Tag Archives: rape

Black men raping White women: BJS’s Table 42 problem

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I wanted to do more justice both to the history of the Black-men-raping-White-women charge and the survey methods questions. Instead I’m just going to lay this here and hope it helps someone who is more engaged than I am at the moment. I’m sorry this post isn’t higher quality.

Obviously, this post includes extremely racist and misogynist content, which I am showing you to explain why it’s bad.

This is about this very racist meme, which is extremely popular among extreme racists.


The modern racist uses statistics, data, and even math. They use citations. And I think it takes actually engaging with this stuff to stop it (this is untested, though, as I have no real evidence that facts help). That means anti-racists need to learn some demography and survey methods, and practice them in public. I was prompted to finally write on this by a David Duke video streamed on Facebook, in which he used exaggerated versions of these numbers, and the good Samaritans arguing with him did not really know how to respond.

For completely inadequate context: For a very long time, Black men raping White women has been White supremacists’ single favorite thing. This was the most common justification for lynching, and for many of the legal executions of Black men throughout the 20th century. From 1930 to 1994 there were 455 people executed for rape in the U.S., and 89% of them were Black (from the 1996 Statistical Abstract):


For some people, this is all they need to know about how bad the problem of Blacks raping Whites is. For better informed people, it’s the basis for a great lesson in how the actions of the justice system are not good measures of the crimes it’s supposed to address.

Good data gone wrong

Which is one reason the government collects the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a large sample survey of about 90,000 households with 160,000 people. In it they ask about crimes against the people surveyed, and the answers the survey yields are usually pretty different from what’s in the crime report statistics – and even further from the statistics on things like convictions and incarceration. It’s supposed to be a survey of crime as experienced, not as reported or punished.

It’s an important survey that yields a lot of good information. But in this case the Bureau of Justice Statistics is doing a serious disservice in the way they are reporting the results, and they should do something about it. I hope they will consider it.

Like many surveys, the NCVS is weighted to produce estimates that are supposed to reflect the general population. In a nutshell, that means, for example, that they treat each of the 158,000 people (over age 12) covered in 2014 as about 1,700 people. So if one person said, “I was raped,” they would say, “1700 people in the US say they were raped.” This is how sampling works. In fact, they tweak it much more than that, to make the numbers add up according to population distributions of variables like age, sex, race, and region – and non-response, so that if a certain group (say Black women) has a low response rate, their responses get goosed even more. This is reasonable and good, but it requires care in reporting to the general public.

So, how is the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) reporting method contributing to the racist meme above? The racists love to cite Table 42 of this report, which last came out for the 2008 survey. This is the source for David Duke’s rant, and the many, many memes about this. The results of Google image search gives you a sense of how many websites are distributing this:


Here is Table 42, with my explanation below:


What this shows is that, based on their sample, BJS extrapolates an estimate of 117,640 White women who say they were sexually assaulted, or threatened with sexual assault, in 2008 (in the red box). Of those, 16.4% described their assailant as Black (the blue highlight). That works out to 19,293 White women sexually assaulted or threatened by Black men in one year – White supremacists do math. In the 2005 version of the table these numbers were 111,490 and 33.6%, for 37,460 White women sexually assaulted or threatened by Black men, or:


Now, go back to the structure of the survey. If each respondent in the survey counts for about 1,700 people, then the survey in 2008 would have found 69 White women who were sexually assaulted or threatened, 11 of whom said their assailant was Black (117,640/1,700). Actually, though, we know it was less than 11, because the asterisk on the table takes you to the footnote below which says it was based on 10 or fewer sample cases. In comparison, the survey may have found 27 Black women who said they were sexually assaulted or threatened (46,580/1,700), none of whom said their attacker was White, which is why the second blue box shows 0.0. However, it actually looks like the weights are bigger for Black women, because the figure for the percentage assaulted or threatened by Black attackers, 74.8%, has the asterisk that indicates 10 or fewer cases. If there were 27 Black women in this category, then 74.8% of them would be 20. So this whole Black women victim sample might be as little as 13, with bigger weights applied (because, say, Black women had a lower response rate). If in fact Black women are just as likely to be attacked or assaulted by White men as the reverse, 16%, you might only expect 2 of those 13 to be White, and so finding a sample 0 is not very surprising. The actual weighting scheme is clearly much more complicated, and I don’t know the unweighted counts, as they are not reported here (and I didn’t analyze the individual-level data).

I can’t believe we’re talking about this. The most important bottom line is that the BJS should not report extrapolations to the whole population from samples this small. These population numbers should not be on this table. At best these numbers are estimated with very large standard errors. (Using a standard confident interval calculator, that 16% of White women, based on a sample of 69, yields a confidence interval of +/- 9%.) It’s irresponsible, and it’s inadvertently (I assume) feeding White supremacist propaganda.

Rape and sexual assault are very disturbingly common, although not as common as they were a few decades ago, by conventional measures. But it’s a big country, and I don’t doubt lots of Black men sexual assault or threaten White women, and that White men sexually assault or threaten Black women a lot, too – certainly more than never. If we knew the true numbers, they would be bad. But we don’t.

