America still doesn't know how to talk about rape

New statistics reveal a mind-boggling gap between FBI stats and victim reporting

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published November 22, 2013 8:37PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>desifoto</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(desifoto via iStock/Salon)

For all the sensationalized attention that rape gets in the news, the facts of it are still horrendously obscured, misunderstood and misconstrued. Case in point: A study this week from the National Research Council reveals huge discrepancies in how we look at rape in America, and the gap between what it defines as the "criminal justice perspective and the public health perspective."

The findings show that the National Crime Victimization Survey counted 188,380 sexual assaults in 2010. The same year, the FBI, which measures reported rapes and attempted rapes, counted only 85,593. But at the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey counted nearly 1.3 million. 

As the study authors note, there's a difference between the criminal perception of rape as a "point in time" event and a more encompassing view of it as a "condition that endures." A person who is being abused within a family or a relationship, or in an environment from which removing oneself is not an immediate option, may not report it as a crime, even though it is. That's why the authors conclude that the NCVS is "underestimating rape and sexual assault," to a degree that cannot be measured.

Much of the gap can be explained by the way questions and conversations about rape are worded and presented. The NCVS, for instance, "doesn’t include scenarios in which a victim is unable to consent to sex because she or he is 'drunk, high, drugged, or passed out,'" an unbelievably damaging oversight. Nor does it do much to offer its survey takers privacy – despite the fact that rape is often a domestic crime. And as HuffPo points out, a big part of the problem with reporting rape boils down to accurately defining it. The crime still varies from state to state, and the FBI only expanded its definition to "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim" in 2011.

But the yawning gap between the apparent incidence of rape and the reporting of it as a crime also has so much to do with the deep reluctance of victims to come forward. Gosh, I wonder why? Could it be that when individuals who've been raped in their workplace – like, say, the military -- speak up, they often suffer severe career repercussions and a frustrating lack of justice? Could it be because when men are raped, as they are, in droves, in prison, they have virtually no legal recourse? Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that more than 200,000 men are sexually assaulted in prison each year, making male-on-male rape one of the most common – and unreported -- forms of sexual assault in America. Could it be because when teenagers are gang-raped, and have their rapes recorded and shared and laughed at by their classmates,  it's they who are shamed and bullied and attacked for what they drank or how they dress? Could it be because in some states, a man can still be legally protected for raping his wife? Could it be because rape is a subject that is every single day wrapped up in victim blaming, that is joked about and dismissed by politicians and exploited as torture porn entertainment in prime time? Yeah, I'd think twice about calling a cop too.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that only three in every hundred rapes will result in jail time for the assailant. (Your odds of going to jail for a nonviolent offense are considerably different.) The National Research Council's effort is a welcome step toward fostering an understanding that we need to talk about rape with exponentially greater accuracy about what constitutes rape and with far more compassion for victims. We can't punish offenders who go unreported. And we can't fight something we don't know how to talk about.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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