A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case: Part Two

[the fundamentals of the birds and the bees]

Forget all that talk of sexual assault from last time. Instead, pretend I’m an ornithologist.

Wandering past nesting site 84744 M.S. one day, I wonder if a Sexualis Asoltenti has ever flown in and either nested or attempted to nest there. From various studies, I know the odds of that happening are between six and thirteen percent, making it unlikely. Still, I’m just one person; what have other birdwatchers seen? When I get home, I pull up the favourite web forum for local birders and have a look.

I immediately spot a post by Douglas Hugh, who claims to have seen a nesting Sexualis Asoltenti there. What does that do to the odds? Let’s diagram it out.

The entire universe of possible outcomes.This rectangle represents every possible situation: that no nest exists, that it was made of discarded twine, that Wile E. Coyote instead threw an Acme Portable Hole in there, and so on. We can slice that space by partitioning it into two, one side containing all possibilities where the nest was built or attempted, the other containing the inverse.
Partitioning the probabilities into [I should mention these areas aren’t to scale. I’m just focusing on topology here.]

As this rectangle represents every possibility, it also contains scenarios that include Hugh claiming a nest, as well as Hugh not making any such claim. We can further partition the space.

All possibilities partitioned both by whether or not a nest/attempt was made, and whether or not Hugh claims to have seen a nest.[I should also mention that these boundaries aren’t necessarily accurate. Topology, remember. Also, I wrote this a good three weeks before I saw Jamie’s similar post about Bayes’ Theorem over at SkepChick. Scout’s honour!]

Those previous studies I mentioned represent the area of (A + C) divided by the area of (A + B + C + D).

While we may not know the status of the nest, we do know whether or not Hugh made the claim. Areas C and D are contrary to reality, thus should be dropped from this analysis. The odds of a nest or attempted nest is now the area of A divided by the area of (A + B); in English, that’s the number of instances where Hugh claims a nest, and there is one, as compared to the number of instances where he falsely claims there’s a nest there plus the number of true claims.

As luck would have it, we already have a number to substitute in. Prior research puts the odds of a false nesting claim for Sexualis Asoltenti at between 2-8%; this means that the odds of A / (A + B) are about 92-98%. I’ll take the more conservative value, and say 8% of claims are mistaken, fabricated, or something else. Easy enough.

After figuring all that out, I spot a post from someone named “daufnie_odie.” They claim to have heard a birder mention they’d spotted a nest at 84744 M.S.. No name is given, but the context makes it fairly clear they know this person.

We got lucky last time, because that 8% was for cases where someone claimed they saw a nest or attempted nest, which was exactly the scenario we had. No such luck here, plus there’s a layer of indirection we need to account for. Here’s a first attempt at that:

All probabilities, partitioned by whether there was an attempted/actual nest AND daufnie_odie was approached, vs. daufnie_odie making a claim.On our diagram, the odds of “someone genuinely spots a nest or attempt and mentions it to daufnie_odie” corresponds to the areas where daufnie_odie was approached, A and C, divided by all areas, which is (A + C) / (all). As this box represents all possibilities, and has a total area of one, the odds of the negation of the prior claim (specifically, that there was no nesting, or a false claim, or the news never reaching daufnie_odie), is (1 – (A + C) / (all)) or (B + D) / (all).

Even if that original person saw a nest, though, it’s possible they’d never mention it. We know the first probability, so I’ll put the second at… oh… one third, then multiply the two values together to reach the chance of both events happening.

[Why multiplication? I’ll explicitly cover that in part 3, but if you pay real close attention you’ll get a preview below.]

At this point, I bet a number of you are about to quit in disgust. I just pulled that number out of thin air, and doesn’t that taint the whole enterprise?

If that probability is wildly different from reality, it might. Or, it might not. As I pointed out earlier, if we’re testing the bias of a coin and take a few bad tosses, that could throw off the measurement… but only if we only do a dozen throws. If we do a thousand, it’ll have no significant effect on our final results. Likewise, a bad guess among several good ones will be neutralized, and a lot of fuzzy measurements can combine to create a precise one.

Most importantly, we live in an era of cheap computing. I can run a large number of simulations and check how the parameters change over a wide range of values, giving myself a solid idea of how stable the results are. A little fuzziness is no problem, and who knows? My ad-hoc guess could be bang on the money. This is also handy for anyone who disagrees with my numbers; just plug in your own instead and rerun the analysis.

But back to that. We now need to figure out the odds of daufnie_odie publicly stating their claim, assuming they actually were approached. Maybe they’d forget, or be embarrassed by the situation, but that’s highly unlikely (92%-98% of such claims are legitimate, remember), and this person has some protection by being pseudo-anonymous. I’ll make this probability fairly high, say 95% or so. This corresponds to A / (A + C) in the diagram.

There’s also the possibility that daufnie_odie is making the entire thing up. The pseudo-anonymous argument cuts both ways, also arguing that a false claim is more likely. Nonetheless, an anonymous person that’s careless could be tracked down and held accountable for their words. Given all that, let’s put this probability at an even 50/50. Note that this corresponds to B / (B + D).

Now we can calculate A / (A + B). Multiplying the odds of nesting and this person approaching daufnie_odie, with the odds of daufnie_odie sharing the claim with us, nets us A; multiplying the odds of no nesting or daufnie_odie being approached, with the odds of daufnie_odie making the whole thing up, arrives at B. Put A in the denominator, and the sum of (A + B) in the numerator.

The full math behind daufnie_odie's case. Trust me, it's a bit ugly looking.That’s a pain to write out, though. Let’s clean things up with some substitution; we’ll call the claim “there was a nest or attempted nest and daufnie_odie was approached by a witness” by the letter “H”, and daufnie_odie’s stating that happened will become “E”. To denote the opposite of a claim, like “daufnie_odie did not state he knew of nesting,” we’ll put a little mark in front of it; in this case, that’d look like “¬E”. To refer specifically to the probability of X happening, we’ll say “P(X)”, and if we talk about the odds of X happening given Y did happen, we’ll write “P(X | Y)”. With these simplifications, the math translates into

Bayes' Theorem, in binary mode.Whoops, we’ve accidentally derived a simplified version of Bayes’ Theorem. Ah well, either way we’ve calculated an 11% chance that there was a nest or attempted nest, given daufnie_odie’s post (though as you’ll see later, that number’s a bit naive). As we’re partitioning the probability space, that implies an 89% chance there was no nest or attempt at one.

How do we combine these two accounts together? That’s for part 3

[HJH 2015-06-09: Minor edits for clarity.]
[HJH 2015-06-19: Emphasized daufnie_odie’s probability would change later.]
[HJH 2015-07-19: Adding a missing link.]

A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case: Part One

[statistics for the people, and of the people]

I just can’t seem to escape sexual assault. For the span of six months I analysed the Stollznow/Radford case, then finished an examination of Carol Tavris’ talk at TAM2014, so the topic never wandered far from my mind. I’ve bounced my thoughts off other people, sometimes finding support, other times running into confusion or rejection. It’s the latter case that most fascinates me, so I hope you don’t mind if I write my way through the confusion.

The most persistent objection I’ve received goes something like this: I cannot take population statistics and apply them to a specific person. That’s over-generalizing, and I cannot possibly get to a firm conclusion by doing it.

It makes sense on some level. Human beings are wildly different, and can be extremely unpredictable because of that. The field of psychology is scattered with the remains of attempts to bring order to the chaos. However, I’ve had to struggle greatly to reach even that poor level of intellectual empathy, as the argument runs contrary to our every moment of existence. This may be a classic example of talking to fish about water; our unrelenting leaps from the population to the individual seem rare and strange when consciously considered, because these leaps are almost never conscious.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a familiar example.

P1. That object looks like a chair.
P2. Based on prior experience, objects that look like chairs can support my weight.
C1. Therefore, that object can support my weight.

Yep, the Problem of Induction is a classic example of applying the general to the specific. I may have sat on hundreds of chairs in my lifetime, without incident, but that does not prove the next chair I sit on will remain firm. I can even point to instances where a chair did collapse… and yet, if there’s any hesitation when I sit down, it’s because I’m worried about whether something’s stuck to the seat. The worry of the chair collapsing never enters my mind.

Once you’ve had the water pointed out to you, it appears everywhere. Indeed, you cannot do any action without jumping from population to specific.

P1. A brick could spontaneously fly at my head.
P2. Based on prior experience, no brick has ever spontaneously flown at my head.
C1. Therefore, no brick will spontaneously fly at my head.

P1. I’m typing symbols on a page.
P2. Based on prior experience, other people have been able to decode those symbols.
C1. Therefore, other people will decode those symbols.

P1. I want to raise my arm.
P2. Based on prior experience, triggering a specific set of nerve impulses will raise my arm.
C1. Therefore, I trigger those nerve impulses and assume it’ll raise my arm.

“Action” includes the acts of science, too.

P1. I take a measurement with a specific device and a specific calibration.
P2. Based on prior experience, measurements with that device and calibration were reliable.
C1. Therefore, this measurement will be reliable.

Philosophers may view the Problem of Induction as a canyon of infinite width, but it’s a millimetre crack in our day-to-day lives. Not all instances are legitimate, though. Here’s a subtle failure:

P1. This vaccine contains mercury.
P2. Based on prior experience, mercury is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.
C1. Therefore, this vaccine is a toxic substance with strong neurological effects.

Sure, your past experience may have included horror stories of what happens after chronic exposure to high levels of mercury… but unbeknownst to you, it also included chronic exposure to very low levels of mercury compounds, of varying toxicity, which had no effect on you or anyone else. There’s a stealth premise here: this argument asserts that dosage is irrelevant, something that’s not true but easy to overlook. It’s not hard to come up with similarly flawed examples that are either more subtle (“Therefore, I will not die today”) or less (“Therefore, all black people are dangerous thugs”).

Hmm, maybe this type of argument is unsound when applied to people? Let’s see:

P1. This is a living person.
P2. Based on prior experience, living persons have beating hearts.
C1. Therefore, this living person has a beating heart.

Was that a bit cheap? I’ll try again:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, this person will speak English.

Now I’m skating onto thin ice. According to StatCan, only 85% of Canadians can speak English, so this is only correct most of the time. Let’s improve on that:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 85% of people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, there’s an 85% chance this person will speak English.

Much better. In fact, it’s much better than anything I’ve presented so far, as it was gathered by professionals in controlled conditions, an immense improvement over my ad-hoc, poorly-recorded personal experience. It also quantifies and puts implicit error bars around what it is arguing. Don’t see how? Consider this version instead:

P1. This is a person living in Canada.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 84.965% of people living in Canada speak English.
C1. Therefore, there’s an 84.965% chance this person will speak English.

The numeric precision sets the implicit error bounds; “about 85%” translates into “from 84.5 to 85.5%.”