A couple more issues to consider. Most sexual assault happens within relationships, and Black women have interracial relationships at very low rates. In round numbers (based on marriages), 2% of White women are with Black men, and 5% of Black women are with White men, which – because of population sizes – means there are more than twice as many couples with Black-man/White-woman than the reverse. At very small sample sizes, this matters a lot. But we would expect there to be more Black-White rape than the reverse based on this pattern alone. Consider further that the NCVS is a household sample, which means that if any Black women are sexually assaulted by White men in prison, it wouldn’t be included. Based on a 2011-2012 survey of prison and jail inmates, 3,500 women per year are the victim of staff sexual misconduct, and Black women inmates were about 50% more likely to report this than White women. So I’m guessing the true number of Black women sexually assaulted by White men is somewhat greater than zero, and that’s just in prisons and jails.

The BJS seems to have stopped releasing this form of the report, with Table 42, maybe because of this kind of problem, which would be great. In that case they just need to put out a statement clarifying and correcting the old reports – which they should still do, because they are out there. (The more recent reports are skimpier, and don’t get into this much detail [e.g., 2014] – and their custom table tool doesn’t allow you to specify the perceived race of the offender).

So, next time you’re arguing with David Duke, the simplest response to this is that the numbers he’s talking about are based on very small samples, and the asterisk means he shouldn’t use the number. The racists won’t take your advice, but it’s good for everyone else to know.


Filed under In the news

Not all trigger warnings are the same


I follow the debate over trigger warnings only loosely. Please feel free to add information in the comments.

In what I see, the debate over trigger warnings is hampered by ill-defined terms and unhelpful hyperbole. I want to give a very basic description of what I think should be a relatively simple approach to the issue, call out a gender problem, and then offer my own example.

To show you where I’m coming from: What prompted me finally to write this was the combination of this popular op-ed by Judith Shulevitz, this essay about the problem of teaching about rape in law school, and the flap over Christina Hoff Sommers’s anti-anti-rape-culture campus tour. I noted that a letter to the editor in the Oberlin Review about her upcoming talk began with this: “Content Warning: This letter contains discussion of rape culture, online harassment, victim blaming and rape apologism/denialism.”

Impending discourse

There are three kinds of relevant warnings that I would group together under the category of “impending discourse notification.” That is, warnings that take the form: something is about to be discussed or displayed. Keeping these three things straight would be really helpful.

1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.

For example, graphic images of violence during a regular TV news program, descriptions of rape on NPR’s Morning Edition, or sociology classroom lectures that contain images of Blacks being lynched. In these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy. It says, “we are about to see or hear something important enough to risk disturbing the audience, and potentially disturbing enough that you should gird yourself.” In these discrete cases warnings are not controversial in principle, though of course individual applications may be off target or offensive. Many settings carry an implied warning: A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, though some students have no idea about lynching; a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed. Warnings in these cases seem optional.

2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.

I am not expert on this, obviously, but my understanding (from, e.g., here) is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM III in 1980, partly based on the experience of Vietnam War veterans. The condition was understood to involve reliving memories of trauma, avoiding reminders of trauma, and hyperarousal that can lead to high levels of distress. There are many kinds of traumas that can lead to PTSD, but some are much more common than others, especially violence, sexual abuse, and existential threats. You can’t expect to prevent all triggering events, but you can take steps to avoid common ones, or warn people when you are going to show or discuss something to an audience likely to be include people with PTSD. Again, war movies are expected to show graphically violent war scenes, but lectures to audiences of combat veterans about disability benefits should not. This is a question of sensitivity and awareness, not blanket prohibitions and censoring. And this is about shocking or graphic imagery, not mere mention of a topic. We just can’t have a democratic discourse without mentioning bad things, sometimes spontaneously. The Oberlin newspaper warning above is wrong. And I don’t agree with another Oberlin essayist who says trigger warnings should be treated as disability accommodations, “as common as wheelchair ramps.” (Of course, I would make an accommodation for a specific student — and I have — who asks to opt out of a specific class session based on the topic).

3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

These warnings are unnecessary and wrong. If someone wants to say the problem of campus rape is exaggerated, that Black men are genetically aggressive, the Holocaust is a myth, or Creationists are stupid — let them. Hand out flyers or picket at their talk, discredit them in the Q&A, denounce them on Twitter, or ignore them. If they are receiving honorary degrees or other accolades (or money) from governments or universities, that’s political fair game to protest. But protecting people from hearing bad ideas is a bad idea (outside of incitement to violence). On campus or in the classroom, exposure to bad ideas is essential to critical intellectual development. If you’re never offended in college you aren’t learning enough.

