False Recantations by Adults of Sexual Assault Allegations

by | Jan 19, 2021 | Human Thinking and Behavior, law and psychology, Sexual assault, Social psychology | 0 comments

 John M. Malouff and Nicola S. Schutte

University of New England, Australia

January 2021



Crime-allegation recantation involves victims of crimes rescinding their accusation. In some instances of recantation, the original allegation was accurate and the recantation is false. False recantations of sexual assault can have a detrimental impact on the victim and the community. Research findings in related realms of behavior suggest possible risk factors for false recantations by adult survivors of sexual assault. These risk factors include being young, being suggestible, experiencing feelings of shame, or being fearful of the assailant. Additional risk factors include victims having low social support or undergoing lengthy interrogations in which doubts or hostility are expressed by authority figures regarding the assault. Those working in the criminal-justice system can reduce the risks of false recantations by not creating external pressures to recant and by reducing the power of internal factors, e.g., by providing social support or referring sexually-assaulted individuals to agencies that provide social support.


False Recantations by Adults of Sexual Assault Allegations

If victims of crime rescind an accusation, we can call their act recanting.  In some instances, recanting may involve victims changing allegations that were accurate, resulting in a false recantation. An article by Miller and Armstrong (2015) provided a startling example of a sexual assault recantation that was certainly false. The story led to a much-viewed Netflix series titled Unbelievable and created a suspicion that other recantations by adults of sexual-assault allegations also may be false.

In the Unbelievable case, Marie, an 18-year-old in foster care due to childhood physical and sexual abuse, was sexually assaulted in her own bed by a stranger who entered through a window. She reported the incident to police, who never identified a suspect. After many interrogations of the girl, police officers expressed their doubt to Marie that an assault had occurred. Her current foster mother and a prior foster mother also expressed doubt to the girl.

The police pressed Marie to admit lying, and she eventually recanted her allegation of sexual assault. The police then charged her with making a false statement (the original allegation) to police. She pled guilty in order to get the trauma behind her. She became highly stressed, embittered, and afraid to interact with the police. When an officer in a nearby town called to enquire about a similar recent crime in the other town, the officers who convinced Marie to recant said there could be no connection because Marie had fabricated the sexual assault accusation.

A few years later a man sexually assaulted multiple women in another state. The police there arrested him and found in his possession videos of him binding and sexually assaulting various women, including Marie and the woman who was assaulted in a nearby town.  

False recantations can have important negative effects. They can lead to feelings of bitterness in the survivor, inappropriate criminal convictions of the survivor and to a shattered reputation for that person. Further, the recanting can make apprehension and conviction of the sex offender difficult or impossible, possibly allowing the perpetrator to engage in more sexual assaults. All these unfortunate outcomes occurred in the Unbelievable case.

There is no body of research evidence on the frequency of false recantations. This article describes four realms of research that suggest that adults may falsely recant allegations of sexual assault. The article then describes risk factors for false recantations by adults and offers suggestions for how criminal-justice workers can help prevent false recantations. The article concludes by suggesting ideas for future research.

Relevant Realms of Research

Four bodies of research findings are relevant to identifying risk factors for false recantations of sexual-assault allegations. These involve (1) false recantations of sexual molestation by children, (2) false confessions of serious crimes by adults, (3) the frequency of lying in general, and (4) decisions of sexual-assault survivors not to report.

False recantations of sexual molestation by children

Child allegations of sexual abuse are commonly followed by the child recanting. Different studies of substantiated claims of sexual abuse have shown recantation rates ranging from 4% to 23% (Bradley and Wood, 1996; Malloy et al., 2007). The relevant articles do not make clear how the sexual abuse allegations were substantiated, but if we think of the recantations in these cases as false, we see a substantial number of false recantations. Of course, recantations in cases of non-substantiated allegations could also be false, adding to the total number.

Studies have shown that children are more likely to recant allegations that are substantiated when they fear family rejection and experience disbelief from family members (Celik et al., 2018; Malloy et al., 2016). It is easy to imagine how pressures on the children to recant can become overwhelming.  

False confessions of serious crimes by adults

 Dozens and dozens of false confessions of adults to serious crimes have been documented in the United States. Drizen and Leo (2003) reported 125; Kassin (2017) described dozens more. Most of these were documented to be false on the basis of DNA evidence.

Why would anyone falsely confess to a serious crime? Experts such as Kassin (2017) and Gudjohnsson at al. (2017) pointed to several possible factors: isolation, a young, impulsive, suggestible, confused, highly emotional person obedient to authority and low in conflict tolerance being interrogated who distrusts his or her memory and high-pressure, lengthy interrogations by police officers trying to stimulate a confession. Pressuring interrogation tactics can include officers falsely describing or exaggerating evidence of the person’s guilt, promises of leniency or good treatment following a confession, minimizing the immorality of the offense, explicit threats if there is no confession, unwavering demands for a confession, offering reduced punishment for a confession, giving time-limited offers for a confession, offering benefits for a confession, and saying the person will feel better if he or she confesses (Alceste et al., 2020; Gudjohnsson et al., 2017; Kassin, 2017; Leo, 2016; Livingston et al., 2019).

