Federal agencies don’t agree on a uniform definition of sexual assault, and that has led to dramatically different estimates on the frequency of sexual violence in the U.S., says a new report from the Government Accountability Office quoted by Mother Jones. With different definitions of rape, government estimates can vary widely. In 2011, different federal agency estimates ranged from 244,190 cases of rape or sexual-assault victimizations to 1.92 million victims of rape or attempted rape. The agencies do not make it clear to the public how they define sexual assault. That’s a problem, the report notes, because data are “critical” for both policymakers and the public to understand and address these crimes. “The bottom line is that this can all lead to confusion,” said Gretta Goodwin, acting GAO director. “We are just asking that there be more transparency about the data and what it means.”
The Department of Justice, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Defense manage at least 10 efforts to collect data. The problems begin in how sexual violence is described and categorized. Four of six data collection efforts that measured rape considered whether actual physical force was used, but the other two did not. This in part explains why yearly estimates of the number of rapes have ranged so widely. Differences in data collection are partly due to the priorities each agency has in analyzing their data, says criminologist Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes the number of victims of sexual violence in order to assess the health impact on victims, but DOJ is more concerned with identifying the number of incidents of sexual violence so it can respond to cases of sexual violence more effectively.