A gender problem

I have complained elsewhere that the non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue.” Something similar is going on with trigger warnings. Although PTSD-type responses can be triggered by many kinds of experiences, it looks like sexual violence is the main arena of debate over campus trigger warnings. Why? This should not be reduced to a “women’s issue.” My admittedly limited exposure to this debate often makes me cringe at what seems like a demand for special protection — from discourse — for women. Women are in fact more likely to experience PTSD than men, but that’s only partly because they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Men are more likely to experience other potentially traumatic events, including accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, or witnessing violence, all of which can lead to PTSD. People with sensitivity to trauma-related triggering deserve respect and sensitivity. But women — like any subordinate group — need to exert leadership in the discourse surrounding that inequality, and that doesn’t come from avoiding the topic or silencing their opponents. If the only people discussing rape are people who have never been raped, the dialogue is likely to be male-dominated. We have to work on maintaining the line between offensive and unpleasant on the one hand and truly trauma-inducing on the other. If it’s necessary to avoid the latter, it’s all the more important for those who are able to engage the former.

How did I do addendum

I think we can learn a lot from these discussions. They have raised the question, “What if we acted like sexual assault is actually common?” That reality is hard to grasp — for people who are victims or not — because the experience is so often private.* In the chapter in my book about family violence and abuse, I didn’t include an impending discourse notification, but — after opening with a detailed story of violent abuse — I raised the issue of how discussing the topic might affect students:

The subject of family violence and abuse is personal and painful. Instructors and students should pause at this point to consider the possible effects of discussing these topics, especially for those who have experienced abuse in their own lives. Because this kind of victimization still is so common in the United States, most of us will know someone who has been touched by it in one way or another. However, because families often are protected by a cultural—and sometimes legal—expectation of privacy and a shroud of secrecy, those who suffer usually do so in isolation. That leaves us with the complexity of a problem that is widespread but experienced alone and often invisibly. Such isolation can make the experience of abuse even worse. One benefit of addressing the issue in this book is that we can help pierce that isolation and encourage victims to realize that they are not alone.

I think advising people in the classroom to “pause to consider” before launching into the topic is reasonable — it’s a common experience with a known risk of traumatic effects. But I didn’t write that just to protect people who might have a traumatic reaction to the topic, I did it because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

* In the book I tried to put rape in normal-experience terms: experiencing rape (18% of women by one reasonable estimate) is more common than using the Pill for contraception (17% of women currently), but less common than smoking cigarettes for young-adult women (22%, ages 25-34). Does that help?


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Campus sexual assault op-ed


I have an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “College Sex-Assault Trials Belong in Court, Not on Campus,” and there’s already a lively discussion in the comments. I would welcome your thoughts, on this site or that one.


Filed under Me @ work

Deciphering a well-told data story, cars are good for kids edition

Brad Wilcox has written up his best case for how marriage protects women and girls from violence. I discussed his initial post earlier, but the blowup has prompted me to provide more general advice for the critical data citizen — reader, writer, and editor — who has to decide what to believe when someone comes at them with a data story.

I have some tips about that at the end, but first this elaborate setup.

The information in this section is true

Consider three stories:

  • When Melanie Thernstrom’s toddler, Kieran, first ate cheese, he immediately had a massive allergic attack. His face swelled, his skin turned red and scaly, and he started gasping for breath. They jumped in their car and rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to save him.
  • Chicago mother Tynisha Hilliard had six children in the car when someone opened fire. “Mommy, I’m shot,” said her nine-year-old boy from the back seat. Hilliard immediately sped to the nearest hospital. “My reaction was to save my son. That’s all I can do, save my son,” she said. After emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the chest, the boy was expected to survive.
  • When Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis’s wife, Cindy, went into labor, they hopped in the car and headed for NYU hospital, normally a 35-minute drive. Despite racing through traffic with a police escort, they didn’t make it in time – the baby was born in the back seat – but they arrived at the hospital moments later, met by an emergency crew that whisked mother and child to care and safety in the hospital.

What do these stories have in common? Children’s lives saved by cars.

Is this part of a wider phenomenon? I know what you’re thinking: The pollution from cars hurts children, the vast resources devoted to infrastructure for cars could be spent instead in ways that help children, the need for gas causes wars all the time, and the individualism promoted by car culture contributes to social isolation instead of community efficacy.

Maybe. But let’s theorize a little. Here are three ways cars might be good for children’s health:

  • Kids whose families have cars can get them to doctors in an emergency. Considering that in modern societies a lot of what kills children is various kinds of accidents and medical emergencies, this could be a major advantage.
  • Say what you want about individualism, but it’s emerged as a modern character trait in tandem with the cultural shift that brought us the view of children as priceless individuals. Car culture is a major prop of individualism, so it’s reasonable to hypothesize that people who drive individual cars are more totally devoted to their priceless individual children’s well-being (rather than, say, the well-being of children in general).
  • Being able to transport oneself at will — any time, any place — may create a sense of self-efficacy, of mastery over one’s environment, which makes people refuse to accept failure (or illness or death), and thus devote themselves more confidently to their survival and the survival of their children.

Don’t take a theoretical word for it, though — let’s go to the data. Here are three small studies.

Cars and children’s health across countries

First we examine the relationship between the number of passenger cars per capita and the rate of child malnutrition in 110 countries (all the countries in the World Bank’s database that have measures of both variables in the last 10 years — mostly poor countries). The largest — India, China, Brazil, and the USA — are highlighted (click to enlarge).