All these factors can occur in cases in which police doubt the story of an adult who has alleged a sexual assault. The more of these factors present, the more likely it may be that the person falsely recants and thereby confesses to having made a false allegation of sexual assault to police. 

Frequency of lying in general

The frequency of lying in everyday life varies widely from person to person, with one lie a day typical (DePaolo, et al., 1996). Teens like the young woman in Unbelievable are more likely to lie than older individuals, with white lies, such as lies intended to spare another’s feelings, predominating (DePaolo, et al., 1996).  Some individuals tell a high number of serious (relatively important) lies on a daily basis (Serota et al., 2010); these individuals might be considered pathological liars (Curtis and Hart, 2020)

Lies often have some value to the persons telling them by making them look better, by avoiding some problem, or by gaining some advantage (DePaolo, et al., 1996) such as countering a power imbalance with the person told the lie (Gino and Pierce, 2010). However, some individuals lie to benefit another person, for instance by telling a white lie (DePaolo, et al., 1996).

Police officers usually do not know whether someone who recants an allegation of sexual assault has a tendency to tell lies. Just as officers maintain an element of skepticism about anything a member of the public tells them relating to crime, it makes sense to have at least a modicum of doubt about a recanting of sexual assault allegations.

Decisions of sexual-assault survivors not to report

 The majority of adult sexual assault survivors do not report the crime to police. Studies have found non-reporting rates of ranging from 54% to 98% (Feldhaus et al., 2000; Jones et al., 2009; Langerdorfer-Magruder, 2016; Thompson et al., 2007). The reasons for not reporting vary from person to person and include: expecting police to blame the survivor or to be insensitive, fear of going to trial, fear others would not believe the survivor (Ceelen et al., 2019), lack of social support (Langerdorfer-Magruder, 2016), feelings of shame or embarrassment, expecting police to take no action, and fear of the offender (Jones et al., 2009).

These same reasons could help prompt a sexual assault survivor to recant. The reasons that led the person to report in the first place, e.g., outrage and a desire for justice, may come to be outweighed in that person’s view by factors that motivate the person to disengage from the criminal-justice process.

Risk factors for adults’ false recanting of sexual assault allegations

This review so far has identified risk factors that could be relevant to identifying and preventing false recantations of sexual assault. Risk factors for adults falsely recanting allegations of sexual assault could involve characteristics of the victim as well as external factors.

Awareness of the victim characteristics could be valuable to law enforcement and related justice system personnel because they could help identify a person at high risk of falsely recanting. Individuals at highest risk for falsely recanting are young, intellectually impaired, impulsive, suggestible, obedient, confused, highly emotional, distrusting of their memory, highly anxious with low tolerance for conflict, experiencing feelings of shame or embarrassment. Also, victims may be doubtful the police will take effective action, or may be fearful of the offender, or fearful of going to trial. Finally victims are often members of a marginalized group or survivors of childhood physical or sexual abuse.

External factors that might contribute to falsely recanting include: the individual having low social support in general, low social support for proceeding with the accusation, and experiencing social isolation.  Lengthy interrogations in which doubts or hostility are expressed by authority figures regarding the assault, pressure to recant from authority figures such as police officers or carers, threats if the victim refuses to recant, promises of benefits for recanting may increase the likelihood of false recantations. Additional factors increasing likelihood of false recantations include investigators describing or exaggerating evidence of the survivor’s lying, promising leniency or good treatment following a confession of lying about the allegation, minimizing the immorality of supposed lying, making unwavering demands for a recantation, giving time-limited offers for a recantation, and suggesting that the person who made the allegation will feel better if he or she confesses to lying.

Police officers and others working in the justice system may be able to reduce the risks of false recantations by (1) not pressing individuals to recant, (2) providing social support or referring these individuals to agencies that will provide social support, (3) showing compassion, (4) taking action on the allegations, and (5) providing guidance about self-protection from the assailant.

There are practical and strategic limitations of how much the criminal-justice system can do to prevent false recantations, just as there are limitations on what the survivors can do to resist impulses to falsely recant. However, efforts by members of the justice system to acts in ways that reduce the risk of false recanting could have substantial value to survivors and to the community.

Future research

Researchers could examine the actual frequency of false recantations by adults of allegations of sexual assault. Researchers could also try to uncover the reasons for these false recantations and evaluate whether specific police methods reduce the frequency.


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Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash








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