How to ask rape survey questions

The deniers and minimizers are starting to succeed in training me to see deniers and minimizers where they aren’t. Like in this tweet from The New Republic:

The numbers on how many women are raped each year might be off by more than 88%:

I assumed they meant what Sommers would mean by tweeting that. Wrong. By “off” they meant too low, while Sommers of course always means too high.

The article by Claire Groden:

The recent CDC report, based on surveys conducted in 2011, found that almost one in five women (and 1.7 percent of men) have been raped in their lifetimes. In a single year, 1.6 percent of women reported experiences that are considered rapealmost two million cases. But the NCVS report recorded just 243,800 cases of rape or sexual assault in that year, 12 percent of the CDC findings. Meanwhile, a report compiled by the FBI, which only documents cases that were brought to police, shows only 83,425 rapes that year.

Why the big disparities? Different goals, and different kinds of questions.

This difference made the CDC’s survey broader, especially in the case of victims who were under the influence during the attack. The CDC counted alcohol- and drug-facilitated rape, asking if the respondents had ever experienced various sex acts while “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” But, as Scott Berkowitz at RAINN, the Rape and Incest Abuse National Network, pointed out, not all of those 1.2 million cases in 2011 would be considered rape by the Department of Justice. Due to the survey question’s phrasing, a person who had been drunkbut still considered herself capable of giving consentmight have answered yes to that question. A CDC spokesperson clarified that being unable to consent is key to the CDC’s definition of rape. 

That’s confusing. There’s a note at the end of the article saying a clarification by the CDC had been added, and that last sentence must be the clarification, which seems to be saying the opposite of what the previous sentence says. The interpolated “but still considered herself capable of giving consent” confuses the issue. Anyway…Groden seems to be saying that the CDC survey includes women who maybe sort of consented but were drunk or high.

Still, the CDC numbers are a reminder of how many sexual assaults and rapes go unreported. The total number of rapes reported to police in 2011 was 83,425far lower than either the NCVS or CDC numbers. If the 2011 CDC estimatealmost two million people casesall fit the legal definition of rape, that would mean only 4 percent were reported to the police. Even excluding alcohol- and drug-facilitated rapes, the 716,000 counts of completed or attempted penetration recorded by the CDC still add up to more than eight times the cases recorded by the FBI and almost three times as many as the Department of Justice. While finding an indisputable number of rape victims seems to be a Holy Grail, the CDC report certainly reveals that the most widely accepted estimates aren’t high enough.

Many rapes don’t get reported; many rapes don’t get counted. Imagine my lack of surprise.


  1. Hj Hornbeck says

    If the 2011 CDC estimate—almost two million people cases—all fit the legal definition of rape, that would mean only 4 percent were reported to the police.

    Four percent? Wild, Canada’s rate for reporting sexual assault is about 8%. Britain has a reporting rate of 20%*.

    But it’s nearly impossible to compare one country to one another. “Rape” isn’t a legal term of art up here, all we have is sexual assault (and even then, we lump sexual and non-sexual assault together). The US has at least 51 slightly different legal definitions, but generally it’s rape, sexual assault, sexual contact. The UK is a singular version of the USA, but is MUCH better at incorporating consent.

    And even ignoring that, we have issues around where the case goes. Are we talking cases reported, or cases “cleared” (forwarded for prosecution)? If it’s the latter, then in Canada you’ve gotta lop off a third of the reports. Only care about convictions? Strike off about half of the remainder. In the USA, should we include someone charged for rape but convicted of sexual assault as a successful conviction, or a failed one?

    It’s all complicated stuff. If you want to learn more, and don’t mind a British-centric view, I recommend:

    Walby, S, Armstrong, J, Strid, S. “Developing measures of multiple forms of sexual violence and their contested treatment in the criminal justice system.” Handbook on sexual violence. Routledge, 2011.

    * If you’re feeling too happy about this, look at the conviction rates for sexual assault according to gender on that page.

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