Nearly Two-Thirds of Sex Assaults Go Unreported, New Data Show

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released new data on unreported crime from the National Crime Victimization Survey.  Among other things, the data demonstrate the limitations of the FBI’s uniform crime reporting system, which even in theory only captures crimes that come to the attention of police.

There is a great deal from the BJS report that merits highlighting, but I’ll focus here just on the under-reporting of sexual assaults.  This was the second-least reported type of crime covered in the report.  The non-report rate for theft, the least reported crime, was only slightly higher, 67% to 65%.  By contrast, the non-report rate for car theft was only 17% and robbery 41%.

It is not surprising that theft leads the way in non-reporting, because theft is often a quite minor crime.  Indeed, 31% of the theft victims who did not report the crime to police identified as the main reason that the crime was not important enough to them.  Another 35% said that they thought the police could not or would not help; presumably, this perception, too, is largely a function of the minor nature of the crime.

What drives the non-reporting of sexual assault seems to be a quite different set of dynamics.  


Only 6% of the non-reporters of sexual assault said that the crime was not important enough, and only 13% said that the police would not or could not help.  By contrast, 28% pointed to fear of reprisal or getting the offender in trouble.  The most common response at 33% was “other reason or not one most important reason,” suggesting that the decision not to report is a very personal and complicated one.

In many cases, the difficulty of the decision likely stems from the fact that many sexual assaults are perpetrated by people who are close to the victim.  With respect to all violent victimizations by intimate partners, the most commonly cited reason for non-reporting was “fear of reprisal or getting the offender in trouble.”

It would be helpful to know which of these answers (“fear of reprisal” or “fear of getting the offender in trouble”) is more common; they are grouped together in the BJS report, but their significance seems quite different.  For instance, one of the common criticisms of the recent wave of laws toughening the punishment for sexual offenses (e.g., lifetime sex-offender registration) is that they will discourage victims from reporting crimes.  The “fear of getting the offender in trouble” factor may in part be a response to this toughening.  On the other hand, if “fear of reprisal” is a more important cause of non-reporting than “fear of getting the offender in trouble,” that fact might support tougher laws insofar as they deter or prevent reprisal.