By David Lee on February 1, 2012 · tagged as , ,

A response: How the CDC is overstating sexual violence in the U.S.

Here is a response to a recent Washington Post opinion column about rape statistics from the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault:

The recently released findings from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) recognized that almost 1 in 5 American woman have been raped in their lifetime. This is a wake up call to recognize how sexual violence is widespread. However, last week, in a Washington Post opinion column, Christina Hoff Sommers claims this report is comprised of “inflated statistics and sensationalism.”

Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a long history of criticizing information about violence against women in her articles and books such as “Who Stole Feminism?” In the Washington Post article, she argues the validity of the CDC’s research in comparison to the number rapes reported to the F.B.I. (which used a definition that recently changed because it was too restrictive) and those reported on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey. Sommers writes,

The [CDC’s] figures are wildly at odds with official crime statistics. The FBI found that 84,767 rapes were reported to law enforcement authorities in 2010. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, the gold standard in crime research, reports 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults on females and males in 2010. Granted, not all assaults are reported to authorities. But where did the CDC find 13.7 million victims of sexual crimes that the professional criminologists had overlooked?

The CDC survey finds so many more victims than the criminal justice-based statistics because it asks about people’s actual experiences. It is a strength of this survey that it asks behavior-specific questions and includes many types of unwanted sexual violence experiences, in addition to rape. The FBI — until this month — only recorded statistics of vaginal rape that are voluntarily reported by the police departments. The National Crime Victimization Survey asks only about rape as part of series of questions regarding various crimes. The CDC has developed a survey that recognizes sexual violence is not only a crime, but it is also a public health problem.

At the same time as these crimes are continuing to occur, funding is in jeopardy for rape crisis centers across the nation. There are already more survivors than social service agencies have the ability to serve. In order to provide services to more survivors — and also to do the primary prevention work to stop violence before it occurs — the rape crisis centers need to increase funding.

Whether your rape statistic is 84,767 or 188,380, sexual violence is still happening, which should make this a priority issue for rape crisis centers, media, funders and other social service agencies. This survey suggests that the problem is even bigger and requires more attention.

Instead using energy that minimizes the prevalence of sexual violence, let’s put our energy toward creating more programs to prevent sexual violence and opportunities to support survivors in their healing.

David Lee

More Posts by David Lee

David S. Lee, MPH, is the Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault where he provides training and technical assistance on prevention. David manages the national project PreventConnect, an online community of violence against women prevention practitioners, funders, researchers and activists. For over 27 years David has worked in efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

David Lee David February 3, 2012 at 9:10 am

Check out the letter to the editor A welcome expansion of the definition of sexual violence that appeared in the February 1, 2012 Washington Post


Audrey Glover February 8, 2012 at 10:58 am

Until the US get serious about these issues many, many more women, girls and boys will be rape. Its in the news media daily and our leaders turn their heads, it is sicken.


David Lee David February 22, 2012 at 7:02 am

Check out this response from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center “I wish it were true that sexual violence is being overstated”


Sebastian Pojman September 2, 2018 at 7:31 pm

I agree with the Washington Post on this one. The study had several problems, including an eight percent response rate, manipulatively worded questions, and a telephone-operated methodology, which are notorious for finding non-representative samples.


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