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The liars, the snitch, and the magic red tape

I haven't written about this publicly until now, because I was hoping to get the information and report on that, instead, but I've run into some odd hurdles, and because of that I think the process has become interesting in and of itself. I began this over dissatisfaction with the CDC's handling of the data from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Among other things, I'm appalled at the sexism inherent in the deliberate mislabeling of data so that a double standard is created for the treatment of a single action (sexual abuse specifically involving a victim's genitals) depending on the gender of the victim. The CDC acknowledges that raping a woman is rape, regardless of the manner of violation. The CDC denies that raping a man is rape if the manner of violation involves an intimate assault on his genitals.

The ridiculousness of that denial becomes evident if one simply reverses the sexes. Imagine telling a woman that her assailant didn't rape her because the attack "only" involved abusing her genitals in exactly the manner in which they are used for sexual intimacy. Only an idiot, an ignoramus, or an ideologist with an agenda would come up with such convoluted logic. The decision to exclude being forced to penetrate from the CDC's definition of rape is not an honest attempt to categorize behavior, but an attempt to obfuscate in discussion of a very sensitive issue. Further, looking at the data they presented on those two specific types of assault - forced to penetrate, and forced penetration - it is evident that perpetration of the crime is much less gender-divided than advocates have been claiming. This information is eclipsed by the CDC's creative labeling, making it appear that common belief on the subject is correct when, based on the data, it is quite obviously not. By excluding the intimate sexual abuse of male genitalia from their definition of rape, the CDC has perpetuated three lies: First, that male victims of rape are rare, second, that female perpetrators of rape are rare, and third, that preventative and law enforcement approaches to the crime of rape should focus on a prevalence of male perpetration and female victim experience.

The presentation of the survey results was equally unsatisfactory in its description of specific categories of victim and perpetrator. The report, biased in its wording as the survey was in its methods, often states what percentage of victims in each specific category of violence reported one gender of perpetrator, but not what percentage reported the other gender. Female perpetration is particularly under-discussed. As explained in the graphic linked in the previous paragraph, that makes it difficult to accurately calculate female perpetration beyond an estimate of the minimum that can be confirmed. It became evident to me that an accurate picture of partner and sexual violence in the U.S. cannot be had without more information than the CDC made available to the public in its report.

On February 4, 2013, I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the CDC, asking for information from the raw numbers from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. I did not request private information, but asked for the total number of individuals who answered specific questions, by gender, by sexuality, and by type of violence. The request was carefully worded (and therefore long winded) because I did not want it misinterpreted, and insufficient information sent, but the information requested was information that the researchers would have had to compile in order to do the calculations necessary to file the report that was shared with the public. Since the report could not have been done without that information, it must exist in some accessible form.

A few weeks later, I received back the following letter (personal information blurred, including request ID, for my protection):

Note - I'm not removing the CDC's contact information, because that information is public information,
readily available on the site to which I was directed, and easily obtained otherwise.
Please, at this time, do not call, message, fax, or write to this agency about my request. I do not think
increased contact to the office will speed the process, as I will explain further along in this post.

I gave the agency a couple of months from my initial request. On April 12, 2013, I tried checking my assigned request ID at the CDC's FOIA web page. This is what I found:

As I said in my update to friends with whom I'd discussed the matter,

Out of order? Seriously? WTH is this, an arcade game?
I wonder how long it's been that way, and how long it's going to continue.

The other two addresses listed on the page don't give any information that would help me to determine the response to my request. The second link, http://www.hhs.gov/foia/45cfr5.html, goes to the text of the act which describes the rules and process, but doesn't help me find out if a decision has been made in my case, or not. From that link, I was able to ascertain that there is no legitimate reason why the CDC should deny my request for information. The agency might deny my request for a fee reduction or waver, but that should not affect the release of the information.

I called the 770 number listed, and received no answer. I left a message, and received no return call. On April 17th, I called and left another message, and sent an email.

I've been trying to get information on the status of my FOIA request for numbers from the CDC's 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Unfortunately, the site to which the letter I received from the CDC's office for handling FOIA requests referred me has not been functioning for several days, instead referring users to a phone number. I've made calls to the number, but have received no return call.
I'm writing to request just a quick note on the status of my FOIA request, with information as to whether the information is available, if there is a time frame yet on delivering it, and at what cost to me, or whether I have qualified for a reduction or waver of fees. Even if that information has not yet been determined, I would appreciate a quick note to let me know that, as well.
The reference number given in the letter I received is #13-XXXXX-FOIA
Again, I updated friends, sharing the text of the message, and the following thought:
Here's hoping I get back a response... though I'm not holding my breath. At this point, I'm starting to wonder if there's something off about the survey that we haven't already highlighted. Like... perhaps the numbers aren't as they've been represented... or perhaps the vagueness of the report was due to the numbers showing things the CDC didn't want to admit (like a prevalence of female violence.)  

