In a recent article, Christina Hoff Sommers offered her criticism of the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey:
… [W]hat the study reveals is the devastating impact that careless advocacy research can have on truth. […] Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”
What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).
Sommers misses the mark in her complaint about the researchers defining what counts as a sexual violation. Many victim of abuse do not consider or see what happened to them as sexual abuse or rape. It makes sense for researchers to look at the acts on their own merits as opposed to what the respondents offer. However, Sommers is right that way the researchers went about it is so broad and ambiguous that it is possible that the numbers, particularly female victims, are inflated.
Sommers did not go into the other problem with the researchers’ definitions, namely that they excluded being forced to penetrate as rape even though all 50 states count that act as rape (or sexual assault in states that do not use “rape” in their statutes). She also did not note the issue with the age of the respondents. Most of them were in their 40s, which could have skewed the results, particularly for male victims as older men are less likely to report abuse they suffered.
This does not mean the survey is completely useless. It does provide some insight into how frequently men and women report being abused. However, it is hardly accurate and has a clear political spin to it that Sommers noted:
Why is the CDC using methods of advocacy research that are anathema to genuine social science? The answer is suggested by a posting on the White House Web site this month by Lynn Rosenthal, a presidential adviser on violence against women:
“Early in the Administration, the Vice President convened federal agencies to assess trends and identify gaps in our response to violence and abuse. We identified data collection as one of the biggest challenges we face in understanding and combatting these crime. Thanks to the hard work of [Attorney General Eric] Holder, the FBI, law enforcement leaders, and the women’s organizations who have long advocated for this change, we are one step further towards meeting that challenge.”
While that passage referred to the FBI’s recently revised definition of rape — and not the CDC survey — it shows how the study fits into the administration’s effort to apply the advocacy agenda of the women’s lobby to rape research. That would explain how feminist theory found its way into the report.
Hopefully, the survey will prompt others to conduct a less skewed study on sexual violence, perhaps with clearer questions and fairer definitions.