Surveys On Rape And The Need For Clean Stats


Recently we asked you what really pushes your buttons and makes you angry. You may have answered, you may not – I hadn’t, and didn’t intend to… but bugger it, my spleen needs venting. So here goes – I have a couple of thing that particularly piss me off: psychics are definitely one of them. Sexuality discrimination (in either direction) is very much a second. And another biggie? Bad stats, where it matters.

Now, I appreciate it might seem like a bit of a nothingness, after all. So some numbers get inflated to make it look like men are shitty to their girlfriends, or that knife crime is on the rise, or that more than half of teenage girls are pregnant – these kind of issues might seem relatively minor, if slightly sexist, sensationalist or downright stupid. Nobody’s getting hurt here, you might think, and after all more than 33% of statistics are made up, and over half of the remaining two thirds are meaningless cliche anyway. However, consider the following headline, from Tuesday’s Metro:

One in four women has been raped, a shocking new survey reveals

I think it’s fair to say the statement that 25% of women have been raped is a shocking statement. Truly. If it were, in fact, true. But is it? Well, it’s right there in the headline, and surely nobody running those figures could do so without being 110% sure of their accuracy, and at the very least they’d make sure they were about 4/3rds positive of the interpretation? Well, a little digging around and I was able to locate a summary of the survey this stat was taken from – it was an online survey of 1061 people in London, broken down into 349 men and 712 women. There’s no indication as to how that sample of 1061 people was put together, so any discussion of the stats has to be with the caveat that any potential bias is undisclosed. Interestingly, when looked at in terms of self-defined sexuality there were only 71 homosexual, 52 bisexual and 16 asexual respondents – yet the summary merrily extrapolates the data of around four dozen bisexual respondents into statements of comparative risk, such as:

People who classify themselves as bisexual are most likely in the last 12 months to have walked home via back streets on their own (60% vs. 45% of heterosexual respondents)

People who are heterosexual are less likely to agree that “most claims of rape are probably not true” (16% vs. 44% of people who are asexual)

More bisexual adults have been made to have sex when they didn’t want to than any other sexuality (35% vs. 18% of people who are heterosexual)

Bear in mind that 35% of 52 is just 18 bisexual respondents, and 44% of 16 people accounts for just 7 asexual respondents to be used as a benchmark. Still, that’s incidental – the figures quoted in the Metro, and numerous other news sources, appear on page 7 of the summary:

How many people have actually been in the situation of being made to have sex when they didn’t want to?

  • One out of five adults in London have been in a situation where they were made to have sex when they didn’t want to (20%)
  • More women than men have been made to have sex when they didn’t want to (23% vs. 15%)
  • More bisexual adults have been made to have sex when they didn’t want to than any other sexuality (35% vs. 18% of people who are heterosexual)

The wording here is clearly key: a situation of being made to have sex when they didn’t want to. While that may appear, at least on paper, to be a fair definition of rape, clearly the stats (and common sense) show otherwise – as it happens the definition is vague enough to be extremely problematic. While the numbers will include genuine cases of rape, they also includes, for example, an ‘I wasn’t in the mood but she was so I thought I might as well go along with it’ scenario. There are plenty of times in relationships where you find one partner more interested in sex than the other, as is likely borne out by the similarly-high figures for men who have been ‘raped’ (inverted commas to denote the survey’s definition, not my own). Compare this to stats produced by the Home Office and we see something of a different story:

23% of women and 3% of men experience sexual assault as an adult. 5% of women and 0.4% of men experience rape.

Here the prevalence of the crime is very highly against women, with an order of magnitude of difference between the sexes – a stark contrast to the 8% spread in the survey by The Havens. What’s more, in the outline of the methodology of the survey, it’s explicitly stated that the respondents were given no extra guidance:

…each respondent is presented with exactly the same question asked in thesame format. Online prevents any interviewer bias arising through the use of more than oneinterviewer on a research project.

Thus there was no clarification and no follow-up, so any confusion over exact meaning of the questions couldn’t be cleared up (assuming that the clearly erroneously-high stats were an accidental mis-firing of vague questioning, rather than something more deliberately sensationalist).

In the introduction to the survey’s summary, the Havens state that the aims of the report

“…are to challenge the stereotypes that are still widely held about rape by bringing them out into the open for discussion and to increase awareness that services such as the Havens are open to people who have been raped where they will not be judged or held responsible for whatever has happened.”

I’m sure everyone supports those aims 100% – I for one find the very fact that anyone has to live with the fear of being raped completely abhorrent, and whatever we can do to help raise awareness of the issues and promote safety and prosecute perpetrators is a good thing. But by burying those aims behind distorted (intentionally or otherwise) or sensationalist statistics, we run the risk of hiding the real issues and downplaying their severity. Personally I believe that telling people one in every four women will be raped in her lifetime, rather than emphasising severity, only serves to make the abhorrent and genuinely terrible act seem more a commonplace and everyday occurence. What’s more, I can only imagine how a genuine victim of a serious sexual assault would feel at seeing rape cases bundled in with ‘having sex when you didn’t want it’. Where the issues get more serious and severe, surely the need to reflect real, accurate data becomes all the more immediate?

Admittedly, it’s easy to see why there might be temptation, even unconsciously, to massage statistics – the ‘1 in 4 women are rape victims’ made for national press in a way that the real 5% figure almost certainly wouldn’t have, and that national interest will have raised awareness of the issues, as well as potentially raising funding for rape centres and helplines. But do the ends justify the means, and does the fact that the media has been working with sensationalised figures too long to allow the real, shocking numbers to make a splash excuse the use of misleading stats? To me, it doesn’t – if we allow inaccurate information to be the norm in order to raise profile via shock tactics, we leave ourselves open to manipulation and misinformation via those very same shock tactics.

The information we’re given should always be based on solid evidence – not except when the stakes are high, but especially when they are.

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  1. #1 by Liam McCombes on February 18, 2010 - 19:40

    I’m sorry, but “being made to have sex when they didn’t want to” IS the definition of rape. I agree that this study doesn’t count for anything, but the way this article is worded makes me feel very uneasy, as it seems to make a distinction between ‘serious’ rape and other rape, although it may not have been meant in that way.

  2. #2 by Jon d on February 19, 2010 - 02:37

    I largely agree with the Op, it’s category error – mostly we don’t operate on a binary basis of either totally wanting to have sex or totally rejecting it Imo, there’s a wide graduated scale, an area of shaded grey and they’ve measured from one side of it and then labeled it at the opposite end. Instead of asking people the straight question ‘have you been raped’ they’ve asked something else then turned around and said ‘we categorise that as rape’
    Btw with brain baffling constructions like
    People who are heterosexual are less likely to agree that “most claims of rape are probably not true” (16% vs. 44% of people who are asexual)

    You could probably get a job writing cruddy PR surveys 😉

  3. #3 by Jon d on February 19, 2010 - 02:47

    on the side I wonder if there’s a particular problem with categorising asexuals? Aren’t a lot of them going to think of themselves as just uninterested in sex rather than part of an identity group? Bit like the religion tick boxes on the census form where I have to scratch my head over ‘atheist’ or ‘none’.

  4. #4 by Raymond Schulz on February 27, 2010 - 00:29

    Here’s a wikipedia link on the subject.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies,_damned_lies,_and_statistics

  5. #5 by Forbiddenone on September 3, 2013 - 05:09

    How did you guys not get epically dogpiled by radical and academic feminists?

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