Sunday, 28 November 2010

Collecting and interpreting rape statistics

[trigger warning]

Since some of this isn't completely obvious, and so I want to write this down for my own use later if nothing else, here's a post on the difficulties of collecting statistics on the prevalence of rape. A lot of this applies, in other forms, to collecting statistics on just about anything that happens to humans, but because it's working against privileged structures, statistics about rape get criticised more for the same inevitable problems.

A lot of the problems aren't as important as they're made out to be, though, from the point of view of having useful statistics. (Furthermore, despite the problems, the statistics are all relatively consistent to within an order of magnitude)

I'm discussing the problems here from the perspective of statistics on victims; statistics on perpetrators have basically the same sort of problems.


The first difficulty is that the colloquial and legal definitions of rape vary considerably. Colloquially rape is sex without consent. Legally, this could be any of "rape", "assault by penetration", "sexual assault" or "legal". Furthermore, the same sexual activity could be rape if A does not consent, but "only" sexual assault if A consents and B does not, because of the asymmetry in the law discussing penetration.

This is to an extent an inevitable problem with the law. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines "rape" and "assault by penetration" very precisely. Everything else, whether it would generally be considered rape or not, is "sexual assault". This matters, because the maximum sentence for sexual assault is ten years, whereas rape and assault by penetration have life sentences. Providing a loophole-free legal definition of rape is the same problem as providing a loophole-free definition of sex and adding "without consent" to the end of it.

Add to this the "reasonable belief" exemption in law that means many things that the victim will call rape the law will call "legal" or "no crime".

The problem comes, then, when you try to do any sort of measures of prevalence. People will correctly say that they were raped when it wasn't rape in legal terms. There seems to be some attempt to deal with this in the British Crime Survey's figures on sexual assault, which split "serious sexual assaults" (which include rape and assault by penetration) away from "less serious" (indecent exposure, sexual touching, sexual threats, etc: note that "sexual touching" is in law the same crime as raping someone by forcing them to penetrate you)

If you classify according to the strict legal definition, then you inevitably lose quite a few rapes in there buried in the sexual assault and no crime categories. If you classify according to the colloquial definition, then it becomes much harder to do comparisions with the statistics produced by the criminal justice system (and apologists will claim that your statistics are worthless because they don't only include government-approved rapes)

There's also a question of whether to include the "attempted" types of crimes within the statistics. I think that one should, because the difference between the two is largely down to random circumstances, and either way there's a rapist to apprehend: that they didn't get quite as far as raping this victim (but far enough to make it clear that they were going to try) shouldn't be considered.


The second problem is that being a victim of rape has an extremely strong stigma associated with it, and even if it didn't, as a traumatic act it's something that some victims block out of their minds. (Associated with this, misconceptions about consent aren't just confined to rapists, so it's common for people not to define what was done to them as rape until much later, even though they're dealing with the psychological consequences immediately)

So it becomes very difficult to find out if people have been raped by surveying them. The British Crime Survey tries to do this by asking questions about actions rather than about legal definitions, and this does help - around twice as many people will say that someone did [action(s) constituting rape] to them than will say that someone raped them. However, you then inevitably have the situation that the survey is only as good as the questions are exhaustive (and even then despite good methodology people may decline to answer).

We can use the surveys to establish some upper and lower bounds, at least. The 2009/10 BCS data gives 0.4% of women and 0.1% of men, in the preceding year, have been subject to rape, assault by penetration, "serious sexual assault" and/or an attempt at either. We can't necessarily scale up from this to a lifetime prevalence (if we for simplicity assume the likelihood of being raped doesn't change with age1 it gives a likelihood of 17.6% of women and 4.4% of men, not all of whom will be raped in the legal sense).

The NSPCC survey (page 66 onwards) gives figures for sexual violence of around 27% for girls, 16% reporting that they were pressured into intercourse (6% with physical force). There's no particular attempt to match these up to legal categories, but it's obvious here that the risk to 13-16 year old girls (not varying much by age within that) is considerably higher than the average risk for the 16-59 year old adults covered by the BCS. The NSPCC survey notes that figures between 4% and 78% have been found by other surveys of children, with - as with adults - there being a significant gender split in perpetrators and victims.