This is a very strong relationship. This single variable, cars per capita, statistically explains no less than 67% of the variation in child malnutrition rates.

But, you liberals object, cars are surely more common in wealthier countries, so this relationship may be spurious. Sure, income and cars are positively correlated (r=.86, in fact). But when I fit a regression model with both per capita income and per capita cars, cars still have a highly significant statistical association with malnutrition (p<.001). (All the regression models are in the appendix at the end.)

Cars and child death rates across US states

Second, we take a closer look within the United States.  Here there is a lot less variation in both the number of cars and the condition of children. Still, there is a clear relationship between private cars per person and the death rate of children and teenagers: Children are substantially less likely to die in states with more privately owned passenger cars (click to enlarge).


Again, there is less variation in income between U.S. states than there is between countries of the world. But to make sure this is not just a function of state income, I fit a regression model with cars and a control for median household income. The statistical effect of private cars remains significant at the p<.05 level, confirming it is unlikely to be due to chance.

Car commuting and children’s disabilities within the US

Third, let’s go still further, not just comparing US states but comparing children according to the car-driving habits of their parents within the US. For this I got data on children’s disabilities (four kinds of disability) and the means of transportation to work for their parents using the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, with a sample of more than 700,000 children ages 5-11.

Sure enough, children who live with parents who drive to work are substantially less likely to have disabilities than those who don’t live with a parent who drives to work:


Again, could this be because richer families are more likely to include car-driving parents? The regressions (below) show that, although it is true that children in richer households are less likely to have disabilities, the statistical effect of parents’ commuting method remains highly significant in the model that includes household income.

In summary: Children are less likely to be malnourished if they live in a country with more cars per person; they are less likely to die if they live in a state with more cars per person, and they are less likely to have disabilities if they live with parents who commute to work by car. All of these relationships are statistically significant with controls for income (of the country, state, or family). These are facts.

One interpretation

Compare this analysis to the question of marriage and violence. In their piece for the Washington Post (discussed here), Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote about #YesAllWomen:

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

With the facts above I can accurately offer this parallel construction:

Some cars pose a real threat to the health and safety of children. But obscured in the public conversation about auto safety, pollution, and environmental degradation is the fact that some other cars are more likely to protect children, directly and indirectly, from threats to their health and safety: cars driven by their own, responsible, caring parents. The bottom line is this: Children in places with more cars — and in families where parents commute by car — are notably healthier than peers without cars.

At the end of his followup post, Brad concludes:

Of course, none of these studies definitively prove that marriage plays a causal role in protecting women and children. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Intact families with married parents are typically safer for women and children. … That’s why the conversation about violence against women and girls … should incorporate the family factor into efforts to reduce the violence facing women and girls.

I am equally confident in my conclusion:

Of course, my brief studies don’t definitively prove that cars plays a causal role in protecting children’s health and safety. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Societies and families with cars are typically safer and healthier for children. That’s why the conversation about children’s well-being should incorporate the car factor into efforts to reduce the harms too many children continue to experience.

Another interpretation

Both the marriage story and the car story are misleading data manipulations that substitute data volume for analytical power and present results in a way intended to pitch a conclusion rather than tell the truth.

When is a non-causal story “certainly suggestive”? When the person giving you the pitch wants you to believe the conclusion.

Please do not conclude from this that all data stories are equally corrupt, and everyone just picks the version that agrees with their preconception. Not all academics lie or distort their findings to fit their personal, political, or scientific conclusions. I may be more motivated to criticize Brad Wilcox because I disagree with his conclusions (and there may be people I agree with who use bad methods that I haven’t debunked), but that doesn’t mean I’m dishonest in my interpretation and presentation of evidence. Like a real climate scientist debunking climate-change deniers, I am happy that discrediting him is both morally good and scientifically correct (and I think that’s not a coincidence).

There are two main problems with both the cars story and the marriage story. First is selection into the independent variable condition (marriage and car ownership). People end up in these conditions partly because of their values on the dependent variable. For example, women in marriages are less likely to be raped on average because women don’t want to marry men who have raped them, or likely will rape them — the absence of rape causes marriage. In the case of children with disabilities, there is evidence that children’s disabilities increase the odds their parents will divorce (which means at least one of the parents isn’t in the household and so can’t be a car-commuting parent in the ACS data).

The other main problem is omitted variables. Other things cause both family violence and children’s health, and these are not adequately controlled even if researchers tell you they control for them. Controlling for household income (and other easily-measured demographics) does not capture all the benefits and privileges that married (or car-owning) people have and transfer to their children. For tricky questions of selection and omitted variables, we need to get closer to experimental conditions in order to provide causal explanations.

