The politics of rape and the science of statistics
There is a media frenzy that the 1-in-5 rape statistic is a “hoax” and there is no “rape culture.” I never expected rape to suffer from such a disgusting political twist, but many reports attempting to debunk this 1-in-5 statistic claim that the “rape epidemic” is a liberal ploy to make conservatives look like rape apologists. These claims are based on a recent report by the US Department of Justice that found the rate of rape and sexual assault to be 6.1 and 7.6 per 1000 college-student and nonstudent women, respectively. Here is a lesson in the importance of looking at raw data and methodology before interpreting any statistic.
There are three federally-funded studies that have measured recent rates of sexual violence:
The classic 1-in-5 statistic came out of the Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study in 2007 that measured rape and sexual assault at the University of North Carolina and the University of Cincinnati. This study found that 1-in-3 women reported attempted or completed sexual assault either before or since entering college, and 1-in-5 of these attempted or completed assaults had happened since entering college. So that’s the famous statistic. Note that these include attempted or completed sexual assault, but I don’t think an “attempt” should be taken any less seriously than a “complete.” But for the sake of clarity, the statistic of completed sexual assaults that occurred during college was 1-in-7. This study identified victims by behaviorally specific questions that implicate sexual assault or rape (e.g. have you ever been made to perform oral sex that involved the use of force or threats against you?) This CSA definition of sexual assault includes unwanted sexual contact involving physical force or threat of a weapon or those in which consent was not able to be given due to incapacitation—it did not include any verbal or emotional coercion (which I imagine would have resulted in a much more alarming finding). Most of the criticism this study receives is because it only represents two universities.
So let’s move on to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) conducted by the CDC in 2010. This includes a slightly larger sample size and is not limited to college students, any region, sex, or socioeconomic status. This study found that 1-in-5 women have been raped as some time in their life, 80% of which occurred before the age of 25 (42% were before the age of 18). This study used similar behavioral questions and sampling methods as the CSA study, but importantly, also included those who were verbally or emotionally coerced into engaging in sexual contact. As with the previous study, most of these rapes were perpetrated by an intimate partner or acquaintance, which deeply facilitates the use of coercion.
Finally, we have the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) that found the increasingly popular 6.1-in-1000 statistic just this year (trust me, I would love for this to be the truth). This study spans almost two decades (1995-2013), which can be a strength of some epidemiological studies, but in the case of a very socially influenced and defined event like “rape on college campuses in 18-24 year old women,” what was going on twenty years ago may not apply today. Twenty years ago, women may have thought of rape very differently than the current generation of 18-24 year-olds (that’s not to say rape or the consequences of rape are any different now, just that the victim’s view of rape and their willingness to report it may have changed in the last 20 years). Additionally, the limited respondent demographics in this study only represents 32% of college students. This study only reported rape/sexual assault that occurred between the ages of 18-24 and specifically defined rape as “unlawful penetration.” Sexual assault was defined separately as unwanted sexual contact, but no behaviorally specific questions were asked—they simply just asked if you had ever been raped or sexually assaulted. This study admits that many victims may not be willing to share their experiences with an interviewer—the self-reports of the CSA and NISVS are more reliable in that sense. The NCVS explicitly asks if a responded experienced “rape” or “sexual assault” with no indication of what activity constitutes these terms. It is difficult for many victims to admit or even know if they were “raped” or “sexually assaulted” (see my other post addressing that issue) but if you ask them about whether a specific event happened that indicates unwanted sexual contact, they are much more likely to respond reliably. Denial of sexual assault and rape are ubiquitous in survivors of this type of violence—75% of victims who meet the criteria for having experienced sexual assault or rape do not acknowledge that they were assaulted. Instead, victims may consider the assault a mistake, a miscommunication, bad sex, or an expression of the perpetrator’s excessive sex drive, and only 21% of college sexual assault victims labeled their sexual victimization experiences as a sexual assault, date rape, rape, or crime. Thus, how a victim labels an assault should not be used as a marker of whether victimization occurred, but instead behaviorally specific questions should be used in surveys, intake forms, and in-person consultations. Victims who do not acknowledge their assault as a victimization are less likely to tell anyone about the experience, are more likely to blame themselves, and are more likely to be re-victimized.
If you would have asked me a few years ago if I had ever been raped, I would have said no. But if you would have asked me if I ever had my clothes forcibly removed and my vagina forcibly penetrated even after telling the person no, I would have said yes. Something about the word rape makes it a hard identifier to place on yourself (somebody please clarify, what are these so-called benefits of victimhood that people are apparently chasing after?).
Journal entry on my first rape:
“It was well into the next year before I even considered the possibility that I could have been raped. When I told a coworker that I had sex when I was drunk and didn’t want to, she told me that you never do anything drunk you don’t secretly want to do sober, and I knew I had done something wrong and just needed to live with it.”
Journal entry on my second rape:
“I didn’t even know if that counted as rape since I was letting him kiss me earlier.”
The NCVS is a survey about crime, while the NISVS and CSA are surveys about public health that collected information about incidents of unwanted sexual contact, which may not qualify as “criminal behavior” by our current justice system. Only criminal behavior was surveyed in the NCVS, and in the study itself, it states that “respondents may not report incidents to the NCVS that they do not consider to be criminal.” This is very important as almost all studies, including the NCVS, report that 80% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. This makes it very hard for the victim to define it as “criminal behavior”—nobody thinks of their friend or professor as a criminal because usually, at some point, they respected and trusted that person. But just because “unwanted sexual contact” may not qualify as criminal behavior or you don’t think it was criminal behavior does not mean it wasn’t sexual assault.
Differences in these definitions, the way the questions are worded, and the responding population make ENORMOUS differences in the results of population studies like these. None of these studies are truth. They are merely statistical estimates based on specific pre-determined parameters.
There is currently no standard definition of rape in the U.S., but so many people are claiming that we are “expanding the definition of rape so far as to include pretty much anything that makes a woman uncomfortable.” This is not true. Rape should be defined as unwanted sexual contact. Period. It doesn’t matter if someone is fondling your breasts or shoving their dick in your vagina, if you don’t want it, you experience a loss of power and dignity that can be physically and psychologically devastating. The NISVS found that men and women who reported rape, stalking, or physical violence were more likely to have frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, activity limitations, poor physical health, poor mental health, and women specifically reported more irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and diabetes than people who had not experienced intimate violence. This really is a public health and safety issue.
The most important statistic out of the NCVS report is that fewer than 16% of victims received professional help to aid in their recovery, offer protection, or guide them through the criminal justice system. That is just unacceptable.
So in summary, the “rape epidemic” is absolutely not a hoax and no statistics have been fabricated or exaggerated. Of course the rate of rape and sexual assault is lower when you only consider women between the ages of 18 and 24, and you only include undefined “unlawful penetration.” Should colleges only provide services to students who were raped on campus, while they were in college? And only to students who were “unlawfully penetrated?” No. Student health insurance covers most medical problems that a student is experiencing while in college, regardless of when the problem started, and the same should be true for any physical or psychological consequences of rape and sexual assault. Recovery from a traumatic event like rape usually requires the help of trained specialists, which are too often not widely available on colleges campuses. And please, for the love of oatmeal, stop making rape into a political issue.