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Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault (2014)

Chapter: Appendix A: Need for the Study

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
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Appendix


A Need for the Study
1

Self-report surveys of criminal victimization were a breakthrough in crime statistics and are acknowledged as an important part of any national statistical system on crime and criminal justice. It is essential that the police and the criminal justice system not be the only source of data on crime and responses to crime. Surveys give citizens a direct voice in the definition of the crime problem. This is particularly important in the case of measuring rape and sexual assault, because there is good evidence that the majority of these offenses are not reported to the police. These offenses remain the darkest of the “dark figure” of crime.

The greater acceptance of the self-report method has resulted in the fielding of a variety of surveys employing a wide range of methodologies. This blossoming of surveys has led to the recognition that the methods employed in asking about victimization can have a substantial impact on the volume and nature of that behavior reported in the survey. While having a variety of methods provides important information on crime, varying results have raised questions about the suitability of specific surveys and about the self-report method more generally.

In the case of estimates of rape and sexual assault from self-report surveys, two schools of thought have emerged with somewhat different goals and very different methodologies. One group emphasizes the criminal justice perspective, and the other takes a public health approach. The crimi-

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1James Lynch, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (the study sponsor), presented comments to the panel at its first meeting on December 8, 2011. Lynch provided the written version in this Appendix to the panel the following week.

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×

nal justice school emphasizes crime as a point-in-time event and employs legal definitions (but plain language descriptions) of the target behavior. As a result, the survey methods used emphasize placing an event in time, collecting an extensive amount of information about that event, and using that information to determine whether the reported event satisfies the legal definitions of victimization. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is the icon of this approach and has introduced specific procedures that have become identified with the criminal justice school.

The public health approach emphasizes victimization as a condition that endures over time and requires treatment to restore the victim. Consequently, there is less concern with identifying point-in-time events that may comprise the condition, and legal definitions are of less concern than commonly understood definitions of the behavior. Issues of coercion, consent, and complicity that are so central to the definition of a criminal act are not asked about in the public health tradition. The survey methods employed reflect this orientation. Explicit and extensive cues are used to prompt mention of the conditions of interest. Very little attention is paid to situating events in time or collecting extensive information on the event to determine if it satisfies the condition for inclusion. More attention is given to the consequences of the victimization, its duration, and its social context. There are a number of surveys that have taken this approach in varying degrees including the National Woman’s Study (NWS), National Violence Against Women Study (NVAWS), and, more recently, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Surveillance System (NISVSS).

Although these two schools of thought are different in goals and in method, there is considerable overlap and potential complementarity between them. The public health tradition, for example, has led the way in strategies for stimulating the recall and reporting of rape and sexual assault. The criminal justice tradition has pioneered methods for situating events in time and filtering out the ineligible. The discourse between the two groups, however, has been largely defensive with the result that very little light has been shed on the problem of measuring rape and sexual assault. Our hope in sponsoring this panel is that a group of substantive and methodological experts can take a fresh look at the problem, drawing from what the criminal justice and public health schools have done but not being held captive by these traditions. The principal goal of the panel is to consider a wide range of alternative self-report survey designs to measure the incidence and prevalence of the crimes of rape and sexual assault and to recommend an optimum design.

A second charge to the panel is to recommend whether this optimum design can be incorporated into the ongoing NCVS program and, if so, how. The optimum design may only be able to be implemented as a free-standing survey that would be administered at fixed intervals and used to

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×

adjust annual estimates from the core NCVS. Alternatively the design may be able to be fielded as a supplement to the core NCVS or even as part of the core survey.

The evaluation of different designs should take account of the mission of BJS. The panel should be mindful that BJS is responsible for providing estimates of the incidence and prevalence of crimes, and any design recommended must be optimum relative to measuring behavior defined by the law as criminal. In screening for the target behavior, however, broader definitions of the target events may be used in the screening process, but ultimately criminal behavior must be identifiable. The principal population of interest is the noninstitutionalized residential population of the United States. The panel may consider age limits on the target population as survey procedures dictate. Other populations can be accommodated in the optimum design as long as their inclusion does not adversely affect estimates for this principal population or have a large impact on cost. The most important estimates to be obtained from the survey are national-level and change estimates for a specified unit of time. These estimates are designed to be interpreted as risk rates. Annual estimates are typical, but other reference and reporting periods can be considered if appropriate. Change estimates need not be based on consecutive years. The survey should also provide detailed information on the victimization incident, the sequelae of victimization, and the criminal justice and treatment responses.

Finally, the panel is asked to work closely with Westat in field testing the recommended design. Ideally, the panel’s deliberations would be both complete and vetted before a field test would be undertaken, but because of uncertainty regarding funding, the panel’s work and the field test must proceed almost simultaneously. We ask the panel to share its recommendations with Westat and BJS as soon as prudence and the requirements of the deliberation process allow. Westat will proceed with work on the companion design as the panel deliberates. BJS and Westat will incorporate the guidance of the panel into the implementation of the optimum design as the recommendations emerge.2

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2As requested by Director Lynch, the panel worked publicly with investigators at Westat, which had been contracted by BJS to develop a pilot project to test two alternative survey designs to measure rape and sexual assault. Westat staff presented the status of their work at each of the panel’s open meetings and participated in open discussion at those meetings with panel members and other participants. Following the June 5-6, 2012, public workshop, several panel members provided individual informal written feedback to Westat on the draft plans that Westat presented at that public workshop. These were not consensus conclusions of the panel. They are provided for the purpose of full disclosure in the Public Assess File. The Westat team and the panel kept each other advised of their project timelines for various activities throughout the process. Following National Research Council policy, there was no sharing of the panel’s deliberations, conclusions, or recommendations with Westat or BJS during the study.

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×
Page 195
Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Need for the Study." National Research Council. 2014. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18605.
×
Page 196
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics' (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) measures the rates at which Americans are victims of crimes, including rape and sexual assault, but there is concern that rape and sexual assault are undercounted on this survey. BJS asked the National Research Council to investigate this issue and recommend best practices for measuring rape and sexual assault on their household surveys. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault concludes that it is likely that the NCVS is undercounting rape and sexual assault. The most accurate counts of rape and sexual assault cannot be achieved without measuring them separately from other victimizations, the report says. It recommends that BJS develop a separate survey for measuring rape and sexual assault. The new survey should more precisely define ambiguous words such as "rape," give more privacy to respondents, and take other steps that would improve the accuracy of responses. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault takes a fresh look at the problem of measuring incidents of rape and sexual assault from the criminal justice perspective. This report examines issues such as the legal definitions in use by the states for these crimes, best methods for representing the definitions in survey instruments so that their meaning is clear to respondents, and best methods for obtaining as complete reporting as possible of these crimes in surveys, including methods whereby respondents may report anonymously.

Rape and sexual assault are among the most injurious crimes a person can inflict on another. The effects are devastating, extending beyond the initial victimization to consequences such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sleep and eating disorders, and other emotional and physical problems. Understanding the frequency and context under which rape and sexual assault are committed is vital in directing resources for law enforcement and support for victims. These data can influence public health and mental health policies and help identify interventions that will reduce the risk of future attacks. Sadly, accurate information about the extent of sexual assault and rape is difficult to obtain because most of these crimes go unreported to police. Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault focuses on methodology and vehicles used to measure rape and sexual assaults, reviews potential sources of error within the NCVS survey, and assesses the training and monitoring of interviewers in an effort to improve reporting of these crimes.

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