[guest post] Debunking Some Skeptic Myths About Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

This guest post was written by my friend HJ Hornbeck and discusses a talk on sexual assault given by social psychologist Carol Tavris at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this past July. 

Introduction

Carol Tavris’ talk came at the worst time for me, as well as the best. I’m too busy at the moment to give it a proper fisk, because I’m preparing a lecture on sexual assault. I’ll see if I can aim for two birds, but for now her talk deserves at least a point-form response with minimal proof-reading.

Some background first, though. If I can crib from her TAM 2014 bio,

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and author whose work focuses on critical thinking and the criticism of pseudoscience in psychology, among other topics. Her articles, book reviews and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. Many of these essays and reviews are available in Psychobabble and Biobunk: Using psychological science to think critically about popular psychology. Dr. Tavris is coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts–a book that has become something of a bible, dare we say, of the skeptical movement.

So she’s a pretty cool, smart skeptic. The title of her talk did raise a few eyebrows, though–why was a conference notorious for havingsexual assault problem hosting “Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations”? Still it didn’t attract much attention…

until the live-Tweets arrived.

They’re terrible, by and large, but most of them come from people who are already terrible on this topic. This was a talk given at a conference where the management has historically taken out extra liability insurance to deal with the risk posed by one of its keynote speakers. There’s a certain motivation for the attendees to pull out every dismissive, permissive, victim-blaming message possible from a talk on rape. The tribalism in the tweets is not subtle. I could give a talk on rape myths in front of that audience, and the Twitter feed would still be terrible.

So I’ll wait to see whether the talk is released to a general audience.

I had much the same opinion as Stephanie Zvan; critiquing something you only have a fragmentary record of would only lead to disaster, so it was better to wait and see.

Well, I waited. I saw. And my goodness, what a disaster.

[Read more…]

“Twitter Psychosis”? I’m Skeptical

[Content note: mental illness & delusions]

Over at the Daily Dot, I did some mythbusting about this alleged “Twitter Psychosis.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for me to pick out an excerpt, so I’ll just go with what I think is the most relevant part of this story, but you should go read the full thing to get the background:

Unlike most other published psychological research, the study about Mrs. C and “Twitter psychosis” is a case study— a type of research in which researchers study one particular person, or case. Something you should know about case studies is that they’re the least scientifically rigorous experimental design possible. There’s obviously only one subject or participant, and a particular person’s psychology is so idiosyncratic and impacted by so many factors that we may or may not even notice that it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Unlike other studies, that compare some group to some other group, case studies don’t allow us to see what happens if certain conditions are different.

This study was further an observational case study, not an experimental one. In experiments, researchers change something or do something to the participants and see what happens. In observational studies, they can only observe what’s already going on. This means that it’s impossible to tell what causes the observed phenomena to occur.

That said, case studies are useful sometimes. When researchers are first discovering a new phenomenon, or when people with a particular condition are very rare, there might be no choice but to study a single individual. Observational studies in particular are useful when it’s unethical or impossible to tweak some variables to see what happens. Twitter psychosis, if it’s a real thing, is probably quite rare. We would have to study thousands of participants to find cases of it. And if Twitter really can cause psychosis in certain people, it’s clearly unethical to purposefully expose them to it to see what happens. So, case studies, including observational ones, are often the first step of studying something new.

My main concern with this type of research—and with other recent warnings by mental health professionals that the Internet (and social media in particular) can cause or aggravate mental illnesses—is that people dealing with mental health problems may be pressured by friends, family, or doctors to stay offline. Of course, sometimes staying off the Internet (or off social media specifically) can be a wise choice for someone for any number of reasons. However, the general trend of anti-tech alarmism makes it likely that “stay off the internet” will be a piece of advice too often and too easily given.

People with mental illnesses can be vulnerable to persuasion and even coercion by those with authority over them, including therapists and psychiatrists. If a person with a Ph.D. says, “I think you need to stay off Twitter,” they may take their advice without any grains of salt.

You might ask why this matters. It matters because the Internet can also be an incredible source of support and information for people with mental illnesses. Tumblr, in particular, is known for its supportive community, but it’s not the only one. Reddit has subreddits dedicated to every major mental illness where users can post stories, ask for advice, and support each other. Twitter’s hashtags make it easy to find tweets about your illness, and mental health organizations and professionals are very active there, posting supportive messages, advice, and news about clinical research.

And Facebook is where many people “come out” about their mental illnesses for the first time, finding it easier to share with many people at once rather than with individuals—but without having to show it to the whole world. (Incidentally, Facebook is also where I run a support group for atheists dealing with mental health problems, which many of the participants have told me has been really helpful.)

