Exaggerating With Statistics (About Rape)

“As a professional psychology researcher, it’s my job to lie to the participants in my experiments so I can lie to others with statistics using their data”. -On understanding the role of deception in psychology research

In my last post, I discussed the topic of fear: specifically, how social and political agendas can distort the way people reason about statistics. The probable function of such distortions is to convince other people to accept a conclusion which is not exactly well supported by the available evidence. While such behavior is not exactly lying – inasmuch as the people making these claims don’t necessarily know they’re engaged in such cognitive distortions – it is certainly on the spectrum of dishonesty, as they would (and do) reject such reasoning otherwise. In the academic world, related kinds of statistical manipulations go by a few names, the one I like the most being “researcher degrees of freedom“. The spirit of this idea refers to the problem of researchers selectively interpreting their data in a variety of ways until they find a result they want to publish, and then omit mentioning all the ways that their data did not work out, or might be interpreted. On that note, here’s a scary statistic: 1-in-3 college men would rape a woman if they could get away with it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the statistic is not at all what it seems.

“…But the researchers failed to adequately report their methods! Spooky!”

The paper in question (Edwards et al, 2014) seeks to try and understand the apparent mystery behind the following finding: when asked if they ever raped anyone, most men will say “no”; when asked instead whether they ever held someone down to coerce them into having sex, a greater percentage of men will indicate that they have. Women’s perceptions about the matter seem to follow suit. As I wrote when discussing the figure that 25% of college women will be raped:

The difference was so stark that roughly 75% of the participants that Koss had labeled as having experiencing rape did not, themselves, consider the experience to be rape.

What strikes me as curious about these findings is not the discrepancy in responses; that much can likely be explained by positing that these questions are perceived by the participants to be asking about categorically different behaviors. After all, if they were actually perceived to be asking about the same thing, you would see a greater agreement between the responses of both men and women between questions, which we do not. Instead, the curious part is that authors – like Edwards et al (2014) – continue to insist that all those participants must be wrong, writing, “…some men who rape do not seem to classify their behavior as such” (Jesse Singal at NYmag.com expresses a similar view, writing: “At the end of the day, after all, the two groups are saying the exact same thing“). Rather than conclude there is something wrong with the questions being asked (such as, say, they are capturing a portion of the population who would have rough, but consensual sex), they instead conclude there is something wrong with everyone else (both men and women) answering them. This latter explanation strikes me as unlikely. 

There’s already something of a bait-and-switch taking place, then, but this is far from the only methodological issue involved in deriving that scary-sounding 1-in-3 figure. Specifically, Edwards et al (2014) asked their 86 male participants to fill out part of the “attraction to sexual aggression” scale (Malamuth, 1989). On this scale, participants are asked to indicate, from 1 to 5, how likely they would be to engage in a variety of behaviors, with a “1″ corresponding to “not likely at all”, while “5″ corresponds to “very likely”. Included on this scale are two questions, one concerning whether the respondent would “rape” a woman, and another asking about whether he would “force her to do something she did not want to do” in a sexual setting. The participants in question were asked about their likelihood of engaging in such behaviors “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences”. Edwards et al (2014) report that, if such criteria were met, 31% of the men would force a woman to do something sexually, whereas only 13% would rape a woman.

If you’re perceptive, you might have noticed something strange already: that 1-in-3 figure cannot be straightforwardly derived from the sexual aggression scale, as the scale is a 5-point measure, whereas the 1-in-3 statistic is clearly dichotomous. This raises the question of how one translates the scale into a yes/no response format. Edwards et al (2014) do not explicitly mention how they managed such a feat, but I think the answer is clear from the labeling in one of their tables: “Any intention to rape a woman” (emphasis, mine). What the researchers did, then, was code any response other than a “1″ as an affirmative; the statistical equivalent of saying that 2 is closer to 5 than it is to 1. In other words, the question was, “Would you rape a woman if you could get away with it”, and the answers were, effectively, “No, Yes, Yes, Yes, or Yes”. Making the matter even worse is that all that participants were answering both questions. This means they saw a question asking about “rape” and another question about “forcing a woman to do something she didn’t want to”. As participants likely figured that there was no reason the researchers would be asking the same question twice, they would have very good reason for thinking that these questions refer to categorically different things. For the authors to then conflate the two questions after the fact as being identical is stunningly disingenuous.

“The problem isn’t me; it’s everyone else”

To put these figures in better context, we could consider the results reported by Malamuth (1989). In response to the “Would you rape if you wouldn’t get caught” question, 74% of men indicated “1″ and 14% indicated a “2″, meaning a full 88% of them fell below the midpoint of the scale; by contrast, only 7% fell above the midpoint, with about 5% indicating a “4″ and 2% indicating a “5″. Of course, reporting that “1-in-3 men would rape” if they could get away with it is much different than saying “less than 1-in-10 probably would”. The authors appear interested in deriving the most-damning interpretation of their data possible, however, as evidenced by their unreported and, in my mind, unjustifiable grouping of the responses. That fact alone should raise alarm bells as to whether the statistics they provide you would do a good job of predicting reality.

But let’s go ahead and take these responses at face value anyway, even if we shouldn’t: somewhere between 10-30% of men would rape a woman if there were no consequences for doing so. How alarming should that figure be? On the first front, the hypothetical world of “no consequence” doesn’t exist. Some proportion of men who would be interested in doing such things are indeed restrained from doing so by the probability of being punished. Even within that hypothetical world of freedom from consequences, however, there are likely other problems to worry about, in that you will always find some percentage of the population willing to engage in anti-social behavior that harms others when there are no costs for doing so (in fact, the truly strange part is that lots of people indicate they would avoid such behaviors).

Starting off small, for instance, about 70% of men and women indicate that they would cheat on their committed partner if they wouldn’t get caught (and slightly over 50% have cheated in spite of those possible consequences). What about other acts, like stealing, or murder. How many people might kill someone else if there would be no consequences for it? One informal poll I found placed that number around 40%; another puts it a little above 50% and, when broken up by sex, 32% of women would and a full 68% of men would. Just let those numbers sink in for a moment: comparing the two numbers for rape and murder, the men in Edwards et al (2014) were in between 2-to-7 times less likely to say they would rape a woman than kill someone if they could, depending on how one interprets their answers. That’s a tremendous difference; one that might even suggest that rape is viewed as a less desirable activity than murder. Now that likely has quite a bit to do with some portion of that murder being viewed as defensive in nature, rather than exploitative, but it’s still some food for thought.

