In what is becoming an annual ritual here at HetPat, let me point out what the media is not telling us about the detailed analysis of statistics on intimate violence and homicide, released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics, because once again it contains some remarkable – and remarkably good – news.
But first the bad. Domestic homicides rose a bit for both men and women, up to 84 (from 76 last year) for women and 23 (from 16) for men. Overall there was an ongoing decline in homicides with male victims but a rise in deaths of women and girls, from 170 to 183. However this rise follows the two lowest years on record and even with the rise, the new figures are the third lowest on record. As homicides are such exceptionally low frequency events (in statistical jargon) they can jump around a bit on the graph from year to year, even when the overall trend is flat or (slightly) downwards
There is much better news everywhere else. The Crime Survey of England and Wales shows that the number of domestic violence incidents to be at the lowest level since records began. Note, these are not police recorded crime statistics, they come from a huge survey of 50,000 people, each of whom is asked whether they have experienced such-and-such over the past 12 months. As discussed many a time before, there are problems with CSEW, it can never provide an accurate total number of crimes, but since those shortcomings have always been there, what CSEW does do very well is capture trends over time. As shown here, the incidence of domestic violence has plummeted over the past twenty years, down by more than 75% from its peak in 1993.
But for my money, the most encouraging news of all is with sexual offences. For many years, even while other forms of violent offences against (mostly) women were plummeting, sexual offences showed only modest reductions, if any. The last two years have seen substantial reductions in all sexual assaults (again, using CSEW figures, not police recorded crime). The latest figures show a 27% reduction year-on-year. Last year 2.2% of women suffered any kind of sexual offence. As recently as 2005/6 that figure was 5%. Since then it has declined 56%. Other intimate violence crimes, including non-partner family violence and stalking, are continuing to decline, but less spectacularly.
What is going on here? First and foremost, the decline in sexual offending should be seen as part and parcel of the broader precipitous decline in violent crime of all types, which remains one of the most spectacular and fascinating sociological phenomena of our times. Debating the myriad explanations on offer has kept many of us occupied in recent years and will doubtless continue to do so.
However the most recent and arresting detail within the broader trends is on sexual offending. We should probably ask ourselves what has been happening in the UK over the past two to three years which might have driven this development? I would offer the suggestion that our media and accompanying public debate has been dominated by high profile prosecutions of sex offenders, and the consequent massive rise in victims’ willingness to report offences to the police. Personally, I have sensed a sea-change in public attitudes – it feels like we are no longer prepared to stay quiet, to stay ashamed about rape, abuse, molestation and sexual assault. We are no longer prepared to accept sexual harassment and sexual abuse as inevitable facts of life or forces of nature. It doesn’t seem remotely far fetched to me that (actual or potential) sex offenders are noticing this too and are less inclined to think they might get away with an offence they might have committed a few years ago.
The other contributing factor (not just to sexual offences but to the broader decline in crime) has been the civilising effect of what Steven Pinker, in Better Angels Of Our Nature, called ‘The Rights Revolution.’ Since roughly the 1970s, entire generations have grown up with the rights of women, the rights of the child, the rights of all races, the rights for all people to live without fear, without violence, without bullying, without abuse. Of course we still have a hell of a long way to go in this country, never mind around the world, but nonetheless the impacts of the revolution are flowering all around us.
Strangely, this appears to be a message almost no one wants to hear. Continuing from the discussion on yesterday’s post, nobody has much to gain from trumpeting the truth about the decline in crime. Media consumers generally believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, so that is what editors tend to provide. It is striking that not a single media outlet has reported the spectacular decline in sexual offending in yesterday’s statistics. The BBC splashed, rather bizarrely, on one obscure detail of the release, that around 20% of rapes are committed when the victim is asleep or passed out. It then made a passing remark that “the number of victims in the crime survey fell slightly.” To be fair to the media, even the summary put out by the ONS themselves describes it as “a small fall.”
The Guardian meanwhile reported the figures under the following title and subheading:
“1.4 million women suffered domestic abuse last year, ONS figures show
Office for National Statistics survey shows that rates remain stubbornly high, while violent crime rates more generally continues to fall.”
Nowhere in the report does the Guardian mention that the estimated prevalence of domestic violence incidents last year was the lowest since records began in 1981. Nowhere in the report is it mentioned that sexual assaults plummeted 27% in a single year. In what universe is that remarkable news not even worthy of a mention?
Compare that to the reaction back in January when it was revealed that the numbers of rapes reported to police had soared (actually very good news, as it means far fewer rapes are going unreported.) Here’s a little screen capture to give you a flavour of how the media reacted that day.
And now, by of comparison, here is a screen capture showing all the media coverage to the unprecedented decline in sexual offending