Rape Is Grossly Underreported In The U.S., Study Finds

11/21/2013 11:07 am ET
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Rape has been widely underreported in America, according to a new panel study by the National Research Council.

After comparing several official methods for counting rape and sexual assault, the panel discovered major inconsistencies in national data.

The focal point of the study was the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) -- an annual crime report conducted through household surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Justice Statistics -- which counted 188,380 victims of rape and sexual assault in 2010. Another data source, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, counted nearly 1.3 million incidents that same year. Data from the FBI, which gathers its statistics on rape or attempted rape reported as a crime by local law enforcement, counted only 85,593 in 2010.

Either someone's not counting properly, or there's a problem with the methods of collecting and analyzing data about rapes.

The study, published Tuesday, was prompted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which asked the National Research Council to investigate concerns that the number of rape and sexual assault victims are being miscalculated and to recommend best practices for measuring rape in household surveys conducted by the NCVS.

“We all know that rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in the world, and it’s very hard to say that the problem is declining," Christopher Krebs, a sexual violence researcher at nonprofit research institute RTI International, told Slate this week. "The NCVS data could be missing a lot.”

In its report, the National Research Council panel recommended several methods to curb the inaccuracies in the NCVS.

For one, the NCVS does not stress privacy while conducting in-house interviews to gather its statistics on rape. This could prove problematic in instances where a family member is the abuser. Approximately two-thirds of rapes occur by someone known to the victim, according to NCVS data from 2005. If the abuser were within earshot of the interviewee, the victim might be reluctant to speak up, the panel's recent report said.

“Don’t get me wrong the [NCVS] is fabulous," Candace Kruttschnitt, a co-chair of the panel and a University of Toronto sociology professor, told The Huffington Post over the phone. "The victimization survey is critical in establishing the extent of underreported crime in the country, but for the purpose of measuring rape, the design is inefficient."

The panel’s report offers alternative methods to fix the NCVS' privacy issue.

“You could use a computer-assisted method that increases privacy. The big issue with NCVS is making sure that everyone in the house doesn’t get the same set of questions,” Kruttschnitt said. “Let’s say, your father abused you and he gets the same questions.”

However, interview technique is not the only obstacle crippling data accuracy.

A major conflict between different surveys is the lack of a uniform definition of rape -- specifically one that truly reflects the nature of sexual assault for all genders.

The CDC's definition of rape “represents the public health perspective” and takes into account the ability of the victim to consent to sex because he or she had been drinking or taking drugs.

But the NCVS' definition omits consideration for drugs or alcohol:

Rape includes psychological coercion as well as physical force. Forced sexual intercourse means vaginal, anal, oral penetration by the offender(s). It also includes incidents in which the penetration is by a foreign object. It includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims, and both heterosexual and homosexual rape.

It wasn't until December 2011 that the FBI changed its 80-year-old definition of rape from the "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will" to “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

The National Research Council panel's report offers an array of plans to solve the issue of defining rape. One plan suggested reframing the way rape is discussed in the household survey, which currently treats it as a crime and which might deter some victims from speaking up.

"To more accurately measure when and how these victimizations occur, we recommend a separate survey that is focused on these specific crimes within a public health context and targets those most at risk for sexual violence,” William Kalsbeek, a co-chair of the panel and a professor of biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, said in a statement released by the National Research Council.

Kruttschnitt is confident the panel's results will have an impact.

“I think it should have a big affect on policy generally. If we know that certain woman are at high risk we can target more officers to intervene in those particular areas. There is no question that this is a high priority," she said.

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