 There are proportionately fewer defensive rapes than defensive stabbings…

This returns us nicely to the politics of fear. The last post addressed people purposefully downplaying the risks posed by terrorist attacks; in this case, we see people purposefully inflating the reported propensities to rape. The 1-in-3 statistic is clearly crafted in the hopes of making an issue seem particularly threatening and large, as larger issues tend to have more altruism directed towards them in the hopes of a solution. As there are social stakes in trying to make one’s problems seem especially threatening, however, this should immediately make people skeptical when dealing with such statistics for the same reasons you shouldn’t let me tell you about how smart or nice I am. There is a very real risk of artificially trying to puff one’s statistics up, as people might come to eventually start not trusting you about things as the default, even for different topics entirely; this should hold true especially if they belong to a group targeted by such misleading results. The undesirable outcomes of such a process being, rather than increases in altruism and sympathy devoted to a real problem, apathy and hostility. Lessons learned from fables like The Boy Who Cried Wolf are timely as ever, it would seem.

References: Edwards, S., Bradshaw, K., & Hinsz, V. (2014). Denying rape but endorsing forceful intercourse: Exploring differences among responders. Violence & Gender, 1, 188-193.

Malamuth, N. (1989). The attraction to sexual aggression scale: Part 1. The Journal of Sex Research, 26, 26-49.

Just Say No, And Be Sure To Mean It

A man and a woman have been out on a date and things have been going well. After a time, the pair leave the resturant they were at and arrive back at the women’s car. The man leans in close to the woman’s ear and says, “I want to kiss you now. Is that OK?”. The woman agrees and the pair lock lips. After the kiss, the woman, eyeing the man seductively, says, “I want you to get into my car now. Is that OK?”. The man says yes and the two get inside the car together. In the backseat, the man looks at the woman and says,”I want to kiss you again. Is that OK?”. She says yes, and the pair begins to kiss. After a time, the man stops and tells the woman, “I just want to make sure you’re still OK with the kissing; it’s been a while since I asked”. She says she is and they continue on. Eventually, the woman asks if the man would be OK with taking off his shirt, which is confirms that he is, and things continues on like this for some time: each party continuously stops to check and make sure the other party has explicitly consented to each act before it happens and that they are still OK with it going on while the act is taking place. All in all, I’d say this makes for a pretty arousing story.

  Am I right, Ladies?

OK; so maybe I exaggerated a little about the arousing part. In fact,the idea that every step of the courtship process should be made explicit strikes many people as precisely the opposite, if not funny, as demonstrated in this short video. Though I have no data on the subject handy, I would imagine that many people would find a partner continuously asking for explicit verbal consent before and/or during each act to be a mixture of off-putting and annoying. You’d probably get the sense that you were dealing with a rather insecure lover after the fifth or tenth, “Are you OK with this? Are you sure?”. What this is all getting at is the following point: a lot of communication that takes place between people is often nonverbal, implicit, veiled, or, in some cases, purposefully misleading. This is perhaps nowhere more the case than when it comes to sex. Unsurprisingly, though humans do possess a suite of cognitive adaptations for interpreting these indirect forms of communication correctly, mistakes are often made. If these mistakes could be better avoided by making communication more honest are direct, we’re left with the matter of why people beat around the bush or don’t say what they actually mean, with some frequency.

In examining the issue, let’s first consider some data about consent to sex. A 1988 paper by Muehlenhard & Hollabaugh asked a question that, I imagine, certain groups of people might find offensive: how often do women say “no” to sex when they actually mean “maybe” or “yes“? That is, how often is “no” not intended to mean “no“? The authors surveyed 610 undergraduate college women from Texas, asking them how many times they had been in the follow situation:

You were with a guy who wanted to engage in sexual intercourse and you wanted to also, but for some reason you indicated that you didn’t want to, although you had every intention to and were willing to engage in sexual intercourse. In other words, you indicated “no” when you really meant “yes”.

Similar questions were also asked about when the women had said “no” and meant “no”, or had said “no” and meant “maybe”. Of these 610 undergraduates, a full 40% reported at least one instance of saying “no” but meaning “yes” in their life, with the majority of them indicating that they had engaged in this behavior multiple times. For the sake of comparison, 85% of women reported saying “no” and meaning it at least once, and about 70% saying “no” and meaning “maybe” at least once.

The reasons for this token resistance were varied: some women who said “no” but meant “yes” reported that they did so to avoid looking promiscuous (around 23% of women rated factors like these as being important in their decision); others reported that they did so out of fear of moral condemnation for saying “yes” (around 19%); still others reported that they said “no” purposefully to arouse a man and make him more aggressive (around 23%). The authors go on to note that such token resistance might have the following side-effect: they might encourage men to ignore women’s protests when they actually do mean “no”, as distinguishing token resistance from actual resistance is not always an easy task. So while real “no’s” are certainly more common than token “no’s” or “maybe’s”, if men are primarily interested in getting sex, the costs of missing a token “no” (no sex), might outweigh the costs of pushing against real “no’s” with some frequency (some additional wasted mating effort), and the result is often unpleasant for all parties involved.

“I don’t want to stop because I might miss you, babe, and I don’t want to miss a thing

So why all this indirect, veiled, or dishonest communication? It would seem easier for all parties involved to just openly state their interest and be done with it. The problem with that suggestion, however, is that “easier” does not necessarily translate into “more useful”. As we saw from the women’s reasoning as for why they were giving these token “no’s”, there can be social costs to being direct or honest about certain desires: a woman who easily consents to sex might be seen as more likely to be promiscuous and, accordingly, treated differently by both men and other women. This point is dealt with by Steven Pinker, who discusses how indirect speech is useful for avoiding many of the social costs that might accompany communication, whether with respect to sex or other topics. There are other reasons a woman might say no, beyond what others will think of her, however. One that springs to mind regards a woman’s ability to honestly test certain qualities of her would-be mate.

For instance, we could consider one such quality: desire. Not all potential mates are equally desirable. One possible adaptive problem that women might be faced with is to determine how much their partners desire them. All else being equal, a partner who is highly desirous of a woman should make for a better mate than one who desires her less, as the former might be more willing to invest in or not abandon her. Unfortunately, desire is a difficult quality to assess directly just by looking at someone. A woman can’t just ask a man how much he desires her either, as there are incentives for men’s answers to such questions to be less than honest at times. So, to more accurately assess her partner’s level of desire, a woman could, in principle, place metaphorical roadblocks up to try make it more difficult for her partner to achieve the goal of sex he is after. When faced with an initial rejection, this forces the man to either give up (which he might do if he doesn’t desire her as much) or to redouble his efforts and demonstrate his willingness to do whatever needs to be done to achieve that goal (which he might do if he desires her more).On top of desire, such behavior might also communicate other facts about their personality honestly, like dominance, but we need not concern ourselves with that here.

Now that’s not to say that men don’t face a similar type of problem (assessing a partner’s desire); the example just serves to examine the strategic nature of why people might communicate in non-transparent, or even deceptive, ways: there are adaptive problems to be solved in a world where you can’t assume everyone is going to be non-judgmental or honest. If you want to have sex but maintain a reputation for not being thought of as promiscuous, or you want to test your partner’s desire for you, putting up token resistance might serve that goal even if the communication itself is dishonest. This, of course, isn’t good for everyone: as mentioned above, if men get the sense that “no” doesn’t always mean “no”, they might begin to make more advances where it truly isn’t welcome or being encouraged.

“So that’s a “no”, huh? I see that game you’re playing…”

In somewhat unrelated news, California seems to be taking a stance against this kind of indirect communication with the recent “yes means yes” bill. According to the news reports I’ve seen, the bill would require “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” to sex (on campuses) that is “ongoing throughout the sexual activity”, so it looks like the token resistance women are about to find themselves out of luck. The details of what affirmative consent would look like in practice seem to be scarce, outside of saying affirmative consent is both affirmative and voluntary, and could involve non-verbal signals, but must assuredly be unambiguous. Given that human communication is often an ambiguous affair where even explicit “no’s” and “yes’s” don’t necessarily translate into actual intentions and desires, the matter seems to strike me as being the same level of tricky as defining obscenity. If the people writing the bill aren’t going to be explicit about what constitutes a clear standard of consent, I don’t know how those who are expected to abide by it will. Here’s to hoping it all works out for the best anyway. Who knows? Maybe it will even spur on one of those “critical discussions” people seem to love so much and raise some awareness.

References: Muehlenhard, C. & Hollabaugh, L. (1988). Do women sometimes say no when they mean yes? The prevalence and correlates of women’s token resistance to sex. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 54, 872-879.

Who’s Blaming The Victim?

One phrase – or some variant of it – that seems to crop up in discussions of sexual assault more frequently than almost all others is “blaming the victim” (though I imagine “rape culture” and “patriarchy” are probably in the running for most commonly-used term as well). Coined in the early 1970s, the phrase has been nothing but gaining in popularity if Google’s N-gram viewer is any indication. The way I’ve seen the term used, “blaming the victim” appeared to amount to any suggestion that sexual assault might be reduced through any behavioral modifications on the part of victims of the act; in other words, any suggestion that people bear some responsibility for ensuring their own safety. Now, of course, sexual assault victims are no more at moral fault for the crime they suffer than robbery victims are at fault for being robbed (which is to say not morally at fault at all). The responsibility for the criminal act lies at the feet of the criminal. Nevertheless, one might also responsibly suggest that precautions might be taken to minimize the frequency of such acts, in much the same way that criminals are at fault for stealing bikes, but one might suggest that people lock their bikes up so as to make theft more difficult.

“Good idea, but your execution of it leaves something to be desired.”

The recent Slutwalks were one of the more notable outcomes of such a suggestion: specifically, the suggestion that women might be able to minimize their risks of being sexually assaulted by dressing less provocatively. While I have no data on hand bearing on the plausibility of such a suggestion, I happen to have some other interesting research on the topic of victim blaming in the case of sexual assault. What’s unique about the current study by Perilloux et al (2014) is the examination of how different parties assign responsibility for a sexual assault: more precisely, how victims of a completed or attempted sexual assault assign responsibility, relative to third parties who were not assaulted themselves, but know a friend that was. The questions of interest here were (a) whether these three groups differ in terms of how much responsibility they assign to various parties, and (b) whether these groups also perceive the motivations of the attacker differently as well.

The sample included 49 women who self-reported experiencing a completed sexual assault after puberty, 91 women who reported an attempted sexual assault, and 152 women who reported knowing someone who was the victim of an assault. The participants were asked to assign blame (totaling 100%) for the assault to six potential sources: the perpetrator, the victim, the situation, the victim’s family, friends, or other categories. They were then asked to response in an open-ended fashion as to why they had assigned blame the way they did. The participants were also asked what they thought the perpetrators hoped to gain from the assault.

The results found some interesting disconnects between the perceptions of these groups. For the most part, the three groups – completed, attempted, and third parties – were in agreement over how much blame the situation, friends, family members, and other factors shared for the assault (approximately 7%, 2%, 1%, and 1%, respectively; so about 10% of the overall blame). Where these groups differed primarily was with respect to how much blame the victim of the assault and perpetrator share. Those women who were the victims of a completed or attempted assault suggested the perpetrator bore about 70% of the blame while they – the victim – were about 19% responsible. Third parties – those women who were not assaulted but knew someone who said they were – reported a different pattern: the third parties suggested the victim (their friends) was only about 9% responsible, while the perpetrator was 82% responsible. In other words, the victims themselves seemed to be doing about twice as much of the victim blaming than their friends were.

Or remember to always make accusations with all five fingers. Problem solved.

That wasn’t the only avenue along which these perceptions diverged, though: the three groups also differed in terms of how they perceived the attacker’s motivation (i.e. why the assaulter did what they did). In the completed assault group, 65% of women nominated “sex” as the primary motivation for the assault, while 22% suggested power was the motivation. These percentages were similar to the attempted group (71% and 18%, respectively). However, the third party women saw things rather differently: only 48% suggested sex was the motivation for the action, while 27% suggested power was driving the act. So the friends of the assault victims appeared to feel the assault was less about sex, relative to the women who were actually assaulted.

Finally, the analysis turned to only the perceptions of the completed and attempted groups. Perilloux et al (2014) examined the most common reasons listed for self-blame: (1) putting oneself in a bad situation, (2) being intoxicated, (3) not resisting enough, (4) sending mixed messages, and (5) being too trusting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, completed assault victims were more likely to list “not resisting enough” (25%) relative to attempted victims (11%), owing to the probability that resistance likely serves as a deterrent, and how much resistance is “enough” is assessed by whether or not the assault was stopped, or when it was. More completed victims (29%) also listed their own intoxication as a reason for their blame, relative to attempted victims (19%), and the completed group also reported more intoxication at the time of the assault. Again, this is might well be related to the resistance factor: intoxicated people could be less capable or willing to resist.

