Statistics on rape are bogus

December 18, 1997|By Annette Fuentes

THE JUSTICE Department says Americans are safer now than they have been in more than 20 years. The agency says women especially have reason to breathe easier because rapes and sexual assaults are down by a whopping 44 percent since 1993.

But let's not break out the champagne just yet, ladies.

Questionable survey

For one thing, the statistics are derived largely from the National Crime Victims Survey, which is highly unreliable when it comes LTC to rapes. The survey telephones people in their homes and asks about their experiences with violent crimes in the past year. Women and young girls may feel inhibited from discussing rapes if others are present in the household -- perhaps even the rapist himself.

Second, the survey includes data from females only aged 11 and older. ''Rape in America,'' the benchmark 1992 study by Dean Kilpatrick, found that 29 percent of all rapes happened to girls under 11.

Third, the Justice Department uses crime statistics compiled by the FBI and gathered from local police precincts around the country. Those numbers, called the Uniform Crime Reports, consist only of crimes reported to the police. That's a good way to count homicides, since a dead body is always proof of the crime. But rape poses different problems and challenges for crime counters.

Despite two decades of women's activism and significant legislative change to make rape easier to prosecute, it remains the single-most under-reported violent crime. The FBI itself acknowledges only 36 percent of rapes are reported to the police. So, how relevant are these numbers anyway?

One reason we aren't more effective at stopping rape is that more than three-quarters of rapes are committed by men who know their victim: boyfriends, acquaintances, stepfathers, uncles and next-door neighbors. Rapes committed by strangers lurking in lobbies or dark alleys account for some 22 percent, according to ''Rape in America.''

Women still face issues of shame and guilt and blame-the-victim attitudes from police, prosecutors and juries when they step forward to report rape.

When the Justice Department released its statistics, it noted major felony crimes associated with the explosive crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s have seen a tremendous drop. Homicides, burglaries and assaults perpetrated by soldiers in the drug trade have diminished.

But rape is another story. It is not a crime associated with drug trafficking. So, the sophisticated crime-busting task forces that swept crack dealers off street corners do little to stop rapists. Rapists are motivated by issues of power and sexual aggression that cannot be successfully attacked by just putting more police on the street.

Annette Fuentes is a Prudential Fellow at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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