To the Editor: Crime Rate Debated
The letter to the editor in the June 21 issue of U.S. 1 includes this statement: "The FBI estimates that one in three women and one in ten men will be raped in their lifetimes." A shocking statistic, but is it true?
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 2004 (the most recent year for which the reports are available) reports "a rate of 63.5 rape victims per 100,000 females." For a lifetime estimate, multiply this yearly rate by the number of years that a woman is at risk. Forty years would seem to be a realistic figure. This number leads to an estimate of about 2,540 victims per 100,000 women – about 1 in 40. Double the number of years to 80, for an estimate that is almost surely too high, and you have about 5,080 victims per 100,000 women – about 1 in 20. Even the lower of these estimates is disturbingly high, but either estimate is much more believable, and much closer to the truth, than the one-in-three figure in the letter.
In this case, the letter writer is the director of Womanspace, an organization that does good work and one that I support with an annual contribution. She had something important to say. I wish she had said it without resorting to bogus statistics.
You cannot trust a statistic simply because it is attributed to a reputable source. If you have the time and the inclination, you can use the resources of the internet to check out the source, look for corroboration, etc. (In this case, the statistics were at www.fbi.gov/ucr.htm)
Otherwise, you can simply treat a questionable statistic with the same skepticism as you would any other questionable statement. If you see an unbelievable number, don’t believe it.
Samuel A. Livingston
Windsor Way, Hopewell
The director of Womanspace replies:
Mr. Livingston has taken his statistics from the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). Those numbers are inclusive of only the crimes that have been reported to the police. According to the FBI estimates and numerous other sources, the crime of sexual assault is woefully under-reported. We all know the multiple reasons why victims do not come forward and report the crime.
One under-reporting estimate is that about 31 percent of rapes and sexual victimizations were reported to police (Hart, Timothy and Rennison, 2000) another differs only slightly at 31.7 percent (Ringel, 1997) and according to the Department of Justice statistics, in 2004 only 35.8 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police.
Another factor impacting the statistical differences is the definitions assigned to the crime. For instance, NJ UCR excludes large numbers of victimizations because it counts only women (UCR Handbook, NIBRS edition, 1992, p. 21.) over a certain age and those that fall under the strict definition of rape, "forced vaginal anal or oral penetration." It also excludes "same sex rape." The Justice Department however uses "sexual assault" as a broader category.
The FBI estimated number of 1 in 3 and the Department of Justice statistics include reports from sexual assault/rape care programs (like Womanspace) where there is no police involvement. The estimated number would also include the thousands of people who come forward for assistance years after the assault (e.g., child sexual assault or more recently, the Catholic Church scandals).
The specific reference to which I referred was taken from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2006 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Newsletter. This organization and RAINN (Rape, Assault, Incest National Network) are helpful resources.
Last but not least (although seldom taken into account in statistical analysis), from an anecdotal and experiential perspective, many, many, victims of sexual violence DO NOT report the crime. The image of a stranger jumping out of the bushes to rape is the most infrequent situation. More often the assailant is known to the victim (making reporting more complicated). Our college campuses are sadly having to address this.
I appreciate Mr. Livingston’s thoughtful response. One interesting fact that he brings up is the "40-year" span over which a woman is most likely to be raped. I believe that speaks to the misconception that women in the middle of their lives are the victims of sexual crime. Unfortunately, his 80-year estimate is more accurate, inclusive of children and elderly.
Thank you for the opportunity to explain what might have been misconstrued as "bogus" statistics. Mr. Livingston is correct, inaccuracy is a poor teacher.
Patricia M. Hart, MSW, LCSW
Executive Director, Womanspace