CDC: MRA claims that “40% of rapists are women” are based on bad math and misuse of our data
Posted by David Futrelle
Feminists often complain, with considerable justification, that Men’s Rights Activists try to turn every conversation about women’s issues into a game of “what about the men?” You’re talking about female rape victims — well, what about the male rape victims?
The trouble with this strategy, from the point of view of the Men’s Rights Activists anyway, is that this little “gotcha” is much less of a “gotcha” then they’d like it to be.
In the case of rape, for example, feminists are well aware that men are raped as well: the “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign, which sent so many MRAs into hysterics, focused on male victims as well as female ones. The emergency room rape advocate organization that a friend of mine volunteers for provides advocacy for victims regardless of gender.
So many MRAs have started playing another game: trying to twist the conversation around in order to cast women as the villains. Rape is a bit tough for them here, since the overwhelming majority of rapists are male. So MRAs talk about the alleged epidemic of female false accusers instead. Or they change the topic entirely and make dead baby jokes (see my post yesterday).
Recently, MRAs have tried a new strategy, seizing on data from The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, a massive study conducted in 2010 under the aegis of the Centers for Disease Control, to claim that “40% of rapists are women.”
This is a claim repeated by numerous MRAs on numerous websites; see, for example, this post by A Voice for Men’s Typhonblue on the blog GendErratic. Here’s the same claim made into an “infographic” for the Men’s Rights subreddit.
Trouble is, this claim is flat-out false, based on an incorrect understanding of the NISVS data. But you don’t have to take my word for it: the NISVS researchers themselves say the MRA “interpretation” of their data is based on bad math. It’s not just a question of different definitions of rape: the MRA claims are untenable even if you include men who were “made to penetrate” women as victims of rape (as the MRAs do) rather than as victims of “sexual violence other than rape” (as the NISVS does).
I wrote to the NISVS for clarification of this matter recently, and got back a detailed analysis, straight from the horse’s mouth, of where the MRA arguments went wrong. This is long, and a bit technical, but it’s also pretty definitive, so it’s worth quoting in detail. (I’ve bolded some of the text below for emphasis, and broken some of the larger walls of text into shorter paragraphs.)
It appears that the math used to derive an estimated percentage of female rapists … is flawed. First, we will summarize the assertion and what we perceive to be the basis for the assertion.
According to the web links, the “40% of rapists were women” was derived from these two steps:
1) Combining the estimated number of female rape victims with the estimated number of being-made-to-penetrate male victims in the 12 months prior to the survey to conclude that about 50% of the rape or being-made-to-penetrate victims were males;
2) Multiplying the estimated percentage (79%) of male being-made-to-penetrate victims who reported having had female perpetrators in these victims’ lifetime with the 50% obtained in step 1 to claim that 40% of perpetrators of rape or being-made-to-penetrate were women.
None of these calculations should be used nor can these conclusions be correctly drawn from these calculations.
First the researchers clarify the issue of definition:
To explain, in NISVS we define rape as “any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm and includes times when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.”
We defined sexual violence other than rape to include being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. Made to penetrate is defined as including “times when the victim was made to, or there was an attempt to make them, sexually penetrate someone without the victim’s consent because the victim was physically forced (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threatened with physical harm, or when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.”
The difference between “rape” and “being made to penetrate” is that in the definition of rape the victim is penetrated; “made to penetrate” by definition refers to cases where the victim penetrated someone else.
While there are multiple definitions of rape and sexual violence used in the field, CDC, with the help of experts in the field, has developed these specific definitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence (such as made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences). We use these definitions to help guide our analytical decisions.
Now the researchers get into the details of the math:
Regarding the specific assertion in question, several aspects of mistreatments of the data and the published estimates occurred in the above derivation:
A. While the percentage of female rape victims and the percentage of male being-made-to-penetrate victims were inferred from the past 12-month estimates by combining two forms of violence, the percentage of perpetrator by sex was taken from reported estimates for males for lifetime (a misuse of the percentage of male victims who reported only female perpetrators in their lifetime being made to penetrate victimization). This mismatch of timeframes is incorrect because the past 12-month victimization cannot be stretched to equate with lifetime victimization. In fact, Table 2.1 and 2.2 of the NISVS 2010 Summary Report clearly report that lifetime rape victimization of females (estimated at 21,840,000) is about 4 times the number of lifetime being made-to-penetrate of males (estimated at 5,451,000).