So, the good news from this research should be that, by in large, people seem to overwhelming place the blame for sexual assault on the perpetrator rather than the victim. The blame given to the perpetrator tended to be three- to nine-times that of the blame assigned to the victim. This appears to be true regardless of whether it’s the victim or the victim’s friend. The most interesting finding seems to be the disconnect between the responses of third parties and victims, however: most of the victim blame came from the victims themselves, and these victims tended to see the motivation for sex on the part of perpetrator as playing a more primary role than third parties did. There is, of course, the possibility that other, more socially-distant, third parties would assign more blame to the victims, relative to current groups, but that much remains to be seen. In any case, the question to consider is why these perceptions differ.

*Warning: point of view might not match well to reality.

One possibility is that the victims might have greater insight to what factors increased their risks for the assault, relative to third parties, owing to the fact that they were direct witnesses to the event. This certainly seems like a reasonable suggestion, and should give pause to those who claim that rape is primarily and act of violence or domination, rather than sex. Another, not mutually-exclusive suggestion, that I would advance would be to consider what signals these perceptions of victim blame might be sending. Since there’s no objective truth to the question, “how much blame does party X deserve”, these perceptions are likely to be reflecting something else.

Here are two possible alternatives as to what that something else might be: the first is that “who deserves how much blame?” might be interpreted as “whose side would you take in a dispute between the victim and the perpetrator?” In placing very little blame on the victim, third parties could be signaling a strong willingness to take their friend’s side on the matter. Another (also non-mutually exclusive) potential is that the question about who deserves blame might be interpreted as, “how much did the behavior of this individual increase their probability of being assaulted?” In this case, victims, through their self-blame, might be signaling that they recognize some potential for minimizing their future risk of being assaulted. This recognition could, in turn, make the victim look like a better social ally. Friends who consistently expose themselves to costly risks are, all else being equal, more costly to consistently support and side with than friends who suffer fewer costs. Accordingly, a friend who suggests they will behave more cautiously next time might appear to be at a lower risk for suffering costs, and a better social investment.

If third parties and victims interpret the notion of “blame” somewhat differently, then, this would lead to the following prediction: when rating one’s own blame for sexual assault, victims should rate their own blame higher, relative to third parties, as they did in the current study. However, there’s another prediction we could make: when rape victims are rating another victim’s blame for their sexual assault, the former group should not differ from non-victimized third parties. That is, victims of sexual assault should not both blame themselves and other victims equally; how much blame they assign to themselves or others should vary strategically.

References: Perilloux, C., Duntley, J., & Buss, D. (2014). Blame attribution in sexual victimization. Personality and Individual Differences, 63, 81-86.

He’s Climbing In Your Windows; He’s Snatching Your People Up

One topic that has been addressed by evolutionary psychologists that managed to draw a good deal of ire was rape. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, the criticisms that the theorizing about it brought were largely undeserved, reflecting, perhaps, a human tendency to mistake explanation with exculpation. Needless to say, at this point, sexual assault will be the topic for examination today, so if it’s the kind of thing that bothers you to read about, I suggest clicking away. Now that the warning has been made, if you’re still reading we can move forward. There has been some debate among evolutionary-minded researchers as to whether or not there are any rape-specific cognitive adaptations in humans, or whether rape represents a byproduct of other mating mechanisms. The debate remains unresolved for lack of unambiguous predictions or data. As the available data could be interpreted as consistent with both sides of the debate, the question remains a slippery and contentious one.

So do be careful if you decide to try and pick it up.

A paper by Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggests to have found some data they say support the byproduct view for rape. While I find myself currently favoring the byproduct explanation, I also find their interpretation of the evidence they bring to bear on the matter underwhelming. I actually find their interpretation of several matters off, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s consider the research itself. The authors sought to examine existing data on robberies committed by lone males 12 years or older where a lone female was present at the time. From the robbery data, the authors were further interested in examining the subset of them that also involved a report of sexually assault. Towards this end, Felson & Cundiff (2012) reported data from approximately 45,000 robberies spanning from 2000-2007. Of those robberies, roughly 2% of them also involved a sexual assault, yielding about 900 cases for examination. As an initial note, the 2% figure would seem to suggest, to me, anyway, that in most instances of robbery/sexual assault, the assaults tended to not be preplanned; they look more opportunistic.

From this sample, the authors first examined what effect the female victim’s age had on the likelihood of a sexual assault being reported during the robbery. As it turns out, the age of the woman was a major determinant: women at the highest risk of being assaulted were in the 15-29 age range (with the peak being within the 20-24 year old age range), where the average risk of a sexual assault was around 2.5%. Before this age range, the risk of assault is substantially lower, around 1.3%. After 29 years, the rate begins to decline, dropping markedly after 40, down to around an average of 0.5%. In terms of opportunistic sexual assaults, then, male robbers appear to target women in their fertile years at disproportionate frequencies, presumably partially or largely on the basis of victim’s physical attractiveness. This finding appears consistent with previous work that had found the average age of a female who was the victim of a robbery alone was 35, while the average age of a robbery/assault victim was 27.9; about 7 years of difference. Any theories of rape that assume the act is motivated by power and not by sex would seem to have a very difficult time accounting for this pattern in the data.

Next, the authors turned their attention towards characteristics of the male robbers that predict whether or not an assault was reported. The results showed that the likelihood of a sexual assault increased as the males reached sexual maturity and steadily increased further until about their mid-thirties, after which they began to decline. Further, regardless of their age, the robbers didn’t show much in the way of variance in terms of the age of women they tended to target. That is to say whether the man was in his late teens or his late forties, they all seemed to preferentially target younger women nearer to their peak fecundity. The one exception to this pattern were the males aged 12-17, who seemed to even more disproportionately prefer women in their teens and early twenties. Felson & Cundiff (2012) note that this pattern of preferences is not typically observed in consensual relationships, where men and women tend to pair up around similar ages. This suggests that older men’s patterns of engaging in relationships with older women likely represents the relative aversion of younger women to the older males; not a genuine preference on the part of men for older women per se.

