The results of the 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) were released last week. The report begins with a troubling observation: “The longstanding general trend of declining violent crime in the United States, which began in the 1990s, has reversed direction in recent years.”
But with one very notable exception—a massive and inexplicable increase in sexual assaults—this year’s findings aren’t statistically significant enough to support the claim that the era of declining violence is over.
The NCVS is conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and it does not rely on reports made to the police. Instead it surveys participants about the violence they have experienced, whether or not these crimes were ever formally reported. The report categorizes violence in several ways—differentiating serious assault from simple assault, for instance.
The good news is that robbery declined from 2017 to 2018. The not so good news is that every other category showed an increase.
Most of these increases were not statistically significant. For instance, the aggravated assault rate increased from 3.6 in 2017 to 3.8 per 1,000 people. The rate stood at 4.1, 3.0, and 3.8 for the previous years (2014, 2015, and 2016). These results show yearly fluctuations, and perhaps some slight cause for concern that crime is no longer falling, but do not exactly give cause for panic.
But the sexual assault spike is quite concerning. According to the 2018 survey, the rape/sexual assault rate almost doubled, from 1.4 to 2.7. That’s a massive increase in a single year.
The reason for this increase is not clear. It seems unlikely that the sexual assault rate would have actually doubled in a single year—2018—when it remained virtually unchanged for the seven previous years.
Here’s how the NCVS defines rape:
Coerced or forced sexual intercourse. Forced sexual intercourse means vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by the offender(s). This category could include incidents where the penetration was from a foreign object such as a bottle. It includes attempted rape, threatened rape, male and female victims, and both heterosexual and same-sex incidents.
And here’s how it defines sexual assault:
A wide range of victimizations, separate from rape, attempted rape, or threatened rape. These crimes include attacks or threatened attacks involving unwanted sexual contact between the victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling.
The survey’s sexual assault definition—a “wide range of victimizations,” “unwanted sexual contact,” “may or may not involve force”—includes a wider spectrum of bad behavior than does its rape definition, and yet both kinds of violence end up lumped together. But the survey used the exact same language in 2018 as it did in 2017, so the spike cannot have been caused by a change in survey methodology.
Given the ongoing #MeToo movement, it’s possible that participants are more willing to report that they have been sexually assaulted, either because being victimized carries less stigma or because they are more likely to consider certain sorts of behavior to be assaults. But one would have expected that to show up as a more gradual increase, or at the very least to have seen some increase in 2017 as well.
So it’s hard to say how to interpret this. As John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham, wrote on Twitter:
7. On the one hand, an increase of this magnitude automatically raises some red flags. Crime isn’t often something given to huge one-year jumps, especially with levels as high as they are.
On the other hand, don’t want to dismiss this too quickly. If real, it’s serious.
— John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff) September 10, 2019
The Uniform Crime Report, which consults actual police reports, is due out in October; hopefully it will provide more information. For now, we have a mystery.