Can numbers lie?

In the case of sexual assault, yes, or at least the numbers can fail to tell the whole story.

Admittedly, trying to draw meaningful truth from any statistics is a fool’s game. Nonetheless, I found myself pouring over Statistics Canada’s police-reported crime statistics for 2016, which it released in late July and, as I did so, I found myself wondering, once again, whether those stats are very helpful when we look at the issue of violence against women.

Because Canadian criminal law does not have a crime of “violence against women” or “domestic violence,” it sometimes takes a bit of digging to try to uncover which statistics are related the violence so many women are subjected to.

Finding violence against women in the stats

In this report, for example, we can see intimate partner abuse between the lines in the finding that, while police-reported violent crime declined overall, there was an increase in the number of police-reported forcible confinement and kidnapping, threatening and harassing phone calls, the use, discharge and pointing of firearms, assault with a weapon/causing bodily harm and aggravated assault. These are all common elements of intimate partner abuse, even though they may not carry that label.

The report also found that the rate of police-reported aggravated sexual assault and offences related to the commodification of sexual activity rose in 2016, and once again we know that women are more likely than men to be the victims of these crimes.

We can get a bit closer to useful information if we go back to Statistics Canada’s 2013 report Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends.

That report noted that, in 2012, 173,600 women had been victims of violent crime. Men were responsible for those crimes in 83% of the cases and, of those, 45% were intimate partners and 27% were acquaintances or friends.

Young women (under the age of 24) were 42% more likely to be victims of violent crime that was reported to police. Indigenous women were victims of much higher levels of homicide and intimate partner abuse than other women.

But even this report that is focused specifically on violence against women is limited in its usefulness.

Women don’t tell

The reason for that is simple: very little violence against women is reported – to the police or to anyone. It seems to be generally accepted, even by mainstream institutions like Statistics Canada, that fewer than 1/3 of women report intimate partner abuse to the police and only about 1/10 sexual assaults is reported to police.

And, while it is possible to count dead bodies, it is not possible to count other kinds of violence if women don’t report it.

This under-reporting means that statistics based on police-reported crime have very little to do with the reality of the violence to which women are subjected.

There are lots of good reasons that women don’t want to call the police when they are victims of violence. One of them is that the response is often inadequate or worse.

YWCA Canada has created an infographic that paints a discouraging picture of police response to sexual violence in Canada. According to Ottawa U researcher Holly Johnson, there are approximately 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year. Out of each 1,000, only 33 are reported to the police. Only 29 of those 33 are recorded as crimes, and charges are laid in only 12 cases. Of the 12 cases where charges are laid, only 6 are prosecuted, and 3 of those prosecutions lead to a conviction. 1,000 sexual assaults down to 3 convictions, just like that. No wonder women don’t want to report.

Women don’t report intimate partner abuse either: they are afraid of increased violence by their partner, they fear that child protection authorities will take their children away; they don’t want their partner deported; they hope their partner will keep his promise not to be abusive again.

Looking for more useful numbers

While all statistics have their limitations, they are not without any value at all. For those who want to know more about some of the realities of violence against women, I recommend the Canadian Women’s Foundation Fact Sheet on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

I will, no doubt, continue to peruse police-reported crime statistics. But all of us who do so must remember that those stats can only tell us about crimes that are reported to the police and, when it comes to violence against women, most of what happens, short of homicide, is not reported.

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