Though it’s difficult to imagine why older men aren’t preferred…

That’s not to say that older men may not have a preference for pursing relatively older women, just that such a preference wouldn’t be driven by the woman’s age. Such a preference might well be driven by other factors, however, such as the relative willingness of a woman to enter into a relationship with the man in question. There’s not much point for a man in pursuing women they’re unlikely to ever attain success with, even if those women are highly attractive; better to spend that time and energy in domains more liable to payoff. Louis C.K. sums the issue up neatly in one of his stand-up routines: “to me, you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet…[if you're a younger girl] I don’t want to fuck you…[alright] I do want to fuck you, but you won’t fuck me, so fuck you”. When such tradeoffs can be circumvented – as is the case in sexual assault – a person’s underlying preferences for certain characteristics can be more readily assessed.

This brings us to my complaints with the paper. As I mentioned initially, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not men have cognitive mechanisms designed for rape specifically, or whether rape is generated as a byproduct of mechanisms designed for other purposes. Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggest that their data support the byproduct interpretation. Why? Because they found that women in the 15-29 age range who were sexually assaulted were less likely to be raped than older women. This pattern of data is supposed to support the byproduct hypothesis because, I think, the authors are positing some specific motivation for sex acts that could result in conception, rather than some more general interest in sexual behavior. It’s hard to say, since the authors fail to lay out the theory behind their hypothesis with precision. This strikes me as somewhat of a strange argument, though, as it would essentially posit that sexual acts that are unlikely to result in conception (such as oral or anal sex) are motivated by a different set of cognitive mechanisms that an interest in vaginal sex. While that might potentially be the case, I’ve never seen a case made for it, and there isn’t a strong one to be found in the paper.

The other complaint I have is that the authors use a phrase that’s a particular pet peeve of mine: “..our results are consistent with the predictions from evolutionary psychology”. This phrase always troubles me because evolutionary psychology, as field, does not make a set of uniform predictions about sexual behavior. Their results may well be consistent with some sub-theories derived by psychologists using an evolutionary framework – such as sexual strategies theory – but they are not derived from evolutionary psychology more broadly. To say that a result is consistent or inconsistent with evolutionary psychology is to imply that such a finding supports or fails to support the foundational assumptions of the field; assumptions which have to do with the nature of information processing mechanisms. While this might seem like a minor semantic point at first, I feel it’s actually a rather deep issue. It’s a frequent mistake that many of evolutionary psychology’s critics make when attempting to write off the entire field on the basis of a single idea they don’t like. To the extent that such inaccurate generalizations serve to hinder people’s engagement with the field, there’s a problem to be addressed.

And if you’re not willing to engage with me, I’d like the ring back.

As evolutionary psychology more broadly doesn’t deliver specific predictions about rape, neither the hypothesis that rape is an adaptation or a byproduct should rightly be considered the official evolutionary psychology perspective on the topic; this would be the case regardless of whether the evidence strongly supported one side or the other, I might add. While the the current research doesn’t speak to either of these possibilities distinctly, it does manage to speak against the idea that rape isn’t about sex, adding to the already substantial evidence that such a view is profoundly mistaken. Of course, the not-sex explanation was always more of a political slogan than a scientific one, so the lack of empirical support for it might not prove terribly troubling for its supporters.

References: Felson, R., & Cundiff, P. (2012). Age and sexual assault during robberies Evolution and Human Behavior, 33 (1), 10-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.04.002

Reactions To Reactions About Steubenville

Around the middle of last month, CNN came under some social-media fire. The source of this fire came from the perception among some people that CNN had covered the Steubenville rape case inappropriately.  More precisely, the outrage focused on the notion that CNN had not demonized the two convicted male teens enough; if anything, many people seemed to feel that CNN had humanized the pair. Here’s one of the major quotes that people took issue with:

 ”It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

The issue, it would seem, is that many people felt that it ought not have been hard emotionally for the reporter to witness the event; if anything, she should have been angry that the teens were not sentenced more harshly. Other debates raged on in the comments sections of various articles about whether being placed on the list of registered sex offenders for the rest of their life was too harsh of a punishment for the two teens on the one hand, with those advocating the castration or death of the teens on the other extreme. I think these reactions, along with the case itself, happen to highlight some of the adaptive problems that bystanders face surrounding the moral judgments they make.

And now, since there are two degrees of separation between the tragic event and my use of it, it’s acceptable.

The first of these problems highlighted by the story is that third-party condemners (those who are not directly involved) need to pick a side in a moral dispute, and being on the wrong side of that dispute can be costly. Accordingly, third party condemners face the problem of figuring out how to coordinate their condemnation with other third parties (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). The problem runs deeper than choosing a side, though. As people’s reactions to the CNN story show us, even being on the “right” side of the dispute can be costly, provided one isn’t on the “right” side in the “right” way. Just to be clear, the first “right” in the previous sentence refers to being on the side with more social support; the second “right” refers to the agreement within a given side as to what the appropriate response of its members ought to be. The CNN coverage described the crime as “very serious” and the teen who was raped as “the victim”, suggesting that the reporters were certainly not of the opinion that rape is good or the boys were the real victims. The outrage was that the reporters for CNN did not appear to be appropriately outraged at the boys or offended enough on the part of the victim. CNN’s crime was not treating the teens as viciously as others would have liked.

It would seem that not condemning a behavior thoroughly enough can be interpreted by some as actually condoning that same behavior. Indeed, it was likely when the reporter for CNN said that it was emotionally difficult for her to witness the scene that she sparked the subsequent outcry against the network. This leaves us with a somewhat standard question: why should this be the case? Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about rape anymore, but about theft. You and I both agree that stealing is wrong and deserves to be punished. However, while you think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of five years in jail and a permanent brand that says “car thief”, I think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of a year in prison and no brand. It would seem silly to conclude that, from these differences in opinion on the extent of deserved punishment, that only one of us is actually against stealing while the other is a morally condemnable “stealing-apologist”. Yet this is precisely what we see happening. Why?

A potential answer comes in more than one part. The first part of this answer is to note that, in cases of moral condemnation, the activity of certain parts of the brain associated with empathy seem to be inhibited. A neuroscience paper by Singer et al (2006) examined the responses of 16 men and 16 women in an fMRI to viewing confederates receiving painful shocks. Before the viewing took place, however, the confederates had either behaved fairly or unfairly towards the subject in a trust game. The results of the analysis found that men, but not women, showed a reduction in activation of presumably empathy-related regions of the brain when viewing the confederates receiving the painful shocks; in the case of the fair player receiving the shocks, subject’s brains showed more signs of empathy-related activation. Similarly, men, but not women, showed increases in brain regions associated with reward when the unfair player received the shocks. Post fMRI measures confirmed that men were more interested in seeking revenge against unfair players

Sure; the research could have been done without the expensive fMRI, but then we wouldn’t get pictures.