Today is March 10th, 2013. Repeated calls have confirmed for me that the liaisons at the office simply never answer their phones. Failure to return my calls and emails has confirmed for me that they also ignore messages. I've left another voice message for them regarding my request, pointing out the amount of time that has passed, and stating that all I want is an update on their decision process, but based on past experience I do not expect a response to that, either. Still, just in case, I will give them another few days to get back to me and at least tell me whether or not they have any update to my request. 

I realize that my request may seem a bit complex. The survey was done not by the CDC, but by an organization hired for that purpose, and while the request was for information which should be readily available due to its having been used in calculations for the NISVS report, I did request a fee reduction or waiver based on the need for the information. While there is no excuse for having difficulty providing the requested information, it may be that the agency is having some difficulty determining my eligibility for waver. In my waver request, I made the following statement:
Disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the subject matter and can be used for the benefit of crime victims within the victim's advocacy system and to improve other victim's services.

My intent is to evaluate the data for purposes of discussing violence risk among populations which are underserved by the current Domestic Violence Advocacy system and the legal system due to social misconceptions regarding partner and sexual violence. I will publish my conclusions in a non-commercial publication, from which I make no profit, which will be publicly available for anyone's use as a reference source in discussion and advocacy on this topic.

Aside from that publication, my use of the information will include advocacy directed to alert victim's advocates and legislators to the omission, with the goal of improving the outlook of underrepresented victims who seek assistance in escaping violent environments and pursuing charges against their assailants and/or abusers. It will also include discussion among activists interested in improving the environment faced by currently underrepresented victims.

I have reason to believe this data has been compiled, because the report lists percentages which would require this data in order to be calculated: Percentage of reported victims of each gender in specific categories of violence, who reported "only male" or "only female" perpetrators, and so on. The report provides this information unevenly - if it lists the percentage reporting one gender as perpetrator, it omits the other, but since some victims reported more than one perpetrator, it is impossible to determine the distribution of gender within the undisclosed population of perpetrators.

My intent is to use the information, should I ever receive it, in the following ways:
  • To advocate for support for currently underserved populations of Intimate Partner and Sexual violence victims. This would include every group not currently given the same level of assistance which is currently provided to women who have been victimized by men. 
  • To provide support for the efforts of local individuals wishing to initiate an assistance program specifically dedicated to currently underserved populations of Intimate Partner and Sexual violence victims. This would include efforts to create a shelter for individuals who, either due to gender or gender conflict, cannot be housed at existing domestic abuse shelters. 
  • To provide existing advocacy groups with balanced information on the prevalence and distribution of partner violence among genders and types of relationships, for the purpose of better understanding the problem and more effectively addressing the needs of those involved.
  • To facilitate the provision of the general public, and more specifically, of legislators, with accurate, comprehensive, and easily understandable information on the topic so that future legislative efforts to address the issues of partner and sexual violence will be more beneficial to society at large, and to victims; especially, to provide information which will assist legislators in better understanding the nature of the issue, so that they can address it with an interest in prevention rather than simply damage control. 
  • To supplement educational discussion on the U.S. federal government's approach to addressing the issues of intimate partner and sexual violence.
  • Publication in this blog, as the information is something which should be made publicly accessible, free of charge.
    (note, I do not receive a profit for writing this blog. I have placed an adsense widget on the side so that I'm not freeloading from Google for this publication, but I do not have an active adsense account, and if I did, the ad at the top right would violate the adsense terms, because it's not an adsense ad. It's simply a cause I support. That violation would get my account put on probation. It is my understanding from their TOS that I cannot simultaneously have that ad on my blog, and make a profit from adsense.)
Currently, the issue of partner and sexual violence is treated as a gendered issue with a prevalence of straight-male on female violence. The information released to the public following the execution of the NISVS paints a different picture - violence is shown to be more evenly distributed among the sexes and sexualities than advocates portray, demonstrating that the problem isn't just with straight men, and the solution does not lie in addressing only straight male violence. In fact, failure to address female violence may contribute to perpetuating the problem. However, as I stated in my letter to the CDC, the survey is vague on several points, and I find it necessary and vital that the information insinuated by the report be confirmed before attempting effective, informative, and beneficial advocacy on this topic.

I do intend to continue the effort to obtain this information. My next step will be sending a request for an update on my case using the US postal service's delivery confirmation system. Following that, I will begin contacting my representatives regarding the issue, as at this point, I believe my request is simply being ignored. If I receive no satisfaction from my representatives on the issue, I will make the issue fodder for national shock jocks, who I am sure will be interested in discussing why the CDC might see fit to hide from the public the intimate partner and sexual violence statistics used to support recent related legislation which has been controversial in part due to its gendered wording. I will continue to periodically update on this process, whether or not I receive replies.


Christopher said...

Has anything new happened with your FOIA request?

Hannah Wallen said...

Yes. I have a phone appointment with a case worker today, actually. They sent me direct answers to some of my questions, and vague answers to others. I've asked additional questions to try to get some clarification. I'll post an update as soon as I have something concrete.

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