The bogus statistics behind the "rape epidemic"

Occasionally good things actually come out of bad things. Two bad things happened recently. Rolling Stone accused several men at a University of Virginia fraternity of a violent and brutal gang rape a part of a pledge initiation rite. That accusation seems, now, to have been concocted out of whole cloth by an amoral and avaricious writer preying on a troubled young woman. The second thing was that the icon of sexuality for chubby, plain girls, Lena Dunham, accused a man she barely knew of raping her in college. Both of these fit into the broad feminist narrative of the infantile female who is unable to cope in a world occupied by rapists men. As Jonah Goldberg points out, they are also part of a raw power-play on the part of radical feminists to impose a feminist orthodoxy on college campuses using the bizarre and and patently unconstitutional guidelines being issued under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act:


So what’s going on here? Beyond the hysteria and legitimate concern, this is a power grab. It’s no coincidence that the Rolling Stone article spent a great deal of time advocating for the expansion of federal involvement in higher education via Title IX of the Civil Rights Act.

As chronicled by Jessica Gavora (my wife) in her book Tilting the Playing Field, feminist activists, with the aid of sympathetic journalists and allies in the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy, have used Title IX as a “far-reaching remedial tool,” in the words of the New York Times, to reorganize higher education to their ideological agenda.

They started with women’s sports, but the model remains the same: Interest groups foment outrage, then enlist sympathetic activist journalists who rely on the testimony of deeply invested “experts” while partisan politicians exploit the allegedly systemic problem to advance an ideological agenda and demonize opponents as sexist bigots or rape apologists.

The UVA story was the perfect — too perfect it turns out — outrage at the exact moment the Obama administration was pushing new Title IX regulations that would erode the presumption of innocence in rape cases on campus. There’s no reason to expect this fiasco will even slow that effort.

To rationally discuss the issue of rape you have to be able to hold several thoughts simultaneously. Amanda Marcotte, editors and Jezebel: you can stop reading right now because this exercise is beyond you.

  • Rape exists.
  • Rape is a horrible experience.
  • Rape is, as it should be, a felony.
  • As a felony, rape should be investigated using the same standards and the same standard of proof.
  • Just as all homicide is not murder, all unwanted sexual contact… especially when it is defined down to include kissing… is not rape. Like murder, there are gradations. First degree murder is not the same as manslaughter. Being accosted and raped by a stranger is not the same as deciding after the fact that you would have rather not had sex with someone. Calling everything rape simply reduces the term to meaninglessness and has the perverse effect of making rape seem less horrific than it is.
  • Women are people. As people they are subject to the same impulses as the rest of the set of “people.” (Those would be called “men.”)
  • Contrary to what feminists claim, much more damage is done to a man’s reputation, and indeed to his life, when he his accused of rape than to a woman who reports rape.

What underpins the radical feminst claim for a jihad against men rapists is a couple of surveys that purport to show that 1 in every 5 women is raped in her lifetime. Do a quick survey your female friends and relatives to see if this applies in your family. Some of the studies have major methodological problems: small sample sizes, paid respondents, and a definition of rape that includes “unwanted touching” and sex that you think happened while you were passed out but aren’t sure (I am not making that up).

The Federalist covers a new Department of Justice report which indicates that the prevalence of rape is significantly lower, and by significantly I mean astronomically, than the number bandied about by radical feminists:

The full study, which was published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division within DOJ, found that rather than one in five female college students becoming victims of sexual assault, the actual rate is 6.1 per 1,000 students, or 0.61 percent (instead of 1-in-5, the real number is 0.03-in-5). For non-students, the rate of sexual assault is 7.6 per 1,000 people.

At this point take a quick tour through the bullet points above before getting the urge to accuse me of being pro-rape.

The second survey that lumbers across the rape prevalence landscape is the CDC’s Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization— National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011.

Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States has been raped in her lifetime (18.3%) (Table 2.1). This translates to almost 22 million women in the United States. The most common form of rape victimization experienced by women was completed forced penetration, experienced by 12.3% of women in the United States. About 5% of women (5.2%) experienced attempted forced penetration, and 8.0% experienced alcohol/ drug-facilitated completed forced penetration. One percent, or approximately 1.3 million women, reported some type of rape victimization in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.


Again we have the ~20% figure floating around. But definitions are everything.


For instance, when public health weenies decry the epidemic of “binge drinking” and claims “[o]ne in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month” what do they mean?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and AlcoholismExternal Web Site Icon defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.

