Credibility of Women’s Advocates Regarding Rape

In a recent post, I reviewed various sources providing statistics on rape. I was pleased to discover, in that process, that the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), while plainly an advocate on behalf of sexually assaulted women, was able to present its information in coherent and credible terms, with good citations to relevant (if rather outdated) research.

It was disappointing that, by contrast, the Obama Administration favored relatively extreme positions. Rather than accurately state the most plausible interpretation of the data, the White House repeatedly adopted alarmist views, with the effect of casting men in an excessively negative light.

An example: the claim that “One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college” (White House, 2014, p. 6). There appears to be no evidence for that claim. As detailed in that previous post, not even the study cited by the White House made such an assertion. Moreover, the authors of that study made clear that their research was not representative of colleges nationwide. Even if they had been able to reach the 20% level claimed by the White House, their work would have been questionable due to their extraordinarily broad definitions. For instance, in their view, attempted sexual assault would include an attempt to kiss someone who turns his/her head aside to avoid your lips.

As I saw while researching that previous post, the White House repeatedly joined with those researchers and others to take positions that would stoke harsh attitudes and beliefs toward men. Those positions evinced the same 1970s-style feminism that I had encountered in my recent graduate social work studies at the flagship state universities of Indiana and Michigan.

While the White House still appears to be in the grip of that antique anti-male gang, my research also turned up signs of third-wave and post-feminist awareness that misleading rhetoric about men is neither appropriate nor effective. These women, more grounded in contemporary realities, appear to be distancing themselves from the abuses that have done so much damage for so long. This post offers some examples of the contrast in these approaches, based on sources I encountered while researching that previous post.

In phrasing the situation thus, I do not mean to imply that post-feminists are the only ones who can smell the coffee. Even some fairly wild-eyed anti-rape advocates see the good sense in preserving one’s credibility. For example, Raphael et al. (2008, p. 2) indulge what some may consider the paranoid belief that “rape prevalence denial is a calculated strategy aimed at silencing rape victims and preventing successful rape prosecutions.” I would suggest that an insistence upon truthful research and reporting does not require membership in any hidden conspiracy. But even those who disagree with some of the views held by people like Raphael et al. can agree with their criticism of “excess zeal in alleging that rape is a problem,” which they describe as follows (pp. 12-14):

There are multiple motivations by researchers, advocates, and journalists to skew the statistics to underscore their position which may be that rape is serious and affects many women, that more funding is needed to serve victims, or because it makes a good story. Often what happens is that the actual estimates of rape prevalence are then “estimated” again. . . . .

[Raphael et al. provide the example of a U.S. Department of Education document that engages in that sort of re-estimation. They note that the original study presents the original estimate in passing, with just] two sentences and one end note in a 39 page report, and makes clear those estimates were tentative . . . . [Yet the Department of Education’s new estimate, supposedly based on that report, is that one in four women may be assaulted during college. That unsupported new estimate] now seems to be a reality. Or worse yet, has actually turned into a one-in-three estimate. . . .

[Now many] college and university rape awareness web sites regurgitate the erroneous one-in-three life time figure . . . .

The one-in-three figure is also repeated on Internet counseling sites and medical advice sites. . . . The statistic has even spawned an organization, One in Three Women, A Global Campaign to Raise Awareness About Violence Against Women. . . .

But since all current research finds much lower prevalence of lifetime sexual assault, repetition of this statistic is harmful to the cause of rape elimination and opens up rape crisis providers to charges of exaggeration and duplicity. Given the backlash and the concerted campaign of rape deniers, it is important that data not be misstated or misinterpreted, even though it may represent severe undercounts.

Sure enough, the one-in-three statistic is still out there (e.g., WOAR, 2014). While researching my post on rape statistics, I also encountered the website of OneInFourUSA. The assertion underlying this organization’s name was that “One in four college women report surviving rape (15 percent) or attempted rape (12 percent) since their fourteenth birthday.” The source for that assertion was Robin Warshaw’s 1994 book I Never Called It Rape. The book drew very positive reviews from readers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Nonetheless, as some reviewers noted, by now it was hopelessly out of date — as were the other citations provided on the OneInFourUSA website. Even if the one-in-four claim had been true in the period of the 1980s and early 1990s covered by Warshaw’s book, my rape statistics post cites multiple sources confirming that rapes have dropped significantly in the past 20 years.

