Federal agencies can't agree on what rape is. According to a July report from the Government Accountability Office, this interagency confusion misleads the American public. The report, requested by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, revealed vast differences in how the Departments of Education, Defense, Justice, and Health and Human Services define and collect data on rape and sexual assault.
They found "at least 10 efforts to collect data on sexual violence, which differ in target population, terminology, measurements, and methodology" and "23 different terms to describe sexual violence." The number of American rape victims in 2011 ranged from 84,175 per the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system to 1,929,000 according to the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. And according to watchdogs at GAO, this diverse array of rape statistics came in handy: "Because there is wide variation in the results, entities that use federal data on sexual violence have a choice of which data to use, and entities reported using data that best suited their needs." Political needs seem to trump transparency, a core value of this administration.
"The GAO is correct that it is crucial to define sexual violence correctly and consistently," Sabrina Schaeffer, director of the Independent Women's Forum, told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "Too often inflated figures and definitions drive alarmism and ultimately grow government in a way that fashions women as victims and men as abusers. Ultimately, the IWF wants to encourage a culture of responsibility among both men and women so that we can have a healthier and safer society with happier more stable relationships for everyone."
As a women's advocacy group, IWF has been consistently critical of the federal government's imprecise approach to combatting sexual violence. Reform-minded advocacy for a "culture of responsibility" might begin with reassessing the reckless characterizations derived from inconsistent definitions and misleading data. The famous one-in-five statistic, for example, which the White House's "It's On Us" campaign popularized, depends in part on a broad definition of "attempted sexual assault" that includes varieties of sloppy "unwanted contact" nary a coed can avoid—a far cry from the FBI's definition of rape.
GAO recommends that the agencies make their divergent methods publicly available.