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Obama’s claim that one in five American women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape

In February 2015, the White House released a video of President Obama speaking about "It's On Us," a campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses. (Video: The White House)
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“Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape.”

— President Obama, in a video that aired during the Grammy Awards, Feb. 8, 2015

A number of readers have questioned this statistic asserted by President Obama in a public service announcement that is part of the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, which aims to end sexual assaults on college campuses. It’s a different statistic from one we have previously examined — that one out of five women will be sexually assaulted while in college — though confusingly, it involves a similar “one in five” number.

However, this figure is not about incidents during four years of college, but over a lifetime. So what’s the story on this statistic?

The Facts

The statistic comes from one of several large surveys that have been conducted about sexual violence in the United States. Rape is widely believed to be an underreported crime, because of the stigma involved and the self-doubt of victims who may blame themselves. So researchers, mainly on behalf of the federal government, have sought to reveal the actual rape statistics through confidential surveys.

But there have been vast differences in the results, in part because there are two different kinds of surveys: criminal justice and public health. The criminal justice approach seeks to identify an event (such as an assault), determine when it occurred and learn as much about it as possible. The public health approach looks more at behaviors and seeks to stimulate memories, but it is less interested in legal definitions.

So a criminal justice approach might ask specifically whether someone was raped. But the public health approach would not ask that question directly, believing that rape victims are reluctant to identify themselves (or may not even realize that the act in question was indeed a rape). The hope is that questions about behaviors will increase disclosure and capture various types of unwanted sexual penetration. But it also means the analysts — not the respondent — determine whether the situation merits the label of rape.

The survey that formed the basis of Obama’s statement — the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — was a public-health study. It estimated that 1.9 million American women were raped in the preceding 12-month period. In fact, the survey said that more than 23 million women (19.3 percent) were raped during their lifetime. (The survey’s definition of rape included completed, attempted and “alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.”)

But the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), run by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimated that there were about 174,000 victims of rapes and sexual assaults in 2012 (and nearly 350,000 total rapes).

In other words, Obama cited a government study that came up with a number of females raped or sexually assaulted that was at least five times higher than another government survey. It was also twice as high as the prevalence number for rapes estimated by the 1989-1990 National Women’s Study and 30 percent greater than yet another survey, the 1995 National Violence Against Women Study.

However, the Justice Department survey has long been criticized as an inadequate measure of rape. A National Research Council report in 2014 offered recommendations on how to improve it, saying it was “highly likely” it was underestimating the number of rapes. While the NRC report made no judgment on the CDC survey — since that was not part of its mandate — the panel noted how much higher the numbers were in the CDC report: “This differential between the NISVS and the other surveys is surprising.”

“We were surprised to see how much larger the CDC estimates were than other surveys, but unfortunately given the data we had from them we could not thoroughly explore this,” said Candace Kruttschnitt, a University of Toronto professor who was co-chair of the NRC panel.

Both surveys were drawn from many interviews. The Justice Department survey was based on interviews with more than 143,000 people, with a response rate of 88 percent. The CDC study was based on interviews with more than 14,000 people, with a response rate of 33 percent.

The Justice Department survey is a classic example of a criminal justice approach. It asked how someone was attacked, and if rape was mentioned, the survey asked a series of questions about the incident. By reference, the actual number of reported forcible rapes and attempted rapes was under 85,000 in 2012. So even under this approach, researchers uncovered far more rapes than are reported.

The questions in the CDC survey are much more open-ended, never using terms such as rape or sexual assault. The full questionnaire is embedded at the end of this column, but here’s an example of one section. The first part is the introduction, which is then followed by the actual question in bold.

Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications. This can include times when they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs or they were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent. Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault. When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have ever … [series of statements describing various sex acts]

This question is interesting because the operative element is whether someone is unable to consent to sex. But given the wording, is it possible for a listener to misinterpret it as a question about whether they had sex while drunk or high?

The CDC thinks not.

“We have gone to great lengths to ensure that respondents understand these two components — the use of substances and the inability to give consent — as part of the administration of these questions,” said CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard. “A scenario of consensual sex after drinking at a party, for instance, would not meet the definition of what is included in this series of NISVS questions.”

Still, it turns out that almost 50 percent of the rapes reported by the survey depend on this drunk/high/lack of consent section. More than 9 percent of the women — which adds up to an estimated 11.2 million people — were classified as rape victims as a result of this question. Lack of consent after alcohol abuse is certainly an important issue, one that college campuses are grappling with. But the eye-popping survey results depend heavily on the outcome of this section of the survey.

Another drawback of the survey — one that it acknowledges as a limitation — is that the questions pertaining to the 12-month period were not bounded by any particular event (such as “from Christmas of this year to Christmas of last year”). That runs the risk of people including incidents that actually took place outside the 12-month period.

Digging into the report, one also finds interesting oddities.

Under the heading of “other sexual violence” — which the study said affected an estimated 53 million women and 27 million men — the report lists something called “sexual coercion.” This stems from a  question concerning people who had sex after a partner did things like “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue, threatening to end your relationship, or threatening to spread rumors about you.” About 15 million women and nearly 7 million men were said to suffer from this form of sexual violence, as defined in the report.

Another form of “other sexual violence” is men reporting that they were “made to penetrate” someone else. In this case, the findings are rather unusual. Over the preceding 12 months, the survey estimated 1.921 million men were made to have sex with someone else against their will — virtually the same number of women who were the victims of rape. (The incidence is even higher for men — 1.7 percent versus 1.6 percent for women.) Only 17 percent of the male victims had a male perpetrator, so most of these incidents allegedly involve women forcing men to engage in sex.

The CDC’s Lenard cautioned against equating the two categories, as the “made to penetrate” category is a relatively new category that is still not fully understood. Women, she also noted, are less likely to report experiences of sexual violence than men.

“The difference between ‘rape’ and ‘being made to penetrate’ is that in the definition of rape the victim is penetrated; ‘made to penetrate’ by definition refers to cases where the victim penetrated someone else,” she said. “We do not recommend equating or making direct comparisons of rape to MTP given that we view them as distinct types of sexual violence with potentially different sequelae.”

The study of rape in the United States obviously is still a work in progress. “It’s not so much that one survey’s findings is better than the other’s, but rather that the definitions and methodology used in the two surveys differ,” said William D. Kalsbeek of the University of North Carolina, also a co-chair of the NRC report. “Indeed, the consensus of the panel was that the best scientific design for a national survey on rape and sexual assault might be to follow the general survey design of NCVS which uses the broader operational definitions of rape and sexual assault used in NISVS.”

A White House spokesman said: “In his comment, the president says nearly one in five women have been the victim of rape or attempted rape.  When you combine the two instances — rape and attempted rape — the publicly available data from the Centers for Disease Control affirms that statement.”

The Pinocchio Test

To be technical about it, the “rape” category of the CDC reported consisted of rape, attempted rape and “alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration;” one does not quite get to the one in five statistic without the third category. But by the same token, under the CDC’s definitions, the president could have simply said “rape” and still have correctly cited the report.

But in this case, the president did not cite the report; he stated it as an actual fact. Granted, he was speaking in a public service announcement, where footnotes and caveats are generally not used. If he was trying to get people’s attention, he certainly did. But by the same token, by citing as fact the results of a survey that may be overstated, the president runs the risk of undermining support for his efforts to call attention to sexual violence.

There’s no such thing as a perfect survey, with completely accurate results — especially when the conclusions are determined by the interpretations of analysts. So the president earns a Pinocchio.

One Pinocchio

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Questions in the CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by GlennKesslerWP