Like WOAR and OneInFourUSA, numerous other websites repeat information that is outdated or simply false. Some are unfortunately very high-visibility. For example, on the Huffington Post website, Soraya Chemaly (2012) offers “50 Facts About Rape” in a petulant, get-with-it-dumbass tone (e.g., “Remember facts? Remember facts about rape? Because it turns out that a whole lot of people know less than nothing about the subject.”) Here are some examples of what Chemaly thinks she knows:

  • “A woman’s chance of being raped in the U.S.: 1 in 5.” Chemaly’s source: a CDC (2012) “Facts at a Glance” brochure that says this: “13% of women and 6% of men reported they experienced sexual coercion at some time in their lives.” That would be about one in eight women. And sexual coercion is not necessarily rape.
  • “Chances that a raped woman conceives compared to one engaging in consensual sex: at least two times as likely.” The source of Chemaly’s “fact”: a single article, dating from 2003. Not to deny that the article may have been interesting and thoughtful — but its authors, Jonathan and Tiffani Gottshall, earned their doctorates in English and economics, respectively, from Binghamton University. A Washington Post (2012) article said, “The Gottshalls do acknowledge that their study was at odds with previous research, which showed a lower rate of pregnancy among rape victims.” It would be particularly remarkable to find a doubled rate of impregnation when, as noted in the previous post, only 68% of acts qualifying as rapes involve sexual intercourse of a kind that could produce pregnancy.
  • “A woman’s chance of being raped in college: 1 in 4 or 5.” Chemaly’s source: that same CDC “Facts at a Glance” brochure. The brochure says, “In a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” As Chemaly would have seen if she had thought for a moment, or had read that study, neither “attempted” nor “completed sexual assault” are synonymous with rape. In addition, the study in question happens to be the dubious study cited above — the one that did not claim to have arrived at a definitive statement about colleges nationwide, the one that defined sexual assault so broadly as to include unwanted kissing.

Those three examples come from the first ten of Chemaly’s 50 points of wisdom. What is perhaps most striking is that this sort of work can be published at a relatively prestigious venue without anyone even bothering to check her facts — indeed, even to read her own purported sources — before she lectures the world on its ignorance. In Chemaly’s defense, I would bet that she did not dream up the belief that a credible writer can behave like this. In my experience, one could easily be exposed to comparably unscholarly attitudes by studying under so-called PhDs in a variety of university departments. (For another unfortunate Huffington Post example in Chemaly’s footsteps, consider a piece by Fluke et al. (2014) and its rebuttal by Soave (2014).)

Sadly, as illustrated by these several examples, the warning offered by Raphael et al. in 2008 (above) has not been taken to heart. My previous post contains multiple examples of flaws and distortions in research and advocacy pertaining to sexual assault. Recent research by Hines (2014) finds that prominent member agencies of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence continue en masse to purvey false statements as though they were fact.

It appears, then, that there must be some force at work, something other than the urge to find the truth or to make the women’s movement stronger and more respected. There may be several explanations for such behavior. For one thing, we all need encouragement and a sense of belonging. It probably seems worthwhile to continue in one’s path, not questioning oneself, if others seem to be praising one’s efforts. In addition, there is the desire to help people, if only in the sense of manufacturing some kind of activity that feels vaguely helpful (regardless of whether it actually is). There may also be some individuals who don’t care if what they are saying is true or not, as long as it serves the purpose of venting hatred toward men in some socially acceptable way.

Those sorts of quasi-therapeutic motivations certainly can support various journaling and blogging activities. That, however, is not the name of the game when established media outlets and not-for-profit organizations are responsible for the spread of misinformation. At that point, as the Poverty Pimps’ Poem reminds us, it tends to be a matter of money. Such entities would surely not continue long in a course of action that alienated their supporters. The recommended way to keep donations coming may be to keep churning up material that excites donors’ anxieties or otherwise says what they prefer to believe about men and women.

The conclusion is not that women’s advocates are unreliable phonies. The conclusion presented here is that some organizations and individuals doing research and writing on the subject of rape are motivated to get things right and even, in some cases, to be fair, while others simply are not. A similar split among women appears in my previous post on the hounding of Larry Summers. Thankfully, even in the area of rape statistics, there are some relatively honest women’s advocates who do fairly acknowledge men’s perspectives.

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