False allegations of sexual abuse- The rise of the fine lie


 “After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (1891)

The present preoccupation with sex crime and victims of crime has given rise to a new type of victim: the falsely accused. These victims rarely receive the attention from policy-makers that they deserve, although the collapse of some recent high profile investigations into allegations of historic abuse has belatedly prompted a more skeptical approach to some complainants.  I believe that victims of false accusations now deserve more consideration.

Even a nascent rebellion against the fashionable ideology of “believe the victim [of sexual abuse]” supported by former DPP Keir Starmer QC[i]  is out of step with current CPS practice. A Manchester barrister who prosecutes allegations of sexual assault for the CPS was recently quoted as saying: “Rape has become the bread and butter of the Crown Prosecution Service. Basically if someone complains, we prosecute.”[ii]

Various victims of false accusations, of whom the most high profile and outspoken is the well-known BBC radio presenter Paul Gambaccini, have voiced dismay at the authorities’ willingness to entertain complaints that in the past would have been seen as outlandish, even vexatious.

Modern Gothic

Perhaps the most extreme example of fantasy at work is Operation Midland,  looking into allegations of alleged VIP abuse centering on a Westminster apartment block popular among MPs: Dolphin Square. This exercise, which cost the public purse £1.8 million in police staffing costs alone[iii], was prompted by sensational reports on an online news source named Exaro. Its star witness is an anonymous accuser, whose multiple personalities include Nick, Carl “Survivor” and Stephen.

He claims to have witnessed a number of murders, and attempted genital mutilation, as well as being repeatedly assaulted himself by his army step-father and various MPs and other dignitaries, including the former Home Secretary, Sir Leon Brittan.  In November 2014, Detective Superintendent McDonald, who led the Metropolitan Police inquiry into Nick/ Exaro’s claims, called them “credible and true.”

Professor Jenkins, an eminent historian, has patiently explained that the evidence for Nick’s claims has been weak to non-existent. In two recent articles for The American Conservative, he points out that, conspiracy theories about a dastardly group of child-raping, boy-murdering VIPs is a rehash of 1980s scare-mongering:

The “elite pedophilia” charges circulated very widely in tabloid media of the 1980s, usually in the context of lunatic theories of Satanism and supposed “ritual child abuse,” sometimes linked to anti-Masonic hysteria. Then as now, these fevered rumors Named Names, including Cabinet members and members of the royal family, as well as prominent Jews, like Brittan himself.[iv], [v]

 Why are such preposterous tales taken so seriously today? Jenkins argues that this is because those hearing them have an ideological need to believe in a litany of horrors: “When I say that X is ‘credible,’ what we mean is that I find what he has to say believable, and that fact depends as much on my willingness to accept his statement as on any quality in his character or demeanor.”

Yet Sir Keir Starmer and the present DPP Alison Saunders have both popularized the idea that it is possible, indeed desirable, to separate the credibility of an allegation from the credibility of its maker.

11 ways to falsity

It’s time for a much more rigorous and open discussion about why some people  – whom we should call “pseudovictims” – make false allegations.  But first I should  clarify what is meant by “false”. The word is ambiguous, covering a spectrum of claims that are simply unfounded, to those that are mistaken, to those that are dishonest.

In their 2012 paper, Jessica Engle and William O’Donoghue proposed 11 pathways to false allegations of sexual assault.[vi]  These are:

  1. Lying;
  2. Implied consent;
  3. False memories;
  4. Intoxication;
  5. Antisocial personality disorder;
  6. Borderline personality disorder;
  7. Histrionic personality disorder;
  8. Delirium;
  9. Psychotic disorders;
  10. Dissociation; and
  11. Intellectual disability.

Crucially, they omit the honest but mistaken person: Pathway 12. A classic example of this is the rape victim who misidentifies her assailant in an identity parade.

People may lie about sexual assaults for a variety of motives: to inflict harm on the accused and his family; as revenge for some perceived slight or failure; for monetary gain; to get out of trouble; to explain a pregnancy; to gain the upper hand in a custody dispute, or to fit in with a group that is making accusations against a particular person or institution (the “bandwagon effect”).

Engle and O’Donoghue call these secondary gains. It should also be recognized that people who start by lying may come to believe in their own stories.

Confusion over consent

Another problem has emerged as a result of the redefining of what is meant by consent. Many feminists – especially those at universities – have campaigned for the introduction of Affirmative Consent policies, which place the responsibility on male partners to obtain consent to every stage of a sexual encounter. In San Francisco last autumn, one health educator told a class of sixteen year-olds that they should obtain consent every ten minutes.[vii]

This excessively prescriptive approach may cause some young people to redefine an encounter as non-consensual, with the benefit of hindsight.  What they do not understand is that their behavior could plausibly be interpreted as consensual at the time. What does not help is if others, who are consulted, become obsessed with trying to establish if the scenario amounts to a rape case.

