The startling decline in rape

The rate of forcible rape as reported on victimization surveys peaked in 1979 at about 2.8 per 1000 population (age 12 or older). In 2009 the rate fell to 0.5.

This is an astounding decline, but I don’t know of any reason to doubt the accuracy of the numbers. The National Crime Victimization survey is conducted twice a year, with a sample size of 134,000. Rapes reported to the police have been shrinking more slowly than survey-reported rapes, and actually rose from 1979-1990, consistent with other data showing an increasing willingness of victims to report having been raped.

I have no idea what caused the decline, which is far more dramatic, and started far earlier, than the declines in other violent crimes. But the theory that pornography causes sex crime would seem to have a hard time surviving comparison with the data.

Comments

  1. alkali says

    I’d guess two other factors are also involved:

    1) DNA evidence. Not the magic bullet that people imagine, but for purposes of deterrence it’s helpful that potential rapists think it is.

    2) Evolving social mores. In particular, you almost never see rape portrayed as a form seduction along the lines of Rhett Butler/Scarlett O’Hara any more. Instead, rapists are generally presented as creepy misfits.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Rape shield laws may also have helped a bit, although I think that alkali’s factors are stronger. They not only encourage victims to come forward, they help victims persevere through the prosecution, and probably help obtain convictions.

    I don’t know what role pornography has played. I do know that Japan is steeped in nasty sado-masochistic pornography (you should see the stuff people read on the subways!), but doesn’t have that much forcible rape.

  3. JW says

    In fact, it seems to be supportive of the opposite theory. Pornography is a substitute for, not a compliment to, rape. Yes it’s crass. It still could be true.

  4. Dave Schutz says

    Maybe guys who can see all the photos of perfect women that they want, and for free, are less likely to go out and bother actual women, who have pimples, and cry, and may hit them, and otherwise go off script. This would suggest that pornography might be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  5. Ken D. says

    I am also intrigued by the DNA argument. It is a genuinely powerful tool, and is “promoted” extensively on television both in fiction the the ubiquitous “real crime” documentaries. It would be surprising if the idea were not taking hold that if you leave blood or semen behind at the scene of a crime, you are at severe risk of apprehension and conviction no matter how cleanly you get away otherwise.

  6. Benjamin says

    The 1979 peak was also just before AIDS broke. Stranger rape may rightly be perceived by would-be rapists as more dangerous than it used to be.

  7. Matthew Stevens says

    But the theory that pornography causes sex crime would seem to have a hard time surviving comparison with the data.

    But I thought the argument wasn’t that pornography causes rape but that it was indistinguishable from rape, which (alas) can’t be proven or disproven with data.

  8. says

    I think this is mostly because social conditioning for young males became very different starting in the 1970s. Rape was something that was increasingly viewed as unacceptable.

    I would be very interested to see comparable numbers for, say, France.

  9. MikeM says

    There’s also another factor, having to do with definitions. According to the Uniform Crime Reports, which is used by every police department that reports rape figures, the definition of rape includes five elements: M offender, F victim, penetration, with a p**, of a v**. And there are very many rapes, let alone other serious sexual assaults, that don’t meet these criteria. See the Senate hearings on the matter: http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=e655f9e2809e5476862f735da16234b9

    I’m not sure how rape (as distinct from other sexual assaults) is categorized in the National Crime Victimization Survey, but if it aims to be comparable to the UCR, it only tells part of the story.

  10. Wonks Anonymous says

    From what I’ve heard, AIDS is very unlikely to be transmitted from women to men (I can recall some saying that there no recorded cases of that occurring through standard p-v sex in the U.S). From men to women, more risk, and from men to men most risky.

    I’m also reminded of studies that violent crime goes done while violent movies are playing in theaters.

  11. Chaz says

    But I thought the argument wasn’t that pornography causes rape but that it was indistinguishable from rape, which (alas) can’t be proven or disproven with data.

    I will get you some data distinguishing rape from pornography, right after I finish proving that dogs can’t talk.

  12. says

    “But the theory that pornography causes sex crime would seem to have a hard time surviving comparison with the data.”

    Quite. The results are consitent with the idea that porn substitutes for sex crime rather than complements it.