Having said all that, it wouldn’t take much effort to track down a remote village in Quebec where few people could talk to me, and the places where I hang out are well above 85% English-speaking. But notice that both are a sub-population of Canada, while the above talks only of Canada as a whole. It’s a solid argument over the domain it covers, but adding more details can change that.

Ready for the next step? It’s a bit scary.

P1. This is a man.
P2. Based on prior experience, between 6 and 62% of men have raped or attempted it.
C1. Therefore, the chance of that man having raped or attempted rape is between 6 and 62%.

Hopefully you can see this is nothing but probability theory at work. The error bars are pretty huge there, but as with the language statistic we can add more details.

P1. This is a male student at a mid-sized, urban commuter university in the United States with a diverse student body.
P2. Based on prior experience, about 6% of such students have raped or attempted it.
C1. Therefore, the odds of that male student having raped or attempted rape is about 6%.

We can do much better, though, by continuing to pile on the evidence we have and watching how the probabilities shift around. Interestingly, we don’t even need to be that precise with our numbers; if there’s sufficient evidence, they’ll converge on an answer. One flip of a coin tells you almost nothing about how fair the process is, while a thousand flips taken together tells you quite a lot (and it isn’t pretty). Even if the numbers don’t come to a solid conclusion, that still might be OK; you wouldn’t do much if there was a 30% chance your ice cream cone started melting before you could lick it, but you would take immediate action if there was a 30% chance of a meteor hitting your house. Fuzzy answers can still justify action, if the consequences are harsh enough and outweigh the cost of getting it wrong.

So why not see what answers we can draw from a sexual assault case? Well, maybe because discussing sexual assault is a great way to get sued, especially when the accused in question is rumoured to be very litigious.

So instead, let’s discuss birds

[HJH 2015-07-19: Changed a link to point to the correct spot.]

EvoPsych, the PoMo-iest of them all

One last thing.

Feminism comes under fire for being “post-modernist,” a sort of loosy-goosy subject which allows for all sorts of contradictions and disconnects from reality. Evolutionary Psychology is held up as being on much firmer ground, in contrast. What is EvoPsych, exactly? Let’s ask David Buss, the most-cited researcher in the field:

  1. Manifest behavior depends on underlying psychological mechanisms, information processing devices housed in the brain, in conjunction with the external and internal inputs — social, cultural, ecological, physiological — that interact with them to produce manifest behavior;
  2. Evolution by selection is the only known causal process capable of creating such complex organic mechanisms (adaptations);
  3. Evolved psychological mechanisms are often functionally specialized to solve adaptive problems that recurred for humans over deep evolutionary time;
  4. Selection designed the information processing of many evolved psychological mechanisms to be adaptively influenced by specific classes of information from the environment;
  5. Human psychology consists of a large number of functionally specialized evolved mechanisms, each sensitive to particular forms of contextual input, that get combined, coordinated, and integrated with each other and with external and internal variables to produce manifest behavior tailored to solving an array
    of adaptive problems.

This is already off to a bad start, as Myers has pointed out in another context.

complex traits are the product of selection? Come on, John [Wilkins], you know better than that. Even the creationists get this one right when they argue that there may not be adaptive paths that take you step by step to complex innovations, especially not paths where fitness doesn’t increase incrementally at each step. Their problem is that they don’t understand any other mechanisms at all well (and they don’t understand selection that well, either), so they think it’s an evolution-stopper — but you should know better.

But I’m not really here to push back on that line. It’s these bits further on that intrigue me:

These basic tenets render it necessary to distinguish between “evolutionary psychology” as a meta-theory for psychological science and “specific evolutionary hypotheses” about particular phenomena, such as conceptual proposals about aggression, resource control, or particular strategies of human mating. Just as the bulk of scientific research in the field of non-human behavioral ecology tests specific hypotheses about evolved mechanisms in animals, the bulk of scientific research in evolutionary psychology tests specific hypotheses about evolved psychological mechanisms in humans, hypotheses about byproducts of adaptations, and occasionally hypotheses about noise (e.g., mutations). […]

Evolutionary psychology is a meta-theoretical paradigm that provides a synthesis of modern principles of evolutionary biology with modern understandings of psychological mechanisms as information processing devices (Buss 1995b; Tooby and Cosmides 1992). Within this meta-theoretical paradigm, there are at least four distinct levels of analysis — general evolutionary theory, middle-level evolutionary theories, specific evolutionary hypotheses, and specific predictions derived from those hypotheses (Buss 1995b). In short, there is no such thing as “evolutionary psychology theory,” nor is there “the” evolutionary psychological hypothesis about any particular phenomenon.

Wait, EvoPsych is a “meta-theoretical paradigm?” That would place it above theories like Quantum Chromodynamics, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Logotherapy. Buss appears to consider EvoPsych more like Physics or Psychology, categories that we’ve drawn around certain sets of theories. But “Physics” the category makes no claim about how the world works. You can’t derive General Relativity from Physics, photons from “the way material and energy evolve.” Categories are just labels. The fact that Buss could list five assertions of EvoPsych means it is not a label, though, but a theory after all.

Buss is speaking in word salad! But he’s a major figure in EvoPsych, oft-cited and with decades of experience.

I’ve already explained how Evolutionary Psychology is based on a deep misunderstanding of evolution, but it really has nothing to do with psychology, either: where do they reference contemporary psychoanalysis? Scan over Buss’ deep summary, and you won’t see any mention of Behaviorism, Kohiberg’s Moral Development, or Attachment Theory. EvoPsych was not created by psychologists, nor does it draw from their theories; instead, it was created by biologists like Robert Trivers or E.O. Wilson, working with simplified mathematical models and personal observation. It doesn’t consider what people are thinking, and despite claiming otherwise Buss will go on to show his true colours:

Three articles in this special issue attempt to provide empirical evidence, some new and some extracted from the existing empirical literature, pertaining to one of the nine hypotheses of Sexual Strategies Theory — that gender differences in minimal levels of obligate parental investment should lead short-term mating to represent a larger component of men’s than women’s sexual strategies. This hypothesis derives straightforwardly from Trivers’s (1972) theory of parental investment, which proposed that the sex that invested less in offspring (typically, but not always males), tends to evolve adaptations to be more competitive with members of their own sex for sexual access to the more valuable members of the opposite sex.

So EvoPsych is a biology theory that doesn’t understand basic biology, and a psychological theory developed independent of psychology.

The lack of coherency bleeds through the entire project: an EvoPsych textbook is a parade of tiny “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” disconnected from one another. This makes them easily discarded and interchanged, like chess pawns protecting the king. David Buss once said aggression in women did not exist, and wasn’t worthy of study, but two decades on was studying it and argued they were equally aggressive but differed in the kinds of aggression they showed. Buss will flatly assert hunting requires mental rotation skill, gathering requires spatial memory skill, and therefore the sex differences in those skills are due to sexual selection over time. Consider this theory instead:

It’s probable humans typically hunted small game, since setting up snares is easy and cheap, as is killing a pinned animal. Effectively capturing a lot of food required not only setting out many traps, though, but remembering where they were.

In contrast, plant food tends to stay in one place, and over time well-worn foot paths would develop between food spots. This made navigation easy, so long as you could memorize and rotate angles effectively to remember which path you came from. As plants tend to bloom seasonally, you’d also need to keep track of time. Star calendars and constellations were the obvious choice, but in order to read them you had to be able to cope with rotated shapes.

Based on the observed sex differences, and assuming they were the result of sexual selection, women must have been the hunters in prehistoric societies, while men were delegated to do the gathering.

The conclusion is completely at odds with what most EvoPsych researchers propose, yet it uses their exact same methods. Merely by shifting the focus around, I can easily come up with theories that contradict EvoPsych claims. As EvoPsych is a “meta-theory,” though, falsifying every single “specific evolutionary hypothesis” would fail to falsify it. EvoPsych is thus unfalsifiable, even though it makes empirically-testable assertions about human evolution!

Feminism, in contrast, is much more like Physics. It too is a category, defined as the study and removal of sexism.

But what constitutes sexism? Early theorists proposed Patriarchy theory, that society is structured to disproportionately favor men. Starting the 1970’s, though, a number of people began arguing for a role-based or performative view: society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality. This might seem to contradict the prior view, as men can now be the victim of sexism, but it’s no worse than what you see in harder sciences. Aristotle thought everything was attracted to the centre of the universe; Newton thought objects had mass, which attracted other objects with mass through an all-pervasive force; Einstein thought everything traveled in straight lines, it’s just that mass bends space and gives the appearance of a force. All three are radically different in detail, but they all give the same general prediction: things fall to Earth. Likewise, both Patriarchy and role-based theories differ in detail, but agree in general. This makes Feminism-the-category coherent, as there’s substantial overlap between all the theories it contains. There’s something tangible there, which no amount of theory-churn removes.

EvoPsych is a theory masquerading as a “meta-theory,” making specific assertions about the world yet denying it is falsifiable. Practitioners propose an endless stream of “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” which are only coherent with each other because they’re heavily influenced by the cultural experience of the people making them. It is far more post-modern than feminism, but because it goes easy on the jargon it doesn’t appear that way at first blush.

[HJH 2015/03/25: Added the following]

Hmmm, having mulled this over for a day, I think those last few paragraphs were grasping at something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. I think I have it securely pinned now.

Simple question: can you describe performative theory without referring to feminism? Sure, I’ve done it already: “society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality.” Categories are simplifications; if we were to recursively define “the study and removal of sexism” to ever-greater degrees, at some level we’d start describing performative theory.

Now, can you describe Sexual Strategies Theory without referring to EvoPsych’s five core tenants? Nope, because it depends on mind modules, hyper-adaptationalism, and the rest of Buss’ list to make any sense. EvoPsych isn’t a meta-theory to SST, it’s a sub-theory, a lemma. It’s not a simplification or over-arching category, because even if we clarified all the core parts to an arbitrary degree, SST wouldn’t pop out.

Even more confusingly, Parental Investment theory is neither a category containing EvoPsych (as there’s no mind modules buried in there) nor a sub-theory of EvoPsych (because it doesn’t depend on mind modules to make sense). It’s not part of the paradigm at all, even though it helped spawn the field via a paper of Robert Trivers and is frequently cited by researchers.

Buss could make a better case for SST being a “meta-theoretical paradigm,” yet he thinks it’s a part of EvoPsych. It’s more evidence the guy has no clue what he’s saying.

Dictionary Atheism and Morality

I’m quite late to the party, I see. Hopefully I can make up for it with a slightly different angle.

There are no shortage of atheists that fetishize the dictionary. “It’s just a lack of belief, nothing more!” they cry, “there’s no moral code attached to it!”

Bullshit. If there is no moral system, why then are dictionary atheists so insistent on being atheist?

