… without embellishing or misinterpreting the data.
Yesterday, one of my favorite activist organizations on Facebook, Solidarity, posted a link to this image:
It comes from The Enliven Project, a campaign founded by Sarah Pierson Beaulieu. It is, obviously, an incredibly arresting image. I’m in community with a number of survivors of sexual violence, and I often feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem of rape in this historical moment. However, my feelings and my political analysis have largely been driven by my personal connection to the problem (attempting to be a meaningful ally to my friends, lovers and family members who are survivors) and to the policy work of a number of fantastic organizations (especially INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence). But I’ve never actually looked up the statistics about rape and sexual assault in the United States before, and I’ve never seen rape statistics represented in such a startling manner. I had to know more.
And it turns out, it’s wrong. Well-intentioned, yes. Inspired simplicity in its presentation, absolutely. But inaccurate. Amanda Marcotte on Slate.com does a wonderful, nuanced job of breaking down all the ways that this infographic confuses, exaggerates and even, in some ways, underreports the problem. I highly recommend taking the time to read her article, and follow every link to the original data like I did. Marcotte concludes:
As I said above, the Enliven Project has the best intentions and they’re on the right path. It is true that most rapes go unreported, that the public believes false accusations are exponentially more common than they actually are, and that a man’s chances of being falsely accused of rape are incredibly small. All these things are important to convey, and an infographic is a great way to do it. Just fix the graphic, and the public will learn a lot.
So, because I had a bit of time on my hands, and the capacity to do it in Photoshop, and a broken heart for an engine to drive this research and production, I did exactly that. Here is my revised and updated graphic:
To clarify: this infographic is a visual representation of 1000 instances of rape in the United States, based on data roughly collected between 2005-2011. Out of those 1000 rapes, it is estimated that 46% are reported to the police.3 Only 37% of reported rapes (or 17.02% of total estimated rapes) are prosecuted. Of the rape reports prosecuted, only 18% are convicted (or 3.06% of total estimated rapes).1 While accounts wildly vary due to bias and poor reporting and experimental design, it is generally agreed that between 2-8% of reported rapes are false reports (or .09-3.68% of total estimated rapes).2 In this graphic, I chose to represent the false reports conservatively at the 8% level to avoid a derailing argument that I’m exaggerating the statistics.
I also agree with Marcotte that it’s important to clarify the difference between a false report and a false accusation. The great majority of false reports — that is, reports of rape that have been investigated and found to be false and baseless by authorities — name no specific person as the rapist. They follow a “stranger rape by force” narrative, where the description of the rapist is often vague and certainly unnamed. If a person is named and the report is found to be false, that is a false accusation. I couldn’t find any numbers about exactly what the proportion of false accusations is among false reports, but given the truly minor percentages that even anonymized false reports make up of the estimated total rapes in this country, it certainly seems like a big ol’ misogynistic red herring. This mythology that false rape accusations are common, and vindictive or confused women are going around pointing fingers at innocent men left and right, is simply untrue. The facts paint a different picture.
Lastly, as I read the studies and data collected on rape in the United States yesterday — and tried to comprehend the vastness of the problem while thinking about how to more accurately reflect that data — I learned a lot of terrible things. The Center for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) is one of the most illuminating and horrifying documents I’ve ever read, and among the best if you’re looking for comprehensive definitions and methodology (unlike the FBI’s unbelievably arcane definition of rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — this has since been changed, but the studies and data collection have not yet caught up). Let’s make this clear: more than a million women were raped in the previous twelve months from when the survey was taken. So when you’re looking at these infographics, try to scale them up by 1,000. Please try.
But perhaps my favorite of the articles I read while I was chasing down the newest data was Thomas’ Meet The Predators on the Yes Means Yes blog. His article provides a close overview of the existing studies of two populations of men (college students and U.S. Navy new recruits) who will admit to committing acts that are legally defined as rape, as long as the researchers don’t use the word rape. The statistics that are revealed in these studies are also pretty illuminating — like how the average un-caught rapist has an average of 6 victims (and a median of 3 — which means that some un-caught rapists are raping many, many more people to skew the average up this high). Or how the vast majority of rapists target acquaintances or intimate partners, not strangers; and use intoxicants as their weapon of choice, not force. The phrase that comes to mind for this is “date rape” — which continues to have a certain patina of misogynist derision. But let’s be real — raping your drunk friends is what rape looks like in the U.S., in the majority of cases. It’s time we stopped making jokes about that and started holding our rapist friends accountable for their actions. And yes, you have friends who are rapists. And no, I’m not talking about prison when I’m talking about holding people accountable. I’m talking about the real, hard, messy work it is going to take to change our communities and our culture to emphasize and prioritize consent and non-violent, non-raping forms of masculinity and power. And I’m going to keep talking about this — because if I believe, as I do, that we can achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, you bet I believe we can end rape in our lifetimes. And we should. We must.
[UPDATED TO ADD: Today (1/11/13), The Enliven Project posted a background piece on their original graphic, with links to their source material and the arguments behind their choices. I, obviously, disagree with their interpretation of the data — especially the 10% reporting statistic, which is an exaggeration of even their own sources — which is why I made this revised graphic. I also wish that their graphic had been contextualized with these sources in the first place. I firmly believe that the Enliven Project’s stated goal of creating “dialogue” around these issues must be placed within a rigorous, transparent framework which strives towards accuracy — no matter how complex that process may be. It’s not enough to say that the data is flawed, and then choose to skew that data towards your own ends. It undercuts that very dialogue we’re seeking to have, and creates acrimony between well-intentioned though disagreeing individuals. In any case, I am glad that the Enliven Project has posted these figures and background — even if I decry their missteps that got us here. Also cross-updated in the comments.]
1. See “7. What Percentage of Rape Cases Gets Prosecuted? What are the Rates of Conviction?” in Top Ten Things Advocates Need To Know Series. Published by the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women. December 2011. Last Accessed January 9, 2013 at http://www.uky.edu/CRVAW/files/TopTen/07_Rape_Prosecution.pdf.
2. See Lonsway, Archambault and Lisak. False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault. Published by The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women. The Voice, vol 3, no 1, 2009. Last Accessed January 9, 2013 at http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf.
[UPDATED TO ADD 1/15/2013] 3. See Table 7 in Truman and Planty. Criminal Victimization, 2011. Published by U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistic. October 2012 NCJ 239437. Last accessed on January 15, 2013 at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv11.pdf.