    This has been studied, papers written on it. Even to the point that rape declines with the roll out of broadband internet to various states.

    At one level, it’s obvious. Those who fap to pron are less likely to have the sexual energy (to the extent that rape is about sex, not power) to rape. Whether that “obvious” level is true is another matter of course.

  13. KhasekHemwy says

    With abortion and birth control, rape is a much less effective reproductive strategy.

  14. GatoRat says

    Another very compelling theory is the massive decrease of lead exposure, especially to children living in big cities. The biggest offender wasn’t paint, but leaded gasoline. The effect of lead on behavior is extremely well documented.

    That pornography doesn’t increase sex crimes has been shown repeatedly. In fact, it is associated in almost every experiment with a lowering of sex crimes. Some studies have shown one exception; depictions of sex and extreme violence intermixed. It didn’t matter if the sex itself wasn’t violent. But even there the effect was very short term (and there remains the question if even this only affects people already predisposed to sexual violence.)

  15. sheenyglass says

    Maybe there are a greater number of rape victims today who don’t know or who aren’t sure that they have been raped. It seems like GHB and rohypnol have become increasingly prevalent in the last 20 years. If drugs which interfere with memory are a part of an increasing percentage of rapes, it seems like a decrease in reported rapes would not directly correspond to a decrease in actual rapes. Which is not to say that there has been no decrease, just that an 80% decrease in reported rapes is not necessarily an 80% decrease in actual rapes.

  16. Ken D. says

    Kevin Drum, summarizing James Q. Wilson: “[T]he decline in crime is perhaps one-quarter due to increased incarceration, one-quarter due to reduced cocaine use, and one half due to reductions in blood lead levels in children.” http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/05/lead-prisons-and-crack-explaining-drop-violent-crime. Mark points out that this particular statistic outstrips the general downward crime trend, and asks why; lead abatement, while important, is not by itself a convincing answer.

  17. NYShooter says

    Now, if the data on rape/porn would be conflated with that of the just released Report of the Global Commission on drug policy we might begin making a dent in the inexorable, and nonsensical, rightward pull these past few decades.

  18. SamChevre says

    here’s also another factor, having to do with definitions. According to the Uniform Crime Reports, which is used by every police department that reports rape figures, the definition of rape includes five elements: M offender, F victim, penetration, with a p**, of a v**. And there are very many rapes, let alone other serious sexual assaults, that don’t meet these criteria.

    Correct–but that has always been the case. So the decline in UCR-rapes is significant, even if other “rapes” have always been missed.

  19. says

    Greater acceptance of women as equals could translate into social mores that are more anti-rape.

    I’d be interested to see stats for male-on-male rape. It might be interesting to see if greater acceptance of homosexuality reduces this type of criminality.

    The Freakonomics-abortion claim could be pretty easily proved or disproved, IMHO, if someone could pull up crime rate changes in Romania for recent years (abortion went from illegal to legal in 1990). Especially by tracking offences committed by age category of offender.

  20. Sean says

    I’m intrigued by how very few people in the thread have even nodded towards the effect the mainstreaming of feminism might have had on the decline in forcible rapes, and not just that, but that Mark Kleiman uses the space to bash a caricature of feminism.

    Needless to say, as far as I can tell, everyone commenting on this thread (including myself) is male, and the thread has drawn more comments than usual for the blog.

  21. Betsy says

    Women’s participation in athletics, strength training, aerobics? Engendering (pardon …) not only the ability to successfully fight/flee an attacker, but also an aura of self-assertion that tends to repel those seeking an easy-to-overwhelm victim?

  22. Betsy says

    Sean: Interesting points. To your second, I’d say that men are in a much better position to say why rape occurs, actually.

  23. James Wimberley says

    Data for France: French Wikipedia says that the first survey of women about sexual assaults and other crimes of violence was in 1996, repeated in 2000. Critique here. So victim data (and for this crime convictions are useless for establishing the trend) are not available for long-run comparison.

    British crime survey data are regular abd good quality but only go back on rape to 2004. Data here, page 30, table 3.18. No clear recent trend.