Meanwhile the Havens survey says that 41% of 18-25 year old Londoners have felt pressured into unwanted sex. 9% of women in the sample had said no and been ignored, and 25% of women (almost certainly a strongly overlapping set) had said nothing and been ignored2.

Measuring the legal system

It's relatively easy, within the provisos of the definition problems, to get statistics on the legal process - convictions, prosecutions, arrests, reports. Relying solely on those statistics is a mistake: the attrition rate from report to conviction has worsened considerably since the 1970s, while the number of convictions has increased. What's happening is that rapes that wouldn't previously have been reported - and marital rapes that were legal until 1991, for that matter - are now being reported ... and the justice system hasn't caught up.

There isn't any comparable prevalence survey going back that far - the BCS only started asking about sexual violence in 2004 - but despite everything, and despite appearances, the justice system is probably better now (with its 90%+ attrition rate, and widely reported failings) than it was in the 1970s with a much lower attrition rate - because most of the attrition was occuring before reporting.

Measures from the justice system aren't useful for measuring incidence of rape, but they are useful for measuring the (in)effectiveness of the justice system (and hopefully improving it). It's important, however, to note that the definitions problem makes it very difficult to compare prevalence statistics with justice system statistics (which makes getting meaningful figures about reporting rates - beyond "very low" - very difficult indeed).

Another problem is that the categorisations used for reporting and police activity - the report to charge stage - use one set of categories (managed by the Home Office), but the categories at the charge to conviction stages use a different set (managed by the Ministry of Justice). This makes sense, because the police often won't know exactly what crime has occurred until after they've investigated, whereas the CPS and courts do know the details of the charges, but it makes comparisions tricky. Kelly, Lovett and Regan's attrition study dealt with this by following cases right through the report to conviction process (or as far through the process as they got, anyway).

The need for statistics

On the one hand, it doesn't really matter at this stage. It's very clear from the statistics that the (lifetime) chances of being raped (in the colloquial sense) are somewhere between 1 in 20 and 1 in 2 for women (and most probably around the 1 in 4 figure generally quoted), and lower (but still probably higher than most people would guess) for men. Wherever it falls within that range, it's still a massive problem (we view murder as a serious problem at the far lower 1 in 10003 lifetime prevalence, and rape is sentenced similarly)

On the other hand, if it's not to remain a problem, there's a need for accurate statistics to monitor things over time, so that it's possible to tell if actions to deal with the problem (by bringing rapists to justice and more importantly because we don't have space for all of them by educating people so they don't become rapists).

Fortunately, for the purposes of accuracy, it doesn't matter than much exactly what definitions you use, as long as you're consistent over time. You'll always only be asking about - and being told about - a particular subset of sexual violence, but you should be able to measure trends in it. The way that rape culture works, it's vanishingly unlikely that one particular form of sexual violence that you're surveying will disappear or expand while the rest remain unchanged.

As long as you remember that changes in methodology are likely to give changes in result significantly larger than any change in the underlying facts, then changes can be seen (and yes, this means sticking with methodology you know is flawed, at least until you've run it in parallel with the improvements for a few survey cycles to see what difference it makes).

A final thing to note - and bear with me here - is that accuracy can be overrated. For year-to-year comparisions about the scale of the problem, a repeatable survey that's not too vulnerable to random noise is needed. For surveys to establish the existence of a problem within a particular context, it's not. There was a recent NUS Women's Campaign survey looking at female university students' experience of sexual violence, which gave the predictable results. It wasn't at all statistically sound: self-selected sample, no attempt to normalise it demographically, massive difference in response rates between universities, etc. but that doesn't actually matter for establishing the existence of the problem.

Now, if universities were to take the NUS survey seriously and start doing (actually useful4) things to reduce sexual violence on campus, then a survey less sensitive to random noise would be needed. But if they were going to take it seriously they'd fund their own surveys for that purpose, and if they're not going to take it seriously a "yes, this is still a problem, what did you expect?" survey is all that's needed.


