Sociologists have long noted that public perceptions of social problems can depart dramatically from the reality of social problems. For example, during the height of Ebola coverage, many Americans were more terrified of Ebola than the flu, even though the latter disease is a much greater threat to U.S. public health. Because of the recent spate of media coverage about sexual assault, many people I read and encounter are convinced that the problem has never been worse and will get even worse in the future. Rather than descend into panic and despair about this terrible crime, let’s not forget that the prevalence of sexual assault has declined dramatically over the past generation.

Twenty years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey was redesigned to do a better job detecting sexual assault. The revised questions showed that in a nation of 258 million people, nearly 550,000 rapes occurred. Two decades later, the most recent survey reported that in a nation of 316 million people 300,000 rapes occurred. Thus, in the space of one generation, the raw number of rapes has dropped by 45% and the population-adjusted rate of rape has dropped 55%.

I started my career working with and advocating for rape victims, and no one needs to convince me that the only acceptable goal for society is to have no rapes at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have experienced an astonishingly positive change that should lead us to (1) Figure out how it was achieved so that we can build on it (personally, I credit the feminist movement, but there may be other variables) and (2) Never give up hope that we can push back dramatically against even the most horrific social problems.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys