Making a Dent in the narrative


At the risk of labouring the point, I read the first sentence in Grace Dent’s Independent column today and almost gave myself a black eye, so hard was I facepalming. Here it is, in all its glory;

It seems doubtless to me that the staggering rise in reported sex assaults in primary and secondary schools – more than 5,500alleged sex assaults, on boys as well as girls, in three years – goes hand-in-hand with the unfettered availability of extremely hardcore pornography to minors.

I spelled out a lot of this last time, but let me bring it together with a bit more info, because it is really quite remarkable that one single sentence can be so wrong in so many ways. 

Some straightforward points of fact.

1. The statistics Grace Dent refers to did NOT report a rise in sexual assaults of any kind, ‘staggering’ or otherwise.

No trend was reported, and there is no way of knowing whether equivalent statistics from any time in the past would have been lower or indeed higher. (As it happens, all official statistics on sexual offending by children and young people show a significant  long term downward trend. See below.)

2. The figure of 5,500 offences included current and historical offences committed in schools by adults against children.

Only 20% of the offences described were known to have been committed by children (the topic of Dent’s concern), in truth a little over 1,000 reported sexual offences are known to have been committed by children on school premises over a three year period. As there are approximately 30,000 schools in the UK, this means that the typical British school would be the location for a reported sexual offence approximately once every 82 years.

3. Those offences are wrongly described here as “sex assaults.” They also include all other sexual offences, such as those relating to so-called “sexting” and other pornography-related crimes, voyeurism, indecent exposure and several other offence-types which can be categorised as sexual offences.

Bearing those three points in mind, to use terminology such as the “staggering rise in reported sex assaults” in respect of these statistics is demonstrably false, needlessly alarmist and sensationalist. It is profoundly misleading to readers and risks causing disproportionate fear to both parents and children.

As it happens, Dent then goes on to make a load of points about the importance of good sex education in schools and about talking to your own children about sex and relationships, all of which, once again, I wholeheartedly endorse and applaud. That does not excuse some really quite outrageous falsehoods and mythmaking in her introduction

As for whether there is a rise in sexual offences that can be attributed to hardcore pornography, or anything else, as I always stress, figures of incidents reported to police are a very, very poor guide, as only a small proportion of such offences will be reported to police. However, since we are in the realm of reported police statistics anyway, I thought it would be worth checking the MoJ/YJB stats to see how many sexual offences have been reported involving juvenile perpetrators over the past 10 years (note these will include, but not be restricted to offences on school premises.) I had to collate the figures myself and make a quick graph.  I didn’t waste time prettifying it.

yp_sexoffences

 

As you’ll notice, there was a rise last year. I’d suggest that is likely to be part of the recent (and very welcome) upsurge in willingness of victims to report sexual offences that has happened in the wake of the Savile revelations and everything else that has happened since.  For comparison, over the same 10 year period the numbers of rapes being reported to police has more than doubled.

Even allowing for that, the past two years have seen the lowest, and second lowest numbers of reported sex offences perpetrated by young people since records began.

To coin a phrase, it might seem doubtless to you that this goes hand-in-hand with the unfettered availability of extremely hardcore pornography to minors. My hunch is that the two phenomena have little if anything to do with each other.

Comments

  1. Bruce says

    So, to summarize:
    Neither offenses nor porn availability show any significant recent change.
    Dent appears to conclude that if two things are not changing, then one caused the other.

    This is constantly amusing.
    Thanks.

  2. says

    goes hand-in-hand with the unfettered availability of extremely hardcore pornography to minors

    How would one ascertain that minors are looking at hardcore pornography any more nowadays than they used to?

  3. =8)-DX says

    I never went hand-in-hand with hardcore pornography as a minor. I usually had something else in my hand..

  4. Ally Fogg says

    AJ (3) – if you mean the statistics reported by 5 Live & referred to by Dent, then no, those are only figures for offences which have been reported as happening on school premises.

    If you mean the statistics I have put into the graph, also no, as those are offences in which a juvenile was a perpetrator, not a victim.

  5. proudmra says

    Just for convenience, any time an article says “It seems doubtless to me…” without citing any actual evidence, you can stop reading right there; the author has nothing to say.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    “It seems doubtless to me…” something something global warming something something pirates. /yawn/ next.

  7. oneforthetreble says

    What troubles me the most is how newspapers don’t seem too bothered about fact checking their own articles. Is just a matter of resources, is there a culture of ‘don’t upset the talent’. The rolling stone debacle scoobied me completely for instance, you’d of thought would of been cast iron before going to print.

  8. Thil says

    “Those offences are wrongly described here as “sex assaults.” They also include all other sexual offences, such as those relating to so-called “sexting” and other pornography-related crimes, voyeurism, indecent exposure and several other offence-types which can be categorised as sexual offences”

    when I was 8 I deliberately walked out of the boys toilets with my dick hanging out of my trousers to shock a girl walking past. would that type of thing be counted in these stats? because it was only 14 years ago and at the time all I got was scolding from the teacher

  9. Ally Fogg says

    Thil [9]

    well, that incident would certainly have shown up in the statistics iF the head teacher reported it / you to the police.

    I’m happy to say that I’m pretty sure the vast majority of such offences are still dealt with between the school and the parents but every so often you’ll get a story about the police being called because two 5-year-olds have been playing I’ll-show-you-mine and yes, anything like that would show up in these statistics.

  10. Thil says

    @Ally Fogg @11

    neither me nor the girl thought of it as in any way sexual or even as an assault. I wasn’t turned on by the idea, I was thinking of it in similar terms to something like showing a slug to a girl. I just wanted to gross her out

    when I was made to apologize to her after, all she said was “it scared me because I’m not used to seeing them” not because she thought I was going to do anything to her (not that that I’d have had the first clue what that “anything” might be even if I wanted to), at that age I was scared of seeing girls naked for the exact same opposite reason

  11. Marduk says

    I had a lot of correspondence with the Graun on the issue of statistics in reporting a couple of years back. I even put forth some ideas (an Anthony Reuben style secondment or internship was one of them actually) that I was told went to some sort of committee but I never heard much back after that.

    What I suspect happened was that despite my attempts, they never really understood what I meant; papers are very concerned about ‘checking numbers’ and think this is what statistics is. But don’t seem to understand that statistics is a large body of knowledge in itself and that interpreting and checking statistical analysis is not something you do on a common sense basis. It makes me wonder why they think statisticians are so well-paid and do such difficult degrees if all they do is transcribe numbers into spreadsheets.

    I also have an item of correspondence from a hack I otherwise have a lot of respect for that was even more disappointing (my recollection being that she disputed regression to the mean “was a thing” (sic) or that distributions were relevant to understanding numbers). Ignorance I can accept but disputing that there is anything to know is a different matter.

    The classic take-down for me remains “Belle De Jour” (aka Dr Magnanti, epidemiologist)’s re-analysis of Bindel’s poppy project data that showed a completely reversed outcome. It is not so different to the above actually, it was ‘gentlemen’s club’ vs. sexual assualt statistics by location which is of course a classic epidemiological analysis problem (John Snow solved it in the first recognised epidemiological study of cholera rates vs. from which location you got your water from). The frustrating thing is that to this day many hacks still regard this as Magnanti ‘arguing’ with Bindel and that obviously as a prostitute she would therefore think that…XY and Z. As if there is a special form of epidemiological analysis that only prostitutes use and nobody can check for themselves. They don’t understand it and don’t respect what they don’t understand.

    Ultimately there needs to be some thought about this in the training of journalists but they are pretty resistant to even believing that they have a problem.

  12. Joey Maloney says

    @Bruce #1, so if sex offenses, porn availability, and your amusement are all constant, which one of the three caused the other two?

  13. Bruce says

    @13 Joey:
    No, my amusement is not constant, as it was caused by the singular event of reading of Dent’s attempt to form a conclusion.

  14. David S says

    I had a lot of correspondence with the Graun on the issue of statistics in reporting a couple of years back. I even put forth some ideas (an Anthony Reuben style secondment or internship was one of them actually) that I was told went to some sort of committee but I never heard much back after that.

    I’ve had similarly frustrating experiences with the Guardian (although I have had the odd success). They just don’t seem to understand what honesty and accuracy consists of in the reporting of statistics.

    My suggestion is that someone like the UK Statistics Office should start some sort of Kite Mark scheme for media outlets. To get the Kite Mark, a paper would have to agree to abide by certain rules. For example primary sources should always be given for statistics, if they are available. If the statistic comes from a secondary source, then that should be made clear, and the paper should also say whether that secondary source was kite-marked as well. There are lots of other rules I would impose, and I’m sure you can think of a few yourself.

    Whether that actually made a difference would depend, of course, on whether papers took any interest in getting kite-marked, but it would be worth a try.

  15. David S says

    My suggestion is that someone like the UK Statistics Office …

    I meant the UK Statistics Authority. I know that my proposal is beyond their current remit, but maybe they could extend their remit.

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