Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sexual assault statistics aren't a feminist conspiracy.

The controversy surrounding rape and rape statistics is unlike that of any other crime. The available data on sexual assault inspires not only criticism but willful ignorance, leading some to dismiss it without presenting any evidence to the contrary. Thankfully, surveys that report sexual assaults are largely transparent so if you have any questions you can look them up, as I did. The stats look legit, so let’s review this HOT TOPIC.

Perhaps no other Canadian columnist has added more fuel to the “I have inklings contrary to statistical findings” fire than Barbara Kay. If you were to read only Kay’s columns on the topic you would conclude that not only is the rape crisis nonexistent, but that all available data on sexual assault comes from her collection of vintage magazines. Though statistical conclusions are always open to scrutiny, there are three criticisms in particular that amount to nothing more than myth.

The first is that surveys exaggerate the number of sexual assaults that occur because their reports don’t match police statistics. In reality all violent crimes have “dark figures” (incidents that never come to the attention of police) and rape is the darkest of all. According to Statistics Canada’s 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), only 8% of sexual assaults, compared to about 33% of crimes in general, were reported to police.

Examining these unreported crimes is what makes surveys so important. They shine light on the dark figures to yield more accurate data for smarter law enforcement. Instances of underreporting are not isolated or spurious, but rather are one of the most persistent patterns in crime statistics.

Further controversy stems from a simple misreading: findings like those published last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which concluded 1 out of every 5 women will experience a completed or attempted sexual assault, refer to lifetime prevalence. Other sources, like police records and the GSS, report far fewer sexual assaults because they refer only to incidents reported within a single year.

The internet is littered with articles comparing the results of different types of analyses as if one discredits the other, when in reality the well-established pattern of underreporting and the considerably different time horizon of each study explains the discrepancy between results.

In other words, police records and surveys are not at odds, they compliment each other. The number of studies that confirm underreporting is a problem is so large that insisting the trend does not exists amounts not to healthy skepticism but to a silly conspiracy theory.

The second myth is in regards to what “consent” means. Kay, along with a large number of Canadians, insists that a good deal of responsibility for preventing rape rests on how women behave. The idea is that certain ways of dressing or acting might reasonably be mistaken for consent. However, it’s clear that a little education on what constitutes "agreeing to have sex with someone" would go a long way.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the American Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), told MSNBC that one of the most frequent question they receive is “is date rape illegal?” The idea that dating someone does not entitle you to their body proved so confusing that RAINN retired the term.

If you are looking for a way you might help reduce sexual assaults, explaining what consent actually is, rather than condemning behaviour that might be mistaken for it, is a good place to start.

One must have very low expectations of men to conclude the most productive campaign against rape is to teach women, who are disproportionately victimized, how to dodge their aggression. You don’t need to plumb the depths of violent crime to know the problem lies with violent people, not their victims. These people have agency and deserve to be held to a higher standard.

Finally, there is the idea that prohibiting sex while incapacitated due to intoxication somehow victimizes alleged perpetrators; as if requiring consent is a feminist ploy to expand the definition of rape by criminalizing regrettable sex. 

In reality, intoxication complicates sexual assault charges in a way that favours aggressors. If a person is willfully intoxicated when sexually assaulted they are less likely to report the incident to police, and if they do report the incident it is less likely to lead to a conviction.

People who are assaulted while intoxicated face a number of hurdles to finding justice, partially because so many people, from the police to judges to the victim herself, are inclined to assess the blameworthiness of the victim alongside the perpetrator. While moderation in all things is advisable, the unrelenting, one-note emphasis on the role victims' drinking plays in sexual assault is unconscionable so long as there are people walking around wondering if date rape is illegal.

The controversy over sexual assault statistics, the meaning of consent, and the realities of prosecuting rape cases represents an unusually large gap between what has been established by the social sciences and what is assumed by conventional wisdom. While the march of science continues to generate new data and correct misleading conclusions the old-guard digs in their heels. It’s time we smarten up. No matter how unsavoury the statistics, denial will not undo a single crime.