Among the headlines from today’s announcement of the first findings of Natsal-3 (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 3, conducted between 2010 and 2012) are their first survey of non-consensual sex.
The Guardian reports that these figures show “the proportion of women saying they have been victims of sexual coercion is more than double that of those who say they have been victims of rape.” The Natsal report notes that this may in part be due to the broader definition used by their study as compared to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which uses the legal definition – in the UK the legal definition of rape requires the perpetrator to have a penis for rape to have occurred.
The purpose of this post is to look deeper into the numbers, as published via the Lancet website (you need a free registration to read the articles). I don’t want to do a lot of social analysis of the numbers, but to point out some features.
The main findings for the most recent instance of “completed non-volitional sex” (that is, the perpetrator succeeded in forcing them to have sex) were 9.8% of women, and 1.4% of men – 1 in 10 and 1 in 70, respectively – saying it had happened to them. Men are likely to be raped at a younger age than women – the survey asked about age at “most recent occurrence”. For women, 80% of them fell between 14 and 32, for men the same range was 13-30; the median (that is, 50% above and below) was 18 for women, but 16 for men. That means (at least) half of all non-consenting sex perpetrated on men, took place when the victim was below age 16, and (at least) half of that perpetrated on women took place when the victim was below age 18. The report’s authors suggest that “early intervention is essential” and note that “non-biological aspects of sex and relationship education are currently not compulsory in the curriculum, and as such implementation might be hindered.”
Attempted non-volitional sex (measured by the question, “Has anyone tried to make you have sex with them, against your will?”) shows that approximately half of assaults on women and a third of assaults on men resulted in completed non-volitional sex. 19.4% of women reported attempted non-volitional sex, compared with 4.7% of men.
The survey also reports that 1.7% (or about 1 in 60) of women did not know if this had happened. For men, the figure was 1.3% (1 in 75). These were excluded from the analysis (along with those who didn’t answer the question). To my mind, these are disturbing figures in themselves, because what factors would leave a person unsure? Were they unsure about their volition, or had they had experiences where drink or other drugs left them in situations where they can’t recall? Perhaps the next phase of the survey will dig into this question.
The survey used different definitions of sex for same-sex and opposite-sex pairings. Heterosexual sex was given as “vaginal, oral or anal”, while homosexual sex was given as “oral (or, for men only, anal) sex or any other contact involving the genital area”. It appears from this as though sexual assault using insertable toys such as dildos, strap-ons, etc is not included in the definition. It also seems as though digital stimulation (handjob, fingering, fisting, etc) would be included in the same-sex definition, but not the opposite-sex definition.
The Guardian report contains an infrographic breaking down the perpetrators of “most recent occurrence”, showing that roughly 15% (slightly over for men, slightly under for women) of assaults were by strangers. For women, it is more likely to be a current or former partner (41%), while men are more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone else that they know (60%, evenly split between “friend/family member” and “known but not a friend/family member”). This even split of the acquaintance-rape between friend/family member and “someone else known” is roughly the same 50:50 split for women – it’s just that “current/former partner” is bigger than either. While a greater proportion of male victims are raped by an acquaintance, it should be noted that numerically there are more women raped by acquaintances than men – remember, only 1 in 70 men, against 1 in 10 women, experience completed non-volitional sex. The question in my mind is in what capacity these “acquaintances” are known, if they are not friends of family members. The biggest category that springs to mind is professional – either an employer or work colleague, or someone known through a professional or business relationship (e.g. medical practitioner, contracted craftsman, clergy, etc).
Men were less likely to tell someone else about being victims of a rape than women, but in neither group was the figure above the halfway mark – 42.2% of women (about 2 in 5), and 32.6% of men (about 1 in 3). The study says there weren’t enough data to analyse the men’s figures further, but they looked at how age at interview and relationship to perpetrator affected whom women told about it. In terms of reporting to the police, only 12.9% of women and 8% of men said that they had done so. To be clear: all the activities covered by the Natsal definitions fall under either rape, sexual assault by penetration, or sexual assault, in English law so all of them are crimes that people ought to feel able to report. As the survey report’s authors state, “although some evidence in these data suggests that the younger participants in the survey were more likely than older participants to speak to someone about the occurrence of non-volitional sex and to report it to the police, much silence remains around the issue. We need to raise awareness of the issue and to de-stigmatise reporting.”
The last feature I want to draw out is remarked by the authors – men who have had sex with men were much more likely to report having been raped: 20% of men who said they had ever had a same-sex experience (defined as “involving genital contact”) reported attempted non-volitional sex, and 10.1% reported completed non-volitional sex. Those who had never had a same-sex experience were 3.8% and 0.8% respectively. The authors may have mentioned gay men, but I looked at women as well. 41.3% of women who had ever had a same-sex experience reported also having experienced attempted non-volitional sex; 27.5% said completed. Women with no same-sex experience reported 17.9% and 8.6% respectively. That implies that a gay or bisexual man is more likely to have been raped than a straight woman (although if a large proportion of those same-sex experiences were also instances of non-volitional sex – as in, the only same-sex experience a man had had was also non-volitional – then that conclusion would be false). By the same token, it implies that a lesbian or bisexual woman, on the other hand, is more than twice as likely to have been raped than either, and more than thirty times more likely to be raped than a straight man. Although I noted earlier that the definitions seemed to be broader for same-sex than opposite-sex, these gaps seem far bigger than could be explained by that alone.
There are many more elements to the survey. These were features that struck me particularly. Others included the relationships with mental health, physical health, smoking and family structure. The upshot is that most axes of privilege (gender, sexuality, disability, social background, etc) seem to have an effect to the detriment of the non-privileged group in terms of likelihood of being a victim of non-volitional sex.