An inquiry into the CDC’s 1 in 5 rape figure

Questioning its reliability and comparing to other viewpoints

On September 5, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results from its 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). Many newspapers, such as USA Today, wrote headlines claiming that 1 in 5 women in the United States were raped. By their methods, while men experienced other kinds of sexual violence at half the rate and stalking at a third of the rate of women, they experienced rape at only a tenth of the rate of women.

Is it really possible that 20% of women in the United States are victims of rape? What was the definition that they used, and what kinds of questions did they ask? Finally, how reliable is the survey’s structure? Overall, no matter what is really true, rape should be studied with the upmost care, as it is a hard-to-define but sensitive issue.

An Overview of the CDC’s Questions and Methods

The 2011 NISVS survey was conducted over the telephone, with randomly selected respondents’ 12,727 completed responses. This was only the second time the survey was conducted. Additionally, the response rate was only 33.1%.

The statistic that stands out the most is that 19.3% of the surveyed women have been raped in their lifetimes. How was “rape” defined in this survey? There were three categories: “completed forced penetration,” “attempted forced penetration,” and “alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.”  Already just from observing the data, the “attempted” category shouldn’t have been mixed in with the two other statements.

Anti-feminist critic Christina Hoff Sommers noted that the question asked for alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration was “When you were [drunk, high, drugged,] or [passed out and unable to give consent], how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” The respondent would give a numerical answer, from which it wasn’t possible to differentiate between consensual, non-consensual, and personally regretted experiences.

However, anti-MRA blogger Barry Deutsch retorted that Sommers and other anti-feminist bloggers left out the preceding statement from the survey, which stated that “Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications. This can include times when they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs or they were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent.”  The phrase “stop it from happening” could have easily meant an impulsive decision that was made “under the influence.”

Deutsch provides a link to the survey questions. Looking at them, on page 37, the three questions with regards to alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration included the phrases “had vaginal sex with you,” “made you perform/receive anal sex,” or “made you perform/receive oral sex.”  What is shocking is that the category for vaginal sex uses the word “had,” whereas the categories for oral and anal sex (which men could also answer to) use the word “made.”  Obviously, this discrepancy created a significant increase for the rape rate for women.  Why would a “top-notch” institution like the CDC possibly deviate from maintaining consistent standards?

The lifetime prevalence for completed forced penetration for women alone from the survey is 11.5%. This isn’t as extreme as 1 in 5, but even it is questionable to an extent. As stated, the response rate was rather low, and this was only the second year the survey was carried out, all done over the telephone. A second method of analysis would be needed as comparison, one that is more reliable.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Crime Survey: A different viewpoint

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) has been administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) since 1972. This survey interviews 49,000 to 77,400 households twice a year. The average response rate is 87%. This survey doesn’t measure the lifetime prevalence but the yearly incidence. The question asked concerning rape and sexual assault is more straightforward, simply asking participants whether they have been raped/sexually assaulted or not.

The accumulated results for the 2011 survey are available online. On page 2, Table 1, for 2011, it was estimated that there were 243,800 total cases of rape and sexual assault combined. This translates to a rate of 0.9/1000, or assuming that the vast majority of rape victims are women, 1.8/1000 for women. Additionally, from 2002 to 2011, there was a decrease in cases of 30%. It should also be noted that out of all the crimes listed for that year, rape had the lowest number listed, second to serious intimate partner violence. Even the category for aggravated assault had approximately four times as many surveyed cases than rape. This makes the 1 in 5 figure for rape even more questionable.

The survey included rape cases that were reported and underreported to the police in its figures. According to Table 9, page 9, only 30% of the surveyed rape cases were reported. With regards to underreporting, back in 1974, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration claimed that there were three times more rapes than what was reported, and that after that, with no basis in reality, there were an avalanche of reforms to make rape more reportable, which never occurred with any other crime. Some feminists somehow still claim that even today, as little as 10% of rape cases are reported to the police.

As a direct comparison, the CDC’s survey also included the 12-month incidence for rape in 2011 in its report. The incidence for all forms of rape for women was 1.6%, according to their metrics. If the CDC was right, there would be a victimization rate of 16/1000 for women – eight times the BJS’s rate! This means that the vast majority of rape cases would somehow have never been reported to the police, which considering the reforms implemented, should have been far from possible.

Final Thoughts

In short, rape is a serious issue, no matter what side one takes. It is also a very difficult crime to properly define and survey, as much research has shown that it is based on subjective perceptions. However, this is never a good reason to create unneeded public hysteria. As mentioned, this only leads to extraneous reforms as an increasing tide of men are being falsely convicted. Overall, there must be serious revisions in the definition and surveying of rape and in the prosecution and legal proceedings of rape cases from both parties’ viewpoints.

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