[This is a reprint of a post from 2002, following up on the previous post, which is also a reprint from 2002.]
In the comments for my earlier post discussing rape, Rob Lyman wrote:
We can speculate about relative income and educational levels, but without more data, we can’t generalize from “people who attend college” to “all Americans” meaningfully.
I did say, at the start of that post, that I was discussing Mary Koss’ survey of college men. But in retrospect, I should have emphasized that there are problems generalizing from a college population to a general population.
However, I’m leery that “we don’t know for certain, because we lack data” sometimes becomes an excuse to ignore the data we do have. (This is an “in general” comment, not a criticism of Rob). To my knowledge, only three U.S. studies have used behaviorally-specific questions to ask how many men commit rape, and only one – the Koss study I cited, which surveyed college students – had a national sample. (I haven’t read the other two yet, but I’m told they found similar results). In other words, the Koss study is the best information we currently have on this subject. And considering how under-studied this area is, it may be the best information we ever get.
From an academic point of view, that’s not good enough. One cannot say in an academic journal, “from the data we have, the number of rapists among college men is pretty damn terrifying, which makes it seem plausible that the number among the general male population may be terrifying as well.”
That’s a reasonable point of view – for academic journals. Outside the academic world, however, it’s sometimes necessary to draw the best inferences we can from imperfect data. It is not reasonable or possible to postpone drawing conclusions and addressing problems until perfect data exists, because it is likely that perfect data will never exist.
So I think Rob was right. I have to admit, it’s theoretically possible that men who go to college are enormously more likely to have committed rape since turning 14, than those who don’t go to college. But – speaking as a non-academic – it doesn’t seem likely.
Also in the comments, Ardinger asks “if 4.5% of men are rapists, what percentage of the women you meet are rape victims?”
According to Dr. Koss’ study (which was conducted in the early to mid eighties), about 12% of college women have been victims of completed rape at some point since age 14.
This result of Koss’ study has been frequently criticized by anti-feminists. But at least three other nationwide studies of lifetime rape prevalence came to similar conclusions; the National Women’s Study found 13% (not available online, sorry), the Centers for Disease Control study found 14.8%, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics study of college women found 10%.
I don’t think there will ever be a single number that people can point to and say “this is the right answer.” Unreported rape is inherently difficult to measure; there will never be a study that someone can’t find reason to doubt, and every new study will raise new questions. But from the best studies currently available, somewhere between 10% and 15% of American women have been raped in their lifetimes.
My conclusion: Maybe the “real” number is that 2% of men commit rape sometime in their life, and 8% of women are raped. Maybe it’s more like 8% and 20%. We’ll never know for sure. But from the data that’s currently available, we can say this: Rape is a scary, serious, widespread national problem. It is not something committed by a freakishly small minority of men (unlike, say, serial killing); it is not something that happens to a small number of women.
Feminists want a society in which rape is rare (or nonexistent), and rapists are freakishly unusual deviants. But the first step in building that society is realizing we’re not there yet; we’re not even close. We’ll never change if we can’t even admit the scope of the problem.