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Margaret Wente

The amazing news about rape statistics Add to ...

Earlier this month, a well-known female Mountie alleged that she’d been sexually harassed by a number of her fellow officers for years. Whatever the truth turns out to be, the story was a reminder (as if we needed one) that some men still behave badly.

But how are women faring overall? By some accounts, the news is grim. The American Association of University Women, which is deeply involved in antiviolence campaigns, reports that 62 per cent of women at university say they have been sexually harassed. A quarter of all university women say they’ve been victims of rape or attempted rape. Some reports of the rate of wife abuse are equally shocking.

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But Steven Pinker tells a different story. Mr. Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, is the author of a remarkable new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which documents the steep decline of violence through human history. His is the best account yet of what has really happened to violence against women. Like other crimes of violence, it has hit historic lows. Over the past 35 years, for example, the rate of rape in the U.S. has fallen by an astonishing 80 per cent.

Rape statistics are never perfect, because many rapes aren’t reported. But Mr. Pinker’s data come from the U.S. Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey, and are the best there are. Even if the numbers aren’t exact, the general trend is clear. The incidence of rape has fallen faster than every other major crime, including homicide. (As Mr. Pinker points out, the rate of rape is now 50 per 100,000 people, which is several magnitudes removed from one in four.) Domestic abuse has plunged as well. Since 1993, the rate of reported violence against women by their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds.

Yet, this good news has been virtually ignored. Progressive people are right to deplore the supreme illogic of the Harper government for cracking down on crime at a time when every type of major crime has hit historic lows. Yet other progressives insist that violence against women remains a serious problem. “Rather than celebrating their success, anti-rape organizations convey an impression that women are in more danger than ever,” Mr. Pinker comments.

It’s easy to forget how dramatically attitudes toward rape and wife abuse have changed. As recently as the 1950s, light-hearted magazine ads depicted husbands spanking their wives for buying the wrong kind of coffee. Police treated rape as a joke, too, and the victim and her reputation were routinely put on trial.

The great rights revolutions that gathered steam in the second half of the 20th century put an end to all that. Today, jokes about smacking your wife are reprehensible, and in many jurisdictions it is mandatory for police to lay charges of spousal assault even if the woman objects. Even symbolic assaults against women are condemned. Last week, the marching band at Queen’s University got into serious trouble for raunchy lyrics in its songbook. And the owner of a baseball team in London, Ont., came under fire for naming his team the Rippers. London’s mayor, Joe Fontana, said he has “serious concerns” about the name “in light of our focus on ending women abuse.”

The evidence is overwhelming. We are more enlightened now, and men – most men, anyway – behave much better. That is bad news for the grievance industry, which must stretch its definitions of assault and abuse to ridiculous extremes to keep its numbers up. It can’t acknowledge the good news, because it has too much at stake.

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