The intoxication of both or one party to a sexual encounter can create particular difficulties.  Alcohol and other drugs can disinhibit; they can also create cognitive distortions, memory gaps and blackouts.  Persons recovering from a drugged state may confabulate to fill in memory gaps and develop a narrative of what they think “must have” occurred.

People can also develop false memories of abuse, for example as a result of contact with therapists, pressure from peers or from significant others (such as partners or parents), or even from reading stories in the media.  There is not space here to discuss this important topic in detail.

Mental disorder

It is a sad fact that those with mental disorders or learning disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault.  But it should also be recognized that third parties – such as care providers – may stand to benefit from a false allegation.

That mental problems could potentially lead to false allegations is rarely discussed. But it is a very serious issue, which would benefit from wider debate. Those with personality disorders may be motivated to make false accusations out of motives of revenge, or attention-seeking.  Some may misperceive non-sexual events as sexual. Those who are delusional may also make false accusations of sexual misconduct.

Those who are learning disabled may innocently make sexualized comments, which may be seized on by those caring for them as a sign of abuse. They are highly suggestible.

The power of story-telling

In my opinion, far too little attention has been paid to the lure of the victim narrative, and the rewards of victimhood (for those who are competent).  These rewards can include the sympathy and attention which those proclaiming to be victims can expect, and the seduction of the “truthful lie”, both for its narrator and its audience.

Those who confabulate about their past experience so as to come to terms with it may be expressing an emotional truth (such as a perception of a violation of the self), but an actual lie. As the psychologist Professor Janice Haaken acknowledges:

The art of storytelling is not based merely on chronicling a sequence of facts but on the artful juxtaposition of dramatic elements. The power of the story to stir others…depends on its felt truth and plausibility rather than on its mere facticity. 


 This may be the age of testimonial, as Elie Wiesel suggests, but testifiers do not inevitably speak the truth, as virtuous as they may perceive themselves to be.[viii]

The VIP-accuser Nick seems to be an epic story-teller. The fact that the highest echelons of the UK’s police fell for his tall tales is surely a tribute to his narrative powers. Whilst he may indeed have been a victim of some form of sexual abuse, his story seems to have taken on a life of its own. I am convinced that others have played a part in the creation of his Gothic tableaux. The deconstruction of this remarkable episode will no doubt occupy researchers and journalists for much time to come.

Barbara Hewson is a barrister at 1 Gray’s Inn Square. Her views here are personal.

[i] Human rights, victims and the prosecution of crime in the 21st century, (2014) Crim LR 777, 782

[ii] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/leah-mclaren-sadly-the-ghomeshi-trial-is-not-our-watershed-moment/article28730758/


[iv] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/pedophile-rings-in-thatchers-britain-myth-or-fact/

[v] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/britains-botched-child-abuse-scandal/

  1. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 12: 97-123, 2012. See alsoHazelwood R. R. & Burgess A.W. (Eds.) Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation: A Multidisciplinary Approach (CRC Press, 2009), Chap. 11

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/15/us/california-high-schools-sexual-consent-classes.html

viii. Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory and the Perils of Looking Back (Rutgers University Press, 1998) pp. 185, 193


By Barbara Hewson, barrister at 1 Gray’s Inn Square


2 Responses to False allegations of sexual abuse- The rise of the fine lie

  1. I was sentenced to six years in jail for CSA. I pleaded guilty because I was told that I would be found guilty even though one of the false accusers himself had been arrested with a file sent to the CPS for molesting my relative. I was innocent of the charges and the police were merely doing their job with the attitude that nobody would make the allegation unless it was true. It is like witchcraft in the middle ages where you were “proven” to be a witch when someone saw you on your broomstick flying in the sky.
    Whilst in prison, I came across a number of men who outlined their case of false allegations but the jury system found them to be guilty even though it seemed that men who did commit crimes were being accused of more than what they actually did or in my case did not do. The jury system is too emotional and in this day of non critical thinking and taking life at face value, they are swayed by a clever barrister. An allegation like this puts the accused in an un-winnable situation and like me, I just wanted it to go away because of the enormous stress I was under.
    In the middle ages, a person accused of witchcraft was hoisted up by a rope by their arms tied behind their back until they “confessed”. These days the rope is that you will lose in court and receive a harsher sentence among other family pressures such as being “ousted”.
    I was not the only innocent victim of false allegations and will not be. Sexual crime seems to be an industry all in itself. Men are making huge mistakes in relation to women but not all of them are sexual predators but we ex-prisoners have been immersed into a easily targeted witch hunt as was my case. My ex who orchestrated the case against me after I met another woman had her solicitor fiancé write to me in prison demanding that I sign over my home which, regrettably I did, again, under mental exhaustion and pressure. (Value was 650k Stg).
    We need to talk about false allegations with respect to real victims of sexual crime. Nothing is worse on earth than being called a paedophile. Not even death. But being called one when you are innocent has no equivalent meaning in my language.

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