  24. Lawrence says

    This is terrible, but perhaps women are more sexually available through non violent means than they were before. My observation is that they’re certainly more aggressive than when I was young.

  25. says

    The conclusion is correct – but the data is not. This link will take you to the FBI numbers for 1960 through 2009:

    http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm

    Those numbers have been coming down as more and more women obtain Concealed Carry Weapon licenses. While a single datapoint that indicates a possible link is an interesting coincidence, it takes twenty or more to make correlation into causation. We have 48. Hopefully, that will soon be 49.

    Stranger

  26. says

    The cultural changes cannot be underestimated. If you read ostensibly-realistic literature from before 1970 or so, being a rapist was pretty much considered part of alpha-male behavior. (Sure, it was euphemized in terms like “wolf” or “ladies’ man”, but endless plots turned on the notion that a woman alone with a man was fair game, even moreso if she’d had anything to drink. Even “honorable” men weren’t supposed to be alone for extended periods with a member of the opposite sex. In real life, men like DSK were not exceptional (I remember family members complaining about being groped at dinner parties, and at school there was the quietly-circulated list of teachers to stay away from.)

    That background assumption of sex based on predation rather than consent appears to have diminished substantially. How pornography plays into that is probably more complicated than any single answer, especially as the definition of pornography has changed over the generations. What was porn in 1970 is mainstream television drama today. (And the things called porn today seem to skew toward humiliation of women now that the vanilla-sex market is no longer taboo.)

  27. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Betsy’s point is interesting, but I think it goes one level deeper. It’s not so much, I think, that women are physically and mentally more capable of resistance (although that is true, if only on the margin), but that women are now culturally perceived as being more capable of resistance. There are many cultural references to female physical violence–if you only watched certain movies and teevee shows, you would think that women averaged about as much upper-body strength as men. (And upper-body strength is one of the few significant sex differences that has survived modern inquiry.)

    This also goes to Stranger’s point. I’m not sure I buy it (the gun lobby’s prediction that an armed society is a polite society runs smack-dab against the higher violence rates in gun nutty states), but if it’s true, it might relate to changed perceptions of women’s willingness to use violence to protect themselves.

  28. JMG says

    I wonder if it’s not like the sharp drop in male sperm counts being observed worldwide, likely due to the steady and pervasive introduction of endocrine disrupting chemicals in humans. It has gotten to the point where we can no longer even find human control subjects for such studies, because endocrine disruptors are widespread, persistent, and cycle up and down through the food web easily.

    I would guess that, at some level, bathing the entire male population in feminizing chemicals has a significant result. I don’t know if the data are available for the EDCs the way they are for lead, but that’s where I would look on the reduced incidence of forcible rapes.

  29. says

    Interesting comments.

    jgjg, that is true. But correlation does imply a connection, suggesting the need for an investigation of related causes, if not a test of the actual causality itself.

    On that note, I’d be interested in an explanation of what actually causes rape. In other words, a profile of rapists – demographics, psychology, belief system, etc. To what extent are they bio-pathological, or culturally influenced, or both? Certainly much has changed in our culture in the last 30 years. So too our environmental toxins.

  30. Barbara says

    I guess it might be all of the above, but I do think that in the case of rape, we have a “defining deviancy up” paradigm as stated by Paul. Studies of domestic violence show that police involvement tends to make a perpetrator less likely to abuse again even if he is not convicted or sentenced to harsh punishment. It’s the opposite of normalization — knowing that your activity is considered to be unacceptable goes a long way to persuade many people to not engage in that activity, especially if it is considered to be unacceptable by a large cohort of their peers. It would be interesting to see if there is a pattern to the kinds of rapes that have declined — e.g., whether rapes by known assailants or in “date rape” situations declined more than other kinds. Because rape by strangers has always been considered deviant.

  31. joel says

    Well, why speculate? Surely, there is data on age/sex/race/socioeconomic status of convicted rapists now and then. Are young black men doing less rape, or older white men doing less, etc. And, the victims? Are there just fewer young men and women in the population?

