The President’s Irresponsible And Untrue “One in Five Women Are Raped” Claim

In a video that aired during the Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, President Obama stated, as President of the United States and a certifiable hero to the kind of citizens who watch the Grammy Awards, this:

“Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape.”

Let’s begin with the fact that this is false, or at least, there is no reason to believe it is true, or even close to true. (More about this in a minute.) Was the President’s statement a lie? We can’t tell. If the President believes that rape is so common that 20% of all women are raped, then what he said is not a lie (a false statement knowingly made by the speaker in order to deceive), which leads to some uncomplimentary conclusions:

a. He has a remarkably low opinion of his own nation and culture…but then we knew that, didn’t we?

b. He believes what he is told without challenging it or examining an assertions’ origin, methodology and assumptions. Really? This guy is supposed to be brilliant. I would think such a jaw-dropping and frightening statistic would mandate some examination, but see a.

c.  Why hasn’t this been a major focus of his administration? Isn’t the President alarmed about this? Why is the Attorney General running around the country holding the hands of parents of dead kids who attack police officers and fighting attempts to make voters prove who they are at the polls if women are being raped like The U.S. is the Congo? Why is the Presidentusing his time to make faces on videos to sell Obamacare? Isn’t this clearly a reason to make one of his “I will not rest” speeches, in this case not resting until the rape frequency in the Land of the Free is lower than that of a Columbia ghetto? He believes 20% of the women in the country under his stewardship  being raped in their lifetimes doesn’t rate mentioning in his “if wishes were horses” State of the Union, and relegates this horrendous health and crime emergency to…the Grammys?

If Obama doesn’t know if the stat is true, but said it anyway, then he was irresponsible. He’s President of the United States; people believe him, even after the shattered pledge of transparency and “If you like  your health care plan…” and the “red line” and all the rest. He can not fairly, honestly, ethically state that something is true when he doesn’t know whether it is true or not. That is a lie, then: not the statistic itself, but the implication that he believes it.

Or he knows the statement is false, and made it to deceive, because the ends justifies the means.

In the discussion following last week’s post about the persistence of the false narrative that Bush’s 2000 electoral vote victory was “stolen,” I briefly referenced the now mostly abandoned fake “1 in five” statistic  on campus rape, the one that prompted the 2014 Unethical Quote of the Year from Senator Claire McCaskill when it was debunked. This prompted blog warrior Liberal Dan to re-state the President’s proposition, since he is one of those people who continue to believe the President despite all evidence to the contrary. “One in 5 women are raped,” he wrote, unequivocally, linking to a 2011 New York Times study.

I wish I had the time and space to muse about what it says about an intelligent American when a stat like that one, whether it is used by the Times, the President, or Lena Dunham, doesn’t set off his or her ethics alarms, Fake-Stat-O-Meter and bullshit buzzer. This is what happens, though, when the President makes a factual assertion. I knew the stat was crap; I just don’t have the time to prove it’s crap to people who want to believe it. I assumed someone would pretty quickly, and sure enough, the Washington Post’s hard-working, liberal-biased but diligently trying to compensate Fact-checker Glenn Kessler came through.

In his Washington Post column today, Kessler gives us the results of his research into Obama’s lazy/irresponsible/dishonest claim. His findings?

1. There is no consensus survey that backs up the President’s statement:

“Rape is widely believed to be an under-reported crime, because of the stigma involved and the self-doubt of victims who may blame themselves. So researchers, mainly on behalf of the federal government, have sought to reveal the actual rape statistics through confidential surveys. But there have been vast differences in the results, in part because there are two different kinds of surveys: criminal justice and public health. The criminal justice approach seeks to identify an event (such as an assault), determine when it occurred and learn as much about it as possible. The public health approach looks more at behaviors and seeks to stimulate memories, but it is less interested in legal definitions.”

2. What a researcher might call rape is not what the public envisions as rape:

“…the public health approach would not ask that question directly, believing that rape victims are reluctant to identify themselves (or may not even realize that the act in question was indeed a rape). The hope is that questions about behaviors will increase disclosure and capture various types of unwanted sexual penetration. But it also means the analysts — not the respondent — determine whether the situation merits the label of rape.”

Oh-oh. Despite the efforts of activists and feminists to define rape down into a category that includes words and stolen kisses, what the word “rape” conjures up in most people’s minds is a woman being forced by violence or threat of violence to engage in sex acts. If rape is simultaneously used to also mean “non-violent sexual intercourse with dubious, disputed or ambiguous consent by the woman,” that is misleading, deceptive and irresponsible all by itself.

