A Few Notes on Those New Sexual Assault Statistics

by Cara on December 15, 2011

in rape and sexual assault, trans, violence against women and girls, women’s health

Chances are, this morning, that you’ve seen the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control statistics on sexual violence and domestic violence. Most notably, you’ve probably seen the new statistic that almost 1 in 5 women have experienced rape in their lifetimes.

That’s a terrifying statistic, though not a surprising one to those of us who have been involved in sexual violence work for some time. In light of this undeniably already awful news, it may seem cruel to point out that the reality is even worse than it initially appears from this soundbite. But I also think it’s necessary.

Firstly, I think it’s imperative to note that these new statistics are inherently cissexist. Definitions in this report assume that women have vaginas and men have penises. There are no individuals who are neither men nor women. Whether any trans* folks were interviewed for this survey is unclear. They may have been disqualified from participation or had their experiences filed under the incorrect statistics. Trans* folks are mentioned exactly once in the full 124 page National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 Summary Report (pdf); it is simply stated that services specifically for transgender people should be designed, with no accompanying information on their experiences or how they have or have not been included in this study. It is almost certain, in other words, that these statistics do not tell us anything about rates of violence against “women” and “men” but rather cis women and cis men.

Secondly, the definition of rape that is used in the NISVS is in one way unconventionally broad. In several other ways, the definition of rape being used is also woefully incomplete. The full sexual violence definitions used for this study appear below.

Five types of sexual violence were measured in NISVS. These include acts of rape (forced penetration), and types of sexual violence other than rape.

Rape is defined as any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm and includes times when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent. Rape is separated into three types, completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, and completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.

  • Among women, rape includes vaginal, oral, or anal penetration by a male using his penis. It also includes vaginal or anal penetration by a male or female using their fingers or an object.
  • Among men, rape includes oral or anal penetration by a male using his penis. It also includes anal penetration by a male or female using their fingers or an object.

Being made to penetrate someone else includes times when the victim was made to, or there was an attempt to make them, sexually penetrate someone without the victim’s consent because the victim was physically forced (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threatened with physical harm, or when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.

  • Among women, this behavior reflects a female being made to orally penetrate another female’s vagina or anus.
  • Among men, being made to penetrate someone else could have occurred in multiple ways: being made to vaginally penetrate a female using one’s own penis; orally penetrating a female’s vagina or anus; anally penetrating a male or female; or being made to receive oral sex from a male or female. It also includes female perpetrators attempting to force male victims to penetrate them, though it did not happen.

Sexual coercion is defined as unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their in?uence or authority.

Unwanted sexual contact is defined as unwanted sexual experiences involving touch but not sexual penetration, such as being kissed in a sexual way, or having sexual body parts fondled or grabbed.

Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences are those unwanted experiences that do not involve any touching or penetration, including someone exposing their sexual body parts, flashing, or masturbating in front of the victim, someone making a victim show his or her body parts, someone making a victim look at or participate in sexual photos or movies, or someone harassing the victim in a public place in a way that made the victim feel unsafe.

So the definition of “rape” includes both completed and attempted rapes. Don’t get excited yet, MRAs — attempted rape is not only an incredibly serious crime, it is also the minority of experience made up under the “rape” 1 in 5 statistic. The table on page 28 of the report shows that 12.3% of cis women reported completed “forced” rape, 8% reported completed alcohol/drug-facilitated rape, and a comparably small 5% reported attempted “forced” rape.1

Further, the definition of “rape” excludes all other means of rape that do not involve physical force or drugs and alcohol. The above definition of “sexual coercion” would, to most readers here who utilize some form of an enthusiastic or meaningful consent model, also constitute rape.2 If we are to include the respondents who reported instances of “sexual coercion” under our definition of rape, the situation gets decidedly worse. A full 13% of cis women reported experiencing sexual coercion. We do not know how how much these numbers overlap with the “rape” statistics presented above. But the report does estimate almost 15.5 million U.S. cis women victims of “sexual coercion.”

(It’s also important to note that not all cis women are equal with regards to sexual violence, either. Cis women who are Native, Black, or identified as multi-racial had significantly higher rates of victimization than women who are white or identified as Hispanic.)

When talking about these numbers, we not only need to note their trans-exclusionary nature, but also their inability to account for the full, meaningful picture. We shouldn’t be saying that almost 1 in 5 U.S. women have been raped when what the information actually shows is that, based on a far more social justice oriented model, more than 1 in 5 cis U.S. women have been raped.

  1. These numbers do not add up to the overall 18.3% statistic; I’m no whiz with statistics, and can only assume that this reflects the fact that some respondents were victims of multiple assaults. If someone can better explain the math, please do.
  2. So would “being made to penetrate someone else.” Also note that no definition above includes an act of sexual violence in which the victim simply said “no” and the perpetrator wouldn’t listen.
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{ 7 comments }

1 LJC December 21, 2011 at 3:04 am

Thank you for calling attention to the fact that these reports only really address cis gender rape victims. From my limited experience, it seems like a very high percentage of trans* people have faced some sort of sexual violence. Their voices need to be heard.

