Federal Sexual Violence Prevention Programs Limited by Confusion

What is Sexual Assault? U.S. Government Not Too Sure

Crying female rape victim hides her face
Victims of Rape Speak Out. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

It is hard to deal with any problem when you can’t even decide exactly what that problem is, which pretty well describes the federal government’s efforts to deal with sexual violence.

Duplication with Lack of Coordination Found

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that four, yes four, Cabinet-level federal agencies – the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice (DOJ) — manage at least 10 different programs indented to collect data on sexual violence.

For example, the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women is assigned to implement the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by offering grants for local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judges, health care providers, and other organizations that assist victims of sexual violence. Another office within DOJ, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), works to implement the Vision 21 Initiative, “the first comprehensive assessment of the victim assistance field in nearly 15 years.” In 2013, a report from Vision 21 recommended that, among other things, the related federal agencies collaborate and expand the collection and analysis of data on all forms of criminal victimization.

In addition, the GAO found that those 10 programs all differ in the victim communities they were created to help. Some of them gather data from the specific population that the agency serves— for example, prison inmates, military personnel, and public school students—while others collect information from the general public.

The GAO issued its report at the request of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“Research has shown that sexual violence has long-lasting effects on victims, including sexually-transmitted diseases, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” wrote the GAO in its introductory remarks. “Further, the economic costs of rape, including medical and social services, loss of productivity, decreased quality of life, and law enforcement resources, are estimated to range from $41,247 to $150,000 per incident.”

Too Many Names for the Same Thing

In their efforts to collect and analyze data, the 10 federal programs use no less than 23 different terms just to describe acts of sexual violence.

The programs’ data collection efforts also differ on how they categorize the same acts of sexual violence.

For example, reported the GAO, the same act of sexual violence could be categorized by one program as “rape,” whereas it could be categorized by other programs as “assault-sexual” or “nonconsensual sexual acts” or “being made to penetrate someone else,” among other terms.

“It is also the case,” noted the GAO, “that one data collection effort may use multiple terms to characterize a particular act of sexual violence, depending on the contextual factors that may be involved, such as whether the perpetrator used physical force.”

In five programs overseen by Education, HHS, and DOJ, the GAO found “inconsistencies” between the data they were collecting and their particular definitions of sexual violence.

For example, in 4 of 6 programs, an act of sexual violence must involve actual physical force to be considered “rape,” while in the other two, it does not. Three of the 6 programs that use the term “rape” consider whether the threat of physical force was used, while the other 3 do not.

“Based on our analysis, data collection efforts rarely use the same terminology to describe sexual violence,” the GAO wrote.

GAO also found that none of the 10 programs offer publicly-available descriptions or definitions of the sexual violence data they are collecting, thus making it hard for persons – like lawmakers – to understand the differences and increasing confusion for users of the data.

“Differences in data collection efforts may hinder the understanding of the occurrence of sexual violence, and agencies' efforts to explain and lessen differences have been fragmented and limited in scope,” wrote the GAO.

Hard to Estimate the True Extent of Sexual Violence

According to the GAO, these many differences in the programs have made it difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the actual extent of the sexual violence problem. In 2011, for example:

Because of these differences, federal agencies, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, and other entities involved in dealing with sexual violence often “pick-and-choose,” using the date that best serves their needs or supports their positions. “These differences can lead to confusion for the public,” stated the GAO.

Adding to the problem is the fact that victims of sexual violence often do not report the incidents to law enforcement officials due to feelings of guilt or shame, fear of not being believed; or fear of their attacker. “Therefore,” noted the GAO, “the occurrence of sexual violence is considered to be underestimated.”

Efforts to Improve the Data Have Been Limited

While the agencies have taken some steps to standardize their sexual violence data collection and reporting methods, their efforts have been “fragmented” and “limited in scope,” usually involving no more than 2 of the 10 programs at a time, according to the GAO.

In the last few years, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has appointed “working group,” like the Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity, to improve the quality and consistency of federal statistics. However, noted the GAO, the OMB has no plans to convene a similar group on sexual violence data.

What the GAO Recommended

The GAO recommended that the HHS, DOJ and Department of Education make complete information about their data on sexual violence and how it is collected available to the public. All three agencies agreed.

GAO also recommended that the OMB establish a federal interagency forum on sexual violence data, similar to its race and ethnicity group. The OMB, however, responded that such a forum would not be its “most effective use of resources at this time,” meaning, “No.”