Sexual Violence Data:

Actions Needed to Improve Clarity and Address Differences Across Federal Data Collection Efforts

GAO-16-546: Published: Jul 19, 2016. Publicly Released: Aug 18, 2016.

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What GAO Found

Four federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice (DOJ)—manage at least 10 efforts to collect data on sexual violence, which differ in target population, terminology, measurements, and methodology. Some of these data collection efforts focus on a specific population that the agency serves—for example, the incarcerated population—while others include information from the general population. These data collection efforts use 23 different terms to describe sexual violence. Data collection efforts also 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,” whereas it could be categorized by other efforts as “assault-sexual” or “nonconsensual sexual acts,” among other terms. In addition, five data collection efforts—overseen by Education, HHS, and DOJ—reflect inconsistencies between their measurements and definitions of sexual violence. Further, these data collection efforts do not have publicly-available descriptions of what is included in their respective measurements to allow persons using the data to understand the differences, which may lead to confusion for data users. Publicly-available measurement information could enhance the clarity and transparency of sexual violence data. Data collection efforts also differ in terms of the context in which data are collected, data sources, units of measurement, and time frames.

Differences in data collection efforts may hinder the understanding of the occurrence of sexual violence, and agencies' efforts to explain and lessen differences have been fragmented and limited in scope. Differences across the data collection efforts may address specific agency interests, but collectively, the differences lead to varying estimates of sexual violence. For example, in 2011 (the most recent year of available data), estimates ranged from 244,190 rape or sexual assault victimizations to 1,929,000 victims of rape or attempted rape. These differences can lead to confusion for the public. Officials from federal agencies and entities GAO spoke with who use federal data on sexual violence emphasized that the differences across the data collection efforts are such that the results are not comparable, and entities reported using data that best suited their needs. Agencies have taken some steps to clarify the differences between the data collection efforts. For example, two DOJ entities coauthored a statement that describes the differences between their two efforts. In addition, agencies have taken some steps to harmonize the data collection efforts—that is, coordinate practices to achieve a shared goal. However, actions to increase harmonization have been fragmented, generally only involving 2 of the 10 data collection efforts at a time, and limited in scope. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) through its authority to coordinate federal statistics has previously convened interagency working groups, such as the Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity, to improve federal statistics. OMB has no plans to convene a working group on sexual violence data. Additional collaboration, facilitated by OMB, between agencies that manage data collection efforts about which differences help or hinder the overall understanding of sexual violence could help to clarify the scope of the problem of sexual violence in the United States.

Why GAO Did This Study

Concerns have grown about sexual violence—in general, unwanted sexual acts—in the United States, particularly involving certain populations such as college students, incarcerated individuals, and military personnel. Data on the occurrence of sexual violence are critical to preventing, addressing, and understanding the consequences of these types of crimes. GAO was asked to identify and compare federal efforts to collect data on sexual violence.

This report addresses two questions: (1) What are the federal efforts underway to collect data on sexual violence, and how, if at all, do these efforts differ? (2) How do any differences across the data collection efforts affect the understanding of sexual violence, and to what extent are federal agencies addressing any challenges posed by the differences? GAO reviewed agency documentation and academic literature, and interviewed agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education, HHS, and DOJ make information that is included in their measurements of sexual violence publicly available. GAO also recommends that OMB establish a federal interagency forum on sexual violence data. Education, HHS, and DOJ agreed with the recommendation. OMB stated that convening a forum may not be the most effective use of resources at this time, in part because the data collection efforts are not far enough along in their research. However, OMB said it will consider convening or sharing information across agencies in the future.

