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The rarity of false rape reports; a brave new world of technology

In a recent segment on NBC-TV’s “Today” show, reporter Jeff Rossen interviewed Lancaster County officials who used a Fitbit to determine that a woman’s story of experiencing sexual violence didn’t add up.

At the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, we routinely notice that false reports of sexual violence gain local and national media attention. It’s understandable. The idea that someone would make up something like this is just a little bit more comforting than acknowledging how common sexual violence really is.

It’s important to note, however, that false reports are not common. Most research suggests false reports are only 2 to 10 percent of all reported cases. And victims have been wrongfully convicted of false reporting in the past. ProPublica recently won a Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which details the experience of a victim convicted of false reporting and the work of police investigators that ultimately uncovered her rapist and connected him to a string of sexual assaults in several states.

Rape is one of the most underreported violent crimes. It’s estimated that only 37 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, and only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is ever reported.

Want to learn more about crime reports and false reporting? Check out the False Reporting Overview and the Media Packet from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Why underreporting?

There are many reasons why victims may decide not to report an experience of sexual violence.

Many fear retaliation or that they will not be believed. Many who first disclose the assault to family or friends are made to feel they are to blame. And many individuals and communities distrust law enforcement because of bad past experiences.

There are also cases in which persons who report such crimes will ultimately recant their stories. This is especially common in cases of child sexual abuse. It usually has more to do with a lack of support and pressure on the victim than on the facts of the alleged assault.

All this suggests that we need to do more to create a communitywide response that believes, supports and affirms people who disclose sexual violence.

Participating in a law enforcement investigation of sexual violence is highly invasive and stressful for victims. The burden of proof is on the state and, in turn, on the victim. This makes the preparation for successful prosecution of the accused grueling and extremely difficult. Researchers have consistently found that, to victims, it often feels like a “second rape.”

Common signs and symptoms of and reactions to sexual trauma often mirror inconsistency, nervousness, and lack of credibility on the part of the victim. All of this makes a strong case for better training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors on interviewing and working with victims.

Using technology

Another interesting aspect of the case highlighted on the TV show was the use of technology in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases. In this case, data from a Fitbit Activity Tracker was used to determine the accuser’s location, heart rate and activity at the time of the alleged sexual assault.

The groundbreaking 2012 Steubenville case uncovered mobile technology and social media being used to post pictures of a sexual assault in progress. More recently, an Ohio teen has been accused of using Periscope, a mobile broadcasting app, to broadcast the sexual assault of an underage girl.

On our wrists and in our pockets we hold the ability to track, record, edit and broadcast events almost instantaneously. Geotracking can provide abundant information about where we are, how fast we’re moving, and even our presumed mode of transportation.

It’s commendable that law enforcement officials are finding ways to use easily accessed information from technological devices to investigate and corroborate crime reports. A word of caution though: Because of the effects of sexual trauma, the story a victim tells may not always be presented in a chronological order or with complete consistency in its details.

The way the brain “records” traumatic events is different than the way it records what we had for breakfast. Details such as the time of the assault, the order of events, the appearance of the perpetrator and the location of crime scene may come back to the victim in patches or flashes. Sometimes those details will never surface at all.

We should continue to explore ways that we can use information from technological devices, while also balancing the rights and privacy of citizens.

Be mindful, act now

Keep in mind that technology is not only used by “the good guys” to support the prosecution of alleged offenders. People who perpetrate sexual violence use technology to stalk, harass, threaten and control their victims.

The “Today” show provided a startling example of the kind of information being collected, tracked and recorded every day by the devices we use. It’s important to be mindful of the information that is available through your mobile technology and social media accounts — and who has access to it.

Are your privacy settings in place? Check settings on social media platforms frequently, as some of them change or reset themselves on a routine basis.

Pay close attention to the settings on your mobile devices, too. Many allow you to turn off geotracking and turn it on only when you are using GPS. Do you know which of your apps have access to your location?

Most importantly, we need to create the kind of social norms that make digital citizenship the rule. If you see something abusive or problematic, interrupt it or report it.

Recognize that harassment and abusive behavior are never acceptable, whether they take place online or in the real world. And if you think someone you know is crossing the line, let him or her know this is not OK.

We all have a role in making our communities safer and creating the kind of response that honors the voices of victims and holds offenders accountable. To learn more about what you can do to prevent and respond to sexual violence, visit our website:

Ali Mailen Perrotto is the contract liaison with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, headquartered in Enola.

This blog was originally published by the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal: