Monday, September 6, 2010
Bullshit Patrol: One in Four College Women Will Be Raped Before They Graduate, According to Justice Department Study... Really?
It's back-to-school in the United States, so that means it's time to whip up the parents with stories of all the evil things which will happen to their progeny once they've left the nest. On the top of the heap this semester, we have a report by The Huffington Post that CBS news claims that one in four female college students will be raped by graduation day. Here's what CBS says:
A recent study fom the Department of Justice estimated that 25 percent of college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before they graduate within a four-year college period, and that women between the ages of 16 to 24 will experience rape at a rate that's four times higher than the assault rate of all women.
There are a couple of problems with this report.
First of all, this is old, not recent news: the study which discovered this was published 10 years ago by Fisher, Cullen and Turner, in 2000. The current publication simply refers to that study: it is not itself a study, but a handbook regarding acquaintance rape. The original study can be found here. The handbook which ABC mistook for a recent study can be found here.
Secondly, the study does not indicate that 25% of all college women will be raped, but rather about half that number (13,75%). Ariana Huffington's krewe apparently has a hard time discerning between "rape" and "attempted rape".
Furthermore, a methodologically similar study undertaken by the same Justice Department indicates a rape rate 11 TIMES LESS than that indicated by Fisher, et al.
Finally, Fisher et al note that only 46% of the 86 women who they classified as having suffered a rape believed themselves to have been raped. Basically, what these researchers are saying is that the women themselves do not agree with the way the researchers are classifying these incidents. Fisher et al haven't a clear idea of why this disharmony in classification occurs, other than "Well, maybe the women don't understand what rape is or don't want to talk about it" (odd, given that the women had to agree in writing to specifically participate in a survey on sexual violence and rape on campus). Call it anthropological belief in one's informants, but I think we can take it as a given that a person knows when they've been raped, folks. I think we should take their word on it primarily.
Part of the problem here may be a rather fuzzy and imprecise definition of rape which guided the researcher's analysis: "Forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion as well as physical force." "Psychological coercion" is open to a wide range of subjective interpretations and the researcher's understanding of this might not coincide with that of their informants.
If we were to take Fisher et al's informants on their word, however, and classify as rape what these women say was rape, then we find that, far from 25% of all female college student's being raped by graduation day, as the headline implies, we're looking at (13.75 x .46) 6.32%.
It should be pointed out here that Fisher et al's study is pretty responsible and transparent (though they could have given us better information on how they were classifying rapes in opposition to their informants' classifications by presenting us with a series of case studies). Irresponsible scientific reporting is the problem here, with the media multiplying by 2 to 4 times what the study shows.
6% is, in any case, still a very high number. It's about 4 times the national average and indicates a significant problem. But one wonders, then, why so many people think they need to exagerate this number beyond all reasonable bounds? Most people who have gone through university, male or female, are going to have a "bullshit" reaction when they see that 25%. Ultimately, this sort of exageration ends up making people DISMISS the issue of acquaintence rape.
This problem, of course, is found wherever research runs up against public policy. People believe that there is a problem - rape on campus, say, or trafficking of persons. Researchers go out and find that the problem does indeed exist, but is quite complicated. Politicians and moral entrepeneurs then get on the bandwagon and distort and simplify the findings so that they seem more alarming. Then the old media comes along and distorts the findings some more, because "if it bleeds, it leads". Finally, bloggers and new media close the process by incorrectly citing the media's take on the politicians' understanding of the original findings. At each stage in this process, estimates of victims go up, up, up.
The end result is this: a Department of Justice study found 34 women who claimed to have been raped over a seven month period out of a total of 4,446 women surveyed. Applying their own etic version of "rape", the researchers more than doubled this number to 74. By including attempted rapes, the number was pushed to 123. Then, by presuming that this rate is stable for the entire five year period of a woman's college career, it was reported that 25% of all college women will be raped or suffer an attempted rape during their school years. Desperate for "back-to-school" scare stories, CBS picks this up and broadcasts it to the four winds as "new research" when, in fact, it's the same old research of ten years ago in a new wrapper. Finally, the Huffington Post reports CBS' coverage and drops the "attempted rape".
Boom: a political meme is born: 25% of American female college grads are rape victims.
Postado por Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette