An extensive national survey confirms, as other reports already have, that rape and sexual assault are grossly underreported in the United States. Additionally, the report also found that law enforcement agencies are often poorly equipped and inadequately trained to properly document these cases and support victims.
The study by the National Research Council reveals that 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement and offers new approaches to counting sexual assault and counseling and interview victims, among other recommendations.
But it isn't just about statistical methods, researchers note. It's about culture change.
"As long as we as a community continue to make victim-blaming statements, such as, 'She put herself in this situation,' … 'She didn't fight back, she must have wanted it,' we will continue to see rapes go unreported,"Amber Stevenson, clinical supervisor and therapist at the sexual assault center, told USA Today. "We have to stop blaming the victim. The conversation needs to shift to the person who chose to rape."
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The survey method, which includes interviews in households, is cited as a major reason for numbers that may be off. In part, the council wants sexual assault described in health terms, not just criminal terms.
The report says that while the survey is generally considered the best source of information on crime, it likely has undercounted sexual assaults for years and falls short of capturing statistics that can be compared from year to year.
In the past two years, some experts have seen an increase in attention on sexual assault, which may affect the number of incidents reported.
The Nashville Sexual Assault Center, for example, reported an increase in the number of people stepping forward to report sexual abuse, attributed in part to intense coverage of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse involving 10 boys.
The report also addressed how many of the laws around sexual assault are out of touch with the realities of these crimes:
Researchers found that states' sex-crime laws vary in how they address force and consent, and that some don't account for incapacitated victims who cannot consent.
Law enforcement in some states is geared toward an outdated perception of rape involving strangers, the report found. That perception doesn't reflect that most sexual assaults take place between people who know each other, that most do not involve physical force or weapons, and that most do not result in serious injuries other than the rape itself.