Australia’s rape rate shame
SYDNEY now experiences twice as many rape complaints as New York City, and Melbourne is 38 per cent higher - despite each city having a little more than half the population of America's biggest metropolis.
On the raw data, the numbers are stark.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), which sources its figures from police, recorded 2899 incidents of sexual assault in greater Sydney in the 12 months up to September 2017.
Victoria's Crime Statistics Agency, responding to a request by News Corp to provide comparable figures, said there were 1993 police-recorded reports of rape in the same 12 month period.
The New York Police Department recorded 1446 reports of rape across the 2017 calendar year.
In the US and Victoria, the term "rape" describes any form of non-consensual penetration on a person of any gender, by any object. NSW uses "sexual assault", which mirrors that definition.
New York City takes in the five boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, with a population of 8.5 million.
Greater Sydney has a population of just over 5 million and Melbourne is now drawing neck-and-neck.
The lifeblood of any criminologist is statistics.
Several were not prepared to comment on the alarming numbers without taking a deeper look at the way the figures were recorded by police, saying their reputations could be affected.
One suggested there had been an error of combining rape with all other reported acts of sexual indecency, such as groping, exposure, stalking and harassment.
That's not so.
Those figures belong in different tables - with Sydney recording 3933 reports of "lesser" kinds of indecent assault and Melbourne 3212, compared to 3585 of what the NYPD calls "misdemeanour" sex crimes.
Dr Michael Salter, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney, said while the high numbers looked bad they might suggest Australians trusted their police more than the Americans.
"I suspect it is around greater willingness to report sexual assault to police," he said.
"There might be an increased cultural willingness to report, and police in Australia may be more receptive to receiving those reports."
With the exception of homicide, which always provides robust data because it involves a corpse, Dr Salter said first-term criminology students were taught to look beyond raw police
numbers to anonymous victim surveys, which gave better insight.
The US Department of Justice takes this view. In December, it released its annual anonymous National Crime Victimization Survey, which sampled 224,520 persons aged 12 or older across the US in 2016.
It concluded that rape and all other forms of sexual assault were reported at a rate of only 23 per cent.
If that is accurate, it means the New York statistics can be extrapolated to arrive at a figure of 6287 rapes across the five boroughs in 2017.
That's much higher than Sydney and Melbourne. But is it any comfort?
Not if you look at the last related study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Personal Safety Survey of 2016, which sampled a proportionally similar 21,250 people from all states in the six months leading up to June 2017.
It reported that of recent sexual assaults by men on women: "The majority of women (9 out
of 10) did not contact the police (87 per cent or 553,900).
Those figures do not suggest Australians feel more comfortable contacting police than Americans.
Furthermore, if the figures were likewise extrapolated to account for non-reporting - that is, that only 10 per cent of Australian women went to police - this would mean there were 28990 rapes in Sydney and 19930 in Melbourne in the same 12-month period.
A statistician might cavil at such a figure: he or she would want to weight samples and make adjustments for all manner of variables. But, however the numbers are made to perform, the stats from our two major capitals must mean something.
New York has for more than two decades had zero-tolerance policing after large parts of the city became no-go zones, with parks and subways overrun by opportunistic criminals.
More recently it has seen more intrusive policing measures such as stop-and-frisk.
In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared 2017 "the safest year in modern New York City history", with murder rates especially in sharp decline, dropping from more than 2200 in
the early 1990s to 290 last year, though rape was slightly up from previous years. NYC's public-safety agenda might help explain the decline of rape in public places but most rape occurs in private home settings.
Dr Jeff Ackerman, senior criminology lecturer at Griffith University - regarded as Australia's leading criminology campus - has likewise noticed "odd things" in comparisons between Australian and US sexual assault rates, which he said required further investigation.
He noted that the high prevalence of sexual assault was an issue.
"This is a sad exception to the general trend that Australia has much lower rates of most offences than the US," he said.
Victoria's Centres Against Sexual Assault, which represents 15 centres and runs the sexual assault crisis line, said its figures also suggested only one in 10 women went to police.
"Most of the people who come in to see us have not reported to police, and don't intend to go to the police," said CASA's spokesman, Carolyn Worth.
"And unless it involves children, we would help them to report if they wanted to, but we would not ask them."
She added: "We see around 3000 people a year and about 300 of them come in with the police, or bring themselves in and wish to have us arrange things as far as reporting goes."
It is certain that there is a vast difference between what is reported and what occurs.
"We know this is a hugely unreported crime," said Ms Worth. "There is a huge rate of sexual assault."
• Australian figures do not indicate if assaults were conducted in public or domestic situations, or if complaints would proceed to court. Victoria's CSA said its rape figures were the "most comparable data" to Sydney, but could involve counting differences.