    This may be multifactorial:
    1. There are fewer young people today.
    2. Sexual mores are much looser now. Free sex is not that hard to get, even for men.
    3. With the proliferation of commercial sex, the need for forced sex has become much less.
    4. Urban males have much more outlet for their male energies now (cocaine, computer games)
    5. There is the suspicion that a lot of rape reported was done to cover up illicit consensual sex, or to try to get an abortion. For example, Ms Roe (of Roe vs Wade fame) lied to get an abortion, saying she had been raped.

  32. says

    Joel:
    1. that’s true
    2. sexual promiscuity rates aren’t any higher than 20 years ago while rape is much lower
    3. see #2
    4. “urban males”? Anyway, cocaine use has dropped dramatically. Lots of speculation about access to porn lowering crime rates, but less so about video games.
    5. seems to be true about Norma McCorvey because Texas only permitted it if she had been raped, but then you’d expect the big drop to occur in the 1970s, not a vast increase followed by two vast decreases 30 and 40 years later.

    I think Betsy’s comments about women participating in physical sports could also merit consideration (and participating in the military), both on their own and as part of greater recognition of equal rights. Concealed carry might also merit taking a look, although I doubt it’s a major factor.

  33. CharlesWT says

    [...]
    Official explanations for the unexpected decline include (1) less lawlessness associated with crack cocaine; (b) women have been taught to avoid unsafe situations; (c) more would-be rapists already in prison for other crimes; (d) sex education classes telling boys that “no means no.” But these minor factors cannot begin to explain such a sharp decline in the incidence of rape.

    There is, however, one social factor that correlates almost exactly with the rape statitistics. The American public is probably not ready to believe it. My theory is that the sharp rise in access to pornography accounts for the decline in rape. The correlation is inverse: the more pornography, the less rape. It is like the inverse correlation: the more police officers on the street, the less crime.
    [...]
    While the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the
    least access to the internet showed an actual increase in rape over the same time period. This result was almost too clear and convincing, so to check it I compiled figures for the four states having the most access to the internet. Three out of four of these states showed declines (in New Jersey, an almost 50% decline). Alaska was an anomaly: it increased both in internet access and incidence of rape. However, the population of Alaska is less than one-tenth that of the other three states in its category…
    [...]
    Porn Up, Rape Down (.pdf)

  34. Turbulence says

    1) DNA evidence. Not the magic bullet that people imagine, but for purposes of deterrence it’s helpful that potential rapists think it is.

    This is unlikely because the vast majority of rapes are not stranger rapes. In most cases, women are raped by husbands or boyfriends or people known to them. DNA evidence won’t be much of a deterrent in such cases; a husband can always say ‘of course my DNA was found there because we had consensual sex — we’re married after all’.

    I think a better explanation is easier divorce laws and social norms plus greater financial independence for women. If you’re trapped in a marriage with a rapist, you’re going to get raped a lot. But if you have the ability to leave, and you do leave, you’re going to get raped a lot less. And the fact that women can leave changes the power dynamic: over time, it means that married men are less likely to be rapists.

    It seems like GHB and rohypnol have become increasingly prevalent in the last 20 years.

    Are there any studies showing that such drugs are really a problem as opposed to the Time magazine scare of the week?

    Those numbers have been coming down as more and more women obtain Concealed Carry Weapon licenses. While a single datapoint that indicates a possible link is an interesting coincidence, it takes twenty or more to make correlation into causation. We have 48. Hopefully, that will soon be 49.

    This is beyond wrong. For starters, the decrease in rapes is seen in states that don’t have concealed carry laws as well.

  35. says

    Here’s the data for Japan.

    Sexually permissive cultures are better for women. Rape was acceptable in the 1950s, as indicated by commenters above, for the same reason porn was unacceptable.

  36. Jen says

    It is highly unlikely that the actual level of the crime of “forcible rape” has declined.

    It is much more likely that as awareness of the fact that what constitutes rape and sexual abuse can include a wide variety of behaviors has spread, reporting categories have changed.

    In other words, a rape reported in 1973 would have been classified by the police or by the woman herself as very definitely “forcible rape” because other categories of rape were not taken as seriously or even reportable as crimes.

    I think these numbers are incredibly suspect, in other words.

    And Japan has an incredibly low REPORTED rape rate. REPORTED rape rate. REPORTED.

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