It’s possible that Twitter can trigger psychosis in some people with other risk factors, and researchers should conduct more studies to find how whether, how, and why this happens, and how it can be prevented. But we should be careful not to cut suffering people off from a potentially vital source of support.

Read the rest here.

 

The Perils of Facebook as a Hiring Tool

My new post at the Daily Dot is about Five Labs, an app that analyzes your personality based on your Facebook profile.

Some employers already try to use Big Five personality tests to assess prospective hires under the assumption that certain traits make good employees. At Jezebel, Hillary Crosley suggests that Five Labs could eventually become a hiring tool:

The tool is still in the beginning stages and isn’t a hardcore hiring weapon yet, but it’s clear how it could be. It could also poses problems because who you are online might not be who you are in an office setting. Maybe you’re awesome at work, but you like to go home and be crazy on the Internet? Technically, non-friends can’t see what you post on Facebook—but let’s be honest, the Internet is open to whomever is interested enough to crack your code.

That last sentence raises some concerning and frankly creepy implications. While it’s generally a good idea not to put things on the Internet (under any privacy setting) that would be particularly deleterious if they were to become widely known, we also shouldn’t consider it ethically acceptable for employers to hack into interviewee’s private online accounts in order to test their personalities.

I’d also question the hiring skills of any employer who’s that desperate to access a potential employee’s Facebook; their education, references, certifications, past work experience, and interview should really be sufficient.

As Crosley points out in her piece, most people do not behave the same way at work as they behave elsewhere. This is normal. In fact, this is preferable. I don’t think I would be effective at work if I acted the way I do at home or out with friends, and I also don’t think I would have any friends if I acted with them the way I act at work.

The expectation that many employers seem to be operating from when they stalk potential hires’ social media accounts is that people should not only leave their personal lives out of the office, but also take their work lives out of the office to everywhere else.

This is dismaying, but not surprising, given that the U.S. seems to have a uniquely work-obsessed culture. For instance, Americanswork more than residents of any other industrialized country, and they take the least vacation time. The U.S. also lags behind other comparable countries in terms of laws regulating sick leave and parental leave.

Being expected to take your office self home and into your online life isn’t nearly as bad as not being able to take paid leave to take care of your baby, obviously. But the two could be symptoms of a general cultural inability to recognize that it’s healthier to work to live rather than live to work.

Read the rest here.

Correlation is Not Causation: STI Edition

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about a new study on STI rates among men who hook up with men using smartphone apps, and how easy it is to misinterpret the results.

new study by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and UCLA suggests that men who have sex with men and use hookup apps like Grindr are significantly more likely to have gonorrhea and chlamydia than men who have sex with men but do not use such apps. But before you panic and delete Grindr from your phone lest it give you an STI, let’s look at what the study does and does not actually show.

[…]Careless headline writers frequently mix up correlation and causation, spreading misinformation and stigma. Despite Lowder’s balanced take on the study, the headline of his own piece reads, rather alarmingly, “Study Suggests Grindr-Like Apps Increase Likelihood of Sexually Transmitted Infections.” This wording implies that using such apps increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting an STI, not that, in general, people who use such apps are also more likely to have an STI. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Another important distinction is whether the participants contracted the STIs during the course of the study (while using GSN apps) or just happened to have them at the time that the data was collected. Here Lowder’s article is also unclear: “Specifically, geo-social app users were 25 percent more likely than their bar hopping comrades to contract gonorrhea, and 37 percent more likely to have picked up chlamydia.” And an article about the study at Advocate is headlined, “STUDY: Smartphone Hookup App Users More Likely To Contract Sexually Transmitted Infections.”

However, the actual study notes that the participants were tested for STIs at the same time as they were asked about their sexual behavior, including the use of GSN apps. This means that they did not necessarily contract the STIs while using the GSN apps, or after having used them. The infections could have preceded the participants’ use of the apps.

This is important because it can help untangle the question of why this correlation exists, besides the obvious hypothesis that using GSN apps can actually cause people to contract STIs at higher rates than other ways of meeting sexual partners. Perhaps people who already have STIs are more interested in using the apps because of the anonymity—it’s much less scary to tell a random person you’ll never meet again that you have an STI and need to use a condom than it is to tell someone who’s embedded in your social network. Or, on the more cynical side of things, people might feel less guilty about not disclosing an STI to a random app hookup than someone they’ve met in a more conventional way.

Or, maybe people who are attracted to “wild” and “risky” sexual situations are more likely to have STIs and more likely to use GSN apps. The common factor could be impulsivity or recklessness.

Read the rest here.

Force vs. Nonconsent: The Fight to Redefine Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

My piece at the Daily Dot today is about efforts to legally define sexual assault.

