Debunking Hanna Rosin, stop The End of Rape story edition

You can’t get 18 pages into Hanna Rosin’s blockbuster myth-making machine The End of Men, before you get to this (on page 19):

One of the great crime stories of the last twenty years is the dramatic decline of sexual assault. Rates are so low in parts of the country — for white women especially — that criminologists can’t plot the numbers on a chart. “Women in much of America might as well be living in Sweden,* they’re so safe,” says criminologist Mike Males.

That’s ridiculous, as I’ll show. Rape is difficult to measure, partly because of limiting state definitions, but the numbers are consistent enough from different sources to support the conclusion that reported rape in the United States has become less common in the last several decades — along with violent crime in general. This is good news. Here is the rate of reported “forcible rape” (of women) as defined by the FBI’s crime reporting system, the Uniform Crime Reports.** See the big drop — and also that the rate of decline slowed in the 2000s compared with the 1990s: Source: Uniform Crime Reports, 2010. The claim in Rosin’s book — which, like much of the book, is not sourced in the footnotes — is almost too vague to fact-check. What is “much of the country,” and what is a number “so low” that a criminologist “can’t plot” it on a chart? (I’m no criminologist, but I have even plotted negative numbers on a chart.) But even though she makes things up and her publisher apparently doesn’t care, we must resist the urge to just ignore it. The book is getting a lot of attention, and it’s climbing bestseller lists. Just staying with the FBI database of reported rates, they do report them by state, so we can look for that “much of the country” she’s talking about. I made a map using this handy free tool. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 2010, Table 47.

The lowest state rate is 11.2 per 100,000 (New Jersey), the highest is 75 (Alaska).

You can also get the numbers for 360 metropolitan areas. For these, the average rate of forcible rape reported was 31.5 per 100,000 population. One place, Carson City, Nevada, had a very low rate (just one reported in 2010), but no place else had a rate lower than 5.1. (You can see the full list here.)

I have no trouble plotting numbers that low. I could even plot numbers as low as those reported by police in Europe, where, according to the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, for 32 countries in 2007, the median rate was just 5 per 100,000 — which is lower than every U.S. metropolitan area for 2010 (except Carson City, Nevada).

These police reports are under-counts compared with population surveys that ask people whether they have been the victim of a crime, regardless of whether it was reported to police. According to the government’s Crime Victimization Survey (CVS), 65% of rape/sexual assault is not reported. The CVS rate of rape and sexual assault (combined) was 70 per 100,000 in 2010. That does reflect a substantial drop since 2001 (although there was also a significant increase from 2009 to 2010).

And what about the “for white women especially” part of Rosin’s claim? According to the Crime Victimization Survey (table 9), the white victimization rate is the same as the national average: 70 per 100,000.

I hope it’s true, as Rosin says, that “what makes [this era] stand out is the new power women have to ward off men if they want to.” But it’s hard to see how that cause is served by inventing an end of rape.

*That is an ironic reference, because Sweden actually has very high (for Europe) rate reported rape, which has been attributed to its broad definition and aggressive attempts at prosecution and data collection.

** Believe it or not, this was their definition: “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded.” That is being changed to include oral and anal penetration, as well as male victims, but data based on those changes aren’t reported yet.

Check the Hanna Rosin tag for other posts in this series.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Debunking Hanna Rosin, stop The End of Rape story edition

  1. Teeka James

    Keep doing your great work, Philip!

  2. Andy

    A couple things here. First, I took the “so low… that criminologists can’t plot the numbers…” comment, as vague as it is, to mean that the rates are statistically indistinguishable from zero. Now, this is clearly not true, but I think that’s the hyperbole she was going for.

    Second, it seems unusual to use ‘total population’ as the denominator in the calculation of the rate of forcible rate. Presumably, the risk of forcible rape varies substantially across age groups, and using the total population may obscure trends in rape as trends in age structure. Indeed, census data show that the proportion of the population between ages 15 and 40 (likely the ages at which the majority of forcible rapes occur) declined from 40% in 1990 to 34% in 2010. So, in some ways, the trend graph you have may overstate the actual decline in “risk”. It would also not be surprising to find out that differences in age structure across states can explain some of state-to-state differences in the rate of forcible rape.

    • I don’t think you can have a rate that is “statistically indistinguishable from zero.” If something happens at all, it is distinguishable from zero. You might count zero cases and worry that you missed some, but you can’t count cases and worry that there actually were none. That’s different from a difference in rates, which may be statistically distinguishable from zero.

      On the age adjustment, that’s my non-specialist quick-take from the UCR table, which included the population rates. I wouldn’t know the best way to do the adjustment, since the population has changed in a variety of ways over that time (and you should take into account both victim and perpetrator characteristics).

  3. 1. Maybe “so low . . . ” means that if you put Rape on the same graph with other crimes (e.g., Larceny), it becomes barely visible.

    2. The decease is real –the NCVS estimates a 24% decline in rape in the 2000s — but it’s probably part of the general decrease in violent crime.

    3. Comparing European countries against US metro areas. What’s up with that?

    4. But yes, it’s hard to imagine that women’s “power to ward off” has increased all that much (though I’m sure the gun people would claim that it’s all because more women are carrying — equally dubious).

    • 1. There may have been a rational kernel of something in the legacy of the text, but what she wrote is wrong.
      2. Ya.
      3. If you prefer to compare US states to European countries, you could write, “…for 32 countries in 2007, the median rate was just 5 per 100,000 — which is less than half the rate of the lowest U.S. state.” I’m OK with it either way. Point is, we’re not talking about rates that are off the bottom of a reasonable person’s chart.
      4. I Rosin would say that it’s not just physically “warding off,” but that women are in a stronger economic position now, so they are less likely to be stuck in relationships with abusive men, since she says later that the decline has been concentrated in assaults by acquaintances.

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  5. You say this rate of forcible rate is “of women.” What age group? Females over the age of 15? All females?

    And I assume the rate refers to forcible rapes per year. Am I right?

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