3. The President’s statement was cherry-picked from just one of many studies—the one with the most alarming conclusion, naturally, and the one that Liberal Dan, being liberal, linked to. Surprise: the study’s results were estimated:

“The survey that formed the basis of Obama’s statement — the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — was a public-health study. It estimated that 1.9 million American women were raped in the preceding 12-month period. In fact, the survey said that more than 23 million women (19.3 percent) were raped during their lifetime. (The survey’s definition of rape included completed, attempted and “alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.”)”

Let me list the ways in which the results of such a study is inherently untrustworthy, a.k.a. crappola:

  • The survey didn’t actually question anything close to 1.9 million women, and covered 12 months, not lifetimes. Then it went on to estimate, from that, 23 million rapes. This was one of those studies that allow activists to say “It is estimated…” Yeah, I can estimate too. Where’s that hat with numbers in it?
  • Estimates, or models that are used to get estimates, are completely controlled by the biases and intentions of the estimators, the researchers. What were they? Let’s estimate…
  • Attempted rape is not rape, nor is attempted rape a useful category without strict definitions. Is a man pressing his affections one more time after a woman who appeared to be attracted to him and sexually aroused said “No!” an attempted rape? My guess is that many women and researchers would say that it is: if it takes a second “no” to stop an unwanted sexual approach, it would be an “attempted rape.” Right.
  • “Alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration,” assuming we aren’t talking lubricants, means that the woman was too smashed or stoned to give meaningful consent, or perhaps that drugs or alcohol loosened her inhibitions or obliterated her judgment. Is this considered rape now, even if the male is similarly incapacitated? I know there are those who are campaigning for such a redefinition, but no legitimate study should use rape in a way that has yet to be accepted by the culture, or the law.
  • Later in the article, Kessler reveals that the CDC study was based on interviews with more than 14,000 people, with a response rate of 33 percent….less than 5,000 people, from which the study extrapolated what would happen to 23 million women. Res ipsa loquitur.

4. Other equally serious studies came to completely different conclusions:

“But the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), run by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimated that there were about 174,000 victims of rapes and sexual assaults in 2012 (and nearly 350,000 total rapes). In other words, Obama cited a government study that came up with a number of females raped or sexually assaulted that was at least five times higher than another government survey. It was also twice as high as the prevalence number for rapes estimated by the 1989-1990 National Women’s Study and 30 percent greater than yet another survey, the 1995 National Violence Against Women Study.”

So why did Dan and the President choose the study they did to assert a fact that isn’t one? The same reason civil rights advocates and protesters look at contradictory and inconclusive evidence and conclude that Mike Brown was executed by a police officer in cold blood because he was black: that’s what they want to believe. Yes, I agree: it’s strange and sad that anyone wants to believe that the women of the United States are being hunted by so many rapists during their lifetime. That’s what political expediency will do to your values.

4. The study that produced the “1 in 5” included questions like this:

“Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications. This can include times when they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs or they were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent. Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault. When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have ever … [series of statements describing various sex acts]”

Sorry. This is a smoking gun: all by itself, it proves the survey is slanted, incompetent, and dishonest. The series of conditions, bundled as one, range from not necessarily suggesting rape (drunk, high), to suggesting that you had an interview with Bill Cosby (drugged), to per se rape (passed out).  The researchers think, or want the world to think, that these are all equally damning states for a women who ends up having sexual intercourse—damning for the male, that is. Having sex with a woman who is voluntarily drunk to the point of dreamy acquiescence is the same as raping one who is given knock-out drops? The CDC researchers are welcome to their ideologically motivated assumptions, but we are also welcome to say, “Well, that explains the CDC Ebola website page.”


“Another drawback of the survey — one that it acknowledges as a limitation — is that the questions pertaining to the 12-month period were not bounded by any particular event (such as “from Christmas of this year to Christmas of last year”). That runs the risk of people including incidents that actually took place outside the 12-month period.”

Ya think? What would a survey like this submitted by a student in a graduate research methodoogy course get, do you think? D or F?

Kessler usually tries to bend over backwards not to be too hard on Obama (all the more impressive that the President has received his worst dishonesty rating so often), and gives him just one “Pinocchio” out of a possible four. Maybe his reasoning is similar to mine: the statement was not necessarily a lie. Kessler says that stating the bad stat as a fact when it is just the result of one study was misleading, but excuses this by saying that “he was speaking in a public service announcement, where footnotes and caveats are generally not used.” Yes, and in ethical public service announcements misleading statistics are also “generally not used.”

Then Kessler goes off the ethics rails himself:

“…by citing as fact the results of a survey that may be overstated, the president runs the risk of undermining support for his efforts to call attention to sexual violence.There’s no such thing as a perfect survey, with completely accurate results — especially when the conclusions are determined by the interpretations of analysts…”

1. “MAY”?  Overstated” ? “Overstated,” as Kessler himself just proved, is just part of the problem with the CDC study. It’s untrustworthy, which means it shouldn’t be cited at all, especially in a public service announcement, and especially by the President.

