Penn Researchers Reach Out to Lawmakers With a Policy Brief: Scope of Sexual Assault

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820December 19, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — Following the Center for Disease Control’s study designed to provide national estimates of sexual assault, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice’s Ortner Center on Family Violence sent a policy brief to key lawmakers.

The brief, “Assessing the Scope of Sexual Assault in the U.S.” defines the problem of estimating the number of sexual assaults in the country, outlines practical implications regarding inconsistent estimates of assaults and makes recommendations for the future, including making definitions uniform, including and reporting on all population groups, improving training and oversight and improving communication of the research findings to the public.

“Estimates differ substantially across sources, and comparisons are impeded by inconsistent definitions of rape and sexual assault,” Susan B. Sorenson, the executive director of the Ortner Center and a professor, said.  “Nationally-representative studies are rare and usually fail to include children, adolescents, men, people serving in the military or those who are hospitalized or incarcerated.”

Men were included in the new CDC study.

“Assessing the Scope” outlines the inadequate and inconsistent measurements regarding sexual assaults, and calls into question the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of rape, which has not changed since 1927.

“Official records are sometimes misleading,” Sorenson said.  “For example, the FBI’s definition of rape has not changed, whereas society at large and state criminal codes have evolved to a more inclusive understanding of serious sex crimes.  In short, if the public and policy makers were to solely rely on the FBI’s statistics, they would not be fully informed about the scope of the problem.

"Earlier this month, the FBI's Advisory Board recommended that the agency change its definition of sexual assault, and we are among those who urge the director to do so," she said.

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