If we start with radically different premises of what the definition of rape is, then we end up with radically different data. Wikipedia itself admits, “Data on the prevalence of rape vary greatly depending on what definition of rape is used.” This is why the number of reported rape cases varies so greatly between the different sources.
The Department of Justice reports the FBI’s definition of rape as,
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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states, “Sexual violence is defined as a sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent.” It explains a number of situations that are considered to be sexual violence:
Completed or attempted forced penetration of a victim, Completed or attempted alcohol/drug-facilitated penetration of a victim, Completed or attempted forced acts in which a victim is made to penetrate a perpetrator or someone else, Completed or attempted alcohol/drug-facilitated acts in which a victim is made to penetrate a perpetrator or someone else, Non-physically forced penetration which occurs after a person is pressured verbally or through intimidation or misuse of authority to consent or acquiesce, Unwanted sexual contact, Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines rape as,
Forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion and physical force. Forced sexual intercourse means vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by the offender(s). This category also includes incidents where the penetration is from a foreign object, such as a bottle. Includes attempted rape, male and female victims, and both heterosexual and same sex rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape.
As a result of the disparate definitions, the data are dissimilar. In the same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 1.3 million incidents of “sexual violence,” while the FBI accounted for only 85,593 incidents of “rape.” If the two had used the same terminology, or if the words, “sexual violence,” and “rape,” shared the same definition, they may have attained very similar numbers. However, despite such an enormous difference in number between the two agencies, it can’t be said that either count is wrong.
Until a definition of rape is standardized and universalized, this trend will continue, and none of the statistics across the board will agree with each other. As it stands, few conclusions can be drawn from data, unless we choose to use only one source, with one definition, for our conclusions. Unless we achieve the universal definition, we will never come close to knowing just how many cases of rape truly exist in any given year. However, it is unlikely that such a definition of rape would ever come about, because of the differences in all of the institutions that define rape. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines rape to provide a count for the number of instances a crime has occurred. The FBI defines rape to explain under what circumstances a crime has been committed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define rape to provide better assistance to their patients. Each agency has entirely different interests in its definition for rape, and a universal definition may not best serve the needs of each agency. Take, for example, if the FBI’s definition of “penetration, no matter how slight,” was used for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A person seeking mental health services for “attempted forced penetration,” which would be included in the CDC’s definition, is excluded from the FBI’s definition. The FBI’s definition would therefore be ineffective for the CDC to accommodate all of its patients.
The unreported nature of rape furthers the preexisting disparity in statistics. Some victims are more likely to report the crime than others. This is clear in an article that cites the Department of Justice’s statistics- “New DOJ Data On Sexual Assaults: College Students Are Actually Less Likely To Be Victimized,” by the Federalist Staff, compares the numbers from DOJ statistics and attempts to prove that non-students are more likely to be raped than students. It states,
The full study, which was published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division within DOJ, found that rather than one in five female college students becoming victims of sexual assault, the actual rate is 6.1 per 1,000 students, or 0.61 percent (instead of 1-in-5, the real number is 0.03-in-5). For non-students, the rate of sexual assault is 7.6 per 1,000 people.
However, within the article itself, it admits that, “Unfortunately, according to data from the BJS study, a huge percentage of sexual assaults — upwards of 80 percent for female college students — go unreported, and students who are victimized are far less likely to report the crime than are non-student victims.” It even goes so far as to list that 80% of students do not report rape, compared to 67% of non-students that do not report rape. If students are so much less likely than non-students to report rape, than how can it possibly be determined that non-students are more frequently victims of the crime? The data can be trusted to prove neither that students are more often victims of rape nor that non-students are. In addition, the accuracy of the percentages must be called into question as well; the rapes that are not reported can only be counted through surveys, which may include a greater number of circumstances than police reports. This contributes to increasingly skewed data.
The article, “This Rape Infographic Is Going Viral. Too Bad It’s Wrong.” by Amanda Marcotte seeks to point out the shortcomings of an infograph displaying rape data. Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post published the infographic, created by the Enliven Project, that Marcotte’s article analyzes:
The article notes, “The graphic assumes one-rape-per-rapist,” “The graphic overestimates the number of unreported rapes,” and “The graphic overestimates the number of false accusations.” The impact of unintentionally misinterpreting the data is that it may be further misinterpreted; as the article points out,
Nearly one in five women have been raped, according to the latest substantive government numbers, and infographics like this might make people conclude therefore that one in five men is a rapist. In reality, a much smaller (though still troubling) number—an estimated 6 percent of men—are rapists. Your average rapist stacks up six victims. That’s hard to capture in an infographic, but could be clearer by just labeling the little dudes ‘rapes’ instead of ‘rapists.’
The second stated error with this particular graphic, that “The graphic overestimates the number of unreported rapes,” explains that, “It’s hard to measure how many rapes go unreported, because, duh, unreported.” The article suggests that we use “government numbers” to make the number of unreported rapes more accurate; the only problem with this suggestion is that even the government numbers cannot be trusted because they immensely disagree with each other. Finally, the article mentions, “The graphic overestimates the number of false accusations.” It explains that combining data and assuming that it can be summarized accurately is another way to horribly misinterpret data; the article states,
The problem is that the Enliven Project conflates ‘false reports,’ which only require the claim that a crime has happened, with ‘false accusations,’ which require fingering a supposed perpetrator.
These seemingly minor misrepresentations can result in incredibly inaccurate data; if the original numbers cannot even be trusted, the conclusions drawn from a combination of those numbers, which are not counting the same definition to begin with, are even more inaccurate.
Not only are definitions of rape significantly different from each other, so as to produce different statistics, but also, the data can only measure rapes that are reported; they can say nothing about the rapes that aren’t reported. Even with the standardized and universalized definition of rape previously mentioned, we would still be unable to achieve completely accurate statistics. To do so, we would need to ensure that every case of rape is reported, and the data would start there, not accounting for previous years where this was not the case. If this was somehow possible, the data could then be trusted.
An Updated Definition of Rape. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/blog/updated-definition-rape
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – Rape and Sexual Assault. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=317
Definitions|Sexual Violence|Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. (2017, March 22). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/definitions.html
Marcotte, A. (2013, January 8). This Rape Infographic Is Going Viral. Too Bad It’s Wrong. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/01/08/the_enliven_project_s_false_rape_accusations_infographic_great_intentions.html
Matthews, D. (2013, January 7). The saddest graph you’ll see today. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/01/07/the-saddest-graph-youll-see-today/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.88a8618f65b1
New DOJ Data On Sexual Assaults: Students Are Less Likely To Be Raped. (2014, December 11). Retrieved from http://thefederalist.com/2014/12/11/new-doj-data-on-sexual-assaults-college-students-are-actually-less-likely-to-be-victimized/
Rape statistics. (2018, April 3). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics#United_States
The Enliven Project – Sarah Beaulieu. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sarahbeaulieu.me/the-enliven-project