings for other researchers.  In brief the key findings include:

  • about 1/4 of the sample reported experiencing some form of contact childhood sexual victimisation prior to the age of 14
  • about 2/3 of those who experienced CSA went on to be sexually re-victimised by a different offender in either adolescence or adulthood
  • whilst males were less likely to report CSA, still 2/3 of the males who reported CSA also reported being revictimised in either adolescence or adulthood.
  • about 30% of people who experienced CSA experienced revictimisations both in adolescence and adulthood.
  • 23% of the people who reported experiencing CSA also reported that for a period of time they had absolutely no memory or awareness of the fact that they had been sexually abused as a child.  However, in later life they had suddenly and unexpectedly begun to recall these memories of abuse.  I refer to this as having amnesia for memories of the abuse.
  • The average age for people to suddenly remember their childhood abuse experiences, was 30 years, with some people not knowing until in their 50’s.
  • Being ‘amnesic for memories’ of the CSA was found to be associated with a very high risk for sexual revictimisation, particularly that occurring during adolescence.  Indeed, almost 90% of amnesic CSA survivors reported being sexually revictimised by a different perpetrator during adolescence.
  • To me, this finding is extremely important because it means that those who are at greatest risk for sexual revictimisation are unlikely to be assessing services or support organisations which might assist them in minimising risk.  This means, that the most effective interventions will be those that can be developed for and delivered to all young people in schools, and not those that target known survivors of CSA.
  • I have called the phenomenon of children who have experienced CSA at the hands of a caregiver (e.g. a parent, step parent, grand-parent etc.) and who attempted to tell someone of the abuse when they were a child, but the person they told then either disbelieved them or blamed them in some way, as being ‘doubly-betrayed’.  That is, they have been betrayed by their carers through the abuse, and betrayed by someone they trusted enough to tell, though their inappropriate response to the disclosure.
  • Adults whose responses on the survey indicated that they had been doubly betrayed, were the most likely to report a prior period of amnesia for CSA and were at greatest risk for sexual revictimisation.
  • Importantly, in adulthood risk for revictimisation was more strongly linked with a negative reaction to their childhood disclosure of abuse, than it was to CSA itself.
  • No protective effect was found for a positive response to a childhood disclosure of CSA.  Whilst some might view this negatively, the positive message that can be taken from this is that there is no perfect response to a disclosure, but there are types of responses that need to be avoided.  For example, those that suggest that the child’s allegations are not believed or that the child is blamed for the actions of the offender.
  • On finding the above, I spent the day in all the book shops in my local town centre examining all of the pregnancy and childcare books to see what advice new or expectant parents are offered on the topic of CSA.  NONE, was my finding.  Thus it is not surprising that parents, who for young children tend to be the most likely recipients of a disclosure, are ill prepared to know how to respond. So I argue that there need for greater awareness raising in the general population about CSA and for advice on how to effectively respond to a child when they begin to disclose.

I have published two papers so far from this study (1) Amnesia and risk for revictimisation (Wager, 2012c) and 2) Double Betrayal and risk for revictimisation (Wager, 2013).  But have also several more that I am just in the process of finishing writing.  One of these is on adult’s reflections on disclosing (or reasons for not disclosing) CSA as a child.  This analysis and resultant paper offer suggestions for the ways in which trusted adults can make it easier for children to tell of their abuse (Wager in preparation). – Maybe I’ll tell you more about this in another post 🙂

Finally, the motivation of my research on attitudes towards survivors of sexual revictimisation comes the findings in studies of the tendency of the police to no-crime (nowadays, no further action) reports of sexual assault made by complainants who are known to a previous history of sexual victimisation. My aim was to determine whether the general public were also as likely to disbelieve complainants of sexual revictimisation as are the police. The study was based on an experimental study in which my participants are asked to read one of 10 different hypothetical sexual assault scenarios, and then to complete a questionnaire which examined how likely they were to believe the allegation or to blame the complainant for their victimisation.  Sadly, the findings suggest that revictimisation which is characterised by CSA followed by an adult sexual assault and where the childhood perpetrator had been convicted, is the least likely to be believed in relation to the allegation made in adulthood.  The findings from this study and the associated literature search are currently being used in a victim-empathy training I am delivering to Bedfordshire Police (Wager, under review).

My latest study is an interview study with survivors of various forms of sexual victimisation, which I am conducting to see if I can unravel the process and circumstances through which CSA leads to a heightened risk for revictimisation in later adulthood.  To-date there has been no qualitative study on this topic in which survivors have been able to offer their own opinions and relay their own experiences.  And so onward we go…


References (Please feel free to request copies directly from me)

Wager, N. (2011) Researching Sexual Revictimisation: Associated Ethical and Methodological Issues and Possible Solutions. Child Abuse Review, 20(3): 158-72

Wager, N. (2012a) Respondents’ experiences of completing a retrospective web-based sexual-trauma survey: Does a history of sexual victimisation equate with risk for harm? Violence & Victims, 27(6): 991-1004

Wager, N. (2012b) “Sexual Revictimisation: Theoretical pathways from childhood sexual abuse to adult sexual assault.” In J. Brayford, F. Cowe & J. Deering (eds) Sex Offenders Punish, Help Change or Control? Theory, policy and practice explored.  London: Routledge

Wager, N. (2012) Psychogenic Amnesia for Childhood Sexual Abuse and Risk for Sexual Revictimisation in both Adolescence and Adulthood. Sex Education, 12(3): 331-349

Wager, N. (2013) Sexual revictimisation: Double Betrayal and the Risk Associated with Dissociative Amnesia.  Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 22(7): 878-899

Wager, N. (under review) An experimental investigation of the perceived credibility of complainants of sexual revictimisation: Disbelief or victim-blame.  Violence and Victims

Wager, N. (in preparation) Children’s disclosures of sexual abuse: A retrospective analysis of the responses of the recipients.  Child Abuse Review