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Fragmented Data on Sexual Violence

Posted on February 21, 2017


Sexual violence has been in the headlines during the past year, including crimes involving college students, incarcerated people, and the military. Data collected by the federal government on sexual violence can help prioritize resources and design programs to prevent and address these crimes.

However, we recently looked at federal data on sexual violence and found that it is confusing and fragmented—which may obscure the scope of the problem. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Different methods, different results

Four federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice (DOJ)—manage 10 separate efforts to collect data on sexual violence, and they use different methods to measure and calculate this data.

For example, some efforts focus on collecting data from a specific population (e.g., incarcerated people), while others focus on the general population. These efforts also use 23 different terms to describe sexual violence, and they differ in how they categorize particular acts of sexual violence. For example, the same act of sexual violence could be categorized by one data collection effort as “rape,” by another as “assault-sexual,” and by still another as “nonconsensual sexual acts.”

Given this, it is not surprising that there are varying estimates of sexual violence in the United States. For example, in 2011 (the most recent year of available data), one agency estimated that 244,190 rape or sexual assaults occurred—but another agency estimated that there were 1,929,000 victims of rape or attempted rape.

Additionally, some data collection efforts are inconsistent in how they define and measure sexual violence. They also do not publicize what is included in their measurements, so there is no way to know if their written definitions are different from what is included in their reported data.

These variations and inconsistencies in federal sexual violence data can lead to significant confusion for the public, and may make it more difficult to appropriately address this issue.

How to get everyone on the same page

We recommended that Education, HHS, and DOJ publish information on what is included in their measurements of sexual violence. Additionally, the Office of Management and Budget has previously convened interagency working groups to help improve federal statistics and encourage greater consistency—and we recommended that it convene a similar working group on sexual violence data.

To learn more, check out our full report.



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