One Of The Largest Surveys Of Crime Victims In The U.S. Is Probably Underestimating Sexual Assaults

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The U.S. Department of Justice’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is one of the nation’s largest and most trusted sources for data on the crime rate. But it may not be painting an accurate picture of the number of sexual crimes that actually occur in the U.S., according to a new report from the National Research Council.

The new report was commissioned by the Justice Department, which wanted to make sure its annual survey is accurately assessing sexual assault cases. Considering that the 2011 version of NCVS found that sexual assault accounted for just one percent of all the crimes recorded, it was probably fairly obvious that those numbers were too low. Other surveys of sexual violence have found that it’s actually incredibly common, impacting as many as one in three women around the world.

And sure enough, the researchers who contributed to new report concluded that incidences of rape probably are currently being undercounted in the NCVS. It’s not hard to imagine that the artificially low numbers are making it difficult to ensure that law enforcement departments have adequate resources to handle the number of crimes that are occurring, or hampering ongoing efforts to connect victims with the resources they need.

On a more abstract level, undercounting rape may contribute to a society that downplays rape culture and mistrusts victims’ stories. It gives people ammunition to bolster their claims that sexual assault isn’t that big of a problem after all.

So what’s going wrong with the NCVS? The researchers point to a few specific issues that we need to change in order to get the right numbers in this area.

First of all, the NCVS is conducted by the Census Bureau, using a random sample of households that are surveyed over a three year period. The researchers pointed out that method of data collection is likely providing an incomplete snapshot of sexual assault because it could be missing huge populations of the country that are especially at risk for these crimes — like college women, residents of shelters for battered women, anyone who’s recently filed a police report for another kind of violent crime, outpatients from mental health facilities, or anyone who’s recently been treated in an emergency department.

So the researchers suggest removing sexual crimes from the NCVS altogether. “To more accurately measure when and how these victimizations occur, we recommend a separate survey that is focused on these specific crimes within a public health context and targets those most at risk for sexual violence,” William Kalsbeek, a professor of biostatistics at the University of North Carolina who co-chaired the research panel, explained in a statement.

Asking about rape within the context of crime just doesn’t work, the researchers noted, because of the specific dynamics at play after a sexual assault. For instance, the vast majority of victims don’t report their rape to the police. They may feel like that means they shouldn’t report it on a government survey about crime, either.

There are other ways that the NCVS currently fails to take into account the specific nature of sexual assault, too. For instance, the Census Bureau currently collects its data by conducting surveys in Americans’ households. But, since most sexual assaults are committed by people who the victim knows, a rape victim may not feel safe enough to talk about that crime if they’re surrounded by the people they live with. They need more privacy to disclose that information — but the researchers point out that NCVS interviewers aren’t trained on this issue.

The National Research Council’s report doesn’t mince words on the importance of getting this data right. “Rape and sexual assault are among the most injurious crimes a person can inflict on another. The effects are devastating, extending beyond the initial victimization to consequences such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sleep and eating disorders, and other emotional and physical problems,” the researchers write. “These data can influence public health and mental health policies and help identify interventions that will reduce the risk of future attacks.”