22 February 2000
Should women be living in fear?
Sara Hinchliffe wonders where the latest figures on rape have come from
According to articles and news reports in Britain on Friday 18 February, there is a hidden toll of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence affecting huge numbers of British women. Broadsheets including the Times and the Guardian reported that the Home Office had produced new research evidence, showing that the real rate of rape and sexual assault is nearly 300 000 a year - more than 10 times the rate recorded by police - and that a quarter of British women suffer domestic violence. To add insult to injury, tiny proportions of the cases that are reported result in convictions.
When new research is published about the scale of violence against women which indicates huge numbers of cases, some of us really want to be able to see the evidence. So where was it? No report title was published, no researchers' names cited; in fact, no sources were provided at all. So I rang the Home Office publications office, who didn't know what the report was, but thought it would have been published by the women's unit. Nobody answered the phone at the women's unit. So I tried the Home Office again, who put me through to the Research, Development and Statistics Directorate - who didn't know what the research was, and suggested I try the women's unit. No replies from the women's unit (who are obviously terribly busy promoting this new campaign) or the cabinet office, which hosts the unit.
After two hours the Home Office press desk finally owned up - there was no new research. The figures had been culled, in the main, from a Home Office report published in 1999, and from a range of crime statistics. The press officer did know that the papers had reported new evidence, but felt it wasn't the government's fault that the press had told some little white lies. Anyway, she kindly faxed me the notes for editors which the press reports had been based on.
These claim that there are 6000 recorded cases of rape a year and 17 600 recorded cases of sexual assault (accidentally inflated in the Times report). But the real rates of these crimes total between 118 000 and 295 000 a year. The main cited source is the research report A Question of Evidence - this is a fascinating study of the reasons for the attrition rate in reported rape cases. However, this report does not cover the question of under-reporting and under-recording.
Indeed, figures cited in A Question of Evidence differ from those used in the Home Office press notes and quoted by the press: there were 5759 recorded cases of rape in 1996 (the cited year), not 6000 - increasing incidence by nearly five percent. The government notes that a rate of attrition of 25 percent takes place when the police 'no-crime' reports of rape; and then goes on to say that therefore the recorded figures should be increased by 33 percent for reasons unexplained. And on the most important figure - the 'true' rate of rape and sexual assault the figure of between 118 000 and 295 000 - the press notes say this: 'various studies have found that only between 10 and 25 percent of women who report rape in self-report studies reported the offence to the police. It is possible to extrapolate from the recorded rape and sexual assault figures to provide an incidence figures of...between 118 000 and 295 000.'
So, as I understand it, the recipe for arriving at these figures is as follows:
- first lump together statistics on sex crimes. Make sure you cover up the relatively low rate of rape cases by including figures for sexual assault (which covers flashing and other minor sexual offences, as well as serious assaults). On no account distinguish between the serious and the minor.
- second, fudge the figures and if possible inflate them a bit - nobody will quibble over an additional five percent here and there.
- third, include all no-crimed cases (where police say that although a crime has been reported, none has actually been committed) as real.
- finally multiply the resulting figure by anything you like. A figure of between 3 and 10 will be possible if you cite 'various studies' which reveal under-reporting.
Announcing the latest project, Baroness Jay, minister for women, was keen to emphasise the numbers of women living in fear of rape and sexual assault - perhaps she should ask herself how much her scare statistics have contributed to women's sense of fear.
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