Rape has existed since the beginning of humanity, and continues to exist worldwide. Yet despite having existed for so long, and in so many locations, it does not have a standard, universal definition. Even within the same country, with the same government, the definition varies. There is so much disparity in the definition of consent, and therefore the definition of rape, that no one’s statistics are worthwhile. The statistics cannot be compared for this reason.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would argue that it can accurately and reliably account for 1.3 million incidents of “sexual violence,” which it defines as “a sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website even outlines a number of specific circumstances that fall under its definition of “sexual violence,” namely:
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.
This definition is clear and indisputable; instances of sexual violence can easily be determined on its basis. Statistics can be generated based on the rape counted by this definition.
But the clarity of the definition isn’t the problem; the problem is that there are many more definitions than this one by the CDC. Each definition is just as likely to be reliable when compared to itself, but equally unreliable when compared to others. Any data that sums up rape and draws conclusions using a variety of different sources is inaccurate, because the different sources are not even counting the same thing. CDC’s “sexual violence” is different than the FBI’s “forcible rape,” or simply “rape,” which is also different from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Forced sexual intercourse.” An additional problem arises when people attempt to count the CDC’s 1.3 million incidents of “sexual violence” as rape and compare it as such; the CDC includes in its definition instances of “unwanted sexual contact” that may not require penetration, which makes it astronomically different than the BJS’s and the FBI’s definitions. Wikipedia explains the problem in its own terms even as it reports rape data in its article titled “Rape Statistics,”
Inconsistent definitions of rape, different rates of reporting, recording, prosecution and conviction for rape create controversial statistical disparities, and lead to accusations that many rape statistics are unreliable or misleading. In some jurisdictions, male-female rape is the only form of rape counted in the statistics. Countries may not define forced sex on a spouse as “rape.”
The disparity in definitions often results from differences among agencies. The CDC is concerned with defining rape as it relates to public health, while the FBI is concerned with defining rape in relation to crime. If patients report rape to the CDC seeking medical attention, the CDC is unlikely to discount the patients’ claims of rape. Thus, the number of counted instances of sexual violence may be higher simply because the patients may consider a broader definition of rape, which the CDC inadvertently adopts by accepting patients’ claims. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) asks very specific questions related to rape that suggest a narrower consideration of circumstances that constitute rape. The BJS’s National Crime Victimization Survey 1 asks its participants,
Have you been forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity by:
(a) Someone you didn’t know before
(b) A casual acquaintance
(c) Someone you know well
The survey does not include the BJS’s definition of rape, or any examples of situations that would fall under its category of “forced or coerced,” “unwanted sexual activity.” Participants may underreport their instances of rape simply because they do not understand what situations fall under this category. The BJS is concerned with counting rape only to understand how many instances of crime are unreported, not to charge a person with the crime or to improve the victim’s health. This led to the simplified, “forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity” definition in its survey. This is radically different from its specific, official definition on its website:
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.
Because agencies that define rape have entirely different considerations in their definitions, they utilize different terminology, account for different numbers, and come up with different statistics. Attempting to summarize data from several different agencies will only result in inaccurate data.
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. (2018, April 10). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/definitions.html
NCVS 1 [survey]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ncvs104.pdf
Rape statistics. (2018, April 14). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics