“CDC: Nearly 1 in 5 Women Raped.” “One in Five U.S. Women Has Been Raped: CDC Survey.” These alarming headlines were typical of the coverage of last week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on sexual and intimate violence in the United States. The CDC study—the second in two years—seems to support a radical feminist narrative that has been gaining mainstream attention recently: that modern America is a “rape culture” saturated with misogynistic violence. But a closer look at the data, obtained from telephone surveys done in 2011, yields a far more complex picture and raises some surprising question about gender, victimization, and bias.
Both critics and supporters of the CDC’s methodology note the striking disparity between CDC figures and the Justice Department’s crime statistics based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (which includes crimes unreported to the police). While the CDC estimates that nearly 2 million adult American women were raped in 2011 and nearly 6.7 million suffered some other form of sexual violence, the NCVS estimate for that year was 238,000 rapes and sexual assaults.
New Republic reporter Claire Groden points out that while the NCVS focuses on criminal acts, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey asks about instances of forced sex which respondents may or may not regard as crimes. Yet it is worth noting that in the early 1990s, the NCVS was redesigned to elicit more reports of sexual and domestic violence that may not fit the conventional mold of criminal attacks. In addition to being asked directly about rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, respondents now get a follow-up question about “forced or unwanted sexual acts” committed by a stranger, a casual acquaintance, or someone they know well.
The CDC study goes much further in asking about specific unwanted acts. But there are other important differences. For one, CDC survey respondents are not asked whether anyone has used physical force or threats to make them engage in a sexual activity, but “how many” people have done this (in their lifetime and in the past year). This wording removes the extra hurdle of admitting that such a violation has happened, and thus encourages more reporting. But could it also create “false positives” by nudging people toward the assumption that the default answer is affirmative—especially when preceded by a battery of other questions and statements about sexually coercive behavior?
A much bigger problem is the wording of the question measuring “incapacitated rape” (which accounted for nearly two-thirds of the CDC’s estimate of rapes that occurred in the past year). Respondents were asked about sexual acts that happened when they were “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” This seems to imply that “unable to consent” is only one of the variables and to include situations in which a person is intoxicated—perhaps enough to have impaired judgment—but not incapacitated as the legal definition of rape requires.
A CDC spokesperson told The New Republic that “being unable to consent is key to the CDC's definition of rape.” Presumably, this is conveyed by the introduction to the question about alcohol- and drug-enabled rape: “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.” However, in a telephone survey, some people may focus only on the question itself and let the introduction slide by.
Moreover, the introductory message ends with an advisory that may create more confusion: “Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.” Obviously, the intended point is that even if you got drunk, you’re not to blame for being raped. But this vaguely phrased reminder could also be taken to mean that it’s not your fault if you do something stupid while drunk or on drugs. At no point are respondents given any instructions that could result in fewer reports of alleged victimization: for instance, that they should not include instances in which they had voluntary sex while drunk but not incapacitated.
For many feminists, questioning claims of rampant sexual violence in our society amounts to misogynist “rape denial.” However, if the CDC figures are to be taken at face value, then we must also conclude that, far from being a product of patriarchal violence against women, “rape culture” is a two-way street, with plenty of female perpetrators and male victims.
How could that be? After all, very few men in the CDC study were classified as victims of rape: 1.7 percent in their lifetime, and too few for a reliable estimate in the past year. But these numbers refer only to men who have been forced into anal sex or made to perform oral sex on another male. Nearly 7 percent of men, however, reported that at some point in their lives, they were “made to penetrate” another person—usually in reference to vaginal intercourse, receiving oral sex, or performing oral sex on a woman. This was not classified as rape, but as “other sexual violence.”
And now the real surprise: when asked about experiences in the last 12 months, men reported being “made to penetrate”—either by physical force or due to intoxication—at virtually the same rates as women reported rape (both 1.1 percent in 2010, and 1.7 and 1.6 respectively in 2011).
In other words, if being made to penetrate someone was counted as rape—and why shouldn’t it be?—then the headlines could have focused on a truly sensational CDC finding: that women rape men as often as men rape women.
The CDC also reports that men account for over a third of those experiencing another form of sexual violence—“sexual coercion.” That was defined as being pressured into sexual activity by psychological means: lies or false promises, threats to end a relationship or spread negative gossip, or “making repeated requests” for sex and expressing unhappiness at being turned down.
Should we, then, regard sexual violence as a reciprocal problem? Getting away from the simplistic and adversarial “war against women” model is undoubtedly a positive step, as is admitting that women are human beings with the capacity for aggression and wrongdoing—including sexual assault. On the other hand, most of us would agree that to equate a victim of violent rape and a man who engages in a drunken sexual act he wouldn’t have chosen when sober is to trivialize a terrible crime. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of the CDC’s male respondents who were “made to penetrate” someone would not call themselves rape victims—and with good reason.
But if that’s the case, it is just as misleading to equate a woman’s experience of alcohol-addled sex with the experience of a rape victim who is either physically overpowered or attacked when genuinely incapacitated. For purely biological reasons, there is little doubt that adult victims of such crimes are mostly female—though male children and adolescents are at fairly high risk: as criminologists Richard Felson and Patrick Cundiff report in a fascinating recent analysis, a 15-year-old male is considerably more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman over 40. The CDC reports that 12.3 percent of female victims were 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization; for male victims, that number is 27.8 percent.
We must either start treating sexual assault as a gender-neutral issue or stop using the CDC’s inflated statistics. Few would deny that sex crimes in America are a real, serious, and tragic problem. But studies of sexual violence should use accurate and clear definitions of rape and sexual assault, rather than lump these criminal acts together with a wide range of unsavory but non-criminal scenarios of men—and women—behaving badly.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.