Rape Numbers Rise Along With FBI’s ‘More Inclusive Definition’ of Rape

New numbers from the FBI show more reports of rape in 2014 than in previous years:

According to new crime data from the FBI, U.S. crime in 2014 was down across almost all categories, including murder. But rape is one of two violent crimes (aggravated assault the other) for which states and local law enforcement agencies reported an increase last year, with the number rising 2.4 percent from 2013. What gives?

This increase comes after the FBI changed its definition of rape to include all forms of penetrative assault. The prior definition only counted vaginal rape.

There are problems with this new data, ones I suspected would occur. The first is that all those who reported their crimes statistics to the FBI did not use the revised definition:

But not all entities reporting crime data to the FBI—which may be done directly by law enforcement agencies or may be compiled and submitted by a state agency, depending on the state—included rape info using the new definition, either in 2013 or 2014. How many did or if there was an increase last year over 2013 is not included in the new FBI crime data report. But because of the dual definitions, this year’s report does include info based on both definitions.

Under both definitions, there were more rapes reported last year than in 2013. Under the old definition, the number of rapes was up 2.4 percent in 2014. Under the new definition, the number of reported rapes rose from 113,695 to 116,645. The rape rate last year, using the new definition, was 36.6 per 100,000 Americans.

The latter refers to how the FBI lists the data. They provide the numbers under the prior and revised definitions. People can compare the two to see the difference using the tables found on the FBI’s website. As people will see, in most instances the difference is significant.

The second problem is that the FBI does not break down the numbers by sex of the victim. This is important because there are many people who will use this data to claim that the change in the definition made it possible for the FBI to count male victims. Yet it is not clear if they did count more male victims than previously or whether those victims remained obscured because the police departments reporting their stats did not count those assaults as rape.

Since there is no way to know what was or was not counted, no one can definitively say this is the actual number of reported rapes. At best, it appears that the FBI simply gathered a number of various types of sexual assault and reported them as rape. At worst, the change in the definition may have artificially inflated the rate the FBI reports. Either way, the report is not an accurate reflection of the number of reported rapes.

This is precisely the problem with making politicized changes to the definition without bothering to ensure that correct data is captured.

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