Tips for critical reading

So, based on Wilcox’s car story and my car story, here are practical tips to help you avoid getting hoodwinked by a propagandist with a PhD — or a data journalist looking at a mountain of data and a tight deadline. These are some things to watch out for:

Scatter plot proof

Impressive bivariate relationships; they may be presented with mention of control variables but no mention of adjusted effect size. That’s what I did with my scatter plots above. If you have adjusted results but don’t show them, it’s selling a small net effect with a big unadjusted label. (Wilcox examples here; Mark Regnerus does this, too.)

Axis truncation

A classic example is the Obama food stamp meme, but Wilcox had a great example a few years ago when he wanted to show the drop in divorce that resulted from hard times pulling families together during the recession. If you assume divorce is always going up (it fell for decades), this looks like a dramatic change (he called it “the first annual dip since 2005”):

No head-to-head comparison of alternative explanations

This is a lot to ask, but real social scientists take seriously the alternative explanations for what they observe, and try to devise ways to test them against each other. Editors often see this as a low-hanging fruit for removal, because cutting it both shortens the piece and strengthens the argument. In the rape versus marriage story, Wilcox nodded to the alternative explanation that “women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage” — which he called “part of the story” — but he offered nothing to help a reader or editor adjudicate the relative size of that “part” of the story. This connects to the next red flag.

Greater than zero proof

Sometimes just showing that something exists at all is offered as evidence of its importance. That’s why I included three anecdotes about children being saved by private passenger cars — it happened, it’s real. The trick is to identify whether something matters in addition to existing. Here’s a Wilcox example where he showed that a tiny number of people said they didn’t divorce because of the recession; here’s an example in which Nate Cohn at the NYTimes Upshot said that 2% of Hispanics changing their race to White was “evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans.” Neither of these provide any comparison to show how important these discoveries were relative to anything else — other reasons people delay divorce? other reasons for race-code changes? — they just exist. This is reasonable if you’re discovering a new subatomic particle, but with social behavior it’s less impressive.

Piles of studies

The reason I presented the car results as the three separate “studies” was to make the point that you can have a lot of studies, but if none of them prove your point it doesn’t matter. For example, in his post Wilcox linked to a series of publications about how children whose parents weren’t married were more likely to be sexually abused, but none of them handle the problem of selection into marriage I described above. Similarly, a generation of research showed that women who have babies as teenagers suffer negative economic consequences, but those effects were all exaggerated because people didn’t take selection into account (women with poor economic prospects are more likely to have babies as teenagers).

Describing one side of inequality as a social good

Let’s say that, in street fights, the person with a gun beats the person with a knife more than 50% of the time. Do we conclude people should have more guns? Some benefits are absolute and have no zero-sum quality to them. (I can’t think of any, but I assume there are some.) Normally, however, we’re talking about relative benefits. The benefits of marriage, or the economic benefits of education, are measured relative to people who aren’t married or schooled.

The typical description of such a pattern is, “This causes a good outcome, we should have more of it.” But we should always consider whether the best thing, socially, might be to reduce the benefit — that is, solve the problems of the people who don’t have the asset in question — rather than try to increase the number of people with the asset.

The benefit of cars that comes from being able to get to the hospital quicker may only be relative to the poor suckers stuck in an ambulance while your personal cars are blocking up Manhattan.

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Appendix: Regression results



Filed under In the news

Final proof there is no human tragedy Brad Wilcox will not exploit in order to promote marriage

I’m not going to dignify this with a thorough debunking, but here’s a quick note to highlight the evil that walks among us in academic robes.

Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote a piece for “Post Everything” at the Washington Post that was originally titled like this:


The post didn’t specifically say what’s in the headline, but in this case I have to give credit to the overreaching headline writer for accurately capturing the basic message of the piece. What Brad wants to do is make people think that without exactly saying it. Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel wrote a good alternate headline for it, too: “Violence Against Women Will End When You Sluts Get Married, Says WaPo.”

Their audience is married people who feel superior to women who aren’t married, who want to coerce women into marriage — or cast them out. The friendly side of this is paternalistic shaming, the unfriendly side is violent shaming; both are expressions of patriarchal outlook. Their conclusion:

And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat. So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.

I can’t help reading this without hearing a voice that says, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

After the interwebs’ head exploded over the headline, Brad tweeted, “Working to match title w text,” and then a new headline appeared:


The new headline is supposed to be less offensive, I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s based on the same correlations in the post. There is still nothing in the post to show that adding marriage to a random relationship would reduce the odds or level of intimate partner violence. So the implication is the same: shame on you.

On Twitter, Marina Adshade pointed out that marriage rates and violence rates have both been falling for several decades. Brad’s response was, “Fair enough. But the question is this: Would they have fallen even more if marriage was stronger?” That’s a question he should probably have asked before writing the piece.

Can you imagine what he would do if he had the opposite result to work with — an increase in violence during a period of decreasing marriage?