Moral codes are proscriptive, while assertions and bare facts are descriptive. One tells us how the world ought to behave, the others how the world is or might be. This can get confusing, I’ll admit. Science is supposed to be in the “descriptive” bin, yet scientists make predictions about how the world ought to behave. It sounds very proscriptive, but what happens when reality and your statement conflict? Say I calculate the trajectory of an asteroid via Newtonian Mechanics, but observe it wanders off my predicted path. Which of these two must change to resolve the contradiction, reality or Newtonian Mechanics? Surely the latter, and that reveals it and similar scientific laws as a descriptive item: if the description is wrong, or in conflict with reality, it gets tossed.

But this division is further tested by things like evolution. If we ever did find find something that broke that theory, like a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian era, we are not justified in tossing evolution. The weight of all other evidence in favor of evolution makes it more likely we got something wrong then that evolution should be dust-binned. We again seem to be proscriptive.

That pile of evidence is our ticket back to descriptiveness, though. One bit of counter-evidence may fall flat, but a giant enough heap would not. There is only a finite amount of it favoring evolution, so in theory I can still pile up more counter-evidence and be forced to give that theory up in favor of reality, even if that’s impossible in practice.

No amount of evidential persuasion can force me to give up on a moral, in contrast. This too may seem strange; it may not be moral to kill a person, but wouldn’t it be moral to kill Hitler? The information we have about a scenario can dramatically shift the moral action.

But, importantly, it doesn’t shift the moral code. No sane moral system will hold you accountable for honest ignorance, and even the non-sane ones provide an “out” via (for instance) penitence or another loop on the karmic wheel. Instead, you apply the moral code to the knowledge you do have, a code that does not change over time. Slavery was just as bad in the past as it is now, what’s changed instead is us. We as moral agents have progressed, through education, reason, and the occasional violent rebellion. The moral code hasn’t changed, we have adjusted our reality to better match it. Again, we find morality is proscriptive.

So what are we to make of atheists that argue they can only follow the evidence? “Do not hold false beliefs” is proscriptive, because it tells us what to do, yet it’s a necessary assumption behind “I cannot believe in the gods, because there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.” Having a moral code is an essential prerequisite for every atheist who isn’t that way out of ignorance, and that ignorance dissipates within seconds of hearing someone attempt to describe what a god is.

But… is it true that black people deserve to be paid less than whites? Is it true that women who dress provocatively deserved to be raped? Is it true that the poor are lazy and shiftless? All it takes to believe in any form of social justice is the moral “do not hold false beliefs” and evidence to support “claim X is false.” The minimal moral system for a hardline dictionary atheist is no different then the minimal moral system of a feminist!

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t toss extra morals into the mix. Social justice types would quickly add “allowing false beliefs to persist in others is wrong,” but so too would the dictionary atheist. How else could they justify trying to persuade others away from religion? No doubt those atheists would disavow any additional morals, but so too could a feminist. That one extra premise is enough to justify actively changing the culture we live in.

There might be other differences in the moral code between dictionary atheists and those promoting social justice, but it amounts to little more than window dressing; not only does being an atheist require a moral code, even the “dictionary” brand, the smallest possible code also supports feminists and others engaging in social justice.

So knock off the “atheism has no moral code” crap. It just ain’t true.

It’s About Ethics in Biomedical Research

I’m a bit surprised this didn’t get more play. From what I hear, Pinker has some beef with bioethics.

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

This path leads to very dark places. I’ll quote a summary I wrote of Blumenthal (2004).[1]

Booker T. Washington had an ambitious plan around the turn of the century, of rapidly advancing the health and welfare of African Americans in that city. His Tuskegee Institute revived agriculture in the South, build schools and business alliances, created a self-sustaining architectural program, and developed a Black-owned-and-operated hospital.

It also took a keen interest in health issues, and after World War I it faced a major crisis in syphilis. Soldiers returning home led to a dramatic spike in cases, and as of 1926 as many as 36% of everyone within the surrounding Macon County were infected. The best cure, at the time, was a six-week regimen of toxic drugs with a depressing 30% success rate. Something had to be done.

A short study of six to eight months was proposed, the idea being to track the progression of the disease in African-Americans and learn more about it, then administer treatment. It got full approval of the government, health officials, and local leaders in the African-American community. Substantial outreach was done to bring in patients, explain what the disease was, and even give them free rides to reach the clinic.

But then… circumstances changed. The newly appointed leader of the project, Dr. Raymond Vonderlehr, became fascinated with how syphilis changed people’s bodies. The Great Depression hit, and as of 1933 there wasn’t a lot of money available for treatment. So Vonderlehr decided to make the study longer, and provide less than the recommended treatment. He also faced the problem of getting subjects to agree to the toxic treatments and painful diagnostic tools, but that was easily solved: stretch the truth, just a bit. Those spinal taps they used to diagnose syphilis spread to the neural system became “free special treatment,” even though no actual treatment was done. Disaster struck when other scientists discovered the first effective cure, penicillin; elaborate “procedures” were developed to keep the patients from getting their hands on the drug, even if other infectious diseases threatened their lives.

And the entire time, the project had the full support of the government, and published their results openly.

After the entire incident exploded in the press, a commission of experts were formed to advise the US government on bioethical legislation. The result was the Belmont Report, and one of the three core principals it rested on was

Justice. — Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of “fairness in distribution” or “what is deserved.” […]

Questions of justice have long been associated with social practices such as punishment, taxation and political representation. Until recently these questions have not generally been associated with scientific research. However, they are foreshadowed even in the earliest reflections on the ethics of research involving human subjects. For example, during the 19th and early 20th centuries the burdens of serving as research subjects fell largely upon poor ward patients, while the benefits of improved medical care flowed primarily to private patients. […]

Against this historical background, it can be seen how conceptions of justice are relevant to research involving human subjects. For example, the selection of research subjects needs to be scrutinized in order to determine whether some classes (e.g., welfare patients, particular racial and ethnic minorities, or persons confined to institutions) are being systematically selected simply because of their easy availability, their compromised position, or their manipulability, rather than for reasons directly related to the problem being studied. Finally, whenever research supported by public funds leads to the development of therapeutic devices and procedures, justice demands both that these not provide advantages only to those who can afford them and that such research should not unduly involve persons from groups unlikely to be among the beneficiaries of subsequent applications of the research.

Ignoring social justice concerns in biomedical research led to things like the Tuskegee experiment. The scientific establishment has since tried to correct that by making it a critical part. Pinker would be wise to study the history a bit more carefully, here.

But don’t just take my word for it. Others have also called him out, like Matthew Beard

Let’s put aside the fact that one paragraph later Pinker casts doubt on our ability to make accurate predictions at all. Because there is an interesting question here.

Let’s assume that hand-wringing ethicists slow progress that cures diseases. As a result, animals aren’t subjected to painful experiments, patients’ autonomy is respected, and “justice” is upheld. At the same time, lots of people died who could otherwise have been saved. Surely, Pinker suggests, this is unethical.

Only under a certain framework, known as utilitarianism, in which the right action is the one that does the most good. And even then, only under certain conditions. For instance, although some research might have saved more lives without ethical constraints, Pinker wants all oversight removed.

Thus, even bad research will operate without ethical restraint. For each pioneering piece of research that saves lives there will be much more insignificant research. And each of these insignificant items will also entail ethical breaches. This makes Pinker’s utilitarian matrix much harder to compute.

… and Wesley J. Smith.

These general principles [than Pinker excludes] are essential to maintaining a moral medical research sector! Indeed, without them, we would easily slouch into a crass utilitarianism that would blatantly treat some human beings as objects instead of subjects.

Bioethics is actually rife with such proposals. For example, one research paper published in a respected journal proposed using unconscious patients as “living cadavers” to test the safety of pig-to-human organ xenotransplantation.

The best defences of Pinker I’ve seen ignored the bit where he dismissed “social justice” and pretended he was discussing less basic things. It doesn’t reflect well on Pinker.


[1] Blumenthal, Daniel S., and Ralph J. DiClemente, eds. Community-based health research: issues and methods. Springer publishing company, 2004. pg. 48-53

Christina Hoff Sommers: Blatant Science Denialist

So, how’d my predictions of Christina Hoff Sommer’s video pan out?

The standard approach for those challenging rape culture is to either to avoid defining the term “rape culture” at all, or define it as actively encouraging sexual assault instead of passively doing so, setting up a strawperson from the get-go.

Half points for this one. Sommers never defined “rape culture,” but thanks to vague wording made it sound like “rape culture” was synonymous with “beliefs that encourage the sexual assault of women on college campuses:”

[1:12] Now, does that mean that sexual assault’s not a problem on campus? Of course not! Too many women are victimized. But it’s not an epidemic, and it’s not a culture.

Continuing with myself:

Sommers herself is a fan of cherry-picking individual studies or case reports and claiming they’re representative of the whole, and I figure we’ll see a lot of that.

Success kid: NAILED IT

There’s also the clever technique of deliberately missing the point or spinning out half-truths […] I don’t think Sommers will take that approach, preferring to cherry-pick and fiddle with definitions instead, but as a potent tool of denialists it’s worth keeping in mind.

Oooooo, almost. Almost.

While there’s a lot of things I could pick apart about this video, I’d like to focus on the most blatant examples of her denialism, her juggling of sexual assault statistics.

The first study she cites is an infamous one in conservative circles, the Campus Sexual Assault Study of 2007. Ever since Obama made a big deal of it, they’ve cranked up their noise machine and dug in deep to discredit the study. Sommers benefits greatly from that, doing just a quick hit-and-run.

[0:50] The “one in five” claim is based on a 2007 internet study, with vaguely worded questions, a low response rate, and a non-representative sample.

Oh, how many ways is that wrong? Here’s the actual methodology from the paper (pg 3-1 to 3-2):

Two large public universities participated in the CSA Study. Both universities provided us

with data files containing the following information on all undergraduate students who were enrolled in the fall of 2005: full name, gender, race/ethnicity, date of birth, year of study, grade point average, full-time/part-time status, e-mail address, and mailing address. […]

We created four sampling subframes, with cases randomly ordered within each subframe: University 1 women, University 1 men, University 2 women, and University 2 men. […]

Samples were then drawn randomly from each of the four subframes. The sizes of these samples were dictated by response rate projections and sample size targets (4,000 women and 1,000 men, evenly distributed across the universities and years of study) […]

To recruit the students who were sampled to participate in the CSA Study, we relied on both recruitment e-mails and hard copy recruitment letters that were mailed to potential respondents. Sampled students were sent an initial recruitment e-mail that described the study, provided each student with a unique CSA Study ID#, and included a hyperlink to the CSA Study Web site. During each of the following 2 weeks, students who had not completed the survey were sent a follow-up e-mail encouraging them to participate. The third week, nonrespondents were mailed a hard-copy recruitment letter. Two weeks after the hard-copy letters were mailed, nonrespondents were sent a final recruitment e-mail.

