The Baseline: How much sexual assault is there?

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Expanding on our earlier discussion

In the paper Anthropology’s “Fierce” Yanomami: Narratives of Sexual Politics in the Amazon, Sharon Tiffany and Kathleen Adams provide the following opening passage:

Imagine a society in which one woman in every three is raped, usually by a man she knows, consider the consequences of living in a society where one third of all women are beaten during pregnancy and 35 percent of women using emergency medical facilities are battered . Since we are anthropologists, readers may mistakenly think that these appalling data were collected in an exotic society, an distant world where it is presumed that unpredictable and threatening behavior is commonplaces. Indeed, our friends and colleagues inevitably ask if it is safe for us to travel alone to remote and problematic places which presumably do not enjoy the law and order of civilization.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe statistics above come, of course, from American medical data.

The reason I bring this up at all, and leave you somewhat hanging (you should read the entire article) is because I am concerned that any discussion of rape, which focuses on Congo and Liberia and other exotic locations, will be to sit from a position of cultural and economic privilege and fail to see that this is a human problem, not a third world “Bungabungaland” problem. Startling revelations about the behavior of american soldiers in Viet Nam as described in Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape raised hackles, and even since her controversial book other information has come to light. It is simply true … men of all cultures and ethnicities, even the men you know well and like and are good buddies with, even your father, brothers, and sons, when in a state of war are more than a little likely to do all sorts of things that one just does not do otherwise, including killing, including pillaging, including rape. The quirky thing is that we Westerners live in a culture in which we believe that this is not true. But it is true, despite our beliefs. It is true enough at home (judging by the above passage) that we cannot expect much different in the battlefields, the occupied villages, and the lonely wilderness of Hobbesian warre. In other words, the baseline level of sexual violence carried out by Western men is nothing close to zero. A statistics like “60%” committing a certain act does not require an order of magnitude of change. Perhaps just a doubling or trippling, depending on that the statistic is for.

I quickly note that this need not be the case. One can kill and pillage and not rape, as has been documented for certain armies in the past. I would not assume that the pattern seen in the jungles of Vietnam, the trenches of France in WW I, at Anzio or in Iraq are at all the same, and there is probably as much variation among western armies and occupation forces as there is among African, Asian or any other region, and there is certainly a great deal of variation across historical time as well.

We could train our armies to rape less. Or, we could be really smart and seek non military solutions to our problems and avoid the whole issue to begin with. But we (Westerners) can’t do that alone. We need to change the way most of the world words economically, socially, and politically. And that requires first acknowledging the baseline is not one of innocence.

Tiffany, Sharon W., & Adams, Kathleen J. (1994). Anthropology’s ‘Fierce’ Yanomami: Narratives of Sexual Politics in the Amazon NWSA Journal, 6 (2)

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10 thoughts on “The Baseline: How much sexual assault is there?

  1. With those stats do you mean sexual assault or rape and do you distinguish? Seem rather a high number to me for rape, but what do I know…

  2. That’s a minefield you’ve stepped into there. The statistics on rape and sexual assault have become so mired in politics that it is difficult to know what to believe. Given the nature of the crime, and of the circumstances in which it is reported, the base-line figure in police-reported crime is certainly way too low. Even victim reports are certainly skewed by under-reporting. But the figures given by your source were drawn from surveys using highly questionable methodologies, and are difficult to support from the data of the surveys themselves. Joel Best has a useful discussion of the problem in his book ‘Damned Lies and Statistics.’

  3. Tim, Interesting comments. But, I’m not convinced. I’m also not defending this source, but you’ve said that the methodologies are bad without saying what they are or why they’re bad or anything else that would lend credence to that assertion. You’ve made a fairly specific statement, can you back it up or expand on it or offer data that has better methodology behind it, or at least suggest what that methodology might be?

    Also, sociological data is almost always problematic. Thefore, it is easy to stop a conversation in its tracks by pointing out those problems, but some conversations should not be stopped and we often have to live with less than ideal data. Is this the situation here?