1 I believe it decreases with age, but I don't have the figures for that.

2 This brings us back to definitions. Silence is not consent, but the law usually takes it as such. But you'd never find out about this set of colloquial rapes/sexual assaults if you didn't ask that specific question.

3 Massive variation with gender, cis/trans status, age, race, class, sexuality, disability, location, etc. As a society we don't view the elevated number of murders of certain non-default individuals as a problem, even if the murder rate as a whole is considered a problem.

4 Putting up "have you considered not getting raped?" posters, for instance, is fairly common and massively counter-productive.

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Friday, 26 November 2010

Friday Links

Monday, 22 November 2010

Survey unsurprisingly confirms ubiquitous rape culture

[trigger warning]

The Havens, a set of Sexual Assault Referral Centres in London, have recently released a report "Where is the line?" (PDF) on, among other things, opinions on what constitutes rape.

The survey was of Londoners aged 18-25, though its findings are likely to apply to older and younger people, in other locations, without much variance.

A quick summary of the findings:

  • Around 25% of the men sampled would "attempt to have sex" (i.e. rape) if the other person didn't want to.
  • Depending on the details, between a fifth and a third of men would assume consent to sexual activity based on previous "sexual activity". I put "sexual activity" in quotes because one in five would "expect someone to have sex with them after kissing".
  • Only 54% of men surveyed believe that if someone changes their mind and withdraws consent that it is rape to continue. (only 75% of the women surveyed believe this)
  • Only 60-70% believe that it is rape to "continue having sex with a person who is asleep"1
  • Only 47% of those asked would view being physically pushed away as indicative of a lack of consent.
  • Only 57% of those asked would assume saying "No" indicated an absence of consent. However, 77% of men and 92% of women state that continuing with sexual actions in those circumstances constitutes rape. It's not clear where the discrepancy is coming from between the two figures.
  • Only 56% of those asked say that "they would never pressure their partner into having sex with them against their will".

No gender breakdowns are given for the final three figures, but all of the other questions have more men giving the "not rape" answer.

Unsurprisingly, therefore:

  • 41% of the sample said that they had been pressured into some form of unwanted sexual activity, with only 38% never having felt pressured into any. (The difference, presumably, being those who felt that they were being pressured into sexual activity but whose partners eventually accepted their refusal).

So, looking at those figures, and assuming similar gender breakdowns for the questions where it's not specified, the majority of 18-25 men in London are willing to rape their partners. They won't call it that, firstly because they don't believe that "non-consensual sexual activity" is involved in the definition of rape, and secondly because their partners mysteriously always "consent" (due to their assumptions that "saying no" and "being pushed away" are not markers of an absence of consent).

Several things are clear from this, none of them new.

  • The findings of surveys such as Lisak and Miller that around 5-15% of men will admit to actions constituting rape if you ask them about the actions are almost certainly underestimates. Cara at The Curvature points out one obvious area in which those surveys might undercount, for instance. It's difficult to ask questions even using a behavioural survey, given how different many people's definitions are from the theoretical2 ones.
  • The BCS survey on the prevalence of rape, despite using action-based questions rather than "rape" or "sexual assault" directly likewise considerably underestimates the number of victims and survivors.
  • Our education system is an abject failure. It fails the victims, and it fails the rapists too, who might with better early education on consent, boundaries and sexuality not have become rapists.3 The current guidelines vaguely mention consent - which is still an improvement on previously. A good teacher, within those guidelines, could do a lot to teach about consent. A bad teacher could mostly ignore the whole subject and still be within the letter of the guidelines. Having failed to give good guidance to people as children before they become rapists, there's then very little in terms of "behaviour X is rape: don't do it" public information campaigns later on. There have been a few recently, but there need to be more.
  • Rape and sexual assault are defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as [a sexual act], without consent and "[the perpetrator] does not reasonably believe that [the victim] consents". As I've said before, that last condition only makes sense4 if society in general, as a matter of strong consensus, knows what consent is. This survey suggests that at least half of society doesn't, which makes it trivial for perpetrators to get away. Under the definitions being used by many of the survey respondents, most rape allegations are false, and most rapists "belief" in "consent" is "reasonable".

