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Why the numbers matter: CERT's campaign for a stealthing marker in Police Scotland's national database

By Kate Astbury

TW: Discussion of sexual violence.

At many points during the coronavirus pandemic it felt like we were constantly bombarded with numbers. Evenings were routinely filled with the familiar press conference which briefed the public on the latest in a series of virus related statistics. The statistical trends were important, they decided whether we put our schools into lockdown, socialised with friends, or could shrink our two metre distancing. While there’s certainly no consensus on whether the decisions made in light of those statistical trends were correct, it is difficult to suggest that the data did not play a huge part in decision making. Without this data it would have been hard to get a sense of the scale of the outbreak, and even harder to know how to respond. 

As demonstrated throughout the pandemic, data plays a vital role in addressing problems. It helps us understand the issue and consider ways of addressing it whilst also providing a metric to judge progress on. It is therefore difficult for the progress of CERT’s stealthing campaigning to continue without it.

Since CERT began to research stealthing in late 2020, it has been nearly impossible to get any accurate data on the prevalence of this form of sexual violence. There are no national statistics publicly available, and our attempts to issue Freedom of Information requests to a number of public bodies, including Police Scotland, were unsuccessful in giving us any further insight on the scale of the issue. We are however aware from our own research and testimonies from those who have shared their experience of being stealthed, that this form of sexual violence is sadly fairly common

As it stands, Police Scotland do not have a marker in their national database which identifies incidents of stealthing. Police Scotland stated that to get a sense of the number of reports or charges involving stealthing would involve someone individually reviewing every testimony of sexual violence reported to the police to check whether stealthing featured, a task which is clearly not feasible. As a result, the data needed to assess the scale of the problem, and the approach needed to tackle it, does not exist.

Sadly, the issue we face with respect to the availability of data on stealthing speaks to a broader problem in the way data about sexual offences are recorded and discussed. The Office of National Satistics (ONS) admit that it is harder to collect accurate data on sexual offenses and as a result, exclude rape and other sexual offences from their “total” crime satistic, which this year indicated a downward trend in “total” and “violent” crime in England and Wales. However, excluded from this picture, are the number of sexual assaults occurring in the same period which have actually increased, and have almost doubled since 2014. Although Scottish official statistics tend to describe the same category as “non-sexual violent crimes'' rather than “violent crimes”, it is noteworthy that a statistic frequently quoted in discussions around crime and public safety include a statistic in which the definition of “crime” and “violence” hides the true picture of the prevalence of sexual offences. 

The avaliability of accurate figures concerning sexual violence, and more specifically stealthing, are not only important when it comes to advocacy. These statistics can also make a real difference to the way individual victims feel and process their own experience of sexual violence. Many of those who experience stealthing note that they have felt fearful that their experience would not be taken seriously, and a lack of proper categorisation and recording of this crime may to some extent play a part in actualising this fear. 

Our push to get tangible statistics around this problem is certainly not to overshadow the importance of individual testimony. Of course behind every number, every report, charge, and conviction, is an individual who has suffered an injustice and these individual experiences should not be overshadowed by depersonalised data. The individual stories are important from a campaign perspective too. They often form the basis of our conversations with policy makers, and allow people to truly understand the severity of this form of sexual violence from those who have been through it. The data and testimony complement each other and provide a holistic view of the issue.

CERT has therefore been campaigning for Police Scotland to add a stealthing marker to their national database to allow sexual assault cases involving stealthing to be flagged. This will then provide a way for the cases to be tracked to facilitate accurate reporting on the prevalence of the crime. It will allow us to see how many people reported an incident of stealthing and how many of those reports then translate into charges and convictions. Once we have this data the scale of the problem will also be brought to light.

Our collective fear is that we may currently only be seeing the tip of what could be a very large iceberg of stealthing cases, and without accurate data on the issue we might well be sitting on an epidemic of sexual violence without really knowing it. When it comes to these numbers, accumulatively or individually, they really do matter. 


BBC News (2024) ‘Key crime stats excludes rape and other sexual offences’

CERT Scotland (2021) ‘Stealthing Policy Recommendations’

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