WRONG NUMBER

Statistics are a terrible way of grasping the true magnitude of the world’s sex-crime problem

“Numbers don’t lie” is usually a nice safety net for some people’s arguments. Yet when it comes to statistics for more complex societal issues, like sex crimes, there is great room for human error, underreporting, and problematic processes that can mask their true size and scope.

If you went by just statistics alone, you’d think Britain had found ways to stop a climb in sex crimes. From 2003 until 2013, the number of incidents reported to police, according to Home Office data, looks to have plateaued at around 50,000 per year, after initially dropping from 2009.

But then something happened.

In 2014, an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report found that one in five of all crimes reported to the police were not recorded by officers in England and Wales. The report said the rate for sexual offenses was even higher, with 26% of attacks not reported. Since that revelation of underreporting, the recorded numbers on sex crimes have more than doubled, as flagged by the Office for National Statistics today (Oct. 19).

There are many reasons women don’t report assaults or rape when it happens, from concerns about being believed or taken seriously and whether attackers will face tangible consequences. These kind of revelations on statistics only exacerbate those fears. Research indicates that a majority of women—more than 80% in some studies—don’t report it when they are victimized by a sex-crime. And it’s not just a UK problem: The US and many other countries, such as India, face the same issue.

In 2014, the US National Research Council was tasked with investigating how the annual crime report conducted through household surveys (National Crime Victimization Survey), as well as others, including the FBI, had significant mismatching of data when it came to sex-crimes. The council found that the way interviews were conducted hampered data accuracy because victims were less likely to speak if the interview wasn’t conducted in privacy. This was found especially important because two-thirds of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

The World Health Organization (pdf) points out : “Data on sexual violence typically come from police, clinical settings, nongovernmental organizations and survey research. The relationship between these sources and the global magnitude of the problem of sexual violence may be viewed as corresponding to an iceberg floating in water.”

(World Health Organization)

Even the definition of rape is variable depending on the reporting organization and the country, which can skew data. Around five years ago, when the FBI changed its definition of what constitutes rape, there was a rise in reports.

“Although there have been considerable advances over the past decade in measuring the phenomenon through survey research, the definitions used have varied considerably across studies. There are also significant differences across cultures in the willingness to disclose sexual violence to researchers. Caution is therefore needed when making global comparisons of the prevalence of sexual violence,” WHO adds.


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