Alfred Blumstein

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A recent report that rapes had increased nearly 10 percent in New York City since the start of the year sounded alarm bells among women’s groups and officials concerned that the city’s streets were becoming less safe for women. But authorities and experts believe the reason for the sudden spike is that more women are reporting rapes, rather than an actual rise in the number of crimes.

Women’s advocates, criminologists and the New York Police Department suspect that the higher numbers reflect improvements in services for rape victims. In addition, an increase in awareness about what constitutes rape, these experts say, is encouraging more women to come forward. Although it is still too early in the year to know whether this development reflects a national trend, law enforcement officials and rape advocacy groups around the country say that they believe their efforts are finding success in the form of more victims reporting and prosecuting their assailants.

“We generally think that the increase in rape is due to better reporting,” said Jennara Everleth, a New York City Police officer. “We have a better relationship with the hospitals and I think the police department has become better informed on how to deal with rape victims.”

City officials recently reported that from Jan. 1 to March 11, there were 261 first-degree rapes, up from 238 in the same period last year. They said the increase stemmed from a rise in acquaintance rape, which surged 18 percent, while stranger rape fell 8 percent.

Nationally, acquaintance rape makes up about 70 to 80 percent of all rape cases; stranger rape comprises the remainder.

Everleth noted that over the past few years the police department has developed procedures designed to be more sensitive to rape victims. Now, when a rape is reported, a female officer is “almost always” put in charge of questioning the victim, since most victims find it easier to talk to other women about sexual assaults. In addition, the police department’s special victims unit receives hundreds of hours in training on how to interview victims to ascertain whether a rape has occurred.

Better Services Means More Response

News of the rise in rape cases in New York came as no surprise to women advocacy experts around the country, who attributed rising numbers to the existence of more and better programs.

Jamie Zuieback, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in Washington D.C., said that the numbers have gone up primarily as the result of improved efforts on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors to work with the victims in the aftermath of an attack.

“Many victims are starting to realize that while reporting a crime might not lead to a prosecution, it could lead to an end to the attacker committing another rape and it could also help them to regain power,” Zuieback said.

Linda Ledray, director of the Sexual Assault Resource Service in Minneapolis, said that cities with specialized programs to address the needs of rape victims generally report a higher number of rape cases and convictions than cities without such services.

Programs such as the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and the Sexual Assault Response Team, which Ledray oversees, now assign a specially trained nurse to work with representatives from a community’s district attorney’s office, law enforcement officers and a rape-crisis advocacy group member to work with victims of sexual assaults to treat and prosecute the crime.

“In some cases, we’ve seen that when a nurse who is a sexual assault nurse examiner comes in, the reported cases of sexual assault have risen by 17 percent,” said Ledray, adding that of all sexual assault claims, only 4 percent end up being unfounded.

Ledray said that her organization was now working on a formal study that would compare statistics in cities with and without the specially trained nurses and law enforcement teams in order to determine what impact the programs have had on rape figures. Currently, there are some 326 such programs around the country.

Definition of Date Rape Complicates Statistics, Prosecution

While New York’s numbers may offer the first glimmer of some good news, criminologists and other experts warn that much work still needs to be done to obtain an accurate reading of rape in America.

“Whether New York City is changing its standards or more people are coming forward or there is more rape, it’s hard to know, and the basis for knowing keeps changing,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the The H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

Varying definitions of what constitutes rape and shady practices by police forces looking to boost their images have long skewed statistics.

In Philadelphia, for instance, the police department was forced to clean up its act after the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed last year that officers were coding rape complaints in a way that obfuscated and minimized the nature of the crime, leading to fewer investigations and to lower rape statistics. The newspaper also raised questions about police practices in handling rape cases in Oklahoma City, Houston, Phoenix and St. Paul, Minn.

The way terminology is understood and applied in various states and police departments also make it difficult to make sense of the nationally reported statistics. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a standard definition for rape, the definition, which dates back to 1927, is considered so outdated and ambiguous that it leaves room for varying interpretations and error. For example, the FBI defines rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” without spelling out what “forcibly” and “carnal knowledge” mean.

“The uniform standard that the FBI articulates leaves lots of room for interpretation,” Blumstein said. “There are shades of difference in how police interpret the word ‘forcibly’ and date rape cases are probably the ones where the word ‘forcibly’ is most ambiguous.”

While the FBI collects data from police departments nationwide, it does little to account for the differences in reporting procedures and the interpretation of terms, making it almost impossible to draw any reliable conclusions about rape statistics.

New Initiatives Designed to Provide Improved Reading on Rape

In order to get a better handle on rape numbers, several local and national initiatives are currently underway.

Last year the Women’s Law Project of Philadelphia sent a letter to the FBI calling for a change in the definition of rape used by the agency in its Uniform Crime Reporting System.

And in New York, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is working to create a new measure for incidents of sexual violence by looking at how the services provided by rape-crisis centers and other programs are being used.

“Now, the only statistics are coming from NYPD,” said Harriet Lessel, executive director of the alliance. “We are trying to collect statistics from specialized programs to find out who is out there seeking services.”

Lessel is also hoping that a new New York State law, which will require hospitals to keep track of all outpatient visits and the reasons for them, will help to unearth more information about rape. That law is slated to go into effect next year.

Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance journalist based in New York.

For more information:

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network:

The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner
Sexual Assault Response Team:

The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault: