Posts from Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

We Need Some References, STATS!

Published 14 years, 6 months ago

During a recent (somewhat contentious) debate, a friend tossed out the statistic that every nine seconds, a woman is beaten in the United States.  Later on, I did some math, and determined even if we assume that every one of those beatings is suffered by a different woman—that is, no woman is beaten more than once in a given year, which is most certainly not the case, but we’ll take it as a premise anyway—that means just over 3.5 million women are beaten every year.  That’s fairly shocking, if it’s true, since that’s about 2.5% of all females in the country (of all ages; there were approximately 144 million females in the U.S. as of March 2002, according to the Census Bureau document Women and Men in the United States: March 2002).

But is it true; or more appropriately, is it an accurate reflection of what’s really happening?  I started to wonder about this, because I have a tendency to question premises pretty closely.  What’s meant by “beaten”—does it include incidents where a single punch is thrown in anger, and instantly regretted?  Does it refer only to reported incidents, or is it based on both reported and estimates of unreported incidents?  Does medical attention have to be sought?  Does it include beatings of women by women, or is it only concerned with times when a man beats a woman?

So I turned to Google to do a little basic research.  The search “woman beaten every seconds” immediately turned up claims that varied from every nine seconds to every fifteen seconds.  That latter interval would mean that about 2.1 million women are beaten every year, again assuming every incident involves a newly beaten woman, which is quite a drop from 3.5 million.  I also found, a site that claims to “check out the facts and figures behind the news.”  They claim, in a list of what they term “commonly accepted fallacious statistics,” that the actual interval is every two minutes twenty seconds, based on a figure of “220,000 serious violent incidents” for calendar year 1999.  Which works out to every two minutes 23.34 seconds—if it’s true.

But is it?  Our friends at STATS aren’t much help, because they provide no direct reference for the figure, so there’s no easy way to check up on their methodology either.  Further obscuring the picture is that they don’t define a “serious violent incident.”  To reiterate some earlier questions, does it refer only to reported incidents, or is it based on both reported and estimates of unreported incidents?  Does medical attention have to be sought in order to count as a “serious” incident?  They aren’t saying, nor do they provide any links to more detailed information.

So I started digging a little more deeply, again through Google.  Eventually I found a document on “Intimate Partner Violence” (and more on that in a moment) at the Department of Justice that reports:

  • The number of female victims of intimate violence declined from 1993 to 1998.  In 1998 women experienced about 900,000 violent offenses at the hands of an intimate, down from 1.1 million in 1993.
  • In both 1993 and 1998, men were victims of about 160,000 violent crimes by an intimate partner.
  • Considered by age category, 1993-98, women ages 16 to 24 experienced the highest per capita rates of intimate violence (19.6 per 1,000 women).
  • About half the intimate partner violence against women, 1993-98, was reported to the police; black women were more likely than other women to report such violence.
  • About 4 of 10 female victims of intimate partner violence lived in households with children under age 12.  Population estimates suggest that 27% of U.S. households were home to children under 12.
  • Half of female victims of intimate partner violence reported a physical injury.  About 4 in 10 of these victims sought professional medical treatment.

So that gives us some actual numbers into which we can sink our calculators.  I’ll take one million as an average for the period 1993-1998, which is a crude but convenient measure.  That works out to a beating every 31.536 seconds; we’ll round down to every 31 seconds.

There are three things to note here.  One, this is “intimate partner violence,” which includes spouses, ex-spouses, boy/girlfriends, and ex-boy/-girlfriends.  It therefore doesn’t count random attacks like violent muggings, rapes by strangers, and so on.  Two, there were a million violent offenses, which does not necessarily mean a million different women, but there’s no way to measure that so we’ll continue to assume that every incident involves a different woman.  Three, it’s stated that about half of such violent incidents are actually reported to the police, which means there’s potential uncertainty in the data set.  The description of methodology restores some confidence; in the period 1993-1998, they interviewed “approximately 293,400 households.”  That’s a pretty good data set.