Christopher P Krebs, Christine H. Lindquist, Tara D. Warner, Bonnie S. Fisher, and Sandra L. Martin. “Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study, Final Report,” October 2007.

The actual number of responses was 5,446 women and 1,375 men, above expectations. Yes, the authors expected a low response rate with a non-representative sample, and already had methods in place to deal with that; see pages 3-7 to 3-10 of the report for how they compensated, and then verified their methods were valid. Note too that this “internet study” was quite targeted and closed to the public, contrary to what Sommers implies.

As to the “vaguely-worded” questions, that’s because many people won’t say they were raped even if they were penetrated against their will (eg. Koss, Mary P., Thomas E. Dinero, Cynthia A. Seibel, and Susan L. Cox. “Stranger and Acquaintance Rape: Are There Differences in the Victim’s Experience?Psychology of Women Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1988): 1–24). Partly that’s because denial is one way to cope with a traumatic event, and partly because they’ve been told it isn’t a crime by society. So researchers have to tip-toe around “rape culture” just to get an accurate view of sexual assault, yet more evidence that beast exists after all.

Sommers champions another study as more accurate than the CSA, one from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics which comes to the quite-different figure of one in 52. Sommers appears to be getting her data from Figure 2 in that document, and since that’s on page three either she or a research assistant must have read page two.

The NCVS is one of several surveys used to study rape and sexual assault in the general and college-age population. In addition to the NCVS, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) and the Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) are two recent survey efforts used in research on rape and sexual assault. The three surveys differ in important ways in how rape and sexual assault questions are asked and victimization is measured. […]

The NCVS is presented as a survey about crime, while the NISVS and CSA are presented as surveys about public health. The NISVS and CSA collect data on incidents of unwanted sexual contact that may not rise to a level of criminal behavior, and respondents may not report incidents to the NCVS that they do not consider to be criminal. […]

The NCVS, NISVS, and CSA target different types of events. The NCVS definition is shaped from a criminal justice perspective and includes threatened, attempted, and completed rape and sexual assault against males and females […]

Unlike the NCVS, which uses terms like rape and unwanted sexual activity to identify victims of rape and sexual assault, the NISVS and CSA use behaviorally specific questions to ascertain whether the respondent experienced rape or sexual assault. These surveys ask about an exhaustive list of explicit types of unwanted sexual contact a victim may have experienced, such as being made to perform or receive anal or oral sex.

Lynn Langton, Sofi Sinozich. “Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-age Females, 1995-2013” December 11, 2014.

This information repeats in Appendix A, which even includes a handy table summarizing all of the differences. If it’s been shoved into page two as well, that must indicate many people have tried to leverage this study to “discredit” others, without realizing the different methodologies make that impossible. The study authors tried to paint these differences in bright neon, to guard against any stat-mining, but alas Sommers has no qualms about ignoring all that to suit her ends. Even the NCVS authors suggest going with other numbers for prevalence and only using theirs for differences between student and non-student populations:

Despite the differences that exist between the surveys, a strength of the NCVS is its ability to be used to make comparisons over time and between population subgroups. The differences observed between students and nonstudents are reliable to the extent that both groups responded in a similar manner to the NCVS context and questions. Methodological differences that lead to higher estimates of rape and sexual assault in the NISVS and CSA should not affect the NCVS comparisons between groups.

In short, Sommers engaged in more half-truths and misleading statements than I predicted. Dang. But hold onto your butts, because things are about to get worse.

[2:41] The claim that 2% of rape accusations are false? That’s unfounded. It seems to have started with Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 feminist manifesto “Against Our Will.” Other statistics for false accusations range from 8 to 43%.

Hmph, so how did Brownmiller come to her 2% figure for false reports? Let’s check her book:

A decade ago the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports noted that 20 percent of all rapes reported to the police were determined by investigation to be unfounded.’ By 1973 the figure had dropped to 15 percent, while rape remained, in the FBI’s words, the most underreported crime.’ A 15 percent figure for false accusations is undeniably high, yet when New York City instituted a special sex crimes analysis squad and put police women (instead of men) in charge of interviewing complainants, the number of false charges in New York dropped dramatically to 2 percent, a figure that corresponded exactly to the rate of false reports for other crimes. The lesson in the mystery of the vanishing statistic is obvious. Women believe the word of other women. Men do not.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Open Road Media, 2013. pg. 435.

…. waaaitaminute. Brownmiller never actually says the 2% figure is the false reporting rate; at best, she merely argues it’s more accurate than figures of 15-20%. And, in fact, it is!

In contrast, when more methodologically rigorous research has been conducted, estimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.Lonsway, Kimberly A., Joanne Archambault, and David Lisak. “False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault.” (2009).

That’s taken from the third study Sommers cites, or more accurately a summary of other work by Lisak. She quotes two of the three studies in that summary which show rates above 8%. The odd study out gives an even higher false reporting rate than the 8% one Sommers quotes, and should therefore have been better evidence, but look at how Lisak describes it:

A similar study was then again sponsored by the Home Office in 1996 (Harris & Grace, 1999). This time, the case files of 483 rape cases were examined, and supplemented with information from a limited number of interviews with sexual assault victims and criminal justice personnel. However, the determination that a report was false was made solely by the police. It is therefore not surprising that the estimate for false allegations (10.9%) was higher than those in other studies with a methodology designed to systematically evaluate these classifications.

That’s impossible to quote-mine. And while Lisak spends a lot of time discussing Kanin’s study, which is the fifth one Sommers presents, she references it directly instead of pulling from Lisak. A small sample may hint at why he’s been snubbed:

As a result of these and other serious problems with the “research,” Kanin’s (1994) article can be considered “a provocative opinion piece, but it is not a scientific study of the issue of false reporting of rape. It certainly should never be used to assert a scientific foundation for the frequency of false allegations” (Lisak, 2007, p. 1).

Well, at least that fourth study wasn’t quote-mined. Right?

internal rules on false complaints specify that this category should be limited to cases where either there is a clear and credible admission by the complainants, or where there are strong evidential grounds. On this basis, and bearing in mind the data limitations, for the cases where there is information (n=144) the designation of false complaint could be said to be probable (primarily those where the account by the complainant is referred to) in 44 cases, possible (primarily where there is some evidential basis) in a further 33 cases, and uncertain (including where victim characteristics are used to impute that they are inherently less believable) in 77 cases. If the proportion of false complaints on the basis of the probable and possible cases are recalculated, rates of three per cent are obtained, both of all reported cases (n=67 of 2,643), and of those where the outcome is known (n=67 of 2,284). Even if all those designated false by the police were accepted (a figure of approximately ten per cent), this is still much lower than the rate perceived by police officers interviewed in this study.Kelly, Liz., Jo. Lovett, Linda. Regan, Great Britain., Home Office., and Development and Statistics Directorate. Research. A Gap or a Chasm?: Attrition in Reported Rape Cases. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2005.

Bolding mine. It’s rather convenient that Sommers quoted the police false report rate of 8% (or “approximately ten per cent” here), yet somehow overlooked the later section where the authors explain that the police inflated the false report figure. In the same way they rounded the 8% to ten, Liz Kelly and her co-authors also rounded up the “three per cent” figure; divide 67 by 2,284, and you get within fingertip distance of 2%, a false report rate of 2.5%.

Lisak did not get the low-end of his 2-8% range from Brownmiller; he got it from two large-scale, rigorous studies that concluded a 2% false report rate was reasonable. In his scientific paper, in fact, he explicitly discards Brownmiller’s number:

Another source, cited by Rumney (2006) and widely referenced in the literature on false allegations is a study conducted by the New York City police department and originally referenced by Susan Brownmiller (1975) in her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. According to Brownmiller, the study found a false allegation rate of 2%. However, the only citation for the study is a public remark made by a judge at a bar association meeting, and, therefore, no information is available on the study’s sample or methodology.

Lisak, David, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote. “False Allegations of Sexual Assualt: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1318–34.

That 2% number is actually quite well founded, and Sommers must have known that. Feminists also know of the 2-8% stat, and cite it frequently.

In hindsight, this is a blatant example of the embrace-extend-extinguish pattern of Sommers that I discussed earlier. She took one extreme of the feminist position, then painted it as the typical one while cherry-picking the evidence in her favor. She took the other extreme as her low point, so she had the option of invoking a false concession, and then extended her false report range to encompass the majority of false rape report studies out there, most of which are useless.

very few of these estimates are based on research that could be considered credible. Most are reported without the kind of information that would be needed to evaluate their reliability and validity. A few are little more than published opinions, based either on personal experience or a non-systematic review (e.g., of police files, interviews with police investigators, or other information with unknown reliability and validity).

Lisak (2009), pg. 1

Sommers then claims this “middle ground” as her own, riding the Appeal to Moderation for all it’s worth. This is denialism so blatant that no skeptic should take it seriously.

Alas, quite a few do.

Christina Hoff Sommers: Science Denialist?

In a bizarre coincidence, just three days before my lecture on rape culture Christina Hoff Sommers happened to weigh in on the topic. I haven’t seen the video yet, which puts me in a great position to lay a little groundwork and make some predictions.

First off, we’ve got to get our definitions straight. “Rape culture” is the cloud of myths about sexual assault that exist within our society, which make it easier to excuse that crime and/or tougher for victims to recover or seek justice. Take Burt’s 1980 paper on the subject:

The burgeoning popular literature on rape (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; Clark & Lewis, 1977) all points to the importance of stereotypes and myths — denned as prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists — in creating a climate hostile to rape victims. Examples of rape myths are “only bad girls get raped”; “any healthy woman can resist a rapist if she really wants to”; “women ask for it”; “women ‘cry rape’ only when they’ve been jilted or have something to cover up”; “rapists are sex-starved, insane, or both.” Recently, researchers have begun to document that rape myths appear in the belief systems of lay people and of professionals who interact with rape victims and assailants (e.g., Barber, 1974; Burt, 1978; Feild, 1978; Kalven & Zeisel, 1966). Writers have ana-
lyzed how rape myths have been institutionalized in the law (Berger, 1977) […]

Much feminist writing on rape maintains that we live in a rape culture that supports the objectification of, and violent and sexual abuse of, women through movies, television, advertising, and “girlie” magazines (see, e.g., Brownmiller, 197S). We hypothesized that exposure to such material would increase rape myth acceptance because it would tend to normalize coercive and brutal sexuality.
Burt, Martha R. “Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (1980): 217.
http://www.excellenceforchildandyouth.ca/sites/default/files/meas_attach/burt_1980.pdf

You can see how the definition has shifted a little over time; objectification certainly helps dehumanize your victim, but it’s not a strict necessity, and while in all modern societies that I know of women are disproportionately targeted for gender-based violence, there’s still a non-trivial number of male victims out there.