2. Kessler is saying that the problem with citing a false stat is that may undermine Obama’s credibility, harming his effectiveness. Yup, lying sure works better when you don’t get caught. The problem with citing a false stat is that it’s false and misleads the public.

3. “No survey’s perfect.” Wow, a text book Rationalizations List #19: The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!” The problem with citing a lousy, misleading, slanted, incompetent, untrustworthy survey, Glenn, isn’t that it isn’t perfect, but that it’s lousy, misleading, slanted, incompetent, untrustworthy.

15 thoughts on “The President’s Irresponsible And Untrue “One in Five Women Are Raped” Claim

  1. Oh my God; I’ve been raped !! As if that’s not bad enough, at least 5 out of 6 of my 4 children will die within the next 95 years !

  2. You failed to mention that this man has a low opinion of the intelligence of Americans. Then again, I guess that goes without saying. That side of the aisle seems to have complete faith in their delusions coming to fruition; that everyone will believe stuff like this, that they can control all thoughts, legislate away all danger, do away with the unpleasantness of dissent, the messiness of freedom, the awareness of hypocrisy or irony. They actually believe the tide is turning in their favor, that not only are things going their way, but that everyone is finally seeing the inherent good in their worldview.

  3. This just in: The left thinks that women lack the capacity to make decisions about their own sexuality, including deciding to get drunk and screw. Men are to blame. Especially right-wing paternalism, which is much worse than the more open, accepting, left-wing paternalism.

  4. The public health approach looks more at behaviors and seeks to stimulate memories, but it is less interested in legal definitions.”

    so, instead of going to doctors, people who suspect they have cancer should simply go to the police?

    the CDC also once did a study on guns, which it was as qualified to do as criminologists studying heart disease.

    Oh-oh. Despite the efforts of activists and feminists to define rape down into a category that includes words and stolen kisses, what the word “rape” conjures up in most people’s minds is a woman being forced by violence or threat of violence to engage in sex acts.

    the problem is that if everything is rape, then nothing is rape. This does seem paradoxical, but this apparent paradox can be explained.

    If the public comes to believe that stolen kisses are rape, then they would not be horrified by a grown man forcing himself inside a 14-year-old girl. We would have a true rape culture.

    Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.

    I would love to see a drunk driver cite this as a defense against drunk driving charges.

  5. “I would love to see a drunk driver cite this as a defense against drunk driving charges.” Just be patient. The ACLU will get on this in due course.

  6. “No survey’s perfect.”

    This is the truest statement in the article, although not when used as an excuse for using misleading data.

    “Later in the article, Kessler reveals that the CDC study was based on interviews with more than 14,000 people, with a response rate of 33 percent….less than 5,000 people, from which the study extrapolated what would happen to 23 million women. Res ipsa loquitur.”

    Statistically speaking, it is perfectly valid to use a sample of 5000 people to draw conclusions about a very large population (even in the millions). However, all statistical methods produce a confidence interval, which is vitally necessary for interpreting the data.

    Even the two apparent conflicting government surveys are not totally unreasonable estimates when considered together. As a very rough and crude explanation, 350,000 total rapes might be the low end estimate; 1,900,000 total rapes the high end. The actual number of rapes for 2012 might be somewhere in between.

    (I acknowledge a clinical tone in the following when speaking of rape; I do not wish to diminish the suffering caused by rape, but rather to focus on discussing the underlying statistics in the two studies.)

    Ideally, both studies independently published the confidence intervals for their estimates. To clarify my rough example above, each study produces a predicted number of annual rapes (0.35 and 1.9 million for the NCVS and CDC studies respectively). They then each publish a confidence interval, which produces a high end and low estimate, based on the size of the surveyed group. The size of this interval varies, based on how “confident” the researchers wish to be that the actual number of rapes falls between the upper and lower bounds.

    For the 2012 data, we see rates of 0.35% of women raped and 1.9% (given a population of 100 million used by the CDC). Given sample size for the CDC study of 5000, we expect a confinence interval of +/- 1.1% or 1.4%, depending on the our needs.( Assuming a similar sample size for the the former, we estimate ranges of [0% to 1.7%] and [0.4% to 2.3%]. There is thus considerable overlap between the two studies.

    The two studies further appear to use separate criteria to serve two different purposes (NEITHER, I should stress, meant to give the president facile political talking points…) The CDC study wishes to capture all poorly planned and/or unwanted sexual contact, and used broadly phrased language to capture this. This data is important, as mental health and sexual disease propagation is affected by such contact, even if the traditional criteria imaged for “rape” is not met. The NCVC, meanwhile wished to capture the number of victims of criminal sexual contact that may need services.

    Yet despite the different purposes, the two confidence intervals still overlap considerably. The absolute values admittedly appear to fluctuate considerably, but when when considered as relative percentages of the total, they only differ by a few percentage points. A meta-study combining the two may be able to narrow the range further.

