THE TRICKY BUSINESS OF SORTING OUT SEXUAL ASSAULT: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE CCF SYMPOSIUM ON INTIMATE VIOLENCE
by Stephanie Coontz , Director of Research and Public Education, Council on Contemporary Families, and Faculty Member in History, The Evergreen State College; firstname.lastname@example.org
April 20, 2015
Violent crime has been falling
Many people do not realize that violent crime has been falling in the United States for more than two decades, after rising sharply between the mid-1970s and 1993. In fact, the drop has been so great, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, that in 2012, the murder rate was lower than any time since 1963! In 2013 it was lower than any time since the records began in 1960, while violent crimes in general were at their lowest point since 1970.
Background on crime rates
As several of the papers in the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence point out, the Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics are less reliable than surveys that ask individuals if they have been victimized by any crime in the last year, because the UCR counts only crimes that are reported to the police. Many crimes are not. Trends in sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence are especially hard to nail down, both because they are typically under-reported to police and because the definition of what amounts to rape or abuse has changed over time.
In interviews I conducted with couples married in the 1950s, men and women often told me that they had then thought it was acceptable for a man to hit his wife occasionally, although later many came to believe that this constituted domestic violence. Until the late 1970s, rape was legally defined as a man’s forcible sexual intercourse with a woman other than his wife. And young women who experienced unwanted sex in that era sometimes believed that it was not really rape because they had engaged in petting or necking before saying no, and that once a man had reached a certain point of arousal you “couldn’t really blame him” for forcibly meeting his needs.
Recently we have heard sharp debates over what constitutes sexual assault and even sharper debates over just how prevalent it is. Some people claim that sexual assault is still seriously under-reported, while others argue that the concept of rape has been expanded to the point that it can be applied when a couple has too much to drink and engages in sex that the woman regrets in the morning.
The four papers in this Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence resolve some common misconceptions about these issues. But they also point out the very real complexities and ambiguities in the evidence – ambiguities that make better data-gathering and more research essential before we can get anywhere near saying “the final word” on this topic.
Whether someone has been murdered is seldom the subject of debate, and such crimes rarely go unreported, so the decline in civilian homicides found in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics is undoubtedly real.[i] It is also clear that the homicide rate among intimate partners, whether married or cohabiting, has declined sharply since the mid-1970s. On the other hand, the FBI reporting system does not track all the crimes that sometimes get committed in association with a murder – rape, assault, arson, etc. This is why the FBI is in the process of establishing a new National Incident Reporting System that will do a better job of tracking violent crime.
In the meantime, criminologist Samuel Walker uses the National Crime Victimization Survey, which captures more offenses than police records, to argue in his contribution to the symposium that there has been a general decline in all types of intimate partner violence since at least the 1990s. Jessica Wheeler uses figures from the same surveys to show that a decline in rape and forcible sexual assault has likely been going on since the 1970s.
Elizabeth Armstrong and Jamie Budnick, on the other hand, present new evidence suggesting that the NCVS may seriously undercount the extent of rape and sexual assault. Nevertheless, they observe, there is no reason to suppose that the NCVS undercounts those incidents more than in the past. So it does not appear that overt sexual violence has been increasing in recent years, and it seems probable that, like other violent crimes, it has been decreasing.
Noting that the rate has been decreasing is not the same as claiming that sexual violence and coercion are not serious and extensive problems. Armstrong and Budnick examine the highly politicized debates over the prevalence of rape on college campuses.They carefully dissect the problems in the data used on both sides of the debate, noting that there are many weaknesses and ambiguities that need addressing. Using a definition of rape that excludes unwanted groping or fondling and ambiguous situations when both partners are drunk, they believe that credible evidence suggests that somewhere between 14 and 25 percent of college women have been forcibly raped or assaulted, or have had sex imposed on them when they were asleep or unconscious.
While these rates are far too high, they are likely lower than before. Yet despite the decline in forcible assaults, there may be some new ways in which college women are vulnerable to predatory or exploitative young men. Today’s young women feel safer than earlier generations in openly expressing their erotic interests, and many do so without incurring the stigma or shame that used to be heaped on women who expressed their sexuality. Women also feel a new entitlement to drink alcohol and to party hard without being assaulted or taken advantage of. And they should be so entitled. But not all men have caught up with the new values that give women the right to say yes and the right to say no. There are subgroups of men, especially in settings that encourage rowdy masculine bonding, who still feel a sense of sexual entitlement, including some who actively attempt to incapacitate women with drugs or alcohol.
Still, any rape culture or subculture that may exist on college campuses is currently being strongly contested by student activists, university administrators, and the federal government. And incidents of rape or assault often inspire large campus-wide demonstrations supporting women’s safety on campus. In striking contrast, the sexual and physical safety of women who do not attend college has been largely ignored.
Jennifer Barber, Yasamin Kusunoki, and Jamie Budnick argue that young women who are not enrolled in 4-year colleges are more likely to find themselves in cultures that tolerate intimate violence. Such women report higher instances of partner violence than women in four-year colleges and universities, and less support from friends and family when they experience it.
While none of these papers offers definitive answers to the complex and multi-faceted issues involved in understanding and preventing interpersonal violence, we hope that the information they provide and the need they demonstrate for more reliable data-gathering will generate a more nuanced discussion of sexual violence than is often heard in the mass media today. Future papers will extend the discussion to cover victimization of men, gay and lesbian individuals, and transgendered persons, who are perhaps more at risk of sexual violence than any other Americans.
[i] Homicides ruled justifiable by police are counted separately from national homicide trends. Although these rulings are often subject to debate, and some researchers believe such killings may be under-counted, they represent a small percent of percent of all violent deaths — in 2010, the most recent year, the official count of killings by police was less than 3 percent of all homicides. We have excluded such killings from our summary of homicide trends, focusing on killings by civilians. More information on these issues should be forthcoming once the new FBI National Incident Reporting System is established, because this will also track how often the police use deadly force, along with what proportion of these incidents involve minority suspects.