Last week, JAMA Pediatrics published Prevalence Rates of Male and Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators in a National Sample of Adolescents, which promptly hit the news (see, e.g., this USA Today story and this National Geographic story, among many others). The results, based on a survey of 1058 youths age 14 to 21, were shocking:
- “Nearly 1 in 10 youths reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime” — that means they had committed sexual violence.
- Indeed, 5% (including 7% of the males) had either “attempted or completed rape.”
- What’s more, of the “perpetrators of attempted or completed rape,” more than a third believed the “victim [was completely] responsible for what happened,” and most of the remainder believed the victim was “somewhat” responsible.
How horrible — 7% of 14-to-21-year-old boys and young men had “attempted or completed rape.” Who would have thought the fraction would be so high?
But then one looks closely, and what does one see under “tactics used” (a question asked about the last “perpetration” of “attempted or completed rape”)? Of the 49 perpetrators, 10 reported that they used physical force or threat of physical force; 10 more reported that they used alcohol, 23 reported that they used “guilt,” and 21 reported that they used “arguing and pressuring victim” (since more than one answer was possible, the amounts add up to more than 49). So 80% of the reported “rape[s]” involved neither force nor the threat of force, and 59% involved only “guilt” or “arguing and pressuring victim,” with no use of force, threat of force, or even alcohol.
So actually only 1% of the respondents had used physical force or threat of physical force to get sex. Another 1% used alcohol; this might involve what the legal system would label rape (e.g., getting someone so drunk that they became unconscious and then having sex with them), but certainly need not (e.g., giving someone some alcohol to loosen their inhibitions). The remainder of the supposed rapists or attempted rapists aren’t really rapists at all.
This gives us a better sense of how people likely perceived the questions that the researchers asked:
Youths were asked about how often they had ever done the following: (1) “tried, but was not able, to make someone have sex with me when I knew they did not want to”; (2) “made someone have sex with me when I knew they did not want to”; and (3) “gotten someone to give in to sex with me when I knew they did not want to.”
Item 3 was labeled as “coercive sex” (itself an unsound label, I think, especially when treated as a subcategory of “sexual violence”); items 1 and 2 were labeled as “attempted rape” and “completed rape.” And this could describe rape, if “made” referred to physical coercion, or coercion through the threat of violence. But it could also describe “making” someone do something by cajoling, nagging, or emotional pressure, where the target consented to sex even though deep down inside they would have preferred not do it (much like many of us consent to many things under the influence of “guilt,” “arguing,” and “pressuring,” especially when this involves someone we know and feel obligated to in various ways). And indeed in the great majority of incidents of supposed “attempted or completed rape” reported by the study, the respondents apparently viewed “made” to refer to such emotional pressure.
What does the study say to justify this definition of “rape” to cover such a vast range of behavior, including behavior that’s very far removed from what is normally understood as “rape”? Here’s the core explanation:
Some may argue that the definitions of rape and sexual assault in our investigation are too broad. Indeed, this may be why the perpetration rate among females is higher than might be posited. Rape includes acts beyond those in which the victim is physically overpowered, however. Restrictive definitions have potentially led to undercounting of sexual assault experiences. For example, in the National Violence Against Women Survey, respondents were asked whether anyone had ever made them engage in a sexual activity “by using force or threat of force.” Psychological coercion was not clearly specified even though there are multiple coercive strategies other than physical force that can be used in a rape. To ensure that comprehensive rates of sexual assault and rape are identified as well as to begin building the research base on female perpetrators, research needs to include a fuller spectrum of rape scenarios.
Well, of course rape “includes acts beyond those in which the victim is physically overpowered” — it also includes acts in which the victim is threatened with violence, which can indeed be labeled a form of “psychological coercion.” But it doesn’t include all forms of psychological pressure, just as robbery doesn’t include getting people to give you money using “guilt,” “arguing,” or “pressuring” short of violence or threat of violence.
Of course, much of the behavior reported by the study (beyond the actual rape and attempted rape) might be wrong for various reasons. Some might involve statutory rape, though that’s impossible to tell, given that the study doesn’t report clearly on the ages of the parties involved, or the age of consent laws in each particular jurisdiction. Some might involve illegal furnishing of alcohol to minors. Much might involve behavior that’s unkind, emotionally manipulative, and generally reprehensible.
But the great bulk of what the study describes isn’t “rape” or even “sexual violence,” and the study is misleading to label it as such (even if people who read the study’s text carefully will recognize just how overbroad the definitions are).
UPDATE: I originally read questions 1, 2, and 3 asked of the respondents (see above) as all referring to completed or attempted rape, but commenter Scott pointed out that a yes answer to item 3 was treated as “coerced sex” instead (though still a subset of what the authors labeled “sexual violence”). I’ve revised the post accordingly, but the analysis remains the same: The numbers I was using all along referred to people who were viewed as having committed “attempted rape” or “completed rape” (not the “coerced sex” population); “[y]ouths who reported attempted or completed forced sex were asked follow-up questions about the most recent event”; and the majority of them reported that the alleged coercion during that event did not involve physical force or threat of physical force — it only involved guilt, arguing, or pressuring without force or threat. Thanks to Scott for the correction.