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Sexual Assault Numbers Vary By Who's Tracking It


We'd like to let you know that our next story may be uncomfortable or even inappropriate for some listeners. The subject is sexual assault. And while we're concerning ourselves with numbers, there could be some graphic or disturbing information. And with that being said, the issue is that there is no single, precise estimate of the number of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year mainly because of the different ways federal and even local agencies define it.

For example, in 2011, there were either 244,000 cases of rape or sexual assault or nearly 2 million. The answer depends on whether you're asking the Department of Justice or the Centers for Disease Control. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is the person who brought all this to our attention because she asked for a study on how agencies track and define sexual assault. We reached her at the Capitol. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, the study was conducted by the congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, known as the GAO. When you got the study, when you got the findings, what struck you about it?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think the number of different definitions of sexual assault - if we can't even agree as to what is a sexual assault, then how are we ever going to effectively combat it? And to see that there were 23, I think, different definitions that were encompassed in these four different federal agencies - so clearly we can't develop good public policy. And most importantly, we can't figure out if we're making progress if we are not keeping data that is reliable and comparable from agency to agency.

MARTIN: Now, earlier we spoke with Gretta Goodwin, the acting director of the GAO. And this is where it gets graphic. She was trying to explain how all this came about, and this is what she said.

GRETTA GOODWIN: If I say to you something is an unwanted vaginal penetration, to most of us, that means rape. Across these data collection efforts, that might not be the case. Six of those 10 data collection efforts would view that as rape. Two of those data collection efforts would view that as a non-consensual sex act. And another data collection effort would see that as a penetrative sexual assault.

MARTIN: I mean, it seems as though this is, in a way, kind of an issue hiding in plain sight. But I was just wondering, you know, what's your take on why this has persisted for so long in this way?

MCCASKILL: As somebody who's spent a lot of time as a sex crimes prosecutor, the definitions of some of these crimes have changed over the years. Keep in mind in my state, for example, it was perfectly legal to rape your wife when I was a prosecutor. The rape shield statutes that prevent someone's sexual history as being evidence in a rape trial, those are relatively new changes in our statutes. It used to be that a woman's past was perfectly fine evidence in a case where she was accusing someone of assaulting her sexually. So we have changed the definitions.

We have different definitions from state to state as to what is force, whether force is even required, if someone being unconscious is enough for it to be the most serious sexual assault crime. There are so many different varieties of sexual assault based on age of victim, based on age of perpetrator. So what we've got to do, at the federal level, is provide a better road map for state and local governments so that everyone can start using the same definitions.

MARTIN: Is there really - I'm just, I'm really wondering, though, how much the federal government can actually influence here. Is this really a matter of setting a federal standard? Is this a matter of the bully pulpit, for example? Because as a former prosecutor, you know that these crimes generally are prosecuted under state laws. So what can the federal government really do to change the situation?

MCCASKILL: Frankly, maybe the most important responsibility the federal government has with the crime of rape is keeping the statistics on a national basis. So what the federal government can do is set clear definitions for what constitutes what type of crime so at least the policymakers and the people who study this in academia have good information on which to base changes in statutes on. And that's how I came to this because as I was looking at this problem, it was clear to me that the data was just not reliable.

MARTIN: On the other hand, and forgive me. I do feel I must ask, especially because this has been such a big story in this area where we now are - here in D.C. There have been a couple of high-profile cases involving false reporting, like at the University of Virginia, for example. Now, mainly - that was mainly a journalistic failure. Let's just be clear. You know, how do you weigh that against all the other experiences that you have seen? And how should we think about that?

MCCASKILL: Well, we should understand that the due process and the right to confront your accused is an important part of our Constitution. And we should make sure that we are careful about respecting those constitutional protections. At the same time, I think we need to remember that false reporting is rare.

What you go through when you say you have been sexually assaulted - if you come forward and you are asking for the system of justice to work on your behalf, it is a harrowing experience. I know very few women who would do it for sport. I know very few women who would go through that kind of public scrutiny and that kind of personal invasion just because they felt like it or they were trying to get back at someone. So it is just unusual, I think, for there to be false reporting, not that it doesn't happen, and not that we should condone it, and not that we shouldn't look carefully at the evidence, but I do think it's important that we begin with the notion that the vast majority of people who are willing to come forward should be believed.

MARTIN: That was Senator Claire McCaskill, United States senator from Missouri. She joined us from Capitol Hill. Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCCASKILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.