How the CDC is overstating sexual violence in the US

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Article Highlights

  • The CDC study on sexual violence reveals the devastating impact that careless advocacy research can have on truth

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  • Sexual-assault survivors would be better served by good research and sober estimates—not inflated statistics and sensationalism

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  • Why is the CDC using methods of advocacy research that are anathema to genuine social science?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study suggesting that rates of sexual violence in the United States are comparable to those in the war-stricken Congo. How is that possible?

The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that, in the United States in 2010, approximately 1.3 million women were raped and an additional 12.6 million women and men were victims of sexual violence. It reported, “More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hailed the report for giving “a clear picture of the devastating impact these violent acts have on the lives of millions of Americans.”

"Faulty studies send scarce resources in the wrong directions; more programs on sexism, stereotypes and social structures, for example, are unlikely to help victims of violence."--Christina Hoff Sommers

In fact, what the study reveals is the devastating impact that careless advocacy research can have on truth. The report proposes an array of ambitious government-sponsored “prevention strategies” and recommends “multi-disciplinary service centers” offering survivors psychological and legal counseling as well as housing and economic assistance. But survivors of sexual violence would be better served by good research and sober estimates — not inflated statistics and sensationalism.

The agency’s figures are wildly at odds with official crime statistics. The FBI found that 84,767 rapes were reported to law enforcement authorities in 2010. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, the gold standard in crime research, reports 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults on females and males in 2010. Granted, not all assaults are reported to authorities. But where did the CDC find 13.7 million victims of sexual crimes that the professional criminologists had overlooked?

It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

The report also called for more research on “sexism” and urged “collective action” against media messages that “objectify and degrade women.” In the familiar jargon of feminist theory, the CDC said: “It is important to continue addressing the beliefs, attitudes and messages that are deeply imbedded in our social structures.”

Why is the CDC using methods of advocacy research that are anathema to genuine social science? The answer is suggested by a posting on the White House Web site this month by Lynn Rosenthal, a presidential adviser on violence against women:

“Early in the Administration, the Vice President convened federal agencies to assess trends and identify gaps in our response to violence and abuse. We identified data collection as one of the biggest challenges we face in understanding and combatting these crime. Thanks to the hard work of [Attorney General Eric] Holder, the FBI, law enforcement leaders, and the women’s organizations who have long advocated for this change, we are one step further towards meeting that challenge.”

While that passage referred to the FBI’s recently revised definition of rape — and not the CDC survey — it shows how the study fits into the administration’s effort to apply the advocacy agenda of the women’s lobby to rape research. That would explain how feminist theory found its way into the report. But why would CDC officials, who are experienced in resisting political pressure, cooperate?

Perhaps they felt the study would draw needed attention to the genuine problem of sexual violence. That is an understandable but recklessly misguided conclusion. Faulty studies send scarce resources in the wrong directions; more programs on sexism, stereotypes and social structures, for example, are unlikely to help victims of violence. Defining sexual violence down obscures the gradations in culpability that are essential to effective criminal law, and it holds up a false mirror on our society. The CDC should recall this study.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI. Her books include “Who Stole Feminism?” and “The War Against Boys.”

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