There are two ways to demonstrate “rape culture” is itself a myth. The most obvious route is to challenge the “rape myth” part, and show either that those myths are in line with reality or are not commonly held in society. For instance, either good girls do not get raped, or few people believe that good girls do not get raped. Based on even a small, narrow sample of the literature, this is a tough hill to climb. I did a quick Google Scholar search, and even when I asked specifically for “rape myth acceptance” I had no problem pulling a thousand results, with Google claiming to have another 2,500 or so it wouldn’t show me. There must be a consensus on “rape culture,” based merely on volume, and to pick a side opposing that consensus is to be a science denialist.

The less obvious route to challenge the “help perpetrators/harm victims” portion. Consider the “rubber sheet model” of General Relativity; we know this is wrong, and not just because it depends on gravity to explain gravity, but nonetheless the model is close enough to reality that non-physicists get the gist of things without having to delve into equations. It’s a myth, but the benefits outweigh the harms. Sommers could take a similar approach to sexual assault, not so much arguing that rape myths are a net benefit but instead riding the “correlation is not causation” line and arguing the myths don’t excuse perpetrators or harm victims. This approach has problems too, as correlation can be evidence for causation when there’s a plausible mechanism, and past a point this approach also becomes science denialism. Overall, I think it’s Sommers’ best route.

If she gets that far, of course. The standard approach for those challenging rape culture is to either to avoid defining the term “rape culture” at all, or define it as actively encouraging sexual assault instead of passively doing so, setting up a strawperson from the get-go. Sommers herself is a fan of cherry-picking individual studies or case reports and claiming they’re representative of the whole, and I figure we’ll see a lot of that. There’s also the clever technique of deliberately missing the point or spinning out half-truths: take this video about date rape drugs by her partner-in-crime Caroline Kitchens, for instance. Her conclusion is that date rape drugs are over-hyped, and having looked at the literature myself I agree with her… so long as we exclude alcohol as a “date rape drug.” If you include it, then the picture shifts dramatically.

Numerous sources implicate alcohol use/abuse as either a cause of or contributor to sexual assault. … Across both the literatures on sexual assault and on alcohol’s side effects, several lines of empirical data and theory-based logic suggest that alcohol is a contributing factor to sexual assault.
George, William H., and Susan A. Stoner. “Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behavior.” Annual review of sex research 11.1 (2000): 92-124.

General alcohol consumption could be related to sexual assault through multiple path-ways. First, men who often drink heavily also likely do so in social situations that frequently lead to sexual assault (e.g., on a casual or spontaneous date at a party or bar). Second, heavy drinkers may routinely use intoxication as an excuse for engaging in socially unacceptable behavior, including sexual assault (Abbey et al. 1996b). Third, certain personality characteristics (e.g., impulsivity and antisocial behavior) may increase men’s propensity both to drink heavily and to commit sexual assault (Seto and Barbaree 1997).

Certain alcohol expectancies have also been linked to sexual assault. For example, alcohol is commonly viewed as an aphrodisiac that increases sexual desire and capacity (Crowe and George 1989). Many men expect to feel more powerful, disinhibited, and aggressive after drinking alcohol. … Further-more, college men who had perpetrated sexual assault when intoxicated expected alcohol to increase male and female sexuality more than did college men who perpetrated sexual assault when sober (Abbey et al. 1996b). Men with these expectancies may feel more comfortable forcing sex when they are drinking, because they can later justify to themselves that the alcohol made them act accordingly (Kanin 1984).

Attitudes about women’s alcohol consumption also influence a perpetrator’s actions and may be used to excuse sexual assaults of intoxicated women. Despite the liberalization of gender roles during the past few decades, most people do not readily approve of alcohol consumption and sexual behavior among women, yet view these same behaviors among men with far more leniency (Norris 1994). Thus, women who drink alcohol are frequently perceived as being more sexually available and promiscuous compared with women who do not drink (Abbey et al. 1996b). … In fact, date rapists frequently report intentionally getting the woman drunk in order to have sexual intercourse with her (Abbey et al. 1996b).
Abbey, Antonia, et al. “Alcohol and sexual assault.” Alcohol Research and Health 25.1 (2001): 43-51.
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm

I don’t think Sommers will take that approach, preferring to cherry-pick and fiddle with definitions instead, but as a potent tool of denialists it’s worth keeping in mind.

With that preamble out of the way, we can begin….

Index Post: Rape Myth Acceptance

Apologies for going silent, but I’ve been in crunch mode over a lecture on rape culture. The crush is over, thankfully, and said lecture has been released in video, transcript, and footnote form.

But one strange thing about it is that I never go into depth on the rape myth acceptance literature. There’s actually a good reason why: after thirty years of research, modern papers don’t even bother with 101 level stuff like “why is this a myth?” or even “how many people believe myth X?”, because it’s been done and covered and consensus has been reached. My intended audience was below the 101 level and hostile to the very notion of “rape culture,” rendering much of the literature useless.

But there is soooooo much literature that it feels like a grave injustice not to talk about it. So, let’s try something special: this will be an index post to said literature. It’ll give you the bare minimum of preamble you need to jump in, and offer a little curation. This will evolve and change over time, too, so check back periodically.

[section on comment policy deleted, for obvious reasons]

What is a “Rape Myth”?

A “rape myth” is pretty self-explanatory: it is a false belief about sexual assault, typically shared by more than one person. Martha Burt’s foundational paper of 1980 includes these, for instance:

“One reason that women falsely report a rape is that they frequently have a need to call attention to themselves.”
“Any healthy woman can successfully resist a rapist if she really wants to.”
“Many women have an unconscious wish to be raped, and may then unconsciously set up a situation in which they are likely to be attacked.”
“If a woman gets drunk at a party and has intercourse with a man she’s just met there, she should be considered “fair game” to other males at the party who want to have sex with her too, whether she wants to or not.”

Other myths include “men cannot be raped” and “if you orgasm, it can’t be rape” (we’re meat machines, and at some point low-level physiology will override high-level cognition).

What papers should I prioritize?

As mentioned, there’s Burt’s 1980 contribution, which goes into great detail about validity and correlations with environmental factors, and developed a questionnaire that became foundational for the field.

The present research, therefore, constitutes a first effort to provide an empirical foundation for a combination of social psychological and feminist theoretical analysis of rape attitudes and their antecedents.

The results reported here have two major implications. First, many Americans do indeed believe many rape myths. Second, their rape attitudes are strongly connected to other deeply held and pervasive attitudes such as sex role stereotyping, distrust of the opposite sex (adversarial sexual beliefs), and acceptance of interpersonal violence. When over half of the sampled individuals agree with statements such as “A women who goes to the home or apartment of a man on the first date implies she is willing to have sex” and “In the majority of rapes, the victim was promiscuous or had a bad reputation,” and when the same number think that 50% or more of reported rapes are reported as rape only because the woman was trying to get back at a man she was angry with or was trying to cover up an illegitimate pregnancy, the world is indeed not a safe place for rape victims.
Burt, Martha R. “Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (1980): 217.
http://www.excellenceforchildandyouth.ca/sites/default/files/meas_attach/burt_1980.pdf

But there’s also the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale, developed twenty years later and benefiting greatly from that.

First, we set out to systematically elucidate the domain and structure of the rape myth construct through reviewing the pertinent literature, discussion with experts, and empirical investigation. Second, we developed two scales, the 45-item IRMA and its 20-item short form (IRMA-SF), designed to reflect the articulated domain and structure of the rape myth construct, as well as to possess good psychometric properties. Finally, whereas content validity was determined by scale development procedures, construct validity of the IRMA and IRMA-SF was examined in a series of three studies, all using different samples, methodologies, and analytic strategies. […]

This work revealed seven stable and interpretable components of rape myth acceptance labeled (1) She asked for it; (2) It wasn’t really rape; (3) He didn’t mean to; (4) She wanted it; (5) She lied; (6) Rape is a trivial event; and (7) Rape is a deviant event. […]

individuals with higher scores on the IRMA and IRMA-SF were also more likely to (1) hold more traditional sex role stereotypes, (2) endorse the notion that the relation of the sexes is adversarial in nature, (3) express hostile attitudes toward women, and (4) be relatively accepting of both interpersonal violence and violence more generally.
Payne, Diana L., Kimberly A. Lonsway, and Louise F. Fitzgerald. “Rape Myth Acceptance: Exploration of Its Structure and Its Measurement Using theIllinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale.” Journal of Research in Personality 33, no. 1 (March 1999): 27–68. doi:10.1006/jrpe.1998.2238.

What else is interesting?

There was marked variability (…) among studies in their reported relationships between RMA and attitudinal factors related with gender and sexuality (…). Not surprisingly, however, large overall effect sizes with a positive direction were found with oppressive and adversarial attitudes against women, such as attitudes toward women (…), combined measures of sexism (…), victim-blaming attitudes (…), acceptance of interpersonal violence (…), low feminist identity (…), and adversarial sexual beliefs (…). Decision latency (i.e., estimated time for a woman to say no to sexual advances), hostility toward women, male sexuality, prostitution myth, therapists’ acceptance of rape victim scale, sexual conservatism, vengeance, and sociosexuality (i.e., openness to multiple sexual partners) were examined in one study each, and their effect sizes ranged between medium to large and were all significantly larger than zero. Homophobia had a significant moderate effect size (…) as well as male-dominance attitude (…), acceptance of rape (…), and violence (…). However, profeminist beliefs (…), having sexual submission fantasies (…), and male hostility (…) were negatively related to RMA.
Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): 2010–35. doi:10.1177/0886260509354503.
http://474miranairresearchpaper.wmwikis.net/file/view/metaanalysisstopblamingvictim.pdf

Results of a multiple regression analysis indicated that sexism, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance each were significant predictors of rape myth acceptance (all
p < 0.01; … ). Racism and homophobia, however, failed to enter the model. Sexism, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance accounted for almost one-half (45%) of the variance in rape myth acceptance for the present sample. Sexism accounted for the greatest proportion of the variance (35%). The other intolerant beliefs accounted for relatively smaller amounts of variance beyond that of sexism: classism (2%), ageism (2%), and religious intolerance (1%).
Aosved, Allison C., and Patricia J. Long. “Co-Occurrence of Rape Myth Acceptance, Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Ageism, Classism, and Religious Intolerance.” Sex Roles 55, no. 7–8 (November 28, 2006): 481–92. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9101-4.
http://www.researchgate.net/publication/226582617_Co-occurrence_of_Rape_Myth_Acceptance_Sexism_Racism_Homophobia_Ageism_Classism_and_Religious_Intolerance/file/72e7e52bd021d8bc72.pdf

