Honest discussions about issues of sexual violence are important to community learning and growth around a difficult subject. Yet, the way Christina Hoff Sommers approached research from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (also known as NISVS, a survey released by the CDC in November) in an Op-Ed posted in the Bangor Daily News Jan. 30 ( “How to fake sexual violence rates and produce scary numbers”) is not a careful discussion. It is, to use her words, recklessly misguided.
Ms. Hoff Sommers, long known for continuous criticism of advocating for victims of sexual violence, writes that the CDC presents overinflated numbers of victims and survivors in the U.S. Her support for this point is: 1. Other estimates of sexual violence victims are considerably lower; and 2. The spectrum of sexual violence in NISVS is “impossibly elastic.”
Ms. Hoff Sommers points to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting numbers for 2010, which only count forcible rape against a female (despite the recent definition change — which in 2010 was not in effect), and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, or NCVS, which counts rape and sexual assault against men and women. Despite the fact that Ms. Hoff Sommers cites the NCVS, she does not cite one of NCVS’ most important facts, which is that rape is one of the most under-reported violent crimes in the United States.
What Ms. Hoff Sommers does not take into account when comparing the FBI’s and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ numbers to NISVS is that each survey discusses different aspects of sexual violence.
In 2010, the FBI only counted forcible rapes against females reported to law enforcement. As mentioned before, rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States. Those who work with victims and survivors of sexual violence know that victims/survivors do not report sexual violence to law enforcement for a variety of reasons: shame, guilt, fear of retribution and a host of other issues related to experiencing serious trauma.
Statistics from the FBI, while helpful in determining what is reported to law enforcement, do not represent the full scope of sexual violence in the United States.
NCVS also presents a different aspect of sexual violence. The CDC’s NISVS is a more comprehensive survey because it takes rape and sexual assault into account; and also includes other aspects of sexual violence such as forcing a victim to penetrate someone else or having sexual body parts fondled or grabbed.
Ms. Hoff Sommers dismisses such aspects of sexual violence, when in reality such acts exist on a spectrum; they all have significant effects on victims and survivors. Ms. Hoff Sommers ventures into dangerous territory when she writes about who is and is not a victim of sexual violence. Her disregard invalidates victims’ experiences, which in turn impacts reporting to law enforcement, prosecution of offenders and community safety.
Finally, Ms. Hoff Sommers scoffs at the CDC’s call for prevention education, saying, “Programs on sexism, stereotypes and social structures are unlikely to help victims of violence,” yet offers no alternative. Experts in the field of sexual violence prevention and response collectively agree that primary prevention — education which focuses on the impact of sexism, stereotypes and social structures — paves the way to ending sexual violence.
In Maine communities, sexual violence service providers strive to support victims and survivors and work to provide community education that engages community members in working to eliminate victim-blaming rhetoric like Ms. Hoff Sommers’. Advocates in our communities know what truly helps prevent sexual violence: talking about these issues in respectful ways, and showing victims and survivors in Maine that they have strong community support.
Ms. Hoff Sommers’ Op-Ed only serves to invalidate victims’ and survivors’ experiences. Let’s talk about how to prevent sexual violence from happening instead of allowing uninformed and offensive rhetoric decide who is the “perfect victim.” Let’s talk about ways to respect each other and ways to support victims, survivors and their loved ones. Let’s all work together to prevent sexual violence in our Maine communities.
Tamar Mathieu is executive director of Rape Response Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Penquis in Bangor which serves Penobscot and Piscatquis counties.