Like all laws, the legal definitions of crimes have changed throughout history in response to social, cultural, scientific, and political forces.Sexual assault especially is a crime that depends on social consensus for its definition. After all, while killing another person isn’t always considered “murder,” most of us at least agree on what it means to kill a person. Not so with sexual assault.

Feminist activists have been fighting for decades to expand and improve that definition, from including marital rape to deemphasizing vaginal penetration as a criterion. (Yes, people without vaginas can be raped.) They have also urged state legislatures to rewrite laws so that rape does not have to be “forceful” to count. After all, what matters isn’t whether or not force was used, but whether or not consent was given.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, however, wants definitions of rape to re-emphasize force. The reason, he claims, is that using consent (or lack thereof) as the basis upon which rape is defined leaves room for all sorts of ethical quandaries.

For instance, if someone falsifies their identity in some way to convince someone to have sex with them, then that person did not technically give informed consent, and could consider the act rape even though they appeared to fully consent to it. If we criminalize non-consensual sex, how could we not also criminalize sex under false pretenses?

Rubenfeld does include the caveat that the definition of force should be broadened. He says, “I’m in favor of an expanded force requirement, an understanding that sees force in threats, in drugging, in physical restraint (holding the victim down, locking the victim up), and so on.”

But even then, many (if not most) sexual assaults do not involve any of these things. Nor should they have to in order to be considered sexual assault.

Read the rest here.

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Confidence Is Not the Solution To Gender Inequality

My latest piece in the Daily Dot discusses research on the double bind that women have to navigate in the workplace, and why I’m so fed up with all the demands that women Just Be Confident and Ask For What You Want at work:

Women face a classic double bind: if they confirm female stereotypes of gentleness, communality, and physical attractiveness, they are liked more but presumed less competent. If they disconfirm female stereotypes and act confident and assertive, they are liked less and presumed to have poor social skills. Both being liked and being considered competent is vital for getting hired, retained, and promoted.

These effects are especially pronounced in domains that are considered traditionally “male,” which would include most of the types of fields that everyone’s always wringing their hands about female underrepresentation in: law, business, politics, science, and technology, to name a few.

Another study suggests that interviewers evaluating women who behave in a more stereotypically masculine way emphasize social skills more than competence in their hiring decisions, but when they interview men (or women who are more stereotypically feminine), their hiring decisions hinge more on competence and social skills.

Since we already know that women who are more confident and less feminine are perceived to be lower on social skills, this seems like a convenient way to penalize them in hiring decisions.

In a study published in Research and Organizational Behavior, researchers Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan described the multiple ways in which women who act contrary to female stereotypes face backlash in the workplace.

For example, women are constantly being exhorted to self-promote so that supervisors and managers notice their skills. However, while women who self-promote may be considered more competent, they are alsoconsidered less likeable and are less likely to be hired. In another study, men who used an “assertive style” in their job application materials weremore likely to be hired than women using an identical strategy, and the actual job applications were identical except for the fictional applicant’s gender.

Once hired, women continue to face this double bind over and over again.

Read the rest here.

For the record, I did not choose the headline or the header image, and I apologize if either is offensive.

~~~

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A Review of the White House’s Report on Campus Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wasn’t really paying much attention to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault because I think that that kind of stuff makes a lot less of a difference than good old-fashioned grassroots activism, but I did pay attention when RAINN, an organization that I otherwise really respect the work of, sent the Task Force its recommendations, which ridiculously stated that we should stop blaming this whole “rape culture” thing and recognize that sexual assault is caused by individuals. Amanda Marcotte takes this down quite well here.

So when the Task Force released its first report recently, I decided to read it and see how useful it was and whether or not it followed RAINN’s lead in trivializing the role of culture and socialization in producing widespread sexual violence.

Here’s what the report gets right:

1. It acknowledges that schools have a strong incentive to avoid publicizing sexual assault statistics:

For colleges and universities, breaking the cycle of violence poses a unique challenge. When a school tries to tackle the problem – by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.

We have to change that dynamic.

The same thing happens with mental health, hazing in the Greek system, and basically any other problem faced by college campuses. It’s good that the Task Force seems to realize that universities aren’t exactly going to fix this problem out of the goodness of their hearts.

2. It acknowledges the importance of social norms about sexual assault.

Social norms research reveals that men often misperceive what other men think about this issue: they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of sexual assault and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble. And when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.

This is part of the report’s recommendation for bystander intervention programs, which are a good first step but have a number of problems that I’ll discuss in the second section of this post. Notably, the report never uses the term “rape culture,” not even in this section, but that’s the sociological term for what it’s getting at here. People think that rape is okay and/or that certain things that are rape are not really rape and are therefore okay.

What this section doesn’t mention is that teaching people that sexual assault is unacceptable isn’t just important for getting people to step in when they see sexual assault (or harassment, or coercion) happening; it also helps prevent sexual assault directly. As has been pointed out numerous times, rapists rape because they think (well, they know) that they’re not going to face any consequences for it.

3. It emphasizes research and evidence-based prevention approaches.

According to the report, the CDC plans to convene a panel of “experts” (by which I hope it means researchers) on sexual assault prevention to discuss best practices that will then be put into place. And the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women plans to evaluate prevention programs used on campuses to get data on their effectiveness. The report also lists three universities that have committed to research projects about campus sexual assault, though it’s unclear whether or not they are receiving grants for the research.

4. It recommends that campuses provide confidential victim advocates to whom students can disclose sexual assault without having to initiate a formal investigation.

I know many people’s version of “feminism” is raking survivors over the coals for choosing not to report their assault to the authorities, but this is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, a survivor who has nowhere to go to discuss an assault that will not initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation will not go ahead and tell someone who will initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation; they may not tell anyone at all. And students who initially do not want to file an official report may decide to do so after receiving compassionate and trauma-informed support from a confidential professional. The Task Force’s report correctly emphasizes the importance of empowering survivors by letting them decide what happens after they disclose an assault rather than making that decision for them.

5. It discusses how trauma can impact survivors and how school officials should be trained to respond to it.

Some common victim responses (like not physically resisting or yelling for help) may seem counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with sexual victimization. New research has also found that the trauma associated with rape or sexual assault can interfere with parts of the brain that control memory – and, as a result, a victim may have impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall. This can make understanding what happened challenging.

Personal biases also come into play. Insensitive or judgmental comments – or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, her prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s – can compound a victim’s distress.

Specialized training, thus, is crucial. School officials and investigators need to understand how sexual assault occurs, how it’s perpetrated, and how victims might naturally respond both during and after an assault.

Therefore, according to the report, the Justice Department plans to develop a training program to help school officials involved with sexual assault investigations understand trauma and sexual assault. And I hope that the bit about “questions that focus on a victim’s behavior” (or, what we call “victim blaming”) focuses not just on the fact that it’s hurtful, but that it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. Whether the victim was wearing a revealing dress or has had consensual sex with the rapist before has nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.

6. It puts all this info on a single website that students, university administrators, and anyone else who wants to know can access: notalone.gov.

Granted, I don’t know how many students are even going to realize this is a thing, but I’m still glad it’s a thing.

And now, here’s what the report could’ve done better:

1. Not using female pronouns for sexual assault survivors.

Although the report explicitly mentions male survivors several times, it often defaults to female pronouns. Why? This is so unnecessary and such an easy thing to fix. Just use “they.” Anybody who seriously has a problem with that grammar can deal with it easier than male and genderqueer survivors can deal with being erased.

2. Not treating campus sexual assault like it happens in a vacuum.