  4. . It is simply true … men of all cultures and ethnicities, even the men you know well and like and are good buddies with, even your father, brothers, and sons, when in a state of war are more than a little likely to do all sorts of things that one just does not do otherwise, including killing, including pillaging, including rape.

    I don’t want to know what my grandpa did in WWII, being a Waffen-SS member and a misogynist to start with.
    It’s something I only acknowledge academically. No use digging with him being dead for 20 years anyway.
    But it makes me aware of this.
    Knowing that probably 1 of the men who are nice and polite in my classes has raped a woman at some point is nothing I will think of when I’m teaching. It would drive me crazy.


    Some stats here of unknown quality.

    Here are some others: At least 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her academic career. Hirsch, Kathleen (1990)”Fraternities of Fear: Gang Rape, Male Bonding, and the Silencing of Women.” Ms., 1(2) 52-56.
    At least 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001.
    48.8% of college women who were victims of attacks that met the study’s definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape. Bureau of Justice Stats. “Sexual Victimization of Collegiate Women” 2000, US DOJ.

    The bit that gives me a little confusion is “48.8% of college women who were victims of attacks that met the study’s definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape.” So what exactly was the definition?

  6. The DOJ publication is here (pdf). The definition of completed rape:

    Unwanted completed penetration by force or the threat of force. Penetration includes: penile-vaginal, mouth on your genitals, mouth on someone else’s genitals, penile-anal, digital-vaginal, digital-anal, object-vaginal, and object-anal.

    The researchers asked very detailed questions and followed up with incident reports to confirm that the situation met the criteria. Then:

    In each incident report, respondents were asked, “Do you consider this incident to be a rape?” For the 86 incidents categorized as a completed rape, 46.5 percent (n = 40) of the women answered “yes,” 48.8 percent (n = 42) answered “no,” and 4.7 percent (n = 4) answered “don’t know.”

    The survey period was half a year, and the researchers estimated incidence of rape to be 3.5% per year.

  7. Thank you Stephanie, that clarifes. Does the confusion come because many women assume it has to be genital/genital to be rape?

  8. sailor, I don’t think there’s been direct research on this, but based on other rape research, I would guess that most of it comes from self-blame on the part of the victim (I was dressed wrong; I shouldn’t have gotten drunk; I should have fought harder), frequently reinforced by friends and others. Also, it is a very not nice thing to realize your date or your friend is a rapist. Explaining it away as a misunderstanding has to have a certain amount of appeal.

  9. New reader here. Thanks for the great article. I was shocked to discover even some atheist, so-called rational blog commenters right here on FTB are not immune to indulging in rape fantasy, if not the real thing. In reference to the Tea Party telling Michele Bachmann it’s time to leave the prez race (You’re an Ego-Maniac! Mrs. Grinch), commenter Art at #5 on Assassin Actual posted this:

    October 31, 2011 at 18:16
    “Kind of sad watching the desperate girls from the back room at the frat party get thrown out. They said all the right things, and push comes to shove they would do anything, anything at all, to get noticed and spend time with the popular guys. They thought once in they could build friendships and relationships, be a member in the community, but what they said to get in the door, and what they did to stay, left them degraded and used. Her makeup is smeared and run, her dress is a mess, her knees are black with mung from the polluted floor, she is worn and the wild-eyed enthusiasm has lost its edge. She is led quietly to the back door and told to leave.
    The frat boys she serviced will act like they have never seen her before. If they remember her name it will only be spoken in a whisper to other frat boys when talking about how wild their parties can get. After a while her name will disappear entirely and she will be referred thereafter as ‘that dumb blonde’ … the one who was such a sport.
    Used, abused, laughed at, and then discarded. The sad thing is that everyone knew it would go down like this. Everyone except Michele Bachmann.
    She is still young, and still fairly pretty, as GOP operatives go, so there is a good chance she will get invited to the next dance.”

    This is a seriously degrading description, and disturbingly detailed. It sure sounds like this guy condones (fantasizes about) gang raping a “slutty” girl (Bachmann) who is just asking for it – metaphorically, of course. Guess that makes it all okay.

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