Thursday, July 16, 2015

The (perceived) dearth of preventative action by women does not discredit the "1-in-5 college women are raped" statistic

From time to time, skeptics of the statistic that 1-in-5 women in college are raped make the following argument against its credibility:

"If rape were really so pervasive, we'd see college women doing more to avoid it."

Some of these skeptics (Christina Hoff Summers comes to mind) are guilty of what feminists call “slut-shaming” or “victim-blaming,” which ought not be taken seriously as arguments against the stat (Google those terms if you’re uninitiated; there are plenty of good feminist sites out there to catch you up to speed). But not all of them are, and accusing anyone who employs this argument of such offenses is intellectually lazy. The argument is wrong, but not necessarily for those reasons.

One of the smarter skeptics is Shikha Dalmia, a libertarian writer for Reason whose work I greatly admire. Careful reading of Dalmia’s argument makes clear she is NOT arguing women who fail to take preventative action share some responsibility for their rape. Rather, she is pointing out only that the absence of widespread preventative action is an indication women are not very worried by the prospect of rape, which she feels they would be were the figures as high as feminists claim. But this is still a bad argument, for two reasons.

First, acquaintance rape can be pervasive in absolute terms without being likely on a per-hookup basis, such that even if the 1-in-5 figure is true, many rational women would not necessarily feel pressured away from certain behaviors until it was too late. Dalmia writes, "if the hook-up culture is pervasive on campuses, it's because [women] don't find the risk they take to be incommensurable with the sexual upside they expect.” But comparing the expected likelihood of sexual gratification to the expected likelihood of being raped by one’s partner for any given sexual encounter selected at random says little about the cumulative portion of women which could wind up as rape victims over longer stretches of sexual activity.

To see why, recognize that the number of sexually active women on your average college campus is likely much greater than 1 in 5. Then, consider that many of these women have several different sexual encounters each year, at different times, with different men. These realities result in an enormous volume of consensual hookups on college campuses. Imagine (as feminists posit) that a small band of men habitually take advantage of these women whenever they get one alone. Imagine they do this often, and (for intuitive reasons) never with the same woman twice. In the context of so many hookups, it’s easy to see how the portion of women who will ever be taken advantage of by a peer during their entire four years at college could approach one-in-five, even while the likelihood that any given hookup will result in rape may still be very low. If that’s an accurate depiction of what’s happening, women would have little reason to fear any individual hookup, even if their long term risks were considerably more frightening.

By analogy, the vast majority of food served at restaurants will not give the consumer food poisoning. As such, the vast majority of people do not greatly diminish their consumption of restaurant food for fear of getting food poisoning. And yet, due to the large sample size, very many people - t
he CDC estimates 1 in 6 – will get food poisoning at some point in a given year. And remember, for college rape statistics, the number presented is 1-in-5 by the end of four years, not just one, so depending on the frequency with which the average student has sex, the per-instance rapes may be even more dispersed.

(In fairness to Dalmia, this also means that over time, statistics using absolute numbers of rapes, or the % of women who have been raped, may conceal other important trends in the sample size of sex being had. If 1 in 5 women were raped in 1950, and 1 in 5 women were raped in 2014, but women in general are finding themselves alone in bed with men by their own volition three times as often now as they did then due to loosening social restraints on female sexuality, the likelihood of being raped during any given sexual encounter has gone down. If so, that's good, and the data feminists choose to advertise doesn't account for that decrease.

But that still doesn't diminish the absolute size of the problem. The more people are doing something, the more problematic the risks of that thing become for society as a whole, and the more legislation may be justified to mitigate those risks. If 1 in 5 football players get concussions, the benefit accrued from concussion prevention education programs increases as the number of people playing football increases, and vice-versa. The more people are having sex, the more it makes sense to have laws which protect us from the dangers of sex.)

But secondly, and more importantly, it seems women DO take all kinds of preventative action, and that the need for them to take such action is almost as potent an oppressive force as is the incidence of rape itself. Amanda Taub and Ezra Klein worded this more eloquently than I could in their respective blog posts:
  • When our society treats consent as "everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance," that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault. As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.” – Taub

  • “Every woman I spoke to talked about this tax in the same way: as utterly constant, completely unrelenting. It's so pervasive that it often goes unmentioned, like gravity. But it colors everything. What you wear. Who you have lunch with. When you can hug a friend. Whether you can invite someone back to your house. How you speak in meetings. Whether you can ask male colleagues out for a drink to talk about work. How long you can chat with someone at a party. Whether you can go on a date without having a friend who knows to be ready for a call in case things go wrong. Whether you can accept seemingly professional invitations from older men in your field. Whether you can say yes when someone wants to pick up the tab for drinks. For men, this is like ultraviolet light: it's everywhere, but we can't see it.” - Klein


Dalmia writes: "The sexual revolution gave women control over their sexual destiny by letting them conduct their sexual lives based on their own individual risk-reward assessment without being stigmatized as prudes or sluts." But how much control do they really have over their sexual destiny if the downside of having a lot of sex is now, instead of being stigmatized as a slut, being raped? As a libertarian, isn't that a far worse and more coercive method of control, which the sexual revolution ought also to logically oppose? Do men face the same risk when they choose to have a lot of sex? If not, isn't that an injustice?


If it is an injustice, is it an unavoidable inequity written into the nature of things? Or is this injustice rooted directly in the alterable behavior of men in the aggregate, which we as social reformers ought do our best to rectify through alteration of that behavior?

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