While I understand that this particular task force was created to address sexual assault on college campuses, it seems remiss not to mention that campus sexual violence doesn’t happen just because it’s a college campus. There are factors that make it more prevalent there, sure–alcohol use, the entitled attitude of many athletes and fraternity members, the close-knit social circles that make it difficult to accuse someone of sexual assault–but these factors also play out elsewhere. There’s a whole blog basically dedicated to showing how they play out in tech culture, for instance.

But it’s difficult to acknowledge this without using that dreaded term “rape culture.”

3. Specifying incentives for universities to complete the campus climate surveys.

As I mentioned earlier, the report points out that universities have a strong incentive not to do this, and that they will be provided with an evidence-based survey that they can use. The report also states that the task force will be looking at ways to legally compel universities to do it, but I wonder why they didn’t just include incentives for doing it voluntarily (perhaps distributing some of the grant money that way, for instance).

4. Implementing a simple way for those who are interested to keep track of the Task Force’s efforts.

Much of the report concerns future plans for research and implementation, and it mentions several times that updates will be posted on the NotAlone.gov site. However, looking over the site, there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep up to date on this. There’s no blog. There’s no “news” section. I actually take this pretty seriously because I do intend to follow these efforts, but I don’t know how besides watching the same blogs I always watch.

5. Less emphasis on bystander prevention or more caveats about it.

Okay, I get that this works in at least some cases. But first of all, bystander intervention asks students to expose themselves to danger by taking responsibility for another student’s choice to threaten, coerce, or assault someone. Men can intervene more safely than women, but 1) the programs target students of all genders; 2) even for men it’s not always safe; and 3) there won’t always be a male bystander. There won’t always be any bystander, in fact. In many campus sexual assault cases, the victim left willingly with the assailant because they did want some sort of sexual contact with them, but then the assailant presumed that to mean that they have a license to do whatever. (Because rape culture.)

I didn’t really see anything in the report about other prevention methods, such as teaching students what sexual assault actually is (contrary to popular belief, it need not involve both a penis and a vagina). To be fair to the task force, that section of the report emphasized the need for more research on prevention, so I’m not condemning this too strongly. It does seem (at least from what I’ve read of the research) that bystander intervention has been tested more than other types of prevention initiatives, and therefore there’s more evidence for it at this point in time.

6. Even more transparency.

In accordance with the Task Force’s recommendation, the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations. However, all it gives are the names of the schools, not what they’re actually under investigation for (besides, well, violating Title IX). Maybe there are legal reasons why they can’t release even a very general statement about that, as it is, the list is not very useful. There are tons of schools on it. (And, incidentally, there are definitely a few that should be but aren’t. Before you pick a college to attend, you should definitely google its name + “sexual assault.”)

I guess it’ll take time to see whether or not this will be more than a purely symbolic gesture. I think it has the potential to be, at least insofar as universities carry out the recommendations. While I don’t have an extremely in-depth knowledge of how university administrations work, I’ve been involved with campus activism enough to know that there will be staff (and students) at many campuses who desperately want to see these ideas implemented, but they may not necessarily receive support from the upper-level administrators who can make it happen. It pains me when I see sexual assault prevention and health promotion staff get lambasted for “not doing enough” when they’re almost always trying to do everything they can with the limited power they’ve been given.

And the reason those upper-level administrators aren’t always supportive isn’t because they’re Evil or don’t care about sexual assault; they’re generally people with lots of types of privilege who can afford not to think about these things constantly like some of us do. But there’s limited time and money, and there’s a lot to be lost if you’re one of the first universities to publicly and loudly take a stand against campus sexual violence. There shouldn’t be, but there is, and I’m glad the Task Force is trying to address that.

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How Young Girls Internalize Rape Culture as “Normal”

[Content note: sexual assault and harassment]

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about a study showing how normalized sexual violence is for young women:

They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean…I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.

This is how a 13-year-old girl described being groped by boys at school in a recently published study from Marquette University. Researcher Heather Hlavka examined recordings of interviews with girls who had experienced sexual assault and found that many of the girls consistently tried to minimize their experiences of sexual assault and harassment by claiming that it’s “just what guys do,” “just a joke,” or “no big deal.”

Sexual violence against women is so tragically normal, it seems, that girls grow up expecting it to happen or at least not being very surprised when it does.

Meanwhile, on the internet, a veteran of the comics industry who also happens to be a woman wrote a critique of a comic cover that she found objectifying and gross: specifically, it featured 16- or 17-year-old Wonder Girl with huge, clearly-fake boobs. Predictably, she received numerous death and rape threats online for daring to do this.

Dr. Nerdlove, a blogger who normally dispenses dating advice to (mostly male) geeks, wrote a blog post in response, saying:

Here’s the thing though: this isn’t about whether or not Asselin is legitimately afraid for her personal safety—while not ignoring that these are threats from people who know what she looks like, where she works and where she lives—or if these threats are at all credible. It’s about the fact that this is so common place, that women get so many threats that it stops bothering them.

I want to reiterate that so that it sinks in: women getting so many anonymous, sexually violent threats that it just becomes normal to them.

This is what we’re letting our culture turn into, people.

These two seemingly different examples have a common thread: women viewing sexual violence and threats of it as normal.

