If the research doesn’t say what you want, just lie about it
As you all well know, I try to keep a steady beat of media criticism of a specific kind of bad reporting—bad science reporting in the name of supporting sexism. Sexists in your secular democracies face a problem—arguing that women are inferior to men has always been the job of religion, where you can just make shit up without any evidence, declare it the truth, and start oppressing people. In steps bad science reporters to fill in the gap, elevating hack scientists over good ones because the hacks say what sexists want to hear, anthropomorphizing animal research to reach strained conclusions, claiming that misogynist conclusions were reached in research that weren’t, and allowing armchair evolutionary psychology* to masquerade as genuine science. But this story takes the cake. Is it possible that bad science reporters, when faced with research that cannot be construed in any way to mean that bitches ain’t shit, will just lie about it?
Via Feministing (and emailed to me—thank you, damnedyankee!), we find that the Telegraph ran a story suggesting that women who don’t stay home and knit on a Friday night are basically asking the vigilante justice system known as rapists to punish the women for their infraction with the proper punishment for errant women—rape. They’re just trying to help you stay safe, ladies! Plus, it’s science and nature and utterly irrefutable, so you have no choice but to give up that social life.
And just in case you want to claim that we can’t judge a story by its headline, here’s the lead:
Psychologists found that all three factors had a bearing on how far men were likely to go to take advantage of the opposite sex.
They found that the skimpier the dress and the more flirtatious the woman, the less likely a suitor was to take no for an answer.
Interestingly, this is the toned-down version from the original copy. They went after women who drink in the first version, but were forced to give that one up after Goldacre called bullshit. But the main idea of the story—that the research is about how women cause rape, remains.
The story leads off by saying that if you flirt and wear short skirts, you put up a scientifically proven “open for raping” sign. But was the research actually about how women get themselves raped by making themselves so available for raping? Was the research really about how this is all women’s fault?
Of course not. As Ben Goldacre reports, the original press release put the blame for rape on an unusual target—the men who actually do the raping.
Oddly, though, the title of the press release for the same research was: “Promiscuous men more likely to rape.”
Well, obviously it’s untrue that men who rape women are the ones to blame. That’s like blaming the police when a robber breaks into a house and they arrest him. The crime committed here was the flirting and short skirt-donning, and that’s that. Except not according to the actual researchers, who seem to be invested in this weird idea that rapists are to blame for rape. Goldacre called the researcher on this very preliminary research, Sophia Shaw. She’s not pleased about this story.
Shaw spoke to about 100 men, presenting them with “being with a woman”, and asking them when they would “call it a night”. The idea was to explore men’s attitudes towards coercing women into sex.
“I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self-report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, and participants were answering when sober, and so on,” she said.
Men were slightly—in a statistically irrelevant way—to claim that what a woman was wearing would change how likely they were to assault her. Taking what Shaw is saying into consideration, it’s entirely possible that even this statistically insignificant difference actually reflects a tendency to self-justify more than the reality. In other words, it’s likely that men say that they’d be more likely to rape a woman in a short skirt, because they read stories like the one in the Telegraph and realize that little detail will exonerate their actions, turning them from evil rapists to the victims of women who commit the crime of showing leg. As we like to say in the biz, more research needs to be done.
The initial story also reported something that was the exact opposite of the truth—claiming that drunk women were likelier to be raped, according to this research. Truth says?
Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? “This is completely inaccurate,” Shaw said. “We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.”
So they changed that, but they are still misrepresenting the research, blowing statistically insignificant findings out of proportion, ignoring that subjects are just as likely spilling prejudice as accurately reporting on what they’d really do, and really, missing the point entirely.
Shaw said: “When I saw the article my heart sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.”
The study was measuring men’s attitudes about sexual coercion, which of course has huge implications for how likely they are to rape. But by making the lead about how women dress and act, and sprinkling judgment for women who think they have the same rights as men to socialize at parties, the Telegraph gives the ordinary reader an impression the research is about how women get themselves raped by being so rapeable.
The implications of this and most sexist bad science reporting aren’t hard to tease out. These stories are largely about how male violence and oppression of women are ingrained and inevitable, and so women’s attempts to scratch out some freedom for ourselves are nothing but wishful thinking, and we should shut up and go back to the kitchen. And stop pressing charges if we’re raped, because it was our fault anyway.
As an addendum, I will never stopped being surprised at how much enthusiasm there is for the willingness to use rapists as an intimidation factor to keep women shrouded and locked up in the house. You’d think that men have enough interest in seeing women’s legs and being on the receiving end of women’s flirtations that they’d protest vigorously the use of violence to halt these behaviors. But in my experience, the men who protest this are the ones who are already feminist-minded, and defend women from a rights viewpoint and see the benefits to them as a happy side effect. I guess more selfish men are so quick to identify with the rapist that they can’t even think about the larger effect of that defense. In a way, the reason that some women defend the rapist point of view is more understandable—a lot of women wish to believe the level of inappropriate dress and flirting is just outside what they do, so they’re safe and those women had it coming.
*If you think this is the same thing as evolutionary biology, then already you’ve shown that you’re a sucker for bad science reporting.