Meditations On The Issue of Rape And Its Statistical Analysis
In a class I was taking, a discussion on rape turned to an area that made me uncomfortable: The oft-cited claim that 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime. The statistic is commonly thrown around, but it’s a very contentious point and statisticians and sociologists are still discussing it.
For example: According to a BBC News article, “one in 20” women ages 16-59 were raped (1). Now, the fact that the data didn’t include earlier pre-teens may throw it off, but there’s no compelling argument that says that the the gap between 5% and 25% would be filled by such a statistical change. It is true that this data is specifically for England and Wales, but it would be very strange for America to be so drastically different from comparable European countries. In fact, the only crime where America is simply off the charts from all other industrial nations is in gun crime. Seeing this number, I become very skeptical when I see statistics that claim that the incidence in America is an order of magnitude higher.
Further, the data that suggests that rape is that prevalent is often woefully antiquated. As Fahrenthold suggests in the Washington Post, “The number of rapes per capita in the United States has plunged by more than 85 percent since the 1970s, and reported rape fell last year even while other violent offenses increased, according to federal crime data.” (2). Critics of this data argue that non-reporting plagues the numbers. That’s true, but there’s two problems with the assertion. First: Non-reporting cuts the data both ways. If a large portion of women don’t report the crime to police or other authorities, it becomes very difficult to get a real handle on the amount of rape and sexual abuse in the population. Second: There is NO reason to expect that there has been an INCREASE in women non-reporting, and certainly not by enough to compensate for the 85% plunge in per capita rapes. If since the 1970s the population of women who were raped but didn’t report it didn’t increase, that’d mean that the total amount as WELL as the reported amount went down by 85%. And we have every reason to believe that, in fact, reporting of rape has INCREASED, as Special Victims Units become better trained, feminism makes impacts on the broader society, and shows like Special Victims Unit show the social issues behind rape.
And the victimization of men data is bizarre. For example, in the total population, “3% of American men experience rape”. Yet 1 in every 10 victims were men in 2003! (3) This indicates changes in the data that are very large: 3% to 10% of men being victims. This makes some sense if total rape has declined and if feminism has made a real impact in the prevalance of rape. More importantly, the sharp change indicates just how difficult it is to talk about sexual abuse for the entirety of the US population with any degree of statistical certainty.
According to RAINN, “1 out of every 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape)” [my emphasis]. Now, this is a horrible statistic. But one solution (far from the only or primary solution) would be for men, women and police to acquire techniques to turn more completed rapes into attempted rapes and more attempted rapes into no rapes. More importantly, that’s the difference between 16.6% of the population and 25% of the population. (3)
Yet another source suggests, “Colorado’s rape survey invited banner headlines-and got them. ‘1 in 7 women raped,’ said the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and that was a restrained interpretation compared with the official press release, which claimed the survey ‘revealed that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 17 men have been raped.’ But the results are much more ambiguous than that, and the headlines are dangerously misleading.” (4).
Note that, even before looking at the results, we see that one source referring to the same survey got 1 in 7 women while another source got 1 in 4!
According to “Women, Men and Gender” by Mary Roth Walsh, many of the statistics of “rape” include discrimination against lesbians! Note that that citation is from people who do not believe that rape statistics are overblown. (5) I concur with Walsh that to dismiss the incidence of rape as mere feminist exaggeration is foolishness of the highest order, but I feel that it is vital to bear in mind the real variation in the data. These are not easy questions to answer, so numerous studies arrive at different figures. Choosing the highest figure of a broad range smacks of arbitrary propaganda.
Suffice it to say that these are not trivial questions, and exactly how we ask them alters the data. Many studies that arrive at the higher figures in the range (1 in 4 women to 1 in 6 women as opposed to 1 in 8 women, 1 in 16 women or 1 in 32 women) aggregate domestic abuse, questionably broad categories of sex under the influence of drugs (no matter how minor the threshold), etc. This isn’t necessarily bad science. Unlike men’s rights reprobates, I’m not going to argue that this makes the data empty feminist propaganda. But it means we have to be careful exactly what we cite for and not merely make empty assertions.
Then we have to take into account race. Minority women are far less likely than the average member of the population to report a rape, due to a variety of factors (fear of a racist criminal justice system, in-group loyalty, the idea that one does not air one’s “dirty laundry”, etc.)
Only Neanderthals and extremists in the men’s right movement think that rape is not a serious social phenomenon, but like most social phenomena it is difficult to actually say if it is 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/6, or 1/32 of women who experience rape. Different studies, geographical areas, definitions, etc. report different things. And, unfortunately, the fact that women and men do not report many of their attacks makes it very difficult to get a handle on the data. What is clear is that the aura of fear needs to be dispelled, that we need to see only a minority of victims not reporting their attackers, and that the legal system needs a massive overhaul in order to accommodate this goal, from entry-point police officers being trained in sensitivity to end-point judicial practices. But using statistics that are questionable without noting the variation only makes us less credible in doing so. The fact that many of my fellow feminists routinely cite the highest number in a range of data for an issue that even they admit by their very nature is almost impossible to study with certainty does nothing to shore up good will.