2 KMB December 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm

I am glad that you mention that the statistics regarding trans people and sexual violence are almost nonexistent. Perhaps it will highlight the need to compile that data. But in lieu of hard data I can at least offer you an insight from the perspective of a trans woman who has suffered multiple instances of sexual violence. What I find most interesting in retrospect and what I will attempt to briefly highlight, is the differencea I have experienced from men who assume I’m cis and men who have known I was trans.

From men who assumed me to be cis, their manifestation of rape culture was an emanation of machismo that strived to inform me of my social and physical inferiority. This exuded a very strong message that my existence was meant to please them in some way, either through my appearance or what they hoped would culminate in my acquiescence to their gratuitous sexual behavior. Perhaps more accurately stated, physical posturing to show their considerable size and strength advantages combined with a very aggressive approach to flirting that felt like harassment. Pretty cut and dry and not at all different than what cis women are subjected to because the assailant assumes I am cis.

The manifestation of rape culture by men who knew me to be trans was an entirely different beast altogether. I divide them into two types of men; Those who hated me and meant to punish me for being trans, and those who hated themselves for being attracted to a trans woman and could only express their self loathing by punishing me.

The former is a much clearer cut type of example. It is a man who is already a violent man prone to desires and tendencies of rape. These men will almost always seek the most vulnerable subject. Those men knew I wouldn’t report any incidents because there is not only humiliation in having been raped or assaulted, but there is also humiliation and degradation once authorities and communities discover that I am trans. There is also a third and even more pernicious insult because there is an almost certainty that law enforcement will do nothing to investigate or prosecute the victimization of a trans woman. So to these men isolation and belittlement are their weapons and methods of choice. The act of sex or assault is merely the final culmination to make me feel servile and worthless. Really not all that much different than what occurs with cis women, it just so happens that it was much easier to isolate and to use humiliation against me due to my trans status.

The latter though is a much more complex distinction. These are men who tried there best to accept me as a woman but as the relationships progressed their ability to sustain their image of me as a woman would eventually fail. This of course led to them questioning their own sexuality and self worth. The danger in this is of course that they are incapable of completely internalizing their confusion and self loathing so it is manifested in a need to demoralize, humiliate and punish their perceived source of the confusion…me. In some ways these men are even worse than the afore mentioned men because they are people you have come to open up to and become hopeful of. As a result they are privy to your more emotional core and they are able to damage that more thoroughly. With these men suffering form their own confusion and humiliation, often violent bursts of sexual violence can occur as they attempt to reassert and bolster their position of sexual masculinity.

Anyway, I just wanted to offer you my insight in hopes that it will broaden your view. Also I want to thank you for offering your site as a resource for better understanding.

3 Colin Day December 21, 2011 at 10:35 pm

If you look at Table 2.1 on the report (PDF page 28, report page 18), it has a total of 18.3 %, with subtotals of 12.3%, 5.7%, and 8.0%. The latter three add up to 26%, so there must be some overlap.

4 Cara December 21, 2011 at 10:59 pm

KMB, thanks so much. I try to cover issues of violence against trans folks, especially trans women, on a fairly regular basis and would hope that regular readers would not be surprised to learn that trans women are very much the targets of sexual violence — and if anecdote, and data from smaller studies is any indication, significantly more so than cis women. That said, data does not speak the same as personal experience — and news stories don’t speak the same as first-hand narrative — so your choice to share some of your experiences here is very valuable and greatly appreciated. Thank you.

5 John December 27, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Among men, being made to penetrate someone else could have occurred in multiple ways: being made to vaginally penetrate a female using one’s own penis; orally penetrating a female’s vagina or anus; anally penetrating a male or female; or being made to receive oral sex from a male or female. It also includes female perpetrators attempting to force male victims to penetrate them, though it did not happen.

Instead of saying though it did not happen, which implies that no female perpetrators attempted to force any male victims to penetrate them, you might say though no instances were reported. That leaves the possibility that it happened, but was not reported. Men rarely report completed sexual assaults. Would they view an unsuccessfully sexual assault as severe enough to report?

6 Cara December 27, 2011 at 8:50 pm

John, I’m not sure if you meant your “you might say” to indicate me, but just to be entirely clear, I did not write the quoted definitions! Though, my reading of them is that where it says “though it did not happen,” they meant “though the attempt was not successful.” As in, the perpetrator attempted to force the victim to perform penetration, but that attempt was not completed and penetration did not actually occur. In other words, they mean to say attempted rape, without actually using the word “rape.”

The report, I believe, does include reported instances of “being made to penetrate someone else” by men (though it seems none were reported by women in this study).

7 John December 29, 2011 at 5:46 am

Thanks for clarifying. From personal experience I know that happened at least once, but I know that I was never part of the study. I guess reading that it never happened made me feel my experience was being invalidated. I got defensive.

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