April 2, 2012
State rape statistics shock even experts
Survey shows Hoosier high schoolers have second-highest rate of sexual assault in the country
By Mike Leonard
April 1, 2012
The estimate that one in five women in Indiana has been raped at some point in their lifetimes may not even be the most sobering statistic to come out of a new report by Indiana University researchers.
The finding that Hoosier females in grades 9-12 have the second-highest rate of forced sexual intercourse in the nation clearly is a call to action -- and education must play a major role -- says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction and professor of psychological and brain sciences and clinical psychiatry.
"I was shocked at the 9-through-12 rate," Heiman said. "And this is an area where the data are really clear. The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have different definitions for various kinds of sexual assault. But this isn't ogling at somebody. This is unwanted intercourse. This is rape."
Of Indiana females of high school age, 17.3 percent reported forced sexual intercourse in the CDC study, compared with the national average of 10.5 percent.
IU researchers were asked to do a "white paper" analysis on sexual violence in the state after Indiana stood out -- in a bad way -- in a national analysis of sexual violence conducted by the federal CDC.
The Indiana State Department of Health initially turned to Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at IU.
"My initial reaction was, is this really our thing?" Plucker recalled. "And then I thought, from a student health perspective, absolutely. Then I thought we should bring Julia into this, and to her credit, she immediately asked, 'how can we help?'"
There are challenges in all research into sexual violence for various reasons, including definitions of conduct and underreporting. Most research suggests that as much as 50 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against women are never reported to law enforcement.
Adding to the problem for researchers and Hoosier women is the fact that Indiana is one of just three states (along with Mississippi and New Mexico) that do not require law enforcement agencies to report sexual violence ("any sexual act that is performed against someone's will") to the FBI.
"I worry that these figures probably underestimate the problem, which, again, is very, very troubling," Heiman said.
Plucker said Katie Cierniak, a graduate research assistant at CEEP, and the team of researchers at the center ultimately were content that they'd done a good job of compiling and assessing the available data on Indiana.
"I'm not happy at all at what we found," he said. "When your statistics are as bad as the state of Indiana's are for women being the victims of sexual violence, there's no way around the fact that Indiana has a problem we need to take very seriously.
"If you'd have told me beforehand Indiana would not rank very well, it would not have surprised me," Plucker said. "But that we arguably have the worst data in the country -- that hit me like a punch in the stomach. There are other more socially conservative states, more provincial states, certainly poorer states. But the data we have available to us just didn't allow us to figure out why our figures are so bad."
Toby Strout, executive director of Middle Way House in Bloomington, said, "It's hard to say why we are worse. I really don't believe our culture is any more wrapped up in the rape culture than any other state."
She and Heiman emphasized that what's important to keep in mind is that 80 percent or more of unwanted sexual activity involves people who know each other and are either in a relationship, dating or acquaintances. "We're not talking about people jumping out from behind the bushes," Strout said.
Middle Way House presents Healthy Relationships programs to seventh- and 10th-graders in the Monroe County Community School Corp. and for the first time this year will be able to track responses from 10th-graders who went through the program as seventh-graders.
"The program we do doesn't promote sex. Mostly what it does is talk about respect. Sometimes what people say they want and how they behave are two different things, and sometimes that has to be pointed out," Strout said.
Critics of other programs in other public schools say that abstinence and faith-based programs are too often ignored and even ridiculed by some students.
"There are bad sex education programs out there. There are bad science programs out there," Plucker said. "The solution is not to say we should not do education. The solution is to get working and create better programs."
The report by Heiman, Plucker and Cierniak includes a number of recommendations ranging from creating more effective age-appropriate school programs to better training of school staff, better tracking mechanisms and serious efforts from public policy makers to help create and fund community-wide programs.
"That's the hard part," Heiman said. "I think it's going to take a bit of money to do this, and it's not the best time out there financially, but how can we say we're not going to invest in our kids?"
Plucker was more blunt. "Instead of people using up so much oxygen going after the Girl Scouts, why not tackle this issue, which is really important to women everywhere and really important to society as a whole?" he asked.
Heiman said sexual violence is such a broad problem it's difficult to even measure the scope.
"If you think of all of the people with mental or physical health problems following violent sexual experiences, it not only profoundly affects the victim, it affects everyone around them," she said. "It affects family, it affects friends, it affects neighborhoods and communities."
"This has become a public health problem of epidemic proportions," said Anita Carpenter, chief executive officer of the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "I think about something my husband pointed out recently. One in eight women are at risk of getting breast cancer. Yet one in seven, and some say one in five, are at risk of getting raped. Clearly we are not paying enough attention to this."