We don’t have to imagine, actually, because he and his marriage-promoting compatriots at the National Marriage Project were all over that in the 1990s. To choose one example I have handy, William Galston, who sits on Brad’s board of advisors at NMP, wrote in 1991 in the New Republic (12/2/91) that, “The American family has changed dramatically in the past generation, and it is children who have paid the price.” We needed, he said, to “relegitimate the discussion of the links between family structure and a range of social ills.” Indeed, “theft, violence, and the use of illicit drugs are far more prevalent among teenagers than they were thirty years ago.” Now, as “revolution in the American family” has reached unprecedented levels, crime has fallen for two decades. <Crickets>

As a spoof — but with real data — I illustrated Adshade’s point. Here is the relationship between marriage prevalence and intimate partner violence rates:


That curvilinear statistical relationship explains 84% of the variance in intimate partner violence rates. If you add the linear time trend, the variance explained jumps to 92% and the effects of marriage remain highly significant.



If I were like Brad on the other side of this debate, the news story would read like this:

“We had reason to believe marriage was harmful, on average,” said Prof. Cohen. “But I was surprised by the strength of the relationship, especially the fact that the effect seems to accelerate at higher levels of marriage, as if marriage feeds off itself in a violence loop.” Although further research will be needed to confirm the findings, he added, the statistical association is very strong. “The bottom line is that intimate partner violence is much less common in years when marriage is more rare.”

However, I am not seriously suggesting that the decline in marriage has caused the decline in violence (although reduced exposure of women to men in general may be one factor). In fact, if you add the curvilinear effect of time, the variance explained rises to 95% — and marriage effects disappear. But the fact that violence has dropped so much while marriage has plummeted means Brad has a steeper hill to climb to make his case. It’s not enough to say, maybe violence would have declined even more. This is not one of those random spurious correlations, these are two large social trends affecting whole swaths of the population, and the correlation directly contradicts his theory. When there is a plausible connection, or the trends at least affect the same people, the burden is on the one going beyond the existing evidence to reconcile the hypothesis with the available circumstantial evidence.

But none of this matters to Brad*, or, apparently, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Their conclusion is predetermined. There is nothing that would lead them to conclude that society would not be improved by more marriage. It’s just a case of picking a subject in the news, picking some facts, and repeating their conclusions. And I think it’s appalling.

* If you’re wondering why I seem to be picking on Brad individually, please rest assured it’s nothing personal. If there was any other sociologist who behaved as poorly as he consistently does I would pick on them, too. For endless details, follow the National Marriage Project tag.


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Misogyny and masculinity, less edited

One point of all this work that I do speaking about sociology to people who aren’t academic sociologists — teaching, blogging, writing a textbook, speaking to the news media — is to help our research have a greater social impact. When a public tragedy occurs, such the Santa Barbara mass murder, there is a chance to widen the conversation and include a sociological perspective.

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes I have the chance to do this even when my own research is not what’s most applicable. That’s great, but I try to be careful (and recommend that journalists speak to others as well). I hope I was right in this case. When Jessica Bennett – a journalist who writes incisively about gender and popular culture – asked me (among others) for a reaction, for what became this column, my first thought was about misogyny. I offered here these comments in an email:

There are two ways that misogyny could play into this case. The first possibility is that he simply hated women, a perspective that is highly accessible in US society. This is illustrated in a lot of pornography — rape or humiliation — and advertising, and articulated by a lot of men who objectify women and seek their conquest or abuse in order to express power or impress other men.

The other possibility is he was schizophrenic or otherwise disassociated from social reality. In that case, misogyny is just the vehicle his disordered brain latched onto. Paranoid people choose from the available entities when building up the fantasy of their persecution. The source of their persecution may not be real, but it is also not random. (The CIA may not be after you, but if it didn’t spy on and assassinated some people, schizophrenics wouldn’t be afraid of them.)

If a paranoid delusional young man believes women are persecuting him, he may be crazy but he is also picking up on the hatred and fear directed toward women that he sees around him.

No matter how you slice it, it is a tragedy that reflects the societal influence of hatred toward women. That is not the whole story of gender relations in our society, but it is definitely present and dangerous.

Then, when Bennett let me know she was interested in focusing the piece on masculinity, I added this (the excerpt she chose is underlined):

One issue is the narrow range of acceptable expressions of masculinity. This is one place where women have more flexibility than men (pants or dress). Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you [a] man? Maybe it’s violence.

The alternative many men/boys learn to deal with, of course, is just not being an ideal man. [as mentioned,] most men don’t kill people. Partly that means learning to be ok with not achieving the ideal. So that’s a coping thing many men need to develop, and failure to develop that could be evidence of a problem.

I’m not an expert on masculinity studies. In the quote on masculinity that Bennett used, I was thinking specifically of the chapter by Barbara Risman and Elizabeth Seale, in which they interviewed middle schoolers about gender, concluding:

We find that both boys and girls are still punished for going beyond gender expectations, but boys much more so than girls. For girls, participation in traditionally masculine activities, such as sports and academic competition, is now quite acceptable and even encouraged by both parents and peers. We fi nd, indeed, that girls are more likely to tease each other for being too girly than for being a sports star. Girls still feel pressure, however, to be thin and to dress in feminine ways, to “do gender” in their self-presentation. Boys are quickly teased for doing any behavior that is traditionally considered feminine. Boys who deviate in any way from traditional masculinity are stigmatized as “gay.” Whereas girls can and do participate in a wide range of activities without being teased, boys consistently avoid activities defined as female to avoid peer harassment.