There are a few shortcomings of the Singer et al (2006) study to bear in mind as it relates to the current questions: the sample size wasn’t terribly impressive, but sample sizes in neuroscience studies seldom seem to be. The second piece to bear in mind is that these brain scans do not necessarily add much (or any) value beyond what the far cheaper survey did. At best, the brain scans were icing on the explanatory cake. Further, this study only examined cases of direct revenge, or second-party involvement; not the reactions of bystanders to the fair or unfair behavior. Nevertheless, the results hint at something interesting: the amount of empathy that people (at least men) feel towards the suffering of a perpetrator (i.e. how much they care about the consequences of the punishment to the perpetrator) might be indicative of how morally wrong they view the behavior as being, at least to some extent. One requires certain assumptions to make that leap, but it doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

The picture is not nearly that simple, however. It is at this point that the discoordination problem that DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) raised again rears its head. It is unlikely to be adaptive for condemners to completely – or partially – inhibit their empathic responses towards the perpetrator in all moral cases. While the inhibition might be adaptive in terms of avoiding the condemnation of other condemners (i.e. not being labeled a rape apologist and subsequently socially shunned), it also carries costs, chief among which is that the perpetrator often has social supporters as well. If a condemner has completely inhibited such empathic systems, they’re likely to seek greater punishments of the perpetrators which, by extension, are also punishments leveled against the perpetrator’s social allies. To put the matter more plainly, if my friend goes to jail, I’m out a friend and worse off for it. This can lead to retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s allies: case in point, it was not long after the verdict was handed down that the rape victim received two threats from other girls who seemed to be socially aligned with one or more of the perpetrators.

This puts third parties in an unpleasant situation: no matter who they side with, they’re likely to face some condemnation, either for condemning one party too much or not condemning that party enough. Similarly, if the third party happens to be socially connected with either the perpetrator or the victim, any harms that befall that party are, by proxy, harms that befall the third parties themselves. Thus, inhibiting an empathy reaction towards a perpetrator might entail the related need to inhibit empathy towards the perpetrator’s social allies, at least to some degree. Such a need could potentially expand the costs associated with the conflicts surrounding moral condemnation and punishment, as the number of people to be punished has grown beyond the initial disputants. The fact that the coordination problem is actually a series of many different problems makes the matter of third-party coordination all the trickier to solve. In fact, it would seem that in many cases, perhaps even most cases, it is not at all clear that people actually do manage to consistently solve the coordination problem.

The whole mess makes dueling seem like a more reasonable alternative.

The previous analysis puts the matter as to why ostensible third parties become involved in moral disputes into a new light. Getting involved in these disputes is clearly a potentially costly endeavor, so why would an uninvolved party bother getting involved in the first place? What are the benefits to joining in the disputes of others that offset these very real costs? Part of that answer would seem to be that these third parties, as previously mentioned, are indirectly personally affected by their outcomes: my friend being condemned or harmed is bad for me to the extent that the condemnation or harm prevents them from delivering me benefits they previous did or potentially might.  Further still, if a friend of a friend has been affected in some way it is still potentially detrimental to me. The extent of that detriment would, of course, decrease as social distance between the parties increased; my best friend’s friend is more valuable to me than my acquaintance’s friend. A final possibility is that my not siding with one side could be taken as implicit support for the opposing side, making me the target of moral condemnation by assoication. The result of that perception of implicit support being that it can be similarly costly to me to not become involved. In other words, saying that one doesn’t care at all about the perpetrators or the victim in the Steubenville case is unlikely to earn you many friends, but it will likely still earn you plenty of condemnation.

References: DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139 (2), 477-96 PMID: 22747563

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271

50 Shades Of Grey (When It Comes To Defining Rape)

For those of you who haven’t have been following such things lately, Daniel Tosh recently catalyzed an internet firestorm of offense.The story goes something like this: at one of his shows, he was making some jokes or comments about rape. One woman in the audience was upset by whatever Daniel said and yelled out that rape jokes are never funny. In response to the heckler, Tosh either (a) made a comment about how the heckler was probably raped herself, or (b) suggested it would be funny were the heckler to get raped, depending upon which story you favor. The ensuing outrage seems to have culminated in a petition to have Daniel Tosh fired from Comedy Central, which many people ironically suggested has nothing at all to do with censorship.

This whole issue has proved quite interesting to me for several reasons. First, it highlights some of the problems I recently discussed concerning third party coordination: namely that publicly observable signals aren’t much use to people who aren’t at least eye witnesses. We need to rely on what other people tell us, and that can be problematic in the face of conflicting stories. It also demonstrated the issues third parties face when it comes to inferring things like harm and intentions: the comments about the incident ranged from a heckler getting what they deserved through to the comment being construed as a rape threat. Words like “rape-apologist” then got thrown around a lot towards Tosh and his supporters.

Just like how whoever made this is probably an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer

While reading perhaps the most widely-circulated article about the affair, I happened to come across another perceptual claim that I’d like to talk about today:

According to the CDC, one in four female college students report that they’ve been sexually assaulted (and when you consider how many rapes go unreported, because of the way we shame victims and trivialize rape, the actual number is almost certainly much higher).

Twenty-five percent would appear alarmingly high; perhaps too high, especially when placed in the context of a verbal mud-slinging. A slightly involved example should demonstrate why this claim shouldn’t be taken at face value: in 2008, the United States population was roughly 300 million (rounding down). To make things simple, let’s assume (a) half the population is made up of women, (b) the average woman finishing college is around 22 and (c) any woman’s chances of being raped are equal, set at 25%. Now, in 2008, there were roughly 15 million women in the 18-24 age group; they are our first sample. If the 25% number was accurate, you’d expect that, among women ages 18-24, 3.75 million of them should have been raped at some point throughout their lives, or roughly 170,000 rape victims per year in that cohort (assuming rape rates are constant from birth to 24). In other words, each year, roughly 1.13% of the women who hadn’t previously been raped would be raped (and no one else would be).

Let’s compare that 1% number to the number of  reported rapes in the entire US in 2008: thirty rapes per hundred-thousand people, or 0.03%. Even after doubling that number (assuming all reported rapes come from women, and women are half the population, so the reported number is out of fifty-thousand, not a hundred-thousand) we only make it to 0.06%. In order to make it to 1.13% you would have to posit that for each reported rape there were about 19 unreported ones. For those who are following along with the math, that would mean that roughly 95% of rapes would never have been reported. While 95% unreported might seem like a plausible rate to some it’s a bit difficult to verify.

