A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Defense, Education and Justice oversee at least 10 different efforts to collect data about sexual violence—producing widely varying statistics that, on the surface, appear to measure the same thing. As a result, policymakers and the public simply do not have reliable, easy-to-understand data about sexual assault, which can have serious consequences for the effectiveness and accountability of the criminal justice system and hinder efforts to combat sexual assault. Federal agencies and Congress should take action to ensure that the public and policymakers alike can better understand this data and put it to good use in the fight against sexual assault.
After reviewing 10 different data collection efforts, GAO found that federal agencies use 23 different terms to describe an incident of sexual violence. These terms often overlap and different initiatives sometimes apply or define these terms differently. For example, the Department of Education collects data about crime on college campuses and defines certain incidents of sexual violence as “rape,” whereas HHS defines those same incidents as either “rape,” “sexual coercion,” or “assault-sexual.” Similarly, the Department of Education classifies nonpenetrative contact as “fondling,” whereas HHS describes it either as “assault-sexual” or “unwanted sexual contact.” Furthermore, the Department of Education does not collect any statistics about certain types of sexual assault, such as when a victim was made to penetrate someone else. These types of conflicting and overlapping definitions make it difficult to answer relatively simple questions, such as “how many sexual assaults occur on college campuses?”