We did not find any effect of participant’s gender on rape attributions. Our results confirm those obtained by other authors (Check & Malamuth, 1983; Johnson & Russ, 1989; Krahe, 1988) who haven’t found significant gender effects on rape perception when situational factors were manipulated. Our results also contradict the general finding that men hold more rape myths than women do (Anderson et al., 1997). Our data indicate that it is not the observer’s gender that determines rape attributions but his or her preconceptions about rape. Thus, the influence of gender on rape attributions might be mediated by RMA, which then might explain why some studies reveal a significant gender effect (Monson et al., 1996; Stormo et al., 1997).
Frese, Bettina, Miguel Moya, and Jesús L. Megías. “Social Perception of Rape How Rape Myth Acceptance Modulates the Influence of Situational Factors.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 19, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 143–61. doi:10.1177/0886260503260245.
http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/3925/4925HomeComputer/Rape%20myths/Social%20Perception.pdf

The current research further corroborates the role of rape myths as a factor facilitating sexual aggression. Taken together, our findings suggest that salient ingroup norms may be important determinants of the professed willingness to engage in sexually aggressive behavior. Our studies go beyond quasi-experimental and correlational work that had shown a close relationship between RMA and rape proclivity [RP] as well as our own previous experimental studies, which have shown individuals’ RMA to causally affect RP. They demonstrate that salient information about others’ RMA may cause differences in men’s self-reported proclivity to exert sexual violence.
Frese, Bettina, Miguel Moya, and Jesús L. Megías. “Social Perception of Rape How Rape Myth Acceptance Modulates the Influence of Situational Factors.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 19, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 143–61. doi:10.1177/0886260503260245.
http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/3925/4925HomeComputer/Rape%20myths/Social%20Norms.pdf

Rape myth acceptance and time of initial resistance appeared to be determining factors in the assignment of blame and perception of avoid-ability of a sexual assault for both men and women. Consistent with the literature, women in this study obtained a lower mean rape myth acceptance score than men. As hypothesized, men and women with low rape myth acceptance attributed significantly less blame to the victim and situation, more blame to the perpetrator, and were less likely to believe the assault could have been avoided. Likewise, when time of initial resistance occurred early in the encounter, men and women attributed significantly less blame to the victim and situation, more blame to the perpetrator, and were less likely to believe the sexual assault could have been avoided.

The hypothesis that traditional gender-role types (masculine and feminine) would be more likely to blame the victim following an acquaintance rape than nontraditional gender-role types (androgynous and undifferentiated) was unsupported.
Kopper, Beverly A. “Gender, Gender Identity, Rape Myth Acceptance, and Time of Initial Resistance on the Perception of Acquaintance Rape Blame and Avoidability.” Sex Roles 34, no. 1–2 (January 1, 1996): 81–93. doi:10.1007/BF01544797.
http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Allison_Aosved/publication/226582617_Co-occurrence_of_Rape_Myth_Acceptance_Sexism_Racism_Homophobia_Ageism_Classism_and_Religious_Intolerance/links/02e7e52bd021d8bc72000000.pdf

Given that callous sexual attitudes permit violence and consider women as passive sexual objects, it follows that for men who endorse these, sexual aggression becomes an appropriate and accepted expression of masculinity. In this sense, using force to obtain intercourse does not become an act of
rape, but rather an expression of hypermasculinity, which may be thought of as a desirable disposition in certain subcultures. Taken together, these research findings suggest that an expression of hypermasculinity through callous sexual attitudes may relate to an inclination to endorse a behavioral description
(i.e., using force to hold an individual down) versus referring to a sexually aggressive act as rape. Hence, we hypothesize that the construct of callous sexual attitudes will be found at the highest levels in those men who endorse intentions to force a woman to sexual acts but deny intentions to rape.Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences among Responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188–93.

The majority of participants were classified as either sexually coercive (51.4%) or sexually aggressive (19.7%) based on the most severe form of sexual perpetration self-reported on the SEQ or indicated in criminal history information obtained from institutional files. Approximately one third (33.5%) of coercers and three fourths (76%) of aggressors endorsed the use of two or more tactics for obtaining unwanted sexual contact on the SEQ. Although 63.4% of sexually aggressive men were classified based on their self-reported behavior on the SEQ alone, another 31% were classified on the basis of criminal history information indicating a prior sexual offense conviction involving an adult female, or on the agreement of both sources (5.6%). Notably, 90.1% of sexually aggressive men also reported engaging in lower level sexually coercive behaviors.DeGue, S., D. DiLillo, and M. Scalora. “Are All Perpetrators Alike? Comparing Risk Factors for Sexual Coercion and Aggression.” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 22, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 402–26. doi:10.1177/1079063210372140.

The tactics category reported most frequently was sexual arousal, with 65% of all participants being subjected to at least one
expenence. Within this category, persistent kissing and touching was the most cited tactic (62% of all participants). Emotional manipulation
and deception was the next most frequently reported category, with 60% of participants being subjected to at least one experience. Within this category, participants
cited the specific tactics of repeated requests (54%) and telling lies (34No) most often. Intoxication was the third most frequently reported category, with 38% of all participants being subjected to at least one tactic. More participants reported being taken advantage of while already intoxicated (37%) than being purposely intoxicated (19%). The category with the lowest frequency of reports was physical force and harm, with 28% of participants being subjected to at least one tactic.Struckman-Johnson, Cindy, David Struckman-Johnson, and Peter B. Anderson. “Tactics of Sexual Coercion: When Men and Women Won’t Take No for an Answer.” The Journal of Sex Research 40, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 76–86.

HJH 2015-02-08: Bolded comment policy, to increase the chance of it being read.
HJH 2015-10-31: Added a few more papers, relating to sexual coercion and hostility.

My Little Takedown of Christina Hoff Sommers

[Guest blogger HJ Hornbeck, here! This originally started off as a reply to someones’ comment, but it’s been greatly expanded and stands on its own. A hat tip to Ophelia Benson is in order, too, for providing some of the raw material via her blog, as well as for giving me the platform.]

Who is Christina Hoff Sommers? Let’s start off with one of her former employers, the Independent Women’s Forum, where she once served on the board. Wikipedia offers this summary of them:

The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) is a politically conservative American non-profit organization focused on policy issues of concern to women. The IWF was founded by activist Rosalie Silberman to promote a “conservative alternative to feminist tenets” following the controversial Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1992.

The group advocates “equity feminism,” a term first used by IWF author Christina Hoff Sommers to distinguish “traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism” from “gender feminism”, which she claims opposes gender roles as well as patriarchy. According to Sommers, the gender feminist view is “the prevailing ideology among contemporary feminist philosophers and leaders” and “thrives on the myth that American women are the oppressed ‘second sex.’” Sommers’ equity feminism has been described as anti-feminist by critics.

But if you know Sommers at all, you probably know of her through her connection to the American Enterprise Institute.

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research(AEI) is an extremely influential, pro-business, think tank founded in 1943 by Lewis H. Brown. It promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism and its people have served in influential governmental positions. It is the base for many neo-conservatives. […]

In February 2007, The Guardian (UK) reported that AEI was offering scientists and economists $10,000 each, “to undermine a major climate change report” from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). AEI asked for “articles that emphasise the shortcomings” of the IPCC report, which “is widely regarded as the most comprehensive review yet of climate change science.” AEI visiting scholar Kenneth Green made the $10,000 offer “to scientists in Britain, the US and elsewhere,” in a letter describing the IPCC as “resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent.”

The Guardian reported further that AEI “has received more than $1.6m from ExxonMobil, and more than 20 of its staff have worked as consultants to the Bush administration. Lee Raymond, a former head of ExxonMobil, is the vice-chairman of AEI’s board of trustees,” added The Guardian.

They too are an active opponent of feminism.

According to an April Newsweek profile, much of AEI’s recent influence has to do with Arthur C. Brooks, … who has been its president since 2009. (A $20 million donation from a Roman Catholic founder of the Carlyle Group probably didn’t hurt, either.) “He’s the message man,” Pema Levy wrote of Brooks. “He may not be a pollster, but Republicans say he possesses a gift for making conservative policies sound appealing.” Newsweek focused on the ways Brooks is nudging conservatives toward less flagrantly uncompassionate policies on poverty. But, judging from these op-eds, the AEI is also employing the most sophisticated techniques to date in the much-discussed Republican “war on women.”

For starters, they’ve put a female face on it. AEI scholar and The War Against Boys author Christina Hoff Sommers has a new “vlog” series, “The Factual Feminist” (as opposed to us fantasy feminists), in which she seeks to invalidate feminist discourse. […]

there is something especially insidious about a woman and self-described feminist like Sommers providing anti-feminist talking points. Her claim that “feminist activists have convinced many young women that a foolish, drunken hookup was actually rape” sounds a lot more credible than, say, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” distinction, despite meaning essentially the same thing: What women call rape isn’t really that big a deal.

So far, all we see are anti-feminist far-right think tanks. Here’s one exception, though, Prager University:

Dennis Prager is a neoconservative radio host, professional tone troll, and conspiracy theorist who believes that the United States is a Christian nation, and that it’s under attack from “secular leftists” who control the media, universities, public education system, and other institutions. Despite being a fairly extreme conservative, to the point of being a weekly WND columnist, he does moderate on certain issues such as abortion and, to his credit, he does seem to know quite a bit about religion and aspects of United States history. […]

He has also started his own non-profit online program called Prager University which, keeping up with his paranoia around universities turning students into secular bisexual leftists, has the totally not bizarre motto “Undoing the damage of the University… five minutes at a time.” It actually presents history and politics from a hard-right point of view, which includes rampant New Deal denialism, promotion of the Laffer curve, Europhobia, and an off the walls weird interpretation of liberalism.

Her contributions have consisted of a series of videos openly hostile to feminism, such as:

Women in America are the freest in the world, yet many feminists tell us women are oppressed. They advocate this falsehood through victim mentality propaganda and misleading statistics, such as the gender wage gap myth. In five minutes, American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers tells you the truth about feminism.

So who is Christina Hoff Sommers? While she may bill herself as the “Factual Feminist”, her history suggests she’s a right-wing shill who uses her platform to spread misinformation about feminism, in the hope of opposing social change. I think she’s taking something of an embrace, extend, and extinguish approach: pretend to join up with what you oppose, but alter it to be superficially similar yet quite different and use a mix of money and rhetoric to bury the original version.

Yeah, the above’s a bit of an ad hominem, but I can fix that easily enough by looking at Sommer’s actual arguments. Take her recent video defending GamerGate.

You read that correctly, she’s defending GamerGate:

Well, take it from “Based Mom:” GamerGate overall is a voice for moderation in today’s fevered debates over sex and gender.

