Figuring out the exact prevalence of sexual assault or domestic abuse is tough to do, but the rates reported in a new poll of Utah women seem low, according to experts.

According to the survey, 21% of women said they had been physically abused by an intimate partner, or former intimate partner, in their lifetime. And 26.5% said they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their life.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But the domestic violence rate in the Beehive State is probably closer to one in three women, according to Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. And in surveys, about one in eight Utah women have reported being raped, while 28.9% reported some type of sexual assault in their lifetimes, said Susan Chasson, a sexual assault nurse examiner with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

In early November, The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women, age 18 and older, over cellphones and landlines across Utah through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A definition of sexual assault was not provided to women answering the survey, which could have affected the results, Chasson said. Numbers can vary between studies on this topic, depending on what is included in that definition, such as rape, attempted rape and groping, among other acts.

Chasson said she prefers the definition from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which states, “Sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact. This includes words and actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will and without their consent. A person may use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.”

Part of what makes it tricky to determine the rate of sexual assault in Utah is that there isn’t a good way of tracking it, Chasson said. Plus, some of the available data has become old. The figures that Chasson refers to are from a 2007 report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

“One of the reasons why it’s hard to know what our numbers are is because the majority of people don’t tell,” Chasson said. Plus, many of these assaults happen when people are minors. Over three-fourths of victims in the 2007 report said that their first sexual assault occurred before their 18th birthday.

“I’ve had two parents disclose for the first time that they were sexually assaulted or that they were raped as teenagers when it happened to their teenage daughters. They had never told anyone before that,” Chasson said.

There are some figures that Chasson can look at, though. Wasatch Forensic Nurses responded to 843 cases in 2019, which was 91 more than they served in 2018. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that the rape numbers are going up,” but Chasson said she hopes it means that more people are coming forward and getting health care after being raped.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, discusses domestic violence legislation being presented during the 2018 legislative session.

When trying to understand the scope of domestic violence in Utah, Oxborrow said, the UDVC uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That data, which is from a 2010 report, shows that 36.9% of Utah women over the age of 18 had experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. The national rate is 35.6%. But like sexual assault, domestic abuse is underreported.

Oxborrow said she likes using CDC trend data because it is “comprehensive” and uses one definition nationwide, which allows comparisons between states. “Every state defines domestic violence and abuse differently,” she said. “Some states don’t include emotional abuse or verbal abuse, psychological abuse. They only include physical abuse.”

The CDC’s definition includes stalking and sexual violence, which “are two of the most and predictive factors in intimate partner homicide risk,” Oxborrow said. In 2017, 44% of all homicides in Utah were linked to domestic violence.

“In Utah, we define it under the Cohabitant Abuse Act,” Oxborrow said. State law says that domestic violence is “any criminal offense involving violence or physical harm or threat of violence or physical harm, or any attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit a criminal offense involving violence or physical harm, when committed by one cohabitant against another.”

Oxborrow said what concerns her about preventing domestic violence in Utah, specifically, is the state’s high birth rate, low earnings for women and the limited number of organizations dedicated to domestic violence.

“Women have a lot of children. They don’t have much education or financial autonomy. And they don’t really have many options of where to turn if they do need help,” Obxorrow said. “So, that’s a really dangerous cocktail for some of the worst outcomes of domestic violence.”

Oxborrow said, “I think that’s why our DV homicide rate is so high.”

Editor’s note: If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, call the YWCA 24-Hour Crisis Line at 801-537-8600 or seek free, confidential walk-in services at Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center at the YWCA from Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, can also call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100. In an emergency, call 911.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.