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Is The Rape Epidemic Really a Fiction?

By Dan Church, CCASA Blogger

A response to The Rape Epidemic is a Fiction

Data, especially good data, is always a tricky thing. There’s always a debate in the victim advocacy world around what higher or lower numbers of sexual assault incidents reported to the police means. If numbers of reports go up, is it because incidents are occurring more frequently or because more people are letting the police know about them? If numbers of reports go down, is it because sexual assaults are decreasing or because people are becoming less likely to report those incidents? The Bureau of Justice Statistics study the author cites for his article suggests that the total number of assaults that occurred between 1995 and 2005 dropped significantly (although since then they have risen slightly), but that the percentage of people who are reporting incidents to the police also dropped significantly. Basically, it’s happening less, but when it is happening, less people are talking about it. Arguments could be made about why exactly that’s happening, but the basic idea is that the numbers give us good and bad results. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (www.rainn.org) uses both of these statistics pointing out that we have made a lot of amazing progress AND there is a lot of important work still to do.

One place where the author unfortunately gets statistics confused (which is easy to do when we just look at numbers without asking what they represent) is when he says the 21.6 victims per 1,000 refutes the commonly made 1 in 5 claim. It’s easy to say that these numbers don’t add up, but the 2.16% is people who have experienced a sexual assault (attempted or completed) in the last six months, whereas the 1 in 5 is people who have experienced the same type of incident over any point in their lifetime. Both numbers are talking about rates of sexual violence, but within two very different contexts (a less-than-fun fact from that same DOJ study is that Colorado has the 6th highest rates of sexual assault over a lifetime at 24% or just less than 1 in 4). It is important to recognize that huge strides were made in the last 10-20 years (not surprisingly, it’s been exactly 20 years since the Violence Against Women Act which brought major federal funding to local service providers on all levels), but it is silly to say that we should stop making this a big issue because what we have been doing is actually working.

I also understand the author’s frustration at trying to pull data on an issue that seems so poorly defined in the first place. Any graduate level researcher will tell you that any study’s design is going to get thrown out immediately if you aren’t really clear on what you’re measuring. The problem here isn’t necessarily that researchers aren’t defining their methods well enough, but that our society really does have a lot of different definitions of what is (or is not) sexual assault. If you asked a therapist, a victim advocate, a police officer, and a judge “what does or does not constitute sexual assault?” you would get four different answers. Is it a purely legal term like ‘manslaughter’ or ‘aggravated assault’, or can it also embody larger issues outside of legal definitions like ‘harassment’ or ‘bullying’? Researchers can decide on definitions all they want, but until society as a whole can agree upon a definition there will continue to be this kind of confusion and difficulty with data. A lot of the great prevention education work being done across the country currently focuses directly on this idea; educating the general public that sexual assault doesn’t just look like what you see in the movies.

Clarifying these definitions is also key to understanding some of the data and argument around college sexual assaults. The author argues that if “more than 35 percent said they did not report the incident because they were unclear as to whether a crime was committed or that harm was intended”, then it should be seriously questioned whether these incidents were actually sexual assault. The researchers were clear to state that based on what the respondents reported, they did experience an attempted or completed sexual assault, but they weren’t sure if they should report it to the police. Is it possible that this means the incidents weren’t that serious? Yes, it is possible, but I would venture to say that anyone who works with victims of sexual assault or domestic violence would tell you that there is another, much more likely, explanation. If a guy you like and have been flirting with has sex with you at a party after you have passed out, was it sexual assault? If your wife tells you she’s going to leave you and take the kids if you don’t have sex with her and then you do, was it sexual assault? If your boyfriend forces you to have sex to prove you love him, but never hits or threatens you, was it sexual assault? Even people who are objectively looking at these situations may not be sure (despite Colorado law being fairly clear that they would all be sexual assault). How much more confusing might it be to be the actual person in these situations, who have conflicting feelings about this other person mixed with doubt and shame. The fact that 35% women who experience sexual assault in college weren’t sure if they should have reported an incident says much more about our society’s confusion over what is and isn’t okay in a sexual relationship than it does about the seriousness of their experience.

This article is correct that, despite recent attention, college campus sexual assaults are not the majority of sexual assaults across our country. Children, immigrants, Native Americans, and women in the military are all at higher risk of sexual assault than women in college. The lack of attention these populations receive is more than frustrating to people serving those communities and has been a valid criticism coming from groups like Black Feminists since the 1970s. But while advocates and activists working with marginalized populations are crying for more attention and funding, it seems unlikely that they would use this as an argument to stop bringing light to sexual violence in colleges and universities. Not doing everything right is not an excuse to not do anything. This would be a great political argument by conservatives IF they were trying to pass bills to fund sexual assault centers in Alaska and on reservations. Some media attention and funding is a lot better than none.

While I can understand the author’s frustration and logic in his arguments, what I see as his misplaced conclusions are my evidence of that “rape culture” that he describes so dismissively. Citing the greatest of all academic sources – Wikipedia – rape culture is defined as “a culture in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender, sex, and sexuality”. A society that suggests the best (or easiest) way for women to avoid being raped is to not drink at parties normalizes the behaviors of rapists. This is not to be confused with condoning rape, as I don’t think the majority of liberals or conservatives think rape is okay, but assumes that it is expected (or normal) for some members of the population to engage in sexually violent behavior. If a behavior is normal then we expect others who struggle with or are affected by it to adjust their own behavior. If a behavior is abnormal, we expect that behavior to change. Harm reduction, like watching what you drink at a party, is a valid means of protecting one’s self, but it does nothing to stop sexual assault. As a society, it should not just be our goal to make sure I’m not the one who might be raped tonight but to make sure no one is being raped tonight. If 237,868 people (age 12 or older) are victims of sexual assault each year – approximately one every 2 minutes – how can we not call this a national problem? The Center for Disease Control considers an epidemic to be “the occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time”. Our numbers are going down and good work is being done, but the epidemic is far from over.

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