“Based Mom” is the nickname GamerGaters have bestowed on Sommers, incidentally. She shows up frequently as a target of affection, earning a place in their fan art, and is considered a leader. But what exactly is GamerGate? Sommers offers this summary:

#GamerGate is a Twitter hashtag, and it attracts gamers from all over the world, males and females, liberals, conservatives, black, white, straight, gay, trans… Some gamers identify with the hashtag because they believe there is too much corruption in gaming. Others are weary of cultural critics who evaluate video games through the prism of gender politics.

That narrative leaves out critical details, though. We have chat logs that show it’s also a coordinated movement plotting to spread hate and lies about women who talk about gender issues in games, with the help of an ex-boyfriend of one of their targets. In one such log, for instance, one member discusses driving Zoe Quinn to suicide, to general agreement, while another frets about keeping up the facade:

Opfag: I’m debating whether or not we should just attack zoe
Opfag: turn her into a victim
Opfag: let her cry and take it further
NASA_Agent: she’s already a victim
OtherGentleman: She’s a professional victim
NASA_Agent: it was real in her mind
ebola-chan: She’s victimizing herself.
Opfag: push her… push her further….. further, until eventually she an heroes
Silver|2: She’s a professional victim. She doesn’t do it for free
OtherGentleman: She can’t even into depression. What makes you think she has the balls to kill herself?
Opfag: I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably horrible
Opfag: At this point.
rd0951: ^^
rd0951: like i siad
NASA_Agent: but what if she suicides
Opfag: Good.
Opfag: Then we get to troll #Rememberzoe
NASA_Agent: #disarmcyberbullies2014
Opfag: And milk the lulcow corpse
OtherGentleman: The more you try to attack her directly, the more she gets to play the victim card and make a bunch of friends who will support her because, since she has a vagina, any attack is misgony
rd0951: ./v should be in charge of the gaming journalism aspect of it. /pol should be in charge of the feminism aspect, and /b should be in charge of harassing her into killing herself
Opfag: I agree.
BurntKimchi: #banassultburgersandfries
NASA_Agent: you don’t see this kind of unity often
Opfag: You don’t
Opfag: We really must be at war
Silver|2: It’s happening

We also have the posts where they come up with journalistic integrity as a cover for their bigotry:

This is a fun interesting story. I’ve been keeping track since the beginning but I think the lot of us are too scattered about what this should really be about. It shouldn’t be about a psycho slut who fucked 5 guys and hurt some betas feelings. I think the focus should be more on that this chick is using sex to climb her way through the ranks of the gaming industry, all while spewing an ideology that she does not believe nor follow.

We need to focus on the fact that she:
>Fucked journalists/game reviewers in order to give the game she designed, positive feedback.
>She fucked her current boss who is married. This is obviously bad, neither her or her boss should be allowed to keep their current job.
>She is a hypocrite that claims a very specific “feminist gamer” ideology and then 180s and has sex with everyone to get what she wants.

We need to expose her as a hypocrite and a liar. The cheating part is just a bonus, yes she’s a slut but there are tons of sluts out there. There is actually proof that she is getting leverage in her career by using sex and that is a travesty and a corruption.

Dude exactly yes.Thus far all that’s happening EVERYWHERE is we’re getting our threads deleted-from giantbomb, from reddit, and from 4chan itself.

What we need to do is bring a true discussion to the table. We need to ignore the dirty laundry between the beta and his slut girlfriend and bring to the table the discussion of “how close is too close when dealing with gaming press and game developers relationships as well as the relationships female game devs have with their superiors”.

Further proof comes from examining what happens on the #Gamergate hashtag, where the majority of discussion is not about ethics at all. We even have archives of where GamerGaters invented a hashtag as a false front, hoping to enlist innocent but gullible people to divide and conquer feminists:

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:56:48 No.261346918
WHO /MINORITY/ HERE? I’m like 2/3 of the things these faggots say they are fighting for, and when I engage them on Twitter (WITH MY FUCKING PERSONAL ACCOUNT) they ignore me. Jesus Christ this is getting frustrating, I might as well be a white male for these faggots.

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:57:44 No.261347051
You fuckers need to organize with your own hashtag and take a stand

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:59:14 No.261347271

>>261347051
>>261346918
Something like
>#NotYourShield
And demand the SJWs stop using you as a shield to deflect genuine criticism

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 04:31:01 No.261349447
>>261346918
>>261347271
#GamerGate + #NotYourShield is an excellent combination. Use it for talking about how you’re for GamerGate but nobody will admit you’re not white, cis and straight.

SPREAD IT

anonDorf: #notyourshield backup squad reporting in
Albel: mah nigga
Albel: retweet the hell out of that shit
Guest55872: I am non-cis, non-white, non-male
AnimeJustice: Can I use #notyourshield regardless?
Guest55872: Albel, you need my selfie?
Albel: Nah, I’m good bud.
Guest55872: Albel, asking, ’cause I do not tweet
foTTS: Use #gamergate and #notyourshield at the same time, pls Albel anonDorf AnimeJustice
Guest55872: anonDorf, want mines?
Albel: FoTTS: Sadly, I don’t fall under any of the #notyourshield categories but I’ll put it in there where I can
foTTS: spread the word about notyourshield Albel
anonDorf: Yeah why not
Guest55872: NICe

codeswish: yea, femfreq is easy PR, you forget that sending her a nice tweet gets them lots of retweets from her followers
Albel: codeswish: That’s fine. You know, maybe part of #gamergate is that we should not demonize femfreq
Albel: “Hey, I don’t necessarily with @femfreq but we here in #gamergate don’t condone the harassment.”
codeswish: The Sarkeesian Effect will handle it for us
W334800: Anita and Zoe are passive aggressive competing or victim-queen
AAAAaaaaAAAA: someone needs to set those 2 attention whores against each other
randompleb: that’s a brilliant idea
Guest55872: ^^
randompleb: two black holes eating each other
AAAAaaaaAAAA: find a way to make the ZQ followers hostile towards the AS followers

This coordinated assault has had real consequences:

The next day, my Twitter mentions were full of death threats so severe I had to flee my home. They have targeted the financial assets of my company by hacking. They have tried to impersonate me on Twitter. Even as we speak, they are spreading lies to journalists via burner e-mail accounts in an attempt to destroy me professionally.

We’ve lost too many women to this lunatic mob. Good women the industry was lucky to have, such as Jenn Frank, Mattie Bryce and my friend Samantha Allen, one of the most insightful critics in games media. They decided the personal cost was too high, and I don’t know who could blame them.

Every woman I know in the industry is terrified she will be next.

GamerGate, in short, is a hate group. While there may be positive elements to it, we have good reason to expect they will or are being exploited by the negative ones.

Which returns us to Christina Hoff Sommers:

Now, I discovered GamerGate when I was working on my recent video about sexism in games. Now in that video, I pointed out that the evidence does not support the claim that video games cause violence or misogyny. I mean gaming has surged since the early 1990’s, but youth crime has plummeted. And Millennials who were born and raised in “video game nation,” they are far less sexist, homophobic, bigoted than older generations.

Note the bait and switch? Sommers swiftly transitions from discussing sexism, to discussing violence, racism, and homophobia. She jumps from talking about video games to talking about youth crime, as if the greatest predictor of the latter was the former. It’s not.[1] If her case was solidly in line with the facts, she would never have to engage in such verbal slight-of-hand; Sommers would just duly report the facts, pointing on existing body of research that demonstrates an accurate, balanced portrayal of women in video games.

She doesn’t, because she can’t. In 2007, a group of researchers looked at video game cover art.[2] Why not the games themselves? Because different people have different skill levels, for different genres, and it’s difficult to capture the entire range in a statistical sample. Plus,

the covers are available for anyone to see, whether they are experienced or not; the covers are easily viewed by those not even interested in playing. For example, video games are usually just one aisle away from the movies in a rental store. Games are not organized by rating so the games rated for mature audiences are often display together with games meant for younger children. There is nothing keeping young children from being exposed to the images on the M-rated games even if they are only seeking an E-rated game. Lastly, for many people the decision to purchase, play, or allow a child to play a game maybe based largely on the material portrayed on the cover.

They found that men were portrayed three times as often, and that while men appear on 9 of 10 game covers, women only appeared on 4 of 10. Men were five times more likely than women to have a primary role on the cover, and four times more likely to have a secondary role. That’s not a typo; since there were four times many men on the covers, they dominated almost every stat. The main exception was objectification: 2 in 10 woman in a primary role were sexually objectified, while not a single man was, for instance. I recommend reading the full study, as I’ve just skimmed off a fraction of the details.

This isn’t an isolated finding, either,[3] [4] [5] [6] yet Sommers is completely ignorant of the research around gaming. She’s also outright lying:

in the earlier video I pointed out that gamers were being blamed for issuing death threats, even though no-one knows who sent them

This is not true.

[Brianna] Wu, who has written about the harassment against women in gaming, has long been critical of the recently-formed Gamergate movement and what she and others have seen as the targeting of women in the industry. Earlier this week she caught the attention of users of the pro-Gamergate message board 8chan after Tweeting snark about the movement, only to then see users of that board mock her, post details about her husband and ultimately publish her personal information (a screencap of a post with redacted info remained on the thread on Saturday).

“I was literally watching 8chan go after me in their specific chatroom for Gamergate,” she told Kotaku today. “They posted my address, and within moments I got that death threat.”

The only people circulating the home addresses of Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, or Zoe Quinn are from GamerGate. Whoever used the home address of those women to drive them out must have been, at minimum, assisted by GamerGate, which itself is a crime. Nor is Brianna Wu an exception, as Anita Sarkeesian demonstrates:

Multiple specific threats made stating intent to kill me & feminists at USU. For the record one threat did claim affiliation with #gamergate

Note too that Sommers thinks it’s unlikely that someone from a movement known for spreading lies and vicious rhetoric about Sarkeesian could have issued a death threat. She must think a death threat is equally as likely to come from the florist down the street, blissfully unaware of video games, or a supreme court judge, or a five old who can’t pick up a controller. To think that everyone’s equally likely to issue a death threat is a remarkably pessimistic view of humanity. But back to Sommers:

Colin Campbell, the senior reporter at Polygon for example, called me a “reactionary” and he suggested that my indifference to sexism in videos was a “irresponsible abrogation of our shared humanity.” I don’t doubt Mr. Campbell’s sincerity: many games do depict horrific violence, and mistreatment of women.

It’s fascinating how she reduces Campbell to a string of insults. His critique had far more substance than that:

Everything Sommers says comes from the assumption, asserted early in her video, that hardcore games are consumed by men because they are made for men, as if they were in the same category as aftershave and Men’s Health magazine.