For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education's revised June 2016 "The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting" makes information on the acts of sexual violence and contextual factors that are included in the Clery Act data's measurements of sexual violence publicly available. For example, the Handbook states, below the definition of rape, "Include the crime as Rape, regardless of the age of the victim, if the victim did not consent or if the victim was incapable of giving consent." Through this language, the contextual factor of "victim unable to consent (or refuse) (including because the victim was asleep, unconscious, or due to illness or disability)" is explicitly referenced as included in the measurement of rape. Through this same language, the contextual factor of "victim alcohol/drug facilitated," is implicitly referenced as included in the measurement of rape, considering that someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs may be incapable of giving consent.

    Recommendation: To enhance the clarity and transparency of sexual violence data that is reported to the public, the Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics to make information on the acts of sexual violence and contextual factors that are included in their measurements of sexual violence publicly available. This effort could entail revising their definitions of key terms used to describe sexual violence so that the definitions match the measurements of sexual violence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of June 2017, CDC has updated the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) documentation online, which contains the sexual violence definitions used for the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program (NEISS-AIP) database, which is one of the 10 data collection efforts in our report. At the time of our report, we found that NEISS-AIP included acts of sexual violence involving penetration of a victim with an object and acts of sexual violence involving a victim being made to penetrate someone else with an object in its measurement of assault-sexual, but did not explicitly include these acts of sexual violence in its definition of assault-sexual. The updated definitions now explicitly include reference to both of these acts of sexual violence.

    Recommendation: To enhance the clarity and transparency of sexual violence data that is reported to the public, the Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics to make information on the acts of sexual violence and contextual factors that are included in their measurements of sexual violence publicly available. This effort could entail revising their definitions of key terms used to describe sexual violence so that the definitions match the measurements of sexual violence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2016, OJP's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that beginning with reports and data files released in calendar year 2017, BJS plans to provide additional information on how sexual violence is defined, to ensure that the measures and definitions are clear and consistent, to improve understanding by users at all levels. Furthermore, BJS reported that they will provide definitions and the exact computer code used to construct the measures of sexual violence. Further, according to BJS, in October 2016 the Acting Director of BJS established an internal Rape and Sexual Assault working group tasked with assessing all BJS data collections; identifying any differences that may exist across data collection efforts; consulting with other federal agencies and subject matter experts; and making recommendations to the Acting Director of BJS to correct any issues identified. The working group met monthly through February 2017, and was comprised of a senior statistical advisor, a statistical policy advisor, and statistical staff from the Victimization Statistics, Corrections Statistics, and Institutional Research and Special Projects units within BJS. In August 2017, BJS officials reported that they are planning to release the 2016 Criminal Victimization Bulletin in late 2017 with additional information on the definition of sexual violence. Also the Rape and Sexual Assault working group provided a detailed set of recommendations to the BJS Acting Director and BJS has convened the working group to develop an implementation plan. BJS stated that their next update would be in early CY 2018 to allow for the release of the report and details on the implementation plan.

    Recommendation: To enhance the clarity and transparency of sexual violence data that is reported to the public, the Secretary of Education should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics to make information on the acts of sexual violence and contextual factors that are included in their measurements of sexual violence publicly available. This effort could entail revising their definitions of key terms used to describe sexual violence so that the definitions match the measurements of sexual violence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In March 2017, OMB stated that the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working together to conduct research on how data collection methodologies, including how questions are asked, affect the measurement of sexual violence in the context of each agency's programmatic needs. OMB reiterated that this research is not far enough along to warrant the investment of resources to establish a formal interagency working group. OMB stated that it has taken steps to enhance collaboration among the agencies, including facilitating discussion of data collection parameters that affect sexual violence reporting. This recommendation was included in the 2017 DOF report, and in August and September 2017, GAO reached out to OMB for the status on their efforts to address the recommendation. As of 9/18/17, OMB had not responded to inquiries.

    Recommendation: To help lessen confusion among the public and policy makers regarding federal data on sexual violence, the Director of OMB should establish a federal interagency forum on sexual violence statistics. The forum should consider the broad range of differences across the data collection efforts to assess which differences enhance or hinder the overall understanding of sexual violence in the United States.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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