Rape, of course, doesn’t have a cut-off point for age, so let’s expand our sample to include women ages 25-44. Using the same assumptions of a 1% growth rate in rape victims per year rate, that would now mean that by age 44 almost half of all women would have experienced an instance of rape. We’re venturing farther into the realm of claims losing face value. Combining those two figures would also imply that a woman between 18 and 44 is getting raped in the US roughly every 30 seconds. So what gives: are things really that bad, are the assumptions wrong, is my math off, or is something else amiss?

Since I can’t really make heads or tails of any of this, I’m going with my math.

Some of the assumptions are, in fact, not likely to be accurate (such as a consistent rate of victimization across age groups), but there’s more to it than that. Another part of the issue stems from defining the term “rape” in the first place. As Koss (1993) notes, the way she defined rape in her own research – the research that came upon that 25% figure – appeared to differ tremendously from the way her subjects did. The difference was so stark that roughly 75% of the participants that Koss had labeled as having experiencing rape did not, themselves, consider the experience to be rape. This is somewhat concerning for two big reasons: first, the perceived rate of rape might be a low-ball estimate (we’ll call this the ignorance hypothesis), or the rate of rape might be being inflated rather dramatically by definitional issues (we’ll call this the arrogance hypothesis).

Depending on your point of view – what you perceive to be, or label as, rape – either one of these hypotheses could be true. What is not true is the notion that one in four college-aged women report that they’ve been sexually assaulted; they might report they’ve had unwanted sex, or have been coerced into having sex, but not that they were assaulted. As it turns out, that’s quite a valuable distinction to make.

Hamby and Koss (2003) expanded on this issue, using focus groups to help understand this discrepancy. Whereas one in four women might describe their first act of intercourse as something they went along with but was unwanted, only one in twenty-five report that it was forced (in, ironically, a forced-choice survey). Similarly, while one in four women might report that they gave into having sex due to verbal or psychological pressure, only one in ten report that they engaged in sexual intercourse because of the use or threat of physical force. It would seem that there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding words like coercion, force, voluntary, or unwanted when it comes to asking about sexual matters: was the mere fear of force, absent any explicit uses or threats enough to count? If the woman didn’t want to have sex, but said yes to try and maintain a relationship, did that count as coercion? The focus groups had many questions, and I feel that means many researchers might be measuring a number of factors they hadn’t intended on, lumping all of them together under the umbrella of sexual assault.

The focus groups, unsurprisingly, made distinctions between wanting sex and voluntarily having sex; they also noted that it might often be difficult for people to distinguish between internal and external pressures to have sex. These are, frankly, good distinctions to make. I might not want to go into work, but that I show up there anyway doesn’t mean I was being made to work involuntarily. I might also not have any internal motivation to work, per se, but rather be motivated to make money; that I can only make money if I work doesn’t mean most people would agree that the person I work for is effectively forcing me to work.

No one makes me wear it; I just do because I think it’s got swag

When we include sex that was acquiesced to, but unwanted, in these figures – rather than what the women themselves consider rape – then you’ll no doubt find more rape. Which is fine, as far as definitional issues go; it just requires the people reporting these numbers to be specific as to what they’re reporting about. As concepts like wanting, forcing, and coercing are measured in degree rather than kind, one could, in principle, define rape in a seemingly endless number of ways.This puts the burden on researchers to be as specific as possible when formulating these questions and drawing their conclusions, as it can be difficult to accurately infer what subjects were thinking about when they were answering the questions.

References: Hamby, S.L., & Koss, M.P. (2003). Shades of gray: A qualitative study of terms used in the measurement of sexual victimization. Psychology of Women Quarterly DOI: 10.1111/1471-6402.00104

Koss. M.P. (1993). Detecting the scope of rape: A review of prevalence research methods. Journal of Interpersonal Violence DOI: 10.1177/088626093008002004

Rushing To Get Your Results Out There? Try A Men’s Magazine.

I have something of an issue with the rush some researchers feel to publicize their findings before the research is available to be read. While I completely understand the desire for self-aggrandizement and to do science-via-headlines, it puts me in a bind. While I would enjoy picking apart a study in more depth, I’m unable to adequately assess the quality of work at the time when everyone feels the urge to basically copy and paste the snippet of the study into their column and talk about how the results offend or delight them.

Today I’m going to go out on a limb and attempt to critique a study I haven’t read. My sole sources of information will be the abstract and the media coverage. It’s been getting a lot of press from people who also haven’t read it – and probably never will, even after it becomes available – so I think it’s about time there’s a critical evaluation of the issue which is: are men’s magazines normalizing and legitimizing hostile sexism?

“50 new ways for men to help keep women down? You have my undivided attention, magazine”

So let’s start off with what has been said about the study: a numbers of quotes from “lad’s mags” (the English versions of Maxim, as far as I can tell) and convicted rapists were collected; forty men and women were not able to reliably group them into their respective categories. When the quotes were presented as coming from rapists, men tended to identify with them less, relative to when they were presented as coming from a men’s magazine. The conclusion, apparently, is that these magazines are normalizing and legitimizing sexism. Just toss in some moralizing about protecting children and you have yourself a top-shelf popular psychology article.

The first big question the limited information does not address is: how and why were these specific quotes selected? (Examples of the quotes can be found here.) I’m going to go out on another limb that seems fairly stable and say the selection process was not random; a good deal of personal judgment probably went into selecting these quotes for one reason or another. If the selection process was not random, it casts into doubt whether these quotes are representative of the views of the magazine/rapists on the whole regarding women and sex.

Their research staff, hard at work.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter as to the views on the whole; simply that the magazines contained any passages that might have been confused for something a rapist might say is enough to make the point for some people. There is another issue looming, however: though no information is given, the quotes look to be edited to some degree; potentially, a very large one. Ellipses are present in 12 of the 16 quotes, with an average of one-and-a-half per quote. At the very least, even if the editing wasn’t used selectively, none of the quotes are in context.

Now, I have no idea how much editing took place, nor what contexts they were originally in, (perhaps all contexts were horrific) but that’s kind of the point. There’s no way to assess the methods used in selecting their sample of magazine and rapists quotes and presenting them until the actual paper comes out - assuming the paper explains why these particular quotes were selected and how they were edited, of course -  at which point it will be old news that no one will care about anymore.