Keep in mind that before 1998, 0.10 was the legal blood alcohol content in virtually every state. The average person when they hear “binge drinking” does not immediately think “he had five beers in two hours.” No, we think snot-slinging, fall down drunk; a drunk that is carried out over a heroic period of time. Not two hours at Hooters.

When Michelle Obama demands our kids eat dirt and twigs to fight the obesity epidemic, does that mean what we think it means? What she is talking about is getting the BMI, body-mass index, of kids below 25. A few years ago the Wall Street Journal did a story on obesity, and looked at celebrity BMI. This is what they found:

celebrity bmi

So, Brad Pitt, you porker, no more pizza for you.

Let’s look at the universe of incidents termed “sexual violence” in the CDC report:

rape data2

To arrive at the 18.3% number the report combined actual consummated acts with attempted acts. These are really not the same thing. The difference between the completed + attempted number (17.5%) and the total (18.3%) isn’t explained. I’m guessing some women had multiple experiences but that is a guess. The Other Sexual Violence category is best described as an attempt to produce very large numbers thereby demonstrating a very large problem which demands a very large infusion of federal dollars into CDC. Back to definitions:

  • Sexual coercion is defined as unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.
  • Unwanted sexual contact is defined as unwanted sexual experiences involving touch but not sexual penetration, such as being kissed in a sexual way, or having sexual body parts fondled or grabbed.
  • Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences are those unwanted experiences that do not involve any touching or penetration, including someone exposing their sexual body parts, flashing, or masturbating in front of the victim, someone making a victim show his or her body parts, someone making a victim look at or participate in sexual photos or movies, or someone harassing the victim in a public place in a way that made the victim feel unsafe.

Seriously, people? Some of these groupings are just nonsense. Being pressured into sex by your boss is not the same as someone begging you for sex. How many “non contact unwanted sexual experiences” happen during a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade for the sake of beads? Having someone look at porn is a lot different than having someone participate.

Going back to the rape data, when it is broken out it looks like this:

rape data1

What is notable here is that “attempted” and “complete” are combined into one number. This is a lot less than helpful. But what is instructive her are some of the cells in the matrix. Over half of all rapes, attempted or completed, (along with three quarters of all instances of “sexual coercion”) involve an “intimate partner.” What that is in this day and age, I couldn’t hazard a guess. One also has to look askance at the instance of sexual coercion involving family members being less than half of the attempted or completed rapes. This seems rather counterintuitive. What is obvious, though, is that most of these encounters are heavily nuanced: over 90% involve either an “intimate partner” or an acquaintance. Of the rapes involving strangers, most of those, about three-quarters, involved drugs and alcohol. Perhaps describing incidents like this incident that resulted in a young man being expelled from college for what the CDC report would describe as a rape,  from a must-read in Slate titled The College Rape Overcorrection:


They talked quietly, started kissing, and then things escalated, as they often do when two teenagers are in bed together. When it became clear they were going to have intercourse, CB asked Sterrett about a condom, and he retrieved one from a drawer. Their sex became so loud and went on for so long that Sterrett’s roommate, unable to sleep in the upper bunk, sent Sterrett a Facebook message around 3 a.m.: “Dude, you and [CB] are being abnoxtiously [sic] loud and inconsiderate, so expect to pay back in full tomorrow …”

The two finally finished and went to sleep. The next morning, Sterrett says CB told him that she wanted to keep their interlude private. He thought she was embarrassed that she’d had sex with a friend and agreed not to talk to others about it. They saw each other frequently in the dorm until the school year ended.

Sterrett was home in New York for the summer when he was contacted by a university official, Heather Cowan, program manager of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, and told to make himself available for a Skype interview with her and another administrator. No reason was given.

Even so, it is impossible to reconcile this data with the Department of Justice report but one gets hints that the problem is more one of definitions than anything else. For instance, the DOJ report finds a rate of about 0.6%. If one reduces the CDC number to persons of authority + non-alcohol/drug related stranger contact you arrive at a 1.2% incidence. Twice as high but in the same ballpark.

The conclusion that we can draw from this is that quantifying rape is 1) difficult and 2) fraught with political implications. We really don’t know the scope of the problem but what we do know is that the 20% number we see used is wildly and grotesquely overstated in order to support a political agenda that demands rape be endemic and a political philosophy that sees all men as either rapists or potential rapists.




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