A Word on Statistical Inconsistencies

16 Mar

In response to my post According to Pridemore, Abuse is Not an Excuse, I received the following comment from a reader named “Rog”:

A million rapes in 2009? That is a very high number. FBI statistics for the crime category “forcible rape” report 88,097 forcible rapes in 2009: a greater than 10-fold difference from the CDC survey cited in your post. While I accept that idea that rapes are under-reported, I doubt they are under-reported to the extent that less than 10% of rapes are ever reported to law enforcement. Do you have some thoughts in regards to this discrepancy in statistics?

A quandary!  So I decided to do some research.  And Rog, this is what I came up with.  First, I think these two organizations are using different definitions of rape.  The FBI defines forcible rape as follows:

Forcible rape is the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded.

I would like to just interject at this point that I find this definition of rape to be problematic for two main reasons.  First, men, as it turns out FBI, can also be raped.  In this specific case this narrow definition of “forcible rape” makes my job a bit easier as I am looking for women-only information, but I think it is counter-productive and dangerous to exclude a whole swath of victims from a basic understanding of the concept.  Second, I take issue with the use of “carnal knowledge” in this definition.  It is my understanding, and I verified this by a quick Google search, that carnal knowledge refers in the most narrow sense to penetration of the vagina by the penis.  In some more loose (no pun intended) definitions, it can include oral and anal sex, but it does not include penetration by a foreign object.  I am curious to see how far the FBI extends this terminology for the purposes of its definition of rape, but in my opinion, whatever it may be, it is not far enough.*

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), on the other hand, defines rape in the following way differently.  I found this definition on a blog called The Curvature.  If you’re interested, you should read her post on this subject.  The author goes into a lot more detail about the failings of the NISVS study and its definitions better than I could ever do (including the near-omission of trans people from the survey) so I’ll leave that critique to her.  Anyway…

Rape is defined as any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm and includes times when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent. Rape is separated into three types, completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, and completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.

  • Among women, rape includes vaginal, oral, or anal penetration by a male using his penis. It also includes vaginal or anal penetration by a male or female using their fingers or an object.
  • Among men, rape includes oral or anal penetration by a male using his penis. It also includes anal penetration by a male or female using their fingers or an object.

So part of what is going on in terms of statistical discrepancies might be that the definitions these two organizations are using are very different.  Another part is certainly, as you mentioned, under-reporting.  According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), about 60% of all rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.  (The rate of reporting is even worse for men than it is for women.)  RAINN then does a flow chart of sorts to show the likelihood of a rapist being reported, arrested, convicted, and punished.  It’s pretty depressing stuff.  So, if we were to call the statistic from NISVS an even million and assume that only 40% of those rapes are reported to a law enforcement agency, we are looking at 400,000 reported rapes, much closer to the FBI’s number.  If we then look at the discrepancy in definitions, with the FBI’s being much less broad than that used by NISVS, that could also account for a lot of the difference.  But also, and this is just my unsubstantiated opinion, I think the number presented by the FBI is just plain wrong.  And, to be completely honest, I think the one given by the NISVS is also low.  I think our definition and understanding of rape is woefully narrow.  I also think that, although the NISVS makes a stab at trying to understand and account for intimate partner rape, a lot of people do not report being raped by their significant other.  It’s understandable but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  Anyway, I could go on.  I hope this at least chipped away at the concern raised.  Thanks, Rog!

*The FBI’s new definition of rape (different from forcible rape?) that was released in 2011 states the following:  “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.”  I am assuming the statistics that Rog presented me with were using the definition of “forcible rape” rather than just regular run-of-the-mill rape, but I figured I would include both definitions.  Also, I am confused by this.

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