Sexual Assault: Facts and Research
Major content warning for discussion of rape and sexual assault.
Earlier this week, my daughter got into a conversation with someone who seemed to believe a lot of the myths and misinformation about rape. That it was rare … that rapists are generally caught and jailed … that there’s no real research into the prevalence of rape and sexual assault.
So I’m putting this together as a reference for my daughter, and for anyone else interested in the research and facts about sexual assault. (The emphasis here is on U.S. statistics.)
We don’t know exactly how frequent rape is, in part because it’s one of the most underreported crimes. A U.S. Bureau of Justice study from 2002 found that only “36% of rapes, 34% of attempted rapes, and 26% of sexual assaults were reported to police.” A 2016 study from the Medical University of South Carolina National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center found that “Only 16 percent of all rapes were reported to law enforcement.”
So take, for example, the 2017 FBI report that found:
- There were an estimated 135,755 rapes (revised definition) reported to law enforcement in 2017.
That’s about 0.04% of the population. Based on what we know of underreporting, we recognize that the true number was significantly higher. But even using these numbers, remember this is for a single year. If we take an 80-year lifespan, you end up with 3.3% of the population. And that’s just the reported numbers.
In 2010, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. This was a nationwide survey of randomly-selected subjects. Results are based on 16,507 completed and 1,542 partially completed interviews.
Some of their results:
Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States has been raped in her lifetime (18.3%).
Approximately 1 in 71 men in the United States (1.4%) reported having been raped in his lifetime, which translates to almost 1.6 million men.
Nearly 1 in 2 women (44.6%) and 1 in 5 men (22.2%) experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.
A 2000 U.S. Department of Justice study focused on The Sexual Victimization of College Women. From a national sample of 4,446 women, they concluded:
Nearly five percent (4.9%) of college women are victimized in any given calendar year.
This study also highlighted another problem with collecting and reporting statistics about rape. Namely, that many people are unclear on the definition of rape. The study notes:
The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, prepared for the National institute of Justice, found that:
26.1% of college senior women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.
3.7% of college men reported being victims of completed sexual assault since entering college.
Ever since I started working with rape survivors and talking about the research, people — mostly men — have been asking, “But what about all of the false reports?” It feels like that particular response has gotten more common in recent years, and it’s frustrating as hell.
To be clear, false reports of rape and sexual assault can and do happen. But the research shows such cases to be rare.
Let’s start with False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault, published in 2009, which includes an extensive literature review that finds:
- When more methodologically rigorous research has been conducted, estimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.
They conclude, “this realistic and evidence-based estimate of 2-8% thus suggests that the American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false.”
Going back a bit farther, a 1996 FBI report found that “Eight percent of forcible rape complaints in 1996 were ‘unfounded’.” But this includes complaints found to be “false or baseless,” and therein lies a problem. What qualifies as an unfounded report? Many reported rapes aren’t prosecuted because prosecutors don’t feel there’s sufficient evidence. “Baseless” and “false” aren’t the same thing.
In 2017, Sandra Newman gathered additional research on false accusations and found, among other things:
- False rape accusations almost never have serious consequences.
- In the most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports to police, undertaken for the British Home Office in the early 2000s, out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false.
Who Are All These Rapists?
There’s a common myth that rapists are creepy strangers lurking in bushes, and while this does happen, rapists are far more likely to be someone the victim knows.
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 6 in 10 rape or sexual assault victims said they were assaulted by an intimate partner, relative, friend, or acquaintance.
- From the National Institute of Justice, “About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.“
Research finds some patterns among rapists. “These men begin early, studies find. They may associate with others who also commit sexual violence. They usually deny that they have raped women even as they admit to nonconsensual sex.”
“Cross-campus studies of rape identify the following factors as contributors to sexual violence: sex-role socialization, rape myths, lack of sanctions for abuse, male peer group support, pornography, adversarial sexual beliefs, lack of empathy, and all-male membership groups such as fraternities and sports teams.”
Why Aren’t All the Rapists in Jail?
Another myth is that, since rape is a crime, shouldn’t rapists all end up in jail?
I 100% support jail time for rapists, but the reality is, our legal system does a poor job of prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing rapists.
There are a number of reasons for this. Take, for example, the nationwide problem of rape kits (evidence collected from a rape victim) being left to gather dust on shelves.
- Investigators at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office are processing the last of the more than 11,000 rape kits found in an abandoned Detroit police facility nearly a decade ago.
- In New York City, an estimated 17,000 kits went untested. In Houston, there were 6,000. In Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis, there were more than 11,000 each.
While things are starting to change here, and there’s more attention and push to process the backlog of rape kits, it’s obvious these cases weren’t a priority for many police departments.
Even when a victim reports a rape, the perpetrator is less likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted when compared to other crimes.
If a rapist is convicted, they often receive a lenient sentence. One notorious example is that of convicted rapist Brock Turner, who was “convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in county jail, three years probation and a requirement that he register as a sex offender.” Why only six months? In part, because the judge said a longer sentence “would have ‘a severe impact’ and ‘adverse collateral consequences’ on Turner.”
That’s far from the only example.
- Robert H. Richards IV was convicted of repeatedly raping his toddler daughter. His prison sentence was suspended, because he “wouldn’t fare well” in prison.
- In 2014, Sir Young was sentenced to five years probation after admitting he raped a 14-year-old girl. Young’s probation requirements were ridiculously lenient. He would not have to go to sex offender treatment, stay away from children, or have to have a sex offender evaluation.
- Jose Arriaga Soto Jr. beat and raped a woman for two hours. He pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The judge reduced the recommended sentence from 12 years in prison to 30 years of supervised probation. I.e., no jail time.
Given how often rapists receive these slap-on-the-wrist sentences, is it any wonder rape is so underreported? And that’s before you get into other reasons for not reporting, like one study that found 1 in 5 rape victims who didn’t report said it was because of a fear of reprisal. Or shame, denial, minimization, fear, or lack of information. Or victim-blaming. Or because when they do tell someone, they’re not believed.
- Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) – National rape hotline available 24/7 at 1-800-656-HOPE.
- National Sexual Assault Online Hotline (Also provided by RAINN)
- Rape Myths and Facts