Recanting a disclosure of sexual assault: Taking back a lie, or something else entirely?

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There is one pervasive myth that, as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault for almost 17 years, I have been subject to many opinions about — the myth that sexual assault survivors (children, adolescents, college students and adults) lie or make false reports about being sexually assaulted.

Yet the facts indicate otherwise.

According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, estimates of false reporting are low — between 2 and 10 percent, which, incidentally, is in line with every other crime. There is literature that claims false reporting rates are higher, but very few of those are based on credible research (source: False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault, American Prosecutors Research Institute, 2009). In fact, the majority of individuals who experience sexual assault never report to law enforcement, which is where data of false reports is largely tracked.

So why does this myth persist?

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Maybe people do not want to believe that such horrific and harmful assaults are happening every day. Maybe the topic of sexual assault brings up uncomfortable memories and feelings of one’s own personal experiences people are not ready to face. Maybe it is because the sexual assault movement was born from the feminist movement and biased views of women and entitlement to women are being challenged. Maybe it has something to do with some survivors recanting, or taking back their initial allegations of sexual assault.

Regardless, the myth that survivors lie about being sexually assaulted is widespread in our culture and must be challenged.

There is an important difference between a false report and a recantation. To be clear, false reports are reports of sexual assault that, after an investigation, are factually proved to have never occurred. Recanting is when the survivor retracts the report of sexual assault, saying that the assault didn’t happen. This generally stops any investigation from moving forward, thus neither verifying nor disproving the allegation.

Victims may recant their original disclosure for a multitude of reasons. In sexual assault cases involving children, survivors may be embarrassed, ashamed or confused about what happened to them. They may love the person who assaulted them and want someone to know about the assault so it will stop, but not want the abuser to get into trouble. They may be afraid or feel that everyone is mad at them. Or, they may feel pressured by family members to say the abuse didn’t happen. For adolescents and adults, there may be distrust of the system, fear of retaliation, fear of being portrayed as crazy or unstable, or fear of losing one’s family system if they face disbelief and scrutiny by family and friends. There may be financial reasons. For example, if the disclosure results in the primary income earner being removed from the home or they threaten to take away financial support. The list of reasons goes on.

When a survivor discloses a sexual assault, they are giving power to the system they reported to, to investigate the assault and to make decisions about moving forward with possible charges. Sexual assault is about power and control, about someone using sex acts as a weapon and taking away an individual’s right to choose what happens to their body. If the system response makes survivors feel that they have no control, they may want to reconsider engaging in that process.

Unfortunately, recantations can be used as ammunition to discredit survivors and downplay the seriousness of the crime. At Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, we strive to inform communities about the realities survivors face, and the choices they sometimes need to make to disengage from cultural beliefs, personal opinions and systems that all too often feel re-traumatizing.

At the end of the day, it makes me utterly sad. Sad that very low statistics of false reports have tainted the credibility and value of every survivors’ experience.

Sad that the advocates I have the privilege to work with are often not acknowledged for the incredible work they do and sad for the many survivors who are doing the best they can each day to navigate their individual and unique healing process.

Kayce Hunton is the client services coordinator for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

Kayce Hunton

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