    The numbers are estimates of the needs of slightly different populations. Using the unqualified results, without clear explanation, to scare the public into accepting the political cause du jour is certainly unethical; however not enough evidence is given to suggest that either study is unethical in and of itself. I do not dispute that there may be flaws, such as the vague timeline alluded to in some questions.

    Statistics is a complicated and nuanced field. There are rarely hard numbers produced that are easily digested by the public, but ranges of values that likely contain true value sought. It is very distressing that as many as 2.3% of adult women have had some sort of unwanted sexual contact in 2012.

    Is also distressing, although less distressing in the absolute sense, that the President extrapolated ” has some sort of unwanted contact” to “were raped”.

    • I see many, many confounding variables that would make deriving any meaning from these studies difficult, even with a favorable CI.

      • Gah, screwed that up. It’s been too long since I took statistics. There is another term I’m thinking of, and it doesn’t involve rape experiments.

    • Thanks, and Comment of the Day. You have focused on a problem I alluded to but didn’t make clear: using studies created for one purpose and one audience for different purpose and a less sophisticated audience.

      You’ll have to explain to me, however, how that 12 month flaw, the conflation of drunk and high with drugged and unconscious, and the unspecified definition of “attempted rape” aren’t unethically confounding and misleading.

      • Once again, I am honored, thank you.

        As a preliminary response, I take issue with the characterization of the survey question. While the text in the Washington Post is a verbatim quote, in the survey, it structurally is broken into a preamble, and the actual survey question:

        “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have ever … ” (

        The operative portion of the question here is: “…and unable to consent”. I do not believe it is disputable that a person could drink themselves to the point of not being able to consent. The point of loss of consent is controversial; the preamble and question are phrased to encourage the answerer to decide he or she consented to the to incident. Her answer might change without anonymity, perhaps in line with the criminal definition of rape, but the study is meant to address the public health concerns of even these borderline issues.

        To address the terminology, the study does actually break down the “Rape” category into incidents of “completed”, “attempted”, and “drug facilitated” rape (I was also happy to see confidence intervals!). It is possible to calculate completed penetrative assaults without drug use. The weekly report linked to be the Washington Post further links to the full study, which gives the definitions used by the researchers ( – page 15):

        >>> Rape is defined as any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force
        (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm, and includes times when the victim was drunk,
        high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent. Rape is separated into three types, completed forced penetration, attempted forced
        penetration, and completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.

        Presumably, “attempted rape” occurs when the threats or actual violence occurs, but the penetration is unfulfilled or impeded.

        Now, I concur that lumping all these as generic “rape”, especially in every day language, might be inappropriate. However, this is a briefing made primarily for doctors, who see hundreds of patients a week, and are already familiar with the terminology. Alternatives might be “rape/attempted rape, etc”, but a balance must be reached so that is usable with it target audience.

        The full study is a available for a more thorough introduction; perhaps the journalist should have linked to this version.

        With the interpretation and terminology issues, I think it is fair to say the CDC knows that its data will be used for political purposes. With this knowledge, it posts considerable resources for interpreting its data; links that I have passed along when practical. It cross references and provides links from its briefings to the full reports. This is similarly how I view the flawed survey question. The CDC wants precise data, but must also make the survey understandable, lest it be thrown out.

        It is analogous to the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem. The CDC cannot make rules covering which data is summarized and which is left in the full report that covers every possible misuse; it cannot write questions that allow or disallow every possible incident a respondent might address. Strict interpretation of either might lead to absurd results.

        I agree, there is always room for improvement in crafting future methodologies and in idiot-proofing the presentation of data. Methodologies are published specifically so that the results can be built upon, and feedback solicited. However, data users must primarily take responsibility for understanding the material, and linking to the most appropriate versions for their audiences.

        Rape and statistics are independently difficult and complex topics; Inexperienced politicians and journalists using data without understanding its limitations is a recipe for muddled public policy.

        • In my legal ethics rules, consent is spelled out in excruciating detail. In human sexual relations, consent is “felt” and experienced rather than verbally expressed in many cases. Legally, a drunk woman’s consent to sex, even enthusiastic, verbal consent, could be challenged. That should not make the ensuing sex act rape. I see nothing in the study that would acknowledge that. Unfair, misleading, bad, biased, wrong. I don’t trust researchers who would allow this, and thus I don’t trust their design, definitions, choices or motives. No one should.

        • : “…and unable to consent”. Not only hard to pinpoint, but very emotionally laden, and seemingly designed to elicit a particular response. You can almost feel the agenda at work here. I refuse to believe that the designer of the question wasn’t aware of that. This is a mistake that someone taking a second-year research methods course wouldn’t make.

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