1 There's some unusual wording here, but we can probably assume similar numbers for the more common case where the rape starts while the person is asleep, rather than someone who originally consented falling asleep in the middle.

2 I want to say "real" here, but how real is a definition that over half the population doesn't believe to be accurate?

3 I do wonder how many of the "committed suicide after a false accusation" cases are actually "committed suicide after realising that the accusation wasn't false".

4 I cannot construct even a theoretical situation where someone who was actually taking reasonable steps to ensure consent would nevertheless end up raping someone, so the best this condition gets to in an ideal society is "unnecessary". For now "actively harmful" is about right.

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Saturday, 20 November 2010

12th International Transgender Day of Remembrance

[trigger warning]

Today is the 12th International Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Since the 11th day, the deaths of almost 180 trans people have been recorded, and many more will have gone largely unnoticed and unrecorded except by their friends and families.

Bigotry kills. It kills by encouraging murderers. It kills by letting people die when they could have been saved. It kills by treating their lives as worthless, as subhuman. And those it doesn't kill, transphobia harms in thousands of other ways.

And next year there will be hundreds more to be added to the list of those who were killed because of who they were.

Remember the dead.

More at Bird of Paradox

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Crown Revictimisation Service

[trigger warning]

It's recently come to light that a woman who reported rape has been imprisoned for the crime of being susceptible to witness intimidation. (Technically "perverting the course of justice", but "not being the ideal victim" was also considered by the courts.)

More analysis and rage at, among others: Too much to say for myself, Harpymarx, We mixed our drinks and Shakesville.

One question that's been raised repeatedly, and not answered, is where the investigations and prosecutions for witness intimidation are. Another question is why the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) felt that this met the standards for prosecution.

The standard for prosecution in criminal cases is two-fold. Firstly, it must be in the public interest to prosecute. Secondly, there must be a reasonable (better than even, usually) chance of a conviction (which, since they got a conviction, of course is true).

The first, however, absolutely not. The only segments of the public that this prosecution has served are CPS employees (who get revenge for having their time "wasted") and rapists (who get another reason for their victims not to report it).

The judge, in deciding to impose a custodial sentence, of course reinforces this.

Witness intimidation in rape cases is extremely common. It's also not at all uncommon for victims of rape to decide during the prosecution process that they are unable to go further with it. Even with the best support from the - sadly too rare - police and prosecution teams who actually understand the complex situations, a court case can be extremely stressful.

"Attrition" at the CPS stage is very common - Kelly, Lovett and Regan found that approximately 10-15% of cases that reach the CPS stage end due to the victim withdrawing. This is not an unusual occurence or one that any CPS office will be unfamiliar with. Their paper also notes that "distrust of the police/courts/legal process" is a major reason for deciding not to report rape.

So, why anyone going through with this process - from the police who arrested her in the first place, to the CPS who made the decision to prosecute, to the judge who imposed a harsh custodial sentence - didn't at any point think "wait, what are we doing?", can only be put down to the pervasive misogyny and rape culture throughout society to which the justice system is not immune.

Yet again, the statement is made that (from Detective Inspector Ian Andrews):

I would like to reassure the public that Dyfed-Powys Police, in line with national requirements, treat, and will continue to treat, all allegations of sexual assaults seriously; this involves the use of specially trained officers to support victims during what is a traumatic experience.

I would encourage victims of sexual assaults to contact the police and not suffer in silence. it and you can suffer in prison instead.

This is the second time I've been informed that all rape cases are handled by specially-trained prosecutors, and the second time I've wondered what exactly they're trained in, since it doesn't appear to be "helping victims and getting justice". I'll try to find out.