B. An arithmetic confusion appears when multiplying the two percentages together to conclude that the product is a percentage of all the “rapists”, an undefined perpetrator population. Multiplying the percentage of male victims (as derived in step 1) above) to the percentage of male victims who had female perpetrators cannot give a percentage of perpetrators mathematically because to get a percentage of female rape perpetrators, one must have the total rape perpetrators (the denominator), and the number of female perpetrators of this specific violence (the numerator). Here, neither the numerator nor the denominator was available.
C. Data collected and analyzed for the NISVS 2010 have a “one-to-multiple” structure (where the “one” refers to one victim and the “multiple” refers to multiple perpetrators). While not collected, it is conceivable that any perpetrator could have multiple victims. These multiplicities hinder any attempt to get a percentage of perpetrators such as the one described in steps 1) and 2), and nullify the reverse calculation for obtaining a percent of perpetrators.
For example, consider an example in which a girl has eight red apples while a boy has two green apples. Here, 50% of the children are boys and another 50% are girls. It is not valid to multiply 50% (boy) with 100% (boy’s green apples) to conclude that “50% of all the apples combined are green”. It is clear that only 20% of all the apples are green (two out of 10 apples) when one combines the red and green apples together. Part of the mistake in the deriving of the “50%” stems from a negligence to take into account the inherent multiplicity: a child can have multiple apples (just as a victim can have multiple perpetrators).
D. As the study population is U.S. adults in non-institutional settings, the sample was designed to be representative of the study population, not the perpetrator population (therefore no sampling or weighting is done for the undefined universe of perpetrators). Hence, while the data can be analyzed to make statistical inferences about the victimization of U.S. adults residing in non-institutional settings, the NISVS data are incapable of lending support to any national estimates of the perpetrator population, let alone estimates of perpetrators of a specific form of violence (say, rape or being-made-to-penetrate).
E. Combining the estimated past 12-month female rape victims with the estimated past 12-month being-made-to-penetrate male victims cannot give an accurate number of all victims who were either raped or being-made-to-penetrate, even if this combination is consistent with CDC’s definition.
Besides a disagreement with the definitions of the various forms of violence given in the NISVS 2010 Summary Report, this approach of combining the 12-month estimated number of female rape victims with the 12-month estimated number of male victims misses victims in the cells where reliable estimates were not reported due to small cell counts failing to meet statistical reliability criteria. For any combined form of violence, the correct analytical approach for obtaining a national estimate is to start at the raw data level of analysis, if such a creation of a combined construct is established.
So you’re going to need to go back to the drawing board, MRAs.
What is especially distressing here is that the NISVS data could have been the starting point for a serious discussion of male victims of sexual assault by women, which is a real and often overlooked issue. Unfortunately, MRAs have once again poisoned the well by misusing data in an attempt to exaggerate the purported villainy of women and score cheap rhetorical points.
NOTE: A regular in the AgainstMensRights subreddit approached the NISVS researchers with this same question some months back. Unfortunately, the statement they got back from the NISVS contained an incorrect number. The statement I’m quoting here corrects this number and adds more context.
I can provide contact info for the NISVS representative who got back to me on this to any serious (non-troll) person who requests it.
About David FutrelleI run the blog We Hunted the Mammoth, which tracks (and mocks) online misogyny. My writing has appeared in a wide variety of places, including Salon, Time.com, the Washington Post, the New York Times Book Review and Money magazine. I like cats.
Posted on October 29, 2013, in all about the menz, antifeminism, evil women, misogyny, MRA, playing the victim, rape, rape culture, reddit, sexual assault, TyphonBlue and tagged anti-feminism, antifeminism, cdc, men's rights, misogyny, MRA, NISVS, rape, rape culture. Bookmark the permalink. 1,000 Comments.