In the past week, Human Rights Watch and at least three major feminist blogs have posted somber reactions to this report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here’s the gist of the hubbub, from HRW:
A new government report showing huge increases in the incidences of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault over a two-year period in the United States deserves immediate attention from lawmakers and the incoming administration, Human Rights Watch said today. The statistics show a 42-percent increase in reported domestic violence and a 25-percent increase in the reported incidence of rape and sexual assault.
Is this something that we should act on immediately? Absolutely yes. Is it bad news? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s pretty damned great. HRW seems to have assumed that an increase in reported crimes corresponds to an increase in actual crime rates, and that is just straight up wrong. Domestic violence and sexual assault are known to be massively underreported, for a couple of reasons: respondents to surveys are often uncomfortable admitting that they’ve been abused, and they are often unaware that something that has been done to them actually constitutes a violent crime. This year, the BJS made two major changes to the National Crime Victimization Survey’s methodology for collecting information on gender-based violence. First, they replaced “computer assisted telephone interviews” with interviews with real people, either on the phone or in person. Second, they made an effort to describe sexual assault to respondents to ensure that they actually knew what it was. I would think that those two alterations more than account for a 42% increase in reported DV and a 25% increase in reported sexual assault. And really, we’ve always known that those additional 42%, and more, were being abused; now we have proof, and hopefully it will motivate policymakers to do something about it. As for the actual crime rates, they probably did go up over the last two years, but my guess is that the increases were closer in magnitude to the increase in everyday plain vanilla assault, which rose by 3%.