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Male as default

Dear Mark Hendrick MP (Labour & Co-operative, Preston)

The 18th Century called. They want their gender essentialism back. Please contact your nearest temporal courier.

Also, you may want to spend more time with your constituents, since you seem to have forgotten what they look like.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 12 November 2010

Friday Links

Two posts for Remembrance Day - Modus Dopens: What I'll be thinking about this remembrance day and Andrew at Generalising: The Secret Battle

1 Phil Woolas, the former MP currently attempting to appeal against a guilty verdict of intentionally and knowingly lying about his opponent in an election (and doing so in a horrendously racist way, though that's not part of the verdict), is trying to get donations to a 'fighting fund' the legal costs of his appeal from his colleagues in the Labour party.

The Anti-Woolas Fighting Fund donates to Refugee Action, a charity supporting the people he spent his ministerial career demonising.

Some good news for once

[trigger warning]

The Government has announced that the rape defendant anonymity proposal in the coalition agreement has been dropped.

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said there was not sufficient evidence to justify the move.

This was pretty evident from the way the report originally due in July providing the evidence for the move slipped to September, then October, and then quietly disappeared.

Other reasons for its abandonment presumably include not being able to agree what the policy was, the mostly-Conservative Justice Ministers not wanting to go to lots of effort fighting for a Lib Dem policy, there almost certainly not being enough votes in Parliament to pass it, and there being hardly anyone in the UK who would justifiably benefit from it.

The bad news is, of course, that the actual rapists still find it nearly guaranteed that they'll get away with their assaults, often with the complicity of the police and justice system, and that huge amounts of effort were required both inside and outside Parliament just to stop the situation getting even worse.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Friday Links

And in some good news, Phil Woolas has been found to have committed electoral malpractice and been disqualified (subject to a possible appeal) from serving as an MP. The full judgement is comprehensively damning, and has copies at the end of the publicity complained about; sadly many other serving MPs who also used racism in their election campaigns remain in office. In full knowledge that this court case was proceeding, Ed Miliband MP appointed Woolas to Shadow Immigration Minister, which does not at all convince me that Labour are ready to learn from their mistakes.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Privileged Analogies, and a suggested replacement

One thing I've been seeing happen a lot recently is the use of various mental health conditions being used as analogies in the discussion of political ideas or proposals or strategies.

Or rather, the author's privileged misperception of what a mental health condition is actually like being used as an analogy.

Now obviously there are serious problems with appropriating someone's experience to use as an - invariably negative - analogy for your feelings about a political debate. They're well-documented; a few in summary:

  • It adds to the negative general opinions surrounding mental health conditions.
  • It alienates people who might have supported your view if you'd used an analogy that wasn't an insult to them.
  • It creates an environment generally hostile to people with mental health conditions.

There are also obviously serious problems, purely from a literary standpoint, of using analogies where the thing used for the analogy does not in fact have most of the properties the analogy requires for its effectiveness. Given the widespread misperceptions about mental health, it's not even likely that the default members of the audience have the same misperceptions as the author of the analogy does anyway, so the "I didn't mean X in the mental health way" defence (which was already ridiculous anyway) becomes even more tenuous.

But, of course, neither of these problems actually matter to the people using these analogies. I've seen many an author, confronted with people pointing out both the social and literary problems with their analogising, nevertheless defend the analogy as the right thing to do.

So, if you can't convince them otherwise, why not join them? Not with mental health-based analogies, of course. Use non-harmful analogies instead. Making the uselessness of the analogy even more obvious might even help convince them: if their utterly inaccurate analogy is justifiable, why aren't these less harmful cases? As examples:

The Conservatives are like strawberries.

It works as an analogy because strawberries are red with a green top, and the Conservatives aren't. There are also many other ways, by the reverse logic of mental health analogies, in which this analogy works (strawberries are best in season, while Conservatives are there all year round; etc.)

The government's policy is like a plug hole.

Water doesn't actually swirl in opposite directions in opposite hemispheres, but enough people think that it does for the analogy to work. If commonplace misperceptions are a vital part of analogy making, then they can be used without ableism.

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