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Sexy crime statistics

...distort the truth about violence against women, explains Tiffany Jenkins

'One sex crime every hour' screamed the headline of the London Evening Standard on 13 July. According to this London daily, a rape or sexual assault happens every 60 minutes in the capital - which comes to a staggering total of 8102 a year.

But while the billboard promoted the 'London sex crime shock report', the real shock comes from looking at how the Metropolitan Police have distorted these latest crime figures.

The Met's annual report for the financial year of 1998-9 shows that there were indeed 8102 offences in London categorised as sexual. But what does this mean? The 8102 figure shows the number of recorded sexual offences. This includes those cases that are dropped, found inconclusive, dismissed, and not proceeded with. Just because an incident is reported to the police, it is not necessarily investigated - let alone found to have been committed. The 'sex crime shock' gives no indication of how many sex crimes there actually were.

And what is a 'sexual offence' anyway? As a spokeswoman from the Home Office told me, 'Sexual offences are an extensive sub-category', which includes 'anything from unlawful sex with a girl aged under 16, to abduction and buggery'. Looking down the list in the report, you can see that anything remotely like a sexual offence is recorded in the category, including 'bigamy' and 'soliciting by a man'. The activities of rent boys are hardly comparable offences to rape or child abuse, and we can learn very few lessons by lumping all these crimes together.

The way these figures are recorded and presented distorts any picture of the scale of serious sexual assault. As for the newspaper's 'Sex crime shock report' - the effects of this kind of sensationalism are to obscure the really serious sex crimes, while playing on our fears. What could encourage women to feel vulnerable more than the words 'one sex crime every hour'?

You might expect a little sensationalism from newspapers. But the police, many women's campaign groups, and those at the heart of government in the Home Office are equally adept at presenting conflated crime figures that hype up the level of risk facing women. They consistently repeat the mantra that 'one in four' women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime;
Breaking the Chain - the government's recent proposals on dealing with domestic violence - were based on this figure. But are these figures reliable enough to form the basis for policy?

The 'one in four' figure is taken from some surveys run over the past few years, all of which used an unhelpfully broad definition of 'violence'. A survey coordinated by Jayne Mooney in 1994 (The Hidden Figure: domestic violence in north London, Islington Council) is a case in point. Mooney's definition of violence includes physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse - and each of these categories involves a whole spectrum of behaviour. So under psychological abuse we find 'criticism... jealousy...destroying possessions...and verbal abuse', and - most dramatically of all - 'being forced to do menial and trivial tasks'. Now, I don't batter my boyfriend - but I do berate him and persistently force him to make the dinner.

The whole approach of an 'authoritative' project like this should be questioned. The interviewers were recruited on the basis that they were totally committed to eradicating any form of domestic violence. They started interviewing the sample group by asking them about their definition of domestic violence and suggesting alternatives - to the point where the 'survey' almost took the form of a tutorial. So while many women do not report trivial tiffs in their home, these interviewers may have encouraged them to think again, and to reclassify experiences that they previously had not judged to be domestic violence. Apart from upping the figures, this technique would have a profound impact on the interviewees, who would be encouraged to review previously normal lives through the prism of domestic violence.

Yet despite the shoddy methodology and skewed responses, this particular piece of research and its conclusion - that one in four women has been a victim of domestic violence - is referred to as the basis for government policy. And other self-reporting surveys are coming into vogue.

At a Police Federation meeting in May, Maria Wallis, the national spokesperson on domestic violence for the Association of Chief Police Officers, declared that 'there are six million incidents of domestic violence a year'. She cited the British Crime Survey 1996 as proof. But the BCS approach is both subjective and elastic. It takes what the respondent says at face value, and its concern is to record what those who claim to be crime victims view as an offence - rather than what is proven to be an offence.

With this approach, the BCS will always discover more crimes than the police, who - at least until now - have had to judge whether the complainants have given an accurate and truthful account, and whether there is evidence that an offence has actually occurred.

When all agencies dealing with violence against women are determined to raise the figures exponentially, with scant regard to verifiable evidence, what impact does this have on women? A recent Cabinet Office factsheet on women and violence reported that almost half of all women aged 16 to 29 are worried about rape. Many other surveys and anecdotes testify that many more women are worried about violent crime than will actually ever fall victim to it. There is only a slim chance that you might be raped - but we can all be made to feel vulnerable every minute of the day.

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999

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