Skip to main content


How can we know how common rape and sexual violence are? In the past few days we've had gut wrenching personal testimony to the pervasive experience of women and other references to official statistics that indicate rape is a rare tragedy. Why the discrepancy? How to sort out the differing testimonies?

Let's start with three annual numbers:

   188,380 (rapes and sexual assaults, NCVS)
1,270,000 (sexual acts of forced penetration, NISVS)
     85,593 (reported rapes and attempted rapes, FBI)

NCVS, the National Crime Victimization Survey,

is conducted on an ongoing basis to obtain information on a broad set of crimes from the victims rather than the police. It is conducted for BJS by the U.S. Census Bureau, which selects households to survey through the same infrastructure built for the decennial census.  Each household address remains in the sample for three years, with interviews every six months. (source)
However, the NCVS clearly reports a much smaller number than can be reconciled with the personal accounts of the last few days. Is there reason to think that the NCVS undercounts rape? Yes. Many reasons. The National Academy completed a review of the NCVS and considers it faulty in many ways (long quote because in the public domain).
The NCVS is widely considered the best source of information for many kinds of criminal victimizations. However, the survey presents unique challenges for measuring low-frequency incidents, such as rape and sexual assault, which accounted for 1 percent or 217,331 of the criminal victimizations identified through the NCVS in 2011.  Over the years, several other surveys, including the National Women’s Study, the National College Women Sexual Victimization Study, and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Study, have measured higher rates of rape and sexual assault than the NCVS.  Even though these surveys have substantial differences -- the populations they target, their definitions of rape, and their data collection methodologies and timing -- the panel concluded that the NCVS was likely undercounting incidences of rape and sexual assault because of how the omnibus survey is designed and administered.

The report says lack of privacy may be a major reason for underreporting rape and sexual assault in the NCVS, which relies on oral interviews conducted within a household by an interviewer. Because most rapes and sexual assaults are committed by individuals whom the victim knows, respondents may be reluctant to disclose their victimization during an interview that takes place in the home within earshot of other family members.  The training for NCVS interviewers does not stress privacy, and even if adequate training were provided, the nature of the survey -- a general-purpose criminal victimization survey -- means that interviewers very rarely get positive responses on questions of rape and sexual assault.

The new survey recommended by the panel should be administered in a neutral context, such as a survey of health and well-being, instead of within the criminal context of the current NCVS.  Framing questions about rape and sexual assault within the confines of crime can limit responses.  For example, a respondent may believe that because the police weren’t contacted about an incident, it should not be reported on a government crime survey.  A victim may also understand that an act was criminal but not want to report it on the survey for fear of reprisal.  The new survey should continue to measure rape and sexual assault as “point-in-time” events with sufficient detail about the events so that they can later be coded as criminal events or not.

Survey questions should be worded to describe specific actions rather than the more ambiguous term “rape,” which is not defined uniformly by the FBI, states, or jurisdictions.  Survey respondents may interpret the word differently and not realize that what they experienced (for example, being forced by a companion to have sex while being too intoxicated to resist) might fit the definition of rape.  By responding to questions that simply ask whether specific actions have occurred, victims may be better able to express their victimizations without interpreting whether those incidents should be defined as rape or sexual assault.

The new survey should also focus more attention on “at risk” subpopulations that have a higher likelihood of being victims of rape and sexual assault.  This approach can improve the overall precision of the estimates, both at the national level and for important demographic subpopulations defined by age, race, and socio-economic variations.  More precise estimates would allow for more informed policymaking and better allocation of resources to prevent crime and support victims, the report says.

Both full and brief forms of the report are available online. Any reference to NCVS numbers should be answered with this critique.

The National Academy recommended surveys specifically to document the scale of these assaults. However we do have national numbers that address some of the shortcomings the Academy identified. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) addresses rape within the public health context.

…it asks questions about specific behavior, including whether the survey-taker was unable to consent to sex because he or she had been drinking or taking drugs. NISVS was first conducted in 2010, so it doesn’t go back in time the way the NCVS numbers do. But here’s the startling direct comparison between the two measures: NISVS counted 1.27 million total sexual acts of forced penetration for women over the past year (including completed, attempted, and alcohol or drug facilitated). (source)
That's over a million a year. Each year. And now the lifetime experience number of "one woman in seven" begins to make sense.

I don't think that people who take the NCVS numbers at face value are rape apologists. I do think they are naive or indifferent. The testimony of women that this is a searing problem, one that has to be dealt with every day, should have prompted some questioning of the NCVS numbers. If a man's personal experience seems to fit with the NCVS numbers, he needs to wrap his mind around the fact that the women he knows are not talking to him about this. Many men here at Daily Kos have shared their knowledge of friends' and partners' experiences. A man who has not heard these stories needs to know that the silence is significant.

The other stunning revelation that comes from these numbers is the scale of underreporting. Even with the deeply flawed NCVS numbers, less than half of rapes are reported. Using the NISVS numbers (better, but still probably too low), less than 7% of rapes are reported.

Some may want to know how many people at Daily Kos have experienced sexual violence. A recent poll gives some insight - far too many.

Originally posted to Wee Thoughts on Mon May 26, 2014 at 06:55 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site