Rape is an unlawful act that typically involves sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will. Rape is a global problem.
The challenge of tracking down truthful rape statistics
Accurate statistics regarding rape are notoriously difficult to obtain. The biggest complication is that most victims of sexual violence choose not to report it. There are many possible reasons for this decision: embarrassment, victim shaming, fear of reprisal from the rapist, even fear of how the victim's own family will react.
Also, many countries' laws against sexual assault are insufficient, inconsistent, or not regularly enforced. This can leave the victim convinced that getting law enforcement involved will do no good, and in some cases could actually make things worse instead of better.
Whatever the reason for a victim's silence, the effect is that rape goes grossly underreported in many countries. It is estimated that approximately 35% of women worldwide have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. However, in most countries with data available on rape (including the U.S.), fewer than 40% of those women seek help—and fewer than 10% seek assistance from law enforcement. As a result, most rapists escape punishment. In the U.S., for instance, it is estimated that only 9% of rapists are prosecuted, and only 3% spend time in prison. 97% of rapists walk free.
Why country-to-country comparisons of rape statistics are so difficult
Another confounding issue when compiling and comparing global rape statistics is that the legal definition of rape can vary from one country to the next. The methods used to count rapes can also vary significantly. These differences include, but are not limited to:
- Some countries consider any non-consensual sex to be rape. Others classify a sexual assault as rape only when it exceeds a certain threshold of violence.
- Some countries acknowledge spousal rape. Others do not.
- Some countries count any report of rape. Others count only those incidents that proceed to a legal trial.
- Some countries include non-consensual, and sometimes also consensual, sex with a minor—typically classifed as statutory rape—in their rape totals. Other countries place any sex with a minor, consensual or not, into a separate category.
- Some countries confine the definition of rape to forced vaginal penetration during sexual intercourse only. Others consider any unwarranted penetration of the mouth, anus, or vulva with any body part or object to be rape.
- Some countries track only male-on-female rape. Others also track female-on-female, female-on-male, and male-on-male rape.
- Some countries count each individual assault that occurs between the same people (for instance, a child and a relative, or a man and his arranged fiancée) as its own separate incident. Others add all of the incidents together and count them as a single rape.
- Similarly, some countries count gang rapes as a single incident regardless of how many individuals participated. Others count gang rapes as multiple incidents (one per participant, minus the victim or victims).
Despite these variances in recording and reporting methods, the data nonetheless makes clear that rape is a major issue all over the world.
For the year 2010, South Africa had the highest rate of rape in the world at 132.4 incidents per 100,000 people. In a survey released by the South African Medical Research Council in 2009, approximately one in four men admitted to committing rape. However, the government in South Africa is working to address this dysfunction, and proponents maintain that the rate has dropped to 72.1 in 2019-20 reporting.
Why Sweden's high number of reported rapes might be a positive sign
Statistics serve a vital purpose, but when taken at face value, they sometimes fail to tell the whole story. For example, countries that step up their efforts to prevent rape may see a rise in reported rapes rather than a decrease—but this is not necessarily bad. The key is to examine the cause of the increase.
It may be that a new, broader definition of rape is enabling more sex-related crimes to be categorized as rape. It may be that types of rape that previously went untracked (such as male-on-male or rape between a groom and his betrothed) are now being counted. It may also be that the legal system is getting better at catching and punishing rapists and/or society is doing a better job of supporting rape victims, so those victims are more likely to come forward and report the rape in the first place.
In each of these examples, the overall number of rapes will appear to rise statistically. However, the key to interpreting that statistical rise is to examine its real-world cause—which in some cases is an improvement in real-world policy regarding the definition of and systemic response to rape.
Sweden's seemingly oversized rape rate is perhaps the best-known example of this scenario. During the years 2013-2017, Sweden averaged 64 reported rapes per 100,000 inhabitants—a rate that tied for the highest in Europe. However, when the data was examined, it became clear that Sweden's high numbers were fueled in large part by Sweden's broader definition of rape and more inclusive reporting rules compared to other European countries. When the data was recalculated using Germany's narrower guidelines, for example, Sweden's average reported rapes per 100,000 people fell from 64 to 15, a decrease of 326.7%.
The goal of the above example is not to imply that Sweden's definition of rape is too broad, or that Germany's is too narrow. Nor is it meant to minimize the severity of rape or downplay its frequency. Rather, it is to point out the massive impact that differences in legal definitions, recording methods, and real-world reactions can have on a country's rape statistics. In light of this inconsistency, any country-to-country comparisons would do well to keep the apples-to-oranges nature of international rape statistics in mind.
Statistics on rape in the United States
The scope and severity of the issue of rape in the U.S. can be seen in statistics such as:
- While the frequency of rape in the United States varies from state to state, it averages out to one every 1-2 minutes.
- Women ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape or sexual assault.
- 94% of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape. 30% of those PTSD cases last at least nine months.
- 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
- A high percentage of rape victims experience ongoing professional and/or emotional issues as a result of the attack.
- While the majority of sexual assault victims are female (82% of juveniles and 90% of adults), males around the world also experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape every day.
- Transgender people and those with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault or rape.
- In the United States, 70% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.