Difficult to compare rape statistics in European countries

Rape is a serious crime that concerns many women. This concern may be further aggravated by reports that Sweden ranks highly against other countries when it comes to the number of reported rapes, for example in the EU’s crime statistics, a matter about which Brå regularly receives questions.

This new report, however, shows that the way Sweden legislates and maintains statistics in this area elevates the figures when compared with many other countries. Sweden would end up somewhere in the middle of the European statistics on reported rapes – if we had had similar legislation and statistical approach as Germany, for example. Sweden also does not stand out in a European crime survey on the proportion of women stating that they have ever been the victim of rape.

An important conclusion of the study is that there are significant differences in the way the laws on rape are formulated from country to country, and major variations in what the statistics define as rape and how the numbers are calculated. This is part of the reason why some countries have more reported rapes than others, and also why certain countries have lower levels of cleared rape cases than others. Sweden’s laws and statistical recording practices serve to drive up the number of reported rapes, and to drive down the rate of detected rape cases.

- We have recalculated the Swedish reporting statistics so that they are comparable to the statistics from Germany. It then turns out that under the same legal and statistical conditions as in Germany, the number of rapes reported in Sweden would decrease by three quarters. Sweden would then end up in around the middle of the scale when it comes to reported rapes according to Eurostat, says Lars Lewenhagen, analyst at Brå.

Sweden also does not stand out in a European crime victim survey on the proportion of women stating that they have ever been the victim of rape. In Sweden, 11 percent of women stated that they had been raped at some point. This is about the same proportion as in most other countries in northwestern Europe. However, the proportion stating that they have ever been raped is lower in southern Europe, where there are also fewer reports of rape.

Facts

Brå’s report deals with the different problems that arise when comparing both different countries’ rape levels and their levels of cleared cases based on crime statistics. Brå has also tried to calculate what the figures on reporting and cleared offences would look like if the conditions were the same in Sweden as in other European countries. Eurostat is the statistical office of the EU that provides statistics from EU countries.

Reported rapes in Sweden and Germany

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Calculation of what Sweden’s statistics would look like under the same legal conditions and statistical system as in Germany. The calculation shows that much of the difference in reporting levels disappears if the statistics are made more comparable. Rapes reported to the police per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, unadjusted and standardised figures. Sources: Eurostat and Brå.

Questions and answers

Yes, according to statistics from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, between 2013 and 2017 Sweden and England & Wales had the highest figures in Europe for the number of rapes reported to police per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the statistics, Sweden also has a low detection rate for rape cases in comparison with many other countries in Europe.

It is against this background that the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) has conducted this study. The aim was to establish whether the figures that the different countries submit to Eurostat are actually comparable with each other and whether the picture changes if attempts are made to render the figures more comparable.

To highlight the problems that arise when comparing the statistics from different countries on reported rapes and case outcomes, but also to illustrate how other factors affect the statistics, beyond the actual incidence of rape and the effectiveness of the justice system.

Brå, the Government and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs are often asked questions about why Sweden stands out in the rape statistics. The report is an attempt to provide better information for use in answering such questions. It is also our hope that the study will contribute to a more nuanced and fact-based discussion about the numbers of rapes and other sexual offences reported to the police in different countries.

We have been able to identify two factors that have a major impact on the reporting statistics in different countries: the legal definition of rape and the method of recording the statistics. Sweden would end up somewhere in the middle of the European statistics on reported rapes if we had similar legislation and the same statistical recording practices as Germany, for example. Similar adjustments to the figures on detected offences (clear-up rate) in different countries also indicate that the national variations are considerably smaller than the available statistics suggest.

The legal definition of rape has a major impact on the figures for the number of reported rapes in the statistics. In many European countries, for example, violence is required in order for the offence to be classed as rape, while other countries also include acts in situations where the victim was particularly vulnerable, such as being heavily intoxicated. Around 40 per cent of the reported incidents of rape committed against women in Sweden in 2016 involved no violence, relating instead to exploitation of a particularly vulnerable situation. In 2018 Sweden became one of only a few countries in Europe to adopt a law on consent. This is likely to also affect the number of incidents that are recorded as rape in Sweden.

These differences also have a major impact on how many reports are recorded in the statistics. If, as in many European countries, the police do not record reports of rape that they believe did not happen or did not meet the legal threshold for being defined as rape, this will reduce the number of reports. In Sweden, however, the police record every report in which a person says that a rape took place. The number of rapes reported will also be uncommonly high in Sweden due to the fact that repeated incidences of rape that take place within the confines of a close relationship are counted as separate offences in the statistics. In many other countries, these rapes are counted as one offence.

Not everyone who is raped reports this to the police. This means that differences in willingness to report can have a significant effect on how many reports the police receive. It is impossible to say how many offences go unreported in the various countries, as we do not know the real number of rapes in any country. There are, however, indicators that the proportion of victims who report sexual offences is relatively high in Sweden. This is because Sweden ranks highly on three factors that are covariant with elevated levels of reporting, namely public trust in the justice system, a clear rejection of “rape myths” and a high level of gender equality.

Public crime surveys provide another source of knowledge about crime. Unfortunately, there are very few European crime surveys to go on and those that do exist have shortcomings in terms of both sampling and methodology. The latest such study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) dates from 2012 and relates specifically to the prevalence among women. The survey asked women about their experience of gender-based violence since the age of 15. The proportion varied between 3 per cent of respondents in Croatia and 14 per cent in the Netherlands. Generally speaking, the percentage of women who disclosed having experienced rape was lower in the southern countries compared with those in the north, and particularly low in the countries of the south-east. Ten of the 27 countries revealed a figure of between 10 and 12 per cent, including Sweden at 11 per cent.

On the question of detection (clear-up) rates, Brå’s analysis covers just five countries: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England & Wales (as a single unit) and Germany. According to the statistics from these countries, the proportion of reported crimes detected in these countries in 2017 ranged from 80 per cent in Germany and 57 per cent in Denmark to one third in Norway, 11 per cent in Sweden and 3 per cent in England & Wales. Similarly when considering reporting, the differences are largely explained by the differences in the method of counting. For one thing, there are variations in what counts as a “detected” offence. Some countries consider a crime to have been detected when a suspect has been identified, while in others, such as Sweden, someone has to be prosecuted for the offence in order for it to count. In addition, the proportion of detected offences will naturally be lower in countries with a more extensive method of recording the number of reports. Following adjustments similar to those concerning reported offences, the variation in detection between the countries drops to between 7 and 13 percent on average over the period 2013–2017. Sweden and Germany come in at 7 per cent.

Reported rapes

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Average number of rapes reported per 100,000 inhabitants and year, over the period 2013–2017. Source: Eurostat

Proportion of women who state that they have been raped

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The latest international crime survey focusing specifically on sexual violence was conducted in 2012 by the European Institute for Gender Equality (FRA). The FRA study presents the proportion of women who state that, one or more times since the age of 15, someone has forced them to have sexual intercourse by holding them down or some other form of violence. Source: Eurostat

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