The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that a survey showed that 14% of teenage girls have been forced to have sex, up 27% since 2019. The survey suggested a dramatic increase in the percentage of girls who had been raped. A CDC spokesman told the Washington Post Fact Checker that the rate of growth highlighted in an agency news release — 27 percent — was the result of rounding the numbers from more precise decimal-point results. The revised figure was 18.4 percent. In addition, some experts questioned whether the results have been affected by many schools refusing to ask the question about rape. The CDC’s focus on the challenges facing teenage girls — especially regarding mental health — is timely and important. The CDC’s use of inflated figures on sexual violence could undermine its larger message, the Post says. Experts in violence against children were surprised by the CDC’s news release but have been stymied in understanding how it was developed because the full data set will not be released until April.
Besides the CDC’s use of round numbers to calculate percentage changes in its news release and news conference, experts identified possible flaws in how the information was collected — particularly the fact that a significant number of schools surveyed refused to ask this question. That could have biased the sample by removing jurisdictions with lower rates of reporting rape and sexual violence. Other survey questions with more robust participation by schools — such as violence in dating and violence in bullying — indicated declines, not increases. “They should have alerted readers of the release that many of the other indicators of violence exposure ... were flat or showed declines,” said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Finkelhor said the CDC’s assertion that teenage girls faced “record high levels of violence” was undercut by other surveys. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, has indicated that rape and sexual assault of 12-to-17-year-olds has been declining for three decades. “The NCVS data, which is well known and well regarded by violence epidemiologists, should have tempered their claims about record highs,” Finkelhor said. “There has been a remarkably large decline in crime and abuse over the last 30 years that has benefited children tremendously, but it has gotten little press attention. Perhaps it is reversing, but there are not enough data points over enough time to draw that conclusion.”