The chapter appears in the reader that Risman edited, titled Families as They Really Are (keep an eye out for a new edition!). Someone posted a bootleg copy of the chapter here.

As I read my comments now, I realize there are a lot of other ways to be “a man,” but what I was trying to get at is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant (in the sense of power) way of being “a man” in a particular cultural context. Of course there other ways to be happy and a man without hanging it on sports, sex, or violence. In reaction to the #YesAllWomen Twitter movement, some people have responded with “real men don’t rape” (which is ironically similar to the old feminist perspective that “rape is violence, not sex”). It attempts to preserve the basic status (men, sex) as good while making the oppressive or violent part deviant, not of the essence. Here is one tweet to that effect, from Michelle Ray:

Feminists seem to have no idea what a man is. Men don’t rape. Sick people who never learned to be men commit violence to solve their issues.

If you say “men don’t rape,” that’s a nice way to try to make it cool to be a man against rape, to resist that image of masculinity. So I like it as an imperative. But as a description of society it’s not true, so there’s that. (A similar move happens in family discourse, sometimes, as when someone says about abuse within families, “real fathers don’t treat their children that way.” Of course, real fathers do good as well as evil — the questions are how and why, and what to do about it.)

Anyway, I would also recommend C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography, Dude, You’re a Fag, in which she discussed sex and masculinity with high school students. Here’s one excerpt:

If a guy wasn’t having sex, “he’s no one. He’s nobody.” Chad explained that some guys tried to look cool by lying about sex, but they “look like a clown, [they get] made fun of.” He assured me, however, that he was not one of those “clowns” force to lie about sex, bragging, “When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the eighth grade.”

And Pascoe concluding:

These practices of compulsive heterosexuality indicate that control over women’s bodies and their sexuality is, sadly, still central to definitions of masculinity, or at least adolescent masculinity. By dominating girls’ bodies boys defended against the fag position, increased their social status, and forged bonds of solidarity with other boys. However, none of this is to say that these boys were unrepentant sexists. Rather, for the most post, these behaviors were social behaviors. Individually boys were much more likely to talk empathetically and respectfully of girls. … Maintaining masculinity, though, demands the interactional repudiation of this sort of empathy in order to stave off the abject fag position.

That insight about interaction is crucial. To go above my pay grade a little (more), I might add that this division between the way one acts in “public” versus “private” is notoriously tricky and frustrating for people with some kinds of mental illness.

That’s just the tip of the masculinity-studies iceberg. Feel free to post other recommended readings in the comments.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Getting beyond how the ‘Factual Feminist’ is wrong about the prevalence of rape


Christina Sommers

Christina Sommers, who works out of the American Enterprise Institute (along with Brad Wilcox and Charles Murray), thinks the Centers for Disease Control, President Obama, and the feminist establishment are exaggerating how much rape there is. I’m not an expert on measuring rape – and neither is she – but I’ve looked into it enough to say her debunking is basically bunk.

Then: What happens when we go beyond her argument?

Lifetime experience of rape

In a video put out for the American Enterprise Institute, under the misnom de guerre “Factual Feminist,” Sommers quotes Obama as saying, “one in five women will be a victim of rape in their lifetime.” I’m mostly going to focus on this empirical claim.

Obama gets that statistic from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the CDC (he says it like it’s a projection, but it’s just a cross-sectional lifetime prevalence estimate). Sommers complains that the NIPSVS finds a higher rate of rape than the National Crime Victimization Survey, which she asserts is the gold standard in this area. She says:

By using a non-representative sample, and vaguely-worded questions, the CDC yielded the one-in-five lifetime rate, and the 1.3 million female rape victims per year.

The NIPSVS reported that 18.3% of women had ever been the victim of rape, comprising three (non-exclusive) components: completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. Here is their table (click to enlarge):


Sommers claims the CDC has too broad a definition of rape, including lots of namby-pamby complaints from women brainwashed by the victimhood-obsessed feminist establishment.

So the most important point in response to that is that the lifetime reported rape rate in the NIPSVS is actually pretty low. The CDC’s other major survey, the National Survey of Family Growth, in 2002 found that 22.6% of women in the ages 18-44 had ever been forced to have intercourse (the last time they asked these questions). This is surprising because the NIPSVS measure is broader: it includes attempted rape as well as oral or anal penetration, and penetration by objects other than a man’s penis, including acts performed by women. The NSFG asked only about vaginal intercourse by a man. So the NIPSVS has a broader definition and finds a lower rate of lifetime rape prevalence. Given the difficulties in defining and measuring these experiences, this seems within the realm of reasonable.

Sommers’ only specific complaint about the NIPSVS rape prevalence statistic is that they include alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. To make this point she engages in a misleading rant about sex under the influence of alcohol and drugs, not exactly misstating the NIPSVS method but carefully not describing it accurately. “What about sex while inebriated?” she asks. “Few people would say that sex while intoxicated alone constitutes rape.” Right, and neither does the NIPSVS. The survey asked, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever…” and then it lists various kinds of penetration. The key phrase there is and unable to consent. They are not saying all drunk or drugged sex is rape.

