Holly Johnson and Elizabeth Sheehy | December 31, 2014
Johnson & Sheehy: Social science research does not distort problems of sexual violence. Inaccurate commentators do
Barbara Kay’s column on December 22, “More rape statistics by the biased for the biased,” tells Canadians we should be looking for “bruises or blood or broken bones” on the bodies of women and girls before we name it rape or sexual assault.
Kay’s understanding of “real rape” would return Canadian women to the 19th century, when women and girls needed to show “great resistance” to prove that they were taken “by force” even when attacked while sleeping or overpowered by the size, strength, authority or the sheer number of men who attacked them.
She cites a Forum Research telephone survey of 1,658 women and men in Toronto that found that one in five women has been raped or sexually assaulted, and calls the survey as well as its critics “biased.”
The survey is flawed, but not in the direction Kay suggests. The question used, “Have you ever been sexually assaulted or raped?,” is indeed inadequate because it produces unreliable results. Most Canadians do not understand the legal definition of sexual assault, which does not require proof of “great resistance.” In Canada, we have a law of “affirmative consent” and a responsibility to ensure “voluntary agreement.” Many women know they will not be believed or that they can be blamed for making themselves vulnerable in some way.
Forty years of social science research shows that multiple, behaviour-specific questions are needed to measure sexual assault and rape reliably. Reliability is based on consistency, meaning that all respondents understand the questions in the same way and are clear about which behaviours are to be included and which are not. The simple question posed by Forum Research assumes that all respondents will not only interpret “sexual assault” and “rape” in the same way, but also in the way the survey designers intended.