The report also states:

Women were more likely to be victimized by a nonstranger, which includes a friend, family member, or intimate partner, while men were more likely to be victimized by a stranger.

“More likely” doesn’t give us much of a handle on the proportion of intimate-to-stranger violence, unfortunately.  If intimate partner violence constitutes 55% of all violent crimes against women, that’s a much different story than if it’s 90%.  Furthermore:

Sixty-five percent of all intimate partner violence against women and 68% of intimate partner violence against men involved a simple assault, the least serious form of violence studied.

“Least serious” is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion, since “simple assault” is later defined as:

Simple assault is an attack without a weapon resulting either in no injury, minor injury (such as bruises, black eyes, cuts, scratches, or swelling) or an undetermined injury requiring less than 2 days of hospitalization.  Simple assaults also include attempted assaults without a weapon. 

So a slap in the face is lumped in with a beating that leaves marks or requires up to two days in the hospital.  We’re also including incidents where a person (male or female) tried to attack a woman without making use of a weapon, but failed.  Or succeeded.  That’s a very, very wide range of incidents and types of violence.

Since the next step up in assault severity is aggravated assault, which includes incidents in which “the victim is seriously injured,” we could decide to count all non-simple assaults as serious violent incidents.  That would mean around 350,000 such incidents in a year, which is obviously higher than STATS’ figure of 220,000 for 1999.  Now, I suppose it’s possible that the figure dropped that much between 1998 and 1999, but I give such an occurence a probability somewhere around that of my being made the first astronaut to Mars.  So we’re still left wondering what “actual figure as estimated by the Justice Department” they’re using, since the actual figures I got from the Justice Department seem to have nothing to do with their figures.  (But at least I pointed you to my source, so you can check up on my assertions; see the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ main page on Intimate Partner Violence to get links to PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, the document I’ve been referencing, and more.)

At the end of all this, we seem to have arrived at an answer between the commonly-repeated figure of “every nine seconds” and STATS’ claim of every two-and-a-third minutes (which in turn leads me to harbor deep skepticism about their other claims, since their domestic violence number seems to be, well, fallacious).  As noted, the numbers I’ve been using all cover intimate partner violence.  I didn’t find similar information on other kinds of violence, although I’m sure it exists somewhere.  Once those incidents were added in, they would lower the average interval between beatings, although they couldn’t lower the interval all the way to nine seconds, or even fifteen.  To do that, there would have to be more stranger-perpetrated violence than intimate partner violence, which the report says isn’t the case.

So what’s my point?  I have three, as it happens.

My first point is that obtaining an accurate picture of the world is a messy, complicated business, and simple unattributed figures don’t help at all.  I’m not trying to say that violence against women isn’t a big deal: it is.  I personally think violence of any kind, no matter who is the victim and whom the attacker, is a big deal, and we should work to lessen such incidents.  I am saying that it may or may not be as bad as we think—and, in fact, the document I used states that intimate partner violence and homicides dropped over the covered period, despite the fact the national population was rising.  That says to me that we should work harder to figure out the causes driving that decrease, and exert more efforts along the same lines.  I’m not so naïve as to think we can ever totally eliminate violence, but we can and should do our best to get as close to that goal as we can.

My second point is that the news media don’t help at all in clarifying this stuff—no great shock there, I suppose, but it’s something that been bothering me more and more of late (as I wrote yesterday).  I previously linked to an article about the gross inaccuracies in reporting about the cost of the proposed missions to the Moon and Mars, and this is another example of how convenient, unexamined “facts” become common conversational currency.  I know I’ve heard the “every nine seconds” figure on the news, or at least a figure very much like it.

The third and perhaps most important point, and the one I found most personally fascinating, is that I was able to do some in-depth fact checking of my own in less than an hour, using nothing but Google and some well-chosen search terms, and obtain a more accurate picture of the world than I’d had before.  I believe that this ability to self-inform is one of the most important and often underappreciated benefits of the Web.  If nothing else, I’m glad I went on this particular search because it reminded me that the Web really is something worth fighting for, and that improving the Web is always an effort worth undertaking.