By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Sexual assaults trending down like other crimes, but still under-reported
Sexual assault numbers are dropping, reflecting the general trends in national violent crime. But sexual violence remains under-reported and all-too-common, making it hard to either count or counter. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Sexual assault numbers are dropping, reflecting the general trends in national violent crime. But sexual violence remains under-reported and all-too-common, making it hard to either count or counter.

That's according to a series of reports released las week as an online symposium by the Council on Contemporary Families. Among the highlights, the reports:

  • Document uncertainties in the sexual violence counts;
  • Highlight attitude changes about sexual violence, including changes that make those who would take sexual advantage of others responsible for their own actions;
  • Show that while sexual assault on college campuses is drawing strong prevention efforts, college-age women who are not in school are still more likely to be sexually assaulted than their college-enrolled peers.
Big disagreements exist about both the actual incidence of sexual assault on campus and in broader society, according to Elizabeth Armstrong, University of Michigan professor of sociology and organizational studies, and co-author with doctoral candidate Jamie Budnick of the report on sexual assault on campus.

Inability to agree on numbers has caused real angst among policymakers. Right now, lawmakers, academics, locals and even the White House clamor for action, but they want to know how big the problem of sexual assaults on campuses is so they know how to tackle it, she said. "It's, 'Now we're ready to deal with this and you can't even tell us what's going on.' "

Crime stats

Two of the reports one by Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the other by council intern Jessica Wheeler looking at National Crime Victimization Survey reports of sexual assault cite signficant decreases in violence. Walker said it dropped 64 percent between 1993 and 2010.

While criminologists agree that all major crimes, including robberies, homicides, sexual assaults and domestic violence, have declined nationally, including in diverse ethnic and racial groups, they cannot point to a single cause, Walker said.

The National Crime Victimization Surveys report sexual assault rates that are "quite low" compared to other estimates, Armstrong said. A recent reckoning by a blue ribbon panel from the National Academy of Sciences looked at NCVS data and in 2014 concluded NCVS "is really likely quite substantially undercounting sexual violence in the United States in general across all groups from the 1970s forward. We actually just don't know," she said. Still, a downward trend is likely true, "since the data has been collected in almost exactly the same way over a fairly long period of historical time."

Surveys the researchers examined put the number of women on campus who had been sexually assaulted somewhere between 14 percent and 26 percent, a broad range. An oft-cited number, one in five, "seems reasonable," Armstrong told the Deseret News.

It's a big challenge to get people to report sexual assaults, Armstrong noted. Some research indicates that not couching the issue in terms of crime helps.

"When language of rape or crime is not used and the context of the survey is more 'family life in general,' more pubic health-type information, people tend to disclose at much higher rates," Armstrong said.

Shifting attitude

In an overview of the reports, Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the council, says "double standards" in male behavior toward women are falling away, too, but adds that "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 male bonding, who still feel a sense of sexual entitlement, including some who actively attempt to incapacitate women with drugs or alcohol."

Still, some misogynistic attitudes are disappearing, including notions that a woman who is incapacitated or asleep can consent to sexual activity, that there's a point at which a woman no longer has a right to say 'no' or beyond which a man cannot control himself.

Gender relations are improving overall, said Coontz. She noted greater understanding of what constitutes consent, which an incapacitated individual cannot give, to sexual activity. But despite the real gains that have been made, sexual assault is more common among those who are less educated and poor.

"Its not just that it happens more often in disadvantaged communities it compounds the disadvantage," Coontz said, citing "health problems and self-esteem problems that then stand in the way of a woman rising above it.

"Unless we take this seriously, we can push back some of the real gains that have been made and can perpetuate a cycle of disadvantage that is not just sexual but economic," she added.

Series of disadvantages

Jennifer Barber is pleased that sexual assault on campuses is getting attention "It's great and about time" but said she's worried "that the girls who are not enrolled in college are going to get lost in this discussion."

When Barber, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan who studies teen pregnancy and violence, and Budnick compared relationship violence involving 18- and 19-year-olds at a four-year college to peers of the same age not in college, they found the latter experienced violence at a much higher rate.

Relationship violence ranged from sexual assault by a spouse to that by a casual date or acquaintance, but excluded assault by strangers. Most campus assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, not strangers.

The researchers, who followed the women in their study for 2.5 years, were interested in what kind of relationship predicts which young girls will get pregnant something that about one-fourth did during the study. "What I found out was dating violence is a huge part of that story. All of them had horrendous stories of violence from childhood, from past boyfriends, current boyfriends," Barber said. Histories of interpersonal violence are found in 21 percent of non-college women compared to 13 percent of college women in their research.

They also found that disadvantaged females in situations that involved unwanted sexual activity were nonetheless reluctant to cast themselves as victims or the act as criminal.

"They see it as much more normal than I would," Barber said.

The collection of reports is online.