But although male domination has been the status quo for many years, the influx of women playing games is a sign that women like to play games. “Hardcore games,” of the kind that women don’t play so much as casual games, are not marketed to address a particularly male need any more than blockbuster movies are; they are male-centric because their makers have failed to figure out how to make them more interesting to women.

All entertainment features subsets of products that are clearly aimed at men or women. Just take a look at the bookshelf in your local supermarket. But games have fallen into this male-centric locus because their makers have not been smart enough to reach outside their historic core target.

But given the choice, Sommers would rather focus on surface gloss instead of substance. This should be a red-flag to skeptics that her arguments are weaker than they first appear. Speaking of which:

But remember, there is vastly more violence and mistreatment of men!

This is misleading. It’s true that the cannon fodder tends to be male. But what’s under discussion isn’t raw body counts, it’s representation and erasure. Yes, men are frequently used for target practice, but it’s also true that men take the leading role, get long-running character arcs that fully flesh them out as human beings. Consider Nathan Drake of Uncharted, Marcus Fenix of Gears of War, Sora of Kingdom Hearts, or William Joseph Blaskowicz of Wolfenstein 3D. Women very rarely get starring roles, or for that matter show up at all. If all you had of the human race was our video games, you’d never guess that half our species was female.

So when women do show up, they’re the exotic “other.” They’re special, and rarely given time to develop their characters beyond the first dimension. Hence, even if women are more likely to be brutalized than men, in terms of raw numbers they’re a very small share of the body count. Sommers is ignoring one form of sexism in order to refute another!

the feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian disagrees. She has called the game “pernicious” and she faults its “shameless sexism,” and the use of the “male gaze.” “Everything about Bayonetta’s design,” says Sarkeesian, “is created specifically for the sexual pleasure of straight male gamers.” Those were her words. Now her critique relies on a 1975 feminist theory about the “male gaze” and how it objectifies and demeans women. But “gaze” theory has evolved since 1975! It turns out that spectators might be able to gaze at a women’s beauty and also identify with her at a human level.

It’s a stretch to call the “Male Gaze” a theory, as Laura Mulvey’s essay was intended to be more polemical than intellectually rigorous (and she invokes quite a bit of Freud).[7] Nonetheless, others realized she was on to something. Heterosexual men are sexually attracted to women, and tend to view men as rivals for that attraction. This translates into a distinctive “gaze” or viewpoint to narratives. The classic example of this is the introduction of Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder in “Dr. No.” She emerges from the ocean partially clothed, as James Bond peeps from the bushes. The camera is reflecting a heterosexual male point of view, and catering to their preferences. There is such a thing as a “female gaze;” compare that scene to one in Casino Royale, where James Bond (Daniel Craig) emerges shirtless from the surf. For that moment, he is being sexualized. You can argue for other, non-heteronormative gazes, and some researchers have,[8] but those two types are the most common.

There’s nothing bad about a male or female gaze, per-se, the problem comes when one becomes dominant. Both men and women see movies, after all, so to appeal to everyone you’d expect movies to be primarily neutral but with moments of male- or female-gaze taking the fore about equally. Instead, the male gaze tends to dominate. This torques women’s view of themselves; a recent study[9] found that college women experienced more body shame and anxiety about their appearance when they were told they’d be interacting with a man, as opposed to interacting with a woman or no-one at all. Effect sizes were moderate, with one of the greatest having Cohen’s d = 0.59.

Objectification isn’t the same, but it’s frequently confused for it. James Bond is a subject; he can choose whether or not to act, and those choices affect the world around him. James Bond’s watch is an object; it does not act by itself, but subjects like James Bond can use it to perform actions. Honey Ryder is more object than subject: she’s there to help Bond defeat Dr. No, where “help” means both literally and metaphorically being pulled around by the arm, spouting worthless exposition, sitting out the final battle until Bond rescues her, then having hot sex with this near-stranger. By the next movie, she’s forgotten and replaced with a prettier model: Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi, who would be the second in a long line of interchangeable “Bond Girls.”

The confusion between the Male Gaze and objectification stems from the frequent collusion of the two. If men are rivals under the male gaze, then they tend to be involved in a struggle for power and control. This bleeds over into sexuality, resulting in women being reduced to conquests, trophies, and symbols of virility. Objectification is a natural consequence of the Male Gaze, but only because of the assumptions we absorb from our culture.

Summing up, Sommers is close enough to correct when she says “gaze theory” has evolved since the 1970’s, but her claim that women can be objects and subjects is at odds with the evidence. In the extreme, it’s logically impossible; how can you simultaneously have agency and lack it? That’s an embarrassing oversight for a philosopher.

But what about Sarkeesian’s claim that Bayonetta is designed to appeal to the straight male? Let’s consult a neutral source on the matter.

Bayonetta is portrayed as a tall, beautiful, young woman with a slender but curvy figure much like the other Umbra Witches in her clan. She has black hair wrapped into a beehive-like hairdo and gray eyes with a mole located at bottom of her left cheek close to her lips. Her main attire is composed of a skin-tight suit made out of her hair that has a rose design on the abdomen with long white gloves, black and gray heels, thin gold chains, three small belts strapped on each arm, and a pair of gold, cat-shaped earrings. […]

Because of her hair based fighting techniques, Bayonetta’s outfit becomes more revealing when she uses Wicked Weave techniques. Her suit’s inner section remains running up the middle and back of her body and her hair drapes over her chest to cover it, but the rest of the suit and the sleeves of hair vanish and trail outwards from her head in a spiral of hair and gold chain used to summon the demonic limbs. When summoning full demons, the entire suit disappears and leaves behind her gloves, shoes and watch.

Video game players are rewarded for successfully completing complex attacks with a strip tease by an attractive woman. It’s no surprise Sommers ignored Sarkeesian’s argument, because otherwise she would have been forced to agree.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably seen alarming stories about an army of angry and vicious video gamers, marching under a banner called “GamerGate.” Well, according to these reports, this mob will stop at nothing to defend its “heteronormative privilege.”

Sommers says “heteronormative privilege” as if she’s quoting someone, and by connecting it to the news she makes sound like a common claim. But a simple news search reveals nothing. Expanding things to a normal web search, I can find a blog post by Cathy Smith, but she doesn’t apply the label to GamerGate at all.

It’s not surprising that many of the people who believe in GamerGate see cliques in game development and press. It’s possible these people have dealt with cliques in school, and I do believe that many of the people involved in this are still in school and feel like they’re at the bottom of the rung. Hell, I had no conception of sexism in middle school, and I had internalized a lot of misogyny that I hadn’t realized was a part of me until late high school. It’s hard to understand the concept of male privilege or white privilege or heteronormative privilege when you have to get permission to go to the damn bathroom.

I can find a Tumblr post about gay erasure in gaming, but it dates from before the name “GamerGate” was even coined.

And that’s it.

Where are these claims of “heteronormative privilege?” Sommers must have thought they were so prevalent that she didn’t need to cite them, yet that’s clearly not the case.

Today, at least in certain feminist circles, it’s open season on the sexual preferences of straight males.

It’s curious that someone who dubs themselves the “Factual Feminist” would make claims about feminism without evidence. This should have been a trivially easy citation for Sommers, yet she doesn’t bother. If history is any guide, that’s probably because she has none.

They need to show, not dogmatically assume, that video games make people sexist. The burden of proof rests with them.

By my count, I’ve provided at least five citations demonstrating that video games are sexist, and at least three show it has real-world consequences. Sommers, in contrast, has failed to provide a single one to support her view.

So, who is Christina Hoff Sommers? Possibly someone who quote-mines heated rhetoric from summaries and ignores substantive critique. Certainly, Sommers is a spokesperson for bigots, who’s made a career out of white-washing anti-feminist hate with a superficial gloss of pseudo-intellectualism. Her legacy will be one of promoting the suffering and misery of all genders in the world, presumably just to line her pockets with cold-hard cash.

Illuminati Lich (10:07 AM – 4 Nov 2014):
[JT Eberhard,] A video by Sommers?

JT Eberhard (10:07 AM – 4 Nov 2014):
[Illuminati Lich,] Yeah. I agree with most of what she said.

D.J. Grothe (2:31 PM – 1 Sep 2014):
[Sommers,] You’re a mythbuster in the grand tradition of those who debunk harmful nonsense, speaking truth to power in the public interest.

Richard Dawkins (12:27 AM – 17 Sep 2014):
The “Big Sister is Watching You” Thought Police hate [Sommers]’ Factual Feminism, and you can see why.

Fortunately, good skeptics are capable of looking past the false front and know not to take her claims seriously. I’m not the only one to spot this, by any means:

Laura Flanders. “The ‘Stolen Feminism’ Hoax”. Extra!, Sept. 1st, 1994.

Sharon Presley “Freedom Feminism Still Isn’t Either.” Reason.com. January 30, 2014

Malmsheimer, Taylor. “Conservatives Are Obsessed With Debunking the 1-in-5 Rape Statistic. They’re Wrong, Too.” The New Republic, June 27, 2014.

Ampersand. “Fact-Checking the Anti-Feminists; like Following around an Elephant with a Bucket, No Matter How Much Crap You Clean up They Keep Producing More.” Alas, a Blog. Accessed December 7, 2014.

Johnston, Angus. “Yes, Christina Hoff Sommers Is a Rape Denialist.” Accessed December 10, 2014.

Citations:

[1] Baron, Stephen W. “General Strain, Street Youth and Crime: A Test of Agnew’s Revised Theory.” Criminology 42, no. 2 (May 1, 2004): 457–84. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00526.x.

[2] Burgess, Melinda CR, Steven Paul Stermer, and Stephen R. Burgess. “Sex, lies, and video games: The portrayal of male and female characters on video game covers.” Sex Roles 57.5-6 (2007): 419-433.

[3] Dill, Karen E., and Kathryn P. Thill. “Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: Young people’s perceptions mirror sexist media depictions.” Sex roles 57.11-12 (2007): 851-864.

[4] Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth, and Dana Mastro. “The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept.” Sex roles 61.11-12 (2009): 808-823.

[5] Dietz, Tracy L. “An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior.” Sex roles 38.5-6 (1998): 425-442.

[6] Dill, Karen E., Brian P. Brown, and Michael A. Collins. “Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44.5 (2008): 1402-1408.

[7] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

[8] Wood, Mitchell J. “The Gay Male Gaze.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 17, no. 2 (December 2, 2004): 43–62. doi:10.1300/J041v17n02_03.

[9] Calogero, Rachel M. “A Test Of Objectification Theory: The Effect Of The Male Gaze On Appearance Concerns In College Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28, no. 1 (March 2004): 16–21. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00118.x.

HJH @ 2014/12/10: Added another link to someone critiquing Hoff Sommers.
HJH @ 2015/02/04: It’s “embrace, extend, extinguish.” Stupid dyslexia.