More Accurate Methodology Shows Urgent Need for Preventive Action
December 18, 2008
The numbers in this survey show an alarmingly high rate of sexual violence in this country. This should serve as a wake-up call that more must be done to address the problem in the US.
Sarah Tofte, researcher for the US Program at Human Rights Watch

(New York, December 18, 2008) - A new government report showing huge increases in the incidences of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault over a two-year period in the United States deserves immediate attention from lawmakers and the incoming administration, Human Rights Watch said today. The statistics show a 42-percent increase in reported domestic violence and a 25-percent increase in the reported incidence of rape and sexual assault.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, based on projections from a national sample survey, says that at least 248,300 individuals were raped or sexually assaulted in 2007, up from 190,600 in 2005, the last year the survey was conducted. The study surveyed 73,600 individuals in 41,500 households. Among all violent crimes, domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault showed the largest increases. Except for simple assault, which increased by 3 percent, the incidence of every other crime surveyed decreased.

"The numbers in this survey show an alarmingly high rate of sexual violence in this country," said Sarah Tofte, researcher for the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "This should serve as a wake-up call that more must be done to address the problem in the US."

The projected number of violent crimes committed by intimate partners against women increased from 389,100 in 2005 to 554,260 in the 2007 report. By comparison, the number of violent crimes against men by intimate partners went down.

"Domestic violence is often a hidden crime, and these numbers are a stark reminder of how serious and widespread this problem is," said Tofte. "The Obama-Biden administration should make prevention and protection against all forms of domestic and sexual violence a top priority."

The National Crime Victimization Survey is conducted every two years, with data gathered in phone calls made to a sample of households across the United States. Due to criticism from experts in the subject, the survey's methodology was adjusted in 2007 to capture more accurately the incidence of gender-based violence. The authors say in the report that the higher numbers may reflect the new, more accurate methodology rather than an actual increase. Two major shifts were to describe types of sexual assault to those being interviewed, and to replace "computer-assisted telephone interviews conducted from two telephone centers" nationwide with interviews "by field representatives either by telephone or in person."

"The new numbers indicate that previously, the government significantly underestimated the number of individuals affected by domestic and sexual violence in this country," said Tofte. "Authorities should urgently adjust public policies, law enforcement, and provision of support services accordingly."

Human Rights Watch is currently investigating and monitoring the criminal justice response to sexual violence. The organization's recent work includes investigating the backlog in untested DNA evidence collected in rape cases in the US. In Los Angeles City and County alone, there is a combined total of at least 13,000 untested sets of evidence, known as rape kits, sitting in storage.

Human Rights Watch's national recommendations include:

  • The Obama administration should appoint a special adviser on violence against women in the US;
  • Congress should restore full funding to the Office on Violence Against Women;
  • The Department of Justice, through the National Institute of Justice, should authorize comprehensive studies that more accurately track sexual and domestic violence in the US, especially among individuals who are least likely to be surveyed by the National Crime Victimization Survey;
  • Congress should increase funding for sexual and domestic violence prevention, intervention, and treatment programs;
  • Congress should amend the federal Debbie Smith Act, a grant program designed to eliminate the rape kit backlog, but that states can and have used for other kinds of DNA backlogs;
  • The US should ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which obligates states to prevent, protect against, and punish violence against women.