She also claims that the NIPSVS is unrepresentative because it had a low response rate of about 30%. That’s life in the big city of surveys these days, and they attempted to compensate for it by using a weighting scheme to make the data representative of the national population. It’s not ideal but it’s not terrible, and that just means it should be interpreted cautiously and corroborated – neither Sommers nor I have any reason to believe this contributes to an inflated estimate of rape prevalence (though of course that’s possible).

In summary: If you have to pick a number to put to the lifetime prevalence of rape, I don’t think “one-in-five” is an unreasonable choice.

 What is rape

The NSFG survey, which arrived at a higher lifetime rape rate, combined two sets of responses to reach 22.6% for it’s 18-44 year-old respondents. These questions were in the self-administered portion of the survey due to the sensitivity of the topic. In one part of the survey they asked, simply, “At any time in your life, have you ever been forced by a male to have vaginal intercourse against your will?” In another part they asked a two-part question. First:

Think back to the very first time you had vaginal intercourse with a male. Which would you say comes closest to describing how much you wanted that first vaginal intercourse to happen?

  • I really didn’t want it to happen at the time
  • I had mixed feelings—part of me wanted it to happen at the time and part of me didn’t
  • I really wanted it to happen at the time.

And then, this followup:

Would you say then that this first vaginal intercourse was voluntary or not voluntary, that is, did you choose to have sex of your own free will or not?

If the respondents said it was not voluntary, that counted as ever having forced sex. This is not a criminal definition of rape. Rather, it identifies people who had sex involuntarily — from their perspective. It is understandable that this measure produces higher estimates than the criminal law does.

Naming violence

I think we need a definition of rape that is not the same as the criminal law’s definition, because the law is not intended to make criminal all of the ways that people experience sexual violation or coercion. The routine coercion of sex within unequal marriages, for example, must lie outside the reach of criminal law — or the next thing you know we’d have workers claiming that their employers’ profits constitute theft. In that sense, the definition used by NSFG seems reasonable.

Extending this further, however, we might find that drawing the line between sex and violence, between sex and rape, my not just be difficult, it may the wrong question.

Look back at the NIPSVS. They include “sexual coercion” under the category of “other sexual violence” — other meaning not rising to the level of rape. (To be clear, this is not part of the rape prevalence estimates I discussed above). They offer this definition:

Sexual coercion is defined as unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.

Sommers is incensed this counts as “violence.” Her voice drips with contempt as she recites the description, at how feminism’s pretty little flowers are upset that somebody lied to them. I don’t share this contempt. But neither would I insist that these forms of coercion be counted as “violence.” Sexual coercion does not have to be defined as violence in order to be important, or bad, or an essential element of many people’s sexual experience.


You can’t handle the truth?

The feminist argument for the distinction between sex and violence is partly a defense of “normal” sexual relationships and against the accusation that it is normal sexual relationships that feminists oppose. This is exactly the tone Sommers takes: feminists treat women as passive victims who can’t handle normal relationships — you can’t even get drunk and have sex with your spouse anymore! Arguing with her over the definition of violence is a losing battle. I’ll give up “violence” if you agree that sexual coercion is systematically related to patriarchal power and gender inequality.

Here’s an excerpt from Catharine MacKinnon’s old discussion of rape versus sex (from the 1981 essay, “Sex and Violence,” published in the collection Feminism Unmodified), which influenced my attitude on this question. She said it is…

…potentially cooptive [to formulate the question as] these are issues of violence, not sex: rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality… I hear in the formulation that these issues are violence against women, not sex, that we are in the shadow of Freud, intimidated at being called repressive Victorians. We’re saying we’re oppressed and they say we’re repressed. That is, when we say we’re against rape the immediate response is, “Does that mean you’re against sex?” “Are you attempting to impose neo-Victorian prudery on sexual expression?” … To distinguish ourselves from this, and in reaction to it, we call these abuses violence.

To argue with Sommers about where to draw the line for sexual violence is to inhabit the shadow of Freud, in MacKinnon’s view. Rather than adopt that defensive posture, MacKinnon argued, feminists should own women’s fundamental, non-objective (in the sense of disinterested) position:

We have a deeper critique of what has been done to women’s sexuality and who controls access to it. What we are saying is that sexuality in exactly these normal forms often does violate us. So long as we say that those things are abuses of violence, not sex, we fail to criticize what has been made of sex, what has been done to us through sex, because we leave the line between rape and intercourse … right where it is.

In other words, if feminists argue over whether women’s perception of involuntary sex matches the legal definition, then we lose the ability to explain that unequal sex is systematic rather than deviant. It may not be that one-in-five women has experienced rape according to the definition within criminal law (though that is certainly within the realm of possible). But if that many women have had sex involuntarily, and many more have experienced sexual coercion of various kinds, isn’t that bad enough?


Filed under In the news