Feminist jurisprudence, Philip Jenkins said in these pages, has been governed by an “unchallenged orthodoxy” when the issue is rape. It is that “women did not lie about such victimization, never lied, not out of personal malice, not from mental instability or derangement.” Believing the self-proclaimed victim of rape has indeed evolved from ideological faith to legal doctrine and, in some jurisdictions, into law. California now requires that jurors be explicitly told that a rape conviction can be based on the accuser’s testimony alone, without corroboration, and Canada would like men accused of rape to demonstrate that they received the willing consent of their sexual partner.

These new rules assume that women do not lie because they have no motive to lie. Consequently, as Jenkins states, the question of the “victim’s credibility” has now become “crucial.” Is that credibility warranted? Is it, as feminist jurisprudence would want it established, to be nearly automatic? Not if we consult recent history.

The record shows, for example, a growing number of recanted rape charges. The most celebrated occurred in 1985 when Gary Dotson, who after six years in prison, was released when his accuser, Cathleen Webb, confessed to perjury. More recently we learned that Tawana Brawley’s sensational charges were a total fabrication. So was the story of a gang rape in College Station, Texas, perpetrated, it was charged, by Texas A&M Corps of Cadets members on a female cadet. So also was the rape of a Princeton coed reported at a “Take Back the Night Rally” and the alleged rape of a naval officer at the 1991 Tailhook Convention.

In spite of vehement feminist protestations to the contrary, such recantations are not rare. They are, in fact, part of a pattern revealed in several false allegation studies. An annual F.B.I. survey of 1500 law enforcement agencies, for example, discovered that over eight percent of rape charges are completely unfounded. That figure, which has held steadily over the past decade, is at least twice as high as for any other felony. Unfounded charges of assault (which, like rape, is often productive of conflicting testimony) comprise only 1.6 percent of the total compared to the 8.4 percent recorded for rape.

Consult also a recent development, DNA testing, which is now becoming routine in rape investigations. Also routine is the discovery that a third of the DNA scans produce nonmatches. Consequently, a growing number of men are not only gaining acquittals but are also winning release from prison. As with all rape statistics, these figures need careful scrutiny. Police investigators warn, for example, that a mismatch proves innocence only when the DNA could have come from no one but the assailant and when its profile or makeup doesn’t match the suspect’s. Even so, DNA tests, primarily a prosecutorial weapon, have now been added to the arsenal of defense attorneys, and more evidence of false allegations is appearing.

Although useful, the F.B.I. and DNA data result from unstructured number-gathering. More informative, therefore, are the results of a study by a team headed by Charles P. McDowell of the U.S. Air Force Special Studies Division. The McDowell team studied 556 rape allegations. Of that total, 256 could not be conclusively verified as rape. That left 300 authenticated cases of which 220 were judged to be truthful and 80, or 27 percent, were judged by very strict standards to be false.

Using independent reviewers, the team had the more ambiguous 256 cases checked out. The team also examined police files from two major cities for data from nonmilitary sources. Both studies validated the 27 percent false allegation rate. In fact, the rate for the two sample cities was even higher. Further corroboration occurred in a 1991/92 survey of seven Washington, D.C., area jurisdictions. Using F.B.I. standards, investigators found that of 1,842 rape reports 439, or 24 percent, could not be substantiated.

F.B.I. standards themselves may produce unrealistically small numbers, the source of many statements that “only” nine percent of rape accusations are false or unfounded. Warren Farrell, who checked into the F.B.I.’s procedures, reports that the Bureau “knows the number of women who reported they were raped, but not whether the rapist was found guilty or innocent. In 47 percent of the cases, the alleged rapist has not even been identified or found, or if he has been found, there was insufficient evidence to arrest him. The remaining 53 percent were arrested, but the F.B.I. doesn’t receive data as to whether they were eventually found guilty or innocent. In brief, as far as the F.B.I. knows, the percentage of false accusations overall could be anywhere from zero to 100 percent.”

Even so, the feminist belief that rape accusers never lie continues to shape popular perceptions and government policy. Alan Dershowitz, one of the women’s movement’s most devoted friends, has nevertheless challenged the belief, making a point that should, outside of the ideological hardcore, win general agreement. “We simply must find out the truth about this vexing phenomenon,” he said. “Too many zealots have too much of a stake in minimizing—or even denying—the problem of false rape reports.” Dershowitz should know something about zealotry from personal experience. When he suggested in class that some rape accusations might be false, a group of feminist students threatened him with a charge of “hostile environment” sexual harassment.