Further, to say that high incidences of rape demonstrate an assault upon women by men is to ignore one simple, vital fact: Repeat offending. A large amount of victims, male and female, share attackers or victimizers. If we buy the “Confessions of a Date Rapist” piece, then it becomes clear that a particular category of men is the type overwhelmingly committing date rape. Now, it is true that gang rape would be a factor in the opposite direction (since one man would victimize many women), but gang rape is a very small section of the data. Further, most gang rapists are also repeat offenders, returning the balance sheet back. At the end of the day, while a large portion of the female population will be raped or abused (the majority by acquaintances within their extended social network), this does not mean an equally large portion of men are rapists. Taking that into account, it becomes far less tenable to say that a war is being waged by men against women. If a small group of bastards are assaulting a large group of women, while a large portion of men are decent and would never dream of raping someone, then the situation is more complex.
Of course, to those who think that rape says NOTHING about the broader gender oppression, one merely need to look at the overwhelming amount of male prison rape. Remove women from the picture and men use sexualized violence against each other. So there clearly are a broad variety of gender factors, and people who declare that rape is purely criminological in nature with no influence from patriarchy or sexism are missing a big part of the picture. For example: Frat houses routinely make rape possible by cultivating deeply patriarchal, masculine attitudes and encouraging a “Within the club” mentality. In my opinion, a standard “test” for fraternity membership should be to see what someone would do if they saw a rape occuring. If they would not call the police, tell a frat brother, rush into the room to stop it, or do some other proactive measure, they should be kicked out of the frat. THIS would prove that men are ready to deal with rape.
An exercise we did in the multi-cultural studies class I took with the wonderful Natalia Deeb-Sossa was to list things men and women do to avoid rape. The supposed point was that men do almost nothing and women do quite a lot. I was unable to point out that one thing men concerned about rape do is avoid going to gay bars and avoid going to prison; obviously nowhere near the amount of stress that the common rape-prevention rituals among women have, but these are things. But I also pointed out that the long list of things women do to protect themselves from rape (have their apartment on the second story, take self-defense classes, strengthen their locks and deadbolts, be prepared to use their keys as improvised weapons, watch their drinks at parties, have chaperones or travel in groups) is virtually the same list men are instructed to do to protect themselves from other crime. This underlines one key fact: Crime rates in general and rape rates in particular in our country have been declining, yet the media racializes and amplifies the data. Throughout the 1990s, crime went down yet media presentations of it went up more than six fold according to some media scholars! (See Bowling for Columbine). Many feminists properly point out that high rape rates are a real concern, but they also usually point out the vital fact: Most rape occurs from acquaintances. Virtually all of the things that we listed that women do to protect themselves are things that will not stop acquaintance rape.
Rape is a serious issue, but it has also been artificially inflated and racialized by a media determined to use fear to foment apathy and mistrust in order to insure ruling class dominance. The fact that for many white women the image of a rapist is a black mugger or burglar rather than their next door neighbor or the friendly neighborhood priest is the factor I am talking about. And the problem with simply saying, unadorned, that “1 out of 4 women are raped”, is that while it MAY raise consciousness about gender issues, it sabotages our brothers and sisters of color by making many people conjure up racial spectres of black men raping women left and right. These unconscious racial fears were expressed in the mythology about rape in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.
I work with victims of rape constantly. I view rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse as monstrous actions that may be worse than murder, in that both a living person and their families and social networks have been destroyed and harmed. And the closest I have come in my life to assaulting another human being has been when I have been aware of sexual abuse. I am intimately, tragically aware of the veil of silence that protects victimizers and destroys victims. This tragic background doesn’t need the inflated use of otherwise good statistics to amass social interest and outrage.
June 7, 2014 Edit: Reposting this to my new blog, I still think this is an important post to discuss.
However, I did want to make a few edits based off of my experience in the last five years.
First: While statistically quantifying rape may be hard, there are victims of rape, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, and emotionally abusive relationships everywhere. And all of us, men and women alike, are very likely to underestimate how widespread the issue is. Even many victims of rape and molestation do not realize the degree to which they are very much not alone in that pain.
Second: While when it comes to crime we have to be very careful about what we do and do not call rape, when it comes to aiding others it’s less important. If someone has been through something they find horrible, that is what matters from the perspective of us making social change and enacting individual change.
1. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2146077.stm
2. “Statistics Show Drop In U.S. Rape Cases”. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/18/AR2006061800610.html
3. “Who Are the Victims?”