The number of Minnesotans seeking hospital care for sexual assaults has remained stubbornly high in recent years, despite more than a decade of public efforts to reduce sexual violence and make it easier for survivors to report incidents, according to a state analysis released Friday.
Using hospital discharge data, Minnesota Department of Health researchers found that about 1,400 men and women sought treatment for sexual violence in 2014 — or roughly four patients every day — a level that has remained virtually unchanged over the past five years.
The findings came as a surprise to state officials and health researchers, who had expected to see improvement amid heightened awareness of sexual violence and student surveys dating to the late 1990s pointing to declines.
The analysis showed that rates of sexual assault have remained steady across virtually all age groups, which suggests that violence-prevention efforts have not gone far enough and that the state needs more targeted data collection on the problem, officials said.
“The fact that these data indicate that we are not reducing sexual assaults overall shows we need to do more as a community to prevent sexual violence,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger. Speaking at a news briefing Friday, Ehlinger called the results “disappointing” and added, “We need all parts of the community ... to play a role.”
The one promising spot was older adolescents. The state has seen a sharp decline in the number of Minnesotans aged 15 to 19 treated in hospitals for sexual violence. As a percentage of the population, the number of such hospital visits among this cohort has declined 17 percent between 2010 and 2014. No other age group saw a significant reduction, researchers found.
The decline among youth suggests that educational efforts to reduce the stigma of reporting sexual violence is starting to have an impact, victims’ advocates said. This fall, a new state law went into effect that requires, for the first time, college students to complete training on sexual-assault prevention within their first 10 days of school. The law also requires campuses to provide online options for anonymous reporting of sexual assault.
In 2014, the White House launched a nationwide public service campaign, called “It’s on Us,” designed to encourage young people to do more to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses. “There has been a lot of attention around campus sexual violence, and there is definite progress being made,” said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Even so, a lack of consistent and up-to-date data has made it difficult for state and local officials to focus their prevention efforts. Currently, Minnesota does not have a single source for reporting sexual assaults. Instead, data on sexual violence is collected by a patchwork of state agencies, courts, clinics and advocacy centers, which differ in their methodology and target populations. Similarly, at the federal level, four separate agencies manage at least 10 efforts to collect sexual violence data, and they use 23 different terms to describe sexual violence, according to a July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
For instance, the same act of sexual violence can be described as “rape” or “nonconsensual sexual acts,” depending on the agency, the GAO found.
“The data are sparse and imperfect,” Ronayne said.
Ehlinger underscored the benefits of seeking medical care after a sexual assault, noting that it remains the exception not the rule. A 2005 Minnesota study found that only about 1 in 5 people who experience sexual assault seek medical care, which may reflect confusion, trauma or fear of stigma.
“We want women and men to know that there are many health benefits to seeking hospital care after a sexual assault,” Ehlinger said in a prepared statement. “Typically a trained nurse can provide medical help including medications to prevent infection, emergency contraception, treatment of injury and counseling about next steps.”