Gov’t reports underestimate rape rates of women and people with disabilities

Lynn Hecht Schafran and Jillian Weinberger of Legal Momentum (a women’s legal defense and education fund) say that recent reports from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) underestimate the number of rapes among persons with disabilities and women.
Schafran and Weinberger point specifically to two reports, Crime Against Persons with Disabilities (2007) and Female Victims of Violence (2008), arguing that the methodology for both were flawed.
Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, for example, excluded institutionalized people with disabilities – a huge omissions considering that sexual assault and abuse happen at extremely high rates in institutional settings. Schafran and Weinberger also note that the statistic in the report related to reporting abuse to the police is only “based on 10 or fewer sample cases.”
Female Victims of Violence – which showed that rape rates have decreased significantly recently, has similar methodological problems.

The report states that between 1993 and 2008 “the rate of rape or sexual assault against females declined by 70%” (p. 6). This conclusion is “based on the NCVS [National Crime Victimization Survey] between 1993 and 2008″ (p. 6). Yet a 2007 study by some of the most highly regarded researchers in this field sharply disagrees. Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated and Forcible Rape: A National Study was conducted by Dr. Dean Kilpatrick, Director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, along with colleagues from the Medical University of South Carolina.
…The new BJS report estimates that there were 182,000 rapes/sexual assaults against women age 12 and older in 2008 and that 47% of these rapes were reported to police (p. 5). In contrast, the Kilpatrick et al. study concludes that: “During the past year alone [2006], over 1 million women in the U.S. have been raped… Our estimates do not appear to support the widely held belief that rape has significantly declined in recent decades…One of the more striking findings of this study was that only 16% of all rapes were reported to law enforcement” (p. 2).

Quite a difference in numbers! BJS says 182,000 rapes were committed in 2008 while the Kilpatrick report says it was more than 1,000,000.
Schafran and Weinberger says the answer is in the the NCVS methodology.

For example, the NCVS asks directly whether the respondent has been subjected to “[a]ny rape, attempted or other type of sexual attack” rather than asking behaviorally-based questions that do not label the victim’s experience. The National Women’s Study, in contrast, asks behaviorally-based questions like, “Has anyone ever made you have anal sex by using force or threat of harm? Just so there is no mistake, by anal sex we mean that a man or boy put his penis in your anus.” It is essential to ask behaviorally-based questions because victims often do not put the label “rape” or “sexual assault” on their experience, especially when the perpetrator is someone they know, as is the case in the significant majority of rapes. Women raped by their husbands may not even know that there is such a thing as marital rape and that it is against the law.

As Schafran and Weinberger point out, this flawed methodology is big news – because studies published by the BLS get a lot of media coverage and are considered authoritative sources. So please get the word out – and check out this list of questions Legal Momentum put together that one should ask when reading studies about rape.

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