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. 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.]
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. 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.] 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.