When women speak out against sexual violence and harassment, a common response from men is that other women seem fine with it. Other women take it as a compliment. Occasionally a woman or two will join the debate on their side, testifying to the fact that they don’t see anything wrong with catcalling or pressuring someone to have sex with you.

But studies like these show that even from a very young age, many women accept threatening, coercive, and even violent behavior from men because they don’t think anything else is possible. That’s “just how men are.” It’s “no big deal.”

Read the rest here.

Rejoice! The NYT Finally Published a Pretty Good Article About Sexuality

The New York Times has an article about the effects of pornography on teenagers, and it’s actually such a well-written piece that I got really excited and wanted to share it with you. This happens very rarely with the NYT‘s reporting on sexuality.

The article is mostly about research on teens and porn and includes lots of quotes from actual researchers. Amazingly, there are no quotes from fearmongering religious leaders or politicians to provide “balance.” (I will be very very happy if that particular proud journalistic tradition is finally going the way of independent print media [ugh]).

Since it’s presumably written for the lay public, the article could be a little clearer about the correlation-vs-causation problem, but this paragraph sums up the problems with this type of research pretty well:

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, “causal relationships” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

This, I think, is actually not entirely fair. A better analogy would be if a study found that arsonists drive at a significantly higher rate than non-arsonists, which still wouldn’t be enough to show that cars cause arson. An alternate explanation could be that people who commit arson have a greater need than other people to be able to get around quickly on their own, perhaps in order to escape a crime scene, so they are more likely to have cars and to drive.

When it comes to sex and porn, it’s more likely that a particular type of teen (say, one who has a high sex drive or is just really curious about sex) is more likely to both watch porn and to engage in risky sexual behavior, not that watching porn causes the risky sexual behavior.

This study also demonstrates the same issue:

Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Mr. Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that “when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all.”

This correlation is not at all surprising. People who are dissatisfied with their sex lives (whether because they’re not having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t great) are probably more likely to watch porn because it’s a way to vicariously experience what they don’t have the opportunity to experience. Whereas people who are sexually experienced may be more satisfied with their sex lives, and those of them who watch porn may be doing it for other reasons.

However, some of the studies discussed in the article seem flawed enough so as to actually show very little:

If academia can’t shed a great deal of light on this issue, perhaps teenagers can. Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers — ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys — were divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” says Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. There were more giggles than arguments. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Of course “the pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder,” as these sorts of messages about the effects of pornography are so pervasive and emotional in the media that it’s no wonder teens would pick them up and parrot them. It could even be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re told porn will damage your body image, and so it does. But that’s not to discount the possibility that it really does; that’s just to say that this study is a rather poor way of demonstrating that.

It’s also important to note that these teens were told what to argue, and that it’s basically impossible to argue that something hasn’t affected you. All you can really say is “Well uh it hasn’t affected me.” To argue that something has affected you, you just have to list all the ways, hypothetical or otherwise.

This part of the article stuck out to me as a little odd:

“I have a son,” says Professor Reid of U.C.L.A., “and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex — that all women have insatiable sexual appetites, for example.”

I think it’s fair and reasonable not to want your children to learn about sex through porn, but Reid’s specific concern seems strange. If anything, mainstream porn probably suggests that women are less interested in sex than they really are, or that their “insatiable sexual appetites” are limited to specific sexual acts that straight men happen to enjoy. I would actually much rather a teenage boy believe that women generally like sex than believe the common cultural script, which is that women don’t really like sex and need to be cajoled and coerced into it, or they do it to entrap men into relationships.

The article also notes the difficulty of operationalizing variables when it comes to research on pornography. What exactly is porn? What is harm? And here’s where we run into some issues.

American research on teenage sexuality tends to define a number of things as “bad”: starting to have sex at a young age, having sex a lot, having sex with many different partners, having sex casually, having unprotected sex. These are the sorts of factors researchers tend to look at when they examine things like the efficacy of sex education and the effects of porn on teenagers. While the latter item is something we should rightfully be concerned about because it directly leads to negative health consequences, the other ones are more a reflection of how our culture views teenage sexuality (and sexuality in general) than anything else.

In general, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tend to believe that it’s best to start having sex later rather than sooner, to be less sexually active rather than more so, to have fewer partners rather than more, and to have sex in more “serious” relationships rather than more “casual” ones. So when someone conducts a study that purports to show that teens who watch porn have more sexual partners or have more sex in general, that’s only supposed to be “troubling” because our culture has constructed it that way.

What is hardly ever talked about when we talk about “negative sexual consequences” of this or that? Being in an abusive relationship. Violating someone else’s consent. Not being aware of what consent even is. Not feeling comfortable talking about sex with one’s partners. Having judgmental and shaming attitudes about others’ sexual choices. Feeling judged or shamed for your own sexual preferences or gender identity. Believing that some types of people exist for your sexual gratification and objectification. Believing that there are things that others can do to “deserve” abuse.

