Home PublicationsCommentary How Common is Sexual Assault in the United States? The Answer Depends On Who You Ask

How Common is Sexual Assault in the United States? The Answer Depends On Who You Ask

by Joshua New
Government Accountability Office

This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine

recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Defense, Education and Justice oversee at least 10 different efforts to collect data about sexual violence—producing widely varying statistics that, on the surface, appear to measure the same thing. As a result, policymakers and the public simply do not have reliable, easy-to-understand data about sexual assault, which can have serious consequences for the effectiveness and accountability of the criminal justice system and hinder efforts to combat sexual assault. Federal agencies and Congress should take action to ensure that the public and policymakers alike can better understand this data and put it to good use in the fight against sexual assault.

After reviewing 10 different data collection efforts, GAO found that federal agencies use 23 different terms to describe an incident of sexual violence. These terms often overlap and different initiatives sometimes apply or define these terms differently. For example, the Department of Education collects data about crime on college campuses and defines certain incidents of sexual violence as “rape,” whereas HHS defines those same incidents as either “rape,” “sexual coercion,” or “assault-sexual.” Similarly, the Department of Education classifies nonpenetrative contact as “fondling,” whereas HHS describes it either as “assault-sexual” or “unwanted sexual contact.” Furthermore, the Department of Education does not collect any statistics about certain types of sexual assault, such as when a victim was made to penetrate someone else. These types of conflicting and overlapping definitions make it difficult to answer relatively simple questions, such as “how many sexual assaults occur on college campuses?”

There can be valid reasons for using different terminology in these data collection initiatives, as each targets different populations, uses different methodologies and serves different purposes. For example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducts the National Inmate Survey and records incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse by prison staff differently than other types of sexual assault. And the Federal Aviation Administration could, but doesn’t, track incidents of sexual assault on flights. While coding incidents of sexual violence differently makes sense in some cases—DOJ clearly has an imperative to identify specific incidents involving prison staff, for example—GAO found that overall there are substantial and unnecessary inconsistencies in how agencies define incidents of sexual violence.

Without easy-to-understand data about sexual assault, such as its prevalence, who it affects and where it happens, policymakers simply cannot reliably understand the scope of the problem and make informed decisions or effectively evaluate programs designed to prevent sexual assault. The wide variation in reporting can make research about sexual violence unnecessarily difficult, as comparisons between different groups are all but impossible when methodologies differ so greatly, and the lack of clarity about what these different statistics really mean provides fodder for toxic arguments that dismiss the severity of the problem of sexual assault and imply that false reporting of rape is commonplace (it is not).

Federal agencies have taken some minor steps to clear up some of the confusion about the differences in statistics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and FBI have published an explanation of how and why they measure crime differently. The Department of Education adopted the FBI’s definition of rape in 2014, rather than use its own terminology. However, GAO found that the government can and should do more to ensure statistics about sexual assault are easy to understand and use. They recommend that the Department of Education, HHS and BJS publish explanations of the terminology they use for sexual assault reporting to alleviate public confusion about the varying definitions and that the Office of Management and Budget establish an interagency forum to improve and harmonize how federal agencies collect sexual assault statistics.

This fight can move beyond GAO’s recommendations, however, especially if federal agencies do not harmonize data collection efforts on their own or have statutory requirements limiting their ability to do so. Congress should pass legislation to mandate that federal agencies use standardized definitions when collecting data about sexual assault for the general population. Agencies should explore other opportunities to make data about sexual assault easier for the public to access and understand. The Department of Education could integrate the data it collects into the College Scorecarda tool designed to help prospective college students and their parents make decisions about where to study—to make the public more aware about campus safety issues and how different schools handle sexual assault.

Better data at the federal level will not solve the problem of sexual assault, nor will improving federal reporting requirements produce perfect statistics. Most sexual assaults go unreported, and police departments and college campuses can deliberately manipulate statistics or discourage sexual assault reporting, further limiting the public’s understanding of the problem. However, by improving how federal agencies collect and report data about sexual assault, policymakers can finally make smarter decisions about how to combat it.

Image: U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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