Federal Agency Sexual Assault Data Skewed by Inconsistent Definitions

Print Share on LinkedIn More

August 25, 2016; Mother Jones

With four federal agencies overseeing at least 10 efforts to study the incidence of sexual assault, we should have a pretty good idea of how of many rapes occur each year. Unfortunately, as the rape data has come out, we now see that these agencies—namely the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Defense, and Education—use at least 23 different terms to describe sexual violence. What this means for people working in the field is that we actually have no idea how many rapes occur each year.

As concerns over the number of sexual assaults on college campuses, in prisons, and in the military grow, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to report on federal efforts to collect data on sexual violence and how their efforts may differ. The report, “Sexual Violence Data: Actions Needed to Improve Clarity and Address Differences Across Federal Data Collection Efforts,” indicated “differences in data collection efforts may hinder the understanding of the occurrence of sexual violence, and agencies’ efforts to explain and lessen differences have been fragmented and limited in scope.”

A great example of this difference comes when we look at the 2011 sexual violence data, which is the most recently released data available. Estimates from this data range from 244,190 to 1,929,000 victims of rape or attempted rape.

Criminologist Janet Lauritsen from the University of Missouri-St. Louis says these different definitions can be explained in part by the priorities of the agencies. For instance, HHS focuses on the health impact of sexual violence on victims, whereas the DOJ looks to appropriately respond to cases of sexual violence. This makes sense, but agencies should make it clear as to which definition of sexual assault they are reporting on.

Regarding the study and recommendations, GAO acting director Greta Goodwin said, “The bottom line is that this can all lead to confusion. We are just asking that there be more transparency about the data and what it means.”

Until we nail down a more specific estimate for the number of sexual assaults that occur annually, we will have no idea if interventions aimed at reducing sexual violence actually have their intended impact. The GAO recommends that these four agencies convene in a forum to discuss and align their different definitions so that we can get more cohesive data. Further, the GAO recommends that the agencies release information that details how they define and measure sexual violence.

In a recent press release, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who requested the GAO report, said, “As we continue to make progress in combating sexual assault and empowering survivors to come out of the shadows, we’ve got to have a way to measure that progress that’s standard and transparent.”—Sheela Nimishakavi