If watching porn increases the likelihood that teens experience or believe these things, I want to know, because that’s a lot more concerning to me than someone losing their virginity (itself a mostly-bullshit concept) at 16 rather than 17.

“Porn,” too, is a vast category of films and videos that encompasses everything from homemade tapes by couples looking to make some cash or get off on being watched, to huge professional productions that employ well-known actors and make a profit. I’d have to, er, go deep into the methods sections of these papers to see what they mean by “porn” (if they bother to define it), but a lot of this research begins from the premise that things like multiple simultaneous orgasms, 8-inch dicks, and inhuman flexibility are necessarily features of porn. Of some porn, sure. Maybe not of the porn most teens watch. Who knows, unless we actually research it?

My favorite part of the article is the end:

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath continued. “If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea, as unnerving to both sides as that may sound. The alternative is worse, according to Professor Reid. Putting a computer in a kid’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, he said, is a bit like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”

Something that’s always struck me about discussions of porn and teens is the hypocrisy of adults complaining that teens are learning about sex through porn…while not suggesting any better ways for them to learn about sex. The common solution seems to be “ignore the problem and hope it goes away” or “pretend that if teens don’t know much about sex they will not have sex until they get married at which point they will magically immediately have a pleasurable, fulfilling, mutually consensual sex life.”

Of course teens seek out porn to learn about sex. Their sex ed programs either yell at them that they’ll get pregnant and die if they have sex, or they awkwardly have them learn to use condoms and name all the parts of the reproductive system, all without any mention of the central reason humans have sex to begin with: pleasure. They are discouraged from learning how to masturbate if they don’t already know how, so even that avenue to sexual pleasure is closed off to many teens, or else filled with shame and fear. Porn, for all its faults, is a wonderful way to see for yourself what sex might be like.

If porn is a bad way to teach teens about sex, then they need a better way. And that way must include discussion of the positives of sex as well as the negatives.

Some Evidence Against Shame and Stigma as Weight Loss Motivators

[Content note: weight/size stigma and discrimination]

It is considered self-evident by plenty of people that shaming fat people for being fat gets them to stop being fat. That’s why a common reaction to body/fat positivity campaigns is that they’re going to make people think it’s “okay” to be fat. As opposed to…not okay.

However, even if we begin with the presumption that it’s a net good for fat people to stop being fat, research evidence is rapidly piling up that suggests that shaming and stigmatizing them won’t work. In fact, it may have exactly the opposite effect.

In a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors provide this overview of research on this topic:

Media attention to obesity has increased dramatically (Saguy & Almeling, 2008), as has discrimination against overweight and obese individuals (Andreyeva, Puhl, & Brownell, 2008). Overweight individuals are often portrayed in the media as lazy, weak willed, and self-indulgent (Puhl & Heuer, 2009), and as a drain on the nation’s resources (Begley, 2012). Because stigma can be a potent source of social control (Phelan, Link, & Dovidio, 2008), some authors have suggested that stigmatizing obesity may encourage people to lose weight (Bayer, 2008, Callahan, 2013 and Heinberg et al., 2001), and policies that utilize potentially stigmatizing elements (e.g., BMI report cards) are becoming more prevalent (Vogel, 2011). Little evidence exists, however, that stigmatizing obesity promotes weight loss. In fact, among overweight individuals, experiencing weight-stigmatization is associated with greater reports of maladaptive eating behaviors (e.g., Haines et al., 2006 and Puhl and Brownell, 2006), increased motivation to avoid exercise (Vartanian & Novak, 2008; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2010), and poorer weight loss outcomes among adults in a weight-loss program (Wott & Carels, 2010; but see Latner, Wilson, Jackson, & Stunkard, 2009). Furthermore, experimentally activating weight stereotypes decreased overweight women’s self-efficacy for exercise and dietary control (Seacat & Mickelson, 2009). Collectively, these findings suggest that stigmatizing obesity has negative behavioral consequences that may increase, rather than decrease the weight of overweight individuals.

The paper also reviews research suggesting that the reason this happens is because of something called identity threat. When an individual has an identity that they know is stigmatized and something happens that triggers their awareness of that (such as a joke about the identity or a person who invokes negative stereotypes about it), the individual may experience negative effects. Some of these are physical, such as increased physiological stress response. Some are psychological, such as feelings of shame or anxiety. The person may try to act in ways that “compensate” for the flaws others may perceive in them or avoid situations in which people might think poorly of them (for an overweight person, this may include eating with people or going to the gym).

In theory, all this stress, anxiety, and effort depletes cognitive resources available for other activities that require what is known as executive function–mental tasks such as regulating emotions, setting goals, using short-term memory, and so on. Research has shown that when people of various stigmatized categories are reminded of those stigmas and stereotypes, their cognitive performance on a variety of tasks worsens.

The researchers in this study hypothesized that feeling identity threat would decrease participants’ ability to subsequently regulate their food intake. Specifically, they tested whether or not exposure to news articles about weight stigma would actually increase the amount of calories participants consumed. They believed that the participants who would be most affected would be those who believe themselves to be overweight, regardless of their actual weight, because they would be the ones who would feel identity threat when reminded that weight stigma exists.

The participants were 93 female college students (45% White, 24% Latina, 18% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% African American, 10% other races). Prior to the study, they had filled out a survey that included a few questions about weight (the rest were just there to hide the purpose of the survey). When they arrived at the study, they were told that the purpose was “to examine correspondence among verbal, nonverbal, and physiological signals.”

They were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the test condition, they read an article called “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job,” which was compiled from actual news stories and described the discrimination that overweight people may face in the workplace. In the control condition, the participants read a nearly-identical article that was about smoking rather than weight.

Afterward, they were led to another room and asked to wait for the experimenter to return. The rooms had bowls of snacks that had been weighed prior to the study, and the participants had the opportunity to eat some of the snacks while they waited for 10 minutes. They were then asked to return to the previous room to complete a final questionnaire.

One of the measures on the questionnaire was called “self-efficacy for dietary control.” Self-efficacy refers to one’s sense of having the ability to do something and control one’s outcomes in that domain. This particular measure assessed the extent to which participants felt they could control their eating, avoid unhealthy foods, and so on. Various studies suggest that having a sense of self-efficacy is more important in terms of actual behavior than other factors, such as believing that the behavior is healthy or important. (For instance, here’s an example involving elderly people and exercise.)

The results were pronounced. In the weight stigma condition, women who perceived themselves to be overweight ate significantly more calories than those who did not perceive themselves as overweight. In the control condition, there was no significant difference:

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

Furthermore, women who perceived themselves as overweight had significantly lower self-efficacy for dietary control in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition, while women who did not perceive themselves as overweight actually had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

This means that, within the context of this experiment, women who perceive themselves as overweight increase their food intake in response to hearing about stigma against overweight people and feel less capable of controlling their food intake. The very people being targeted by this information in ways many people think are helpful are actually being harmed by it, not only in the obvious emotional sense but even in their ability to control what they eat.

One really notable finding in this study is that actual weight did not correlate with either calories consumed or self-efficacy in either condition. Perceived weight was the relevant variable. I’ve often heard people argue against the body positivity movement because but if fat people don’t think they’re fat then how will they ever stop being fat?! Ironically, the women who did not perceive themselves as overweight had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

One weakness of this study is that it is unclear whether or not the participants who increased their food intake did so consciously–or deliberately. If it was unconscious and not deliberate, then this finding may fit with previous findings about identity threat. If not, it’s still an important finding, but it’s probably easier to get people to change mental processes that are conscious and deliberate as opposed to those that are subconscious and unintentional. It’s also possible (though probably unlikely) that the women in the weight stigma condition purposefully ate more as a sort of symbolic protest. Oh, you’re going to fire me because of what I do with my own body? Well, fuck you, I’ll eat as much as I want.

Another limitation is that the type of stigmatization invoked in this experiment isn’t quite what overweight people might actually experience in their day-to-day lives. While articles like the one used in the study are common, the idea behind stigmatizing people so that they lose weight is usually more direct: for instance, telling them they need to lose weight, penalizing them for being overweight, and so on. Telling a study participant that they’re fat and ugly and need to lose weight would probably never pass an IRB review, but it would be a more naturalistic scenario, unfortunately.

While the sample used in this study is more racially diverse than many other samples in psychology studies, that really isn’t saying much. The researchers did not discuss any racial disparities in the data, but that would be an interesting direction for future studies. Also, all of the participants were young women, so it’s unclear how well this generalizes to older women and men of all ages.

With research like this, it’s important to remember that the findings should be interpreted much in the way that the statement “consent is sexy” should be interpreted. Namely, you should get consent because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s “sexy.” Likewise, you should refrain from shaming and stigmatizing fat people because it’s the right thing to do, not because shaming and stigmatizing them doesn’t work anyway. Activists rightly criticize research like this for suggesting the implication that we should stop shaming fat people because it doesn’t get them to lose weight, rather than because it’s a shitty thing to do. That said, I don’t think that’s an implication that the researchers mean to give. We should conduct, support, and read research about how human motivation works (and how everything else works) because it’s important to know. This is just one piece of that puzzle.

It is my hope, though, that studies like this will work where “don’t be an asshole” won’t. The most important thing to me is for people to stop stigmatizing and discriminating against fat people, whatever the reason they stop doing it, because it’s harmful and needs to stop. Then maybe we can make these people understand why they were wrong to do it.

However, this research also opens up a lot of tricky questions. If shaming people who are overweight did actually help them lose weight, would more people think that this is an okay thing to do? If shaming people who do things that most of us would consider Definitely Bad, like rape or theft or even saying racist things, worked, would that be okay to do? Many would probably say yes to the latter but no to the former.

What is clear, though, is that human motivation (and reasoning in general) often works in ways that seem counterintuitive. You might think that people would respond to the stimulus of “being overweight can cost you your job” with “well I’d better stop being overweight, then!” But that’s not necessarily the case.

~~~

Major, B., Hunger, J.M., Bunyan, D.P., Miller, C.T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51: 74-80.