How about the results? That men were quicker to identify with quotes they thought weren’t those of rapists doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than men seem to have some crazy aversion towards wanting to identify with rapists. I honestly can’t imagine why that might be the case.

Go ahead and tell her you sometimes agree with things rapists say. There’s no way that could go badly.

Assuming that the results of the quote-labeling part of this study are taken at face-value, what would they tell us? If they merely serve to demonstrate that people aren’t good at attributing some quotes about sex to rapists or non-rapists, fine; perhaps rapists don’t use language that immediately distinguishes them from non-rapists, or people just aren’t that good at telling the two apart. The content of a quote does not change contingent on the speaker, much like the essence of a person doesn’t live on through objects they touched. That sweater you bought at that Nazi’s garage sale is not a Nazi-sweater, just a boring old sweater-sweater.

It seems that the authors want to go beyond that conclusion towards one that says something about the effects these magazines may have on ‘normalizing’ or ‘legitimizing’ a behavior, or language, or sexism, or something. I feel about as inclined to discuss that idea as the authors felt to attempt and demonstrate it, which is to say not at all from what I’ve seen so far.

I will, however, say this: I’m sure that if you gave me the same sources used for this study – the men’s magazines and the book of rapist interviews – and allowed me to pick out my own set of quotes, I could find very different results where people can easily distinguish between quotes from rapists and men’s magazines. That would then conclusively demonstrate these magazines are not normalizing or legitimizing sexism, right?

Some People Watch Too Much Law And Order

Having watched a good deal of  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I get the sense that some viewers take away the message that just about every case of rape involves a stranger violently raping a woman, though this accounts for only a minority of rapes in the real world (Palmer, 1988). This may reflect the fact that women are themselves more fearful of being raped by a stranger than an acquaintance, as well as take more precautionary behaviors to guard against the former (Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1997). It is something of a mantra in our culture that rape is not about sex, but about violence – which is wrong, for the record (Palmer, 1988) – that probably also has a heavy contribution to the depictions of rape on shows like SVU. What makes these shows annoying – in addition to that heavily biased depiction of what rape is like – is that they normally also include some smug psychologist that apparently never progressed much beyond an introduction to psychology course – not unlike the writers, I’m sure – that gets called in to help out.

“Your killer was raping those women because of some deep-seated hatred towards his mother. Degree, please”

One person who may (metaphorically or actually) have watched too much Law & Order is Amanda Marcotte. She’s one of those “mad at evolutionary psychology without understanding what the hell she’s talking about” kind of people, and it’s my pleasure today to point out why she’s wrong at some length.

Since Marcotte doesn’t want to appear anti-science, she initially tries to co-opt the authority of two people only the “daringly stupid” would accuse of being anti-science: P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne. First, let me note that starting off with an explicit appeal to authority isn’t the best course of action for any debate. That said, I certainly wouldn’t accuse them of being anti-science, because that’s a daringly stupid label. People are not opposed to science in general; in fact, most people seem to love the idea of science. What people don’t seem like is when scientists reach an unpalatable conclusion.

Beginning with the first point, Marcotte expresses skepticism about the results of a study that showed women generated a stronger grip strength in response to reading a rape scenario relative to a control story, but only when they were in the ovulatory phase of their cycle and not taking hormonal birth control (Petralia & Gallup, 2002):

“Which is how I’m going to approach contesting this article by Jesse Bering at Slate about the supposed evidence that women evolved to fight back against rape … if they’re ovulating…Some of them failed to present the evidence that Bering suggests they have–the handgrip study was one where some researchers found no variation over a menstrual cycle.”

Let’s be clear: the hypothesis is not that women only evolved to fight back against rape if they’re ovulating; the claim is that women may have been selected to be better able to fight back if they’re ovulating, given the increased probability of conception and the resulting fitness costs. Fighting itself is generally not a costless act, and the conditions under which people are likely to fight should be expected to vary contingent on the potential costs and benefits. Women who do fight back are in fact more likely to stop a rape from being completed, but they also seem more likely to suffer physical injury (Ullman & Knight, 1993).

By “some researchers found no variation”, it’s not entirely clear what Marcotte is referring to (or rather, what Myers – whom she is parroting – is referring to), since she doesn’t reference anything. I assume she’s mentioning studies that found no variation across the menstrual cycle referenced by Petralia and Gallup that also didn’t involve any rape scenario story – the very thing that was hypothesized to be causing the effect. Comparing a study completely lacking an experimental manipulation to one with an experimental manipulation as evidence compromising the effect of the manipulation seems like a strange thing to do, probably because it’s a stupid thing to do.

“Who’s got time for actual replications? That sounds like work, and work isn’t fun. This should be close enough.”

Her next point is that one referenced in the very beginning: that rape is a violent crime, not a sexual one, even going so far as to say, “Rape, in this case, is just a certain kind of wife-beating.  It’s best understood as throwing a punch with your penis.” To quote Palmer quoting Hagen, “If violence is what the rapist is after, he’s not very good at it.” When it comes to the use of force in rape, the vast majority of times it’s used instrumentally – not excessively – if physical force is even involved at all. In this view, violence is the means to the end (sex), not the other way around. An example might clear this up a bit:

“The act of prostitution includes both a person giving money to another person and a sexual act. Does this mean that a man who goes to a female prostitute is motivated by a desire to give money to a woman?” (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000, p. 132)

I heard it’s not technically illegal if your motivation was to give her money and the sex was just instrumental

Marcotte’s final point would appear to be a stubborn misunderstanding of the difference between proximate and ultimate causation, as evidenced here:

“There’s also the weird side assumption that features prominently in many half-baked evolutionary theories, which is that sex is strictly about reproduction in a species that has homosexuality, contraception, and old people who get it on…that rapists get off not on the chance to plant their seed (some, after all, use condoms!)…”

I’m pretty sure there’s not a whole lot more to say about that, other than to point out it really does reinforce how little Marcotte knows about what she’s attempting to criticize. At this point in the field’s development, the only reason someone should make such a misguided mistake is near complete ignorance.

The only way this criticism could get any worse would be if Marcotte was foolish enough to imply evolutionary psychologists invoke genetic determinism and are attempting to give rapists a pass morally:

 ”…Bering’s article downplays the severity of rape. It suggests that there’s not much to be done about rape and that men are just programmed to do it… ”

Nailed it!

One would think, given her initial concerns about not wanting to come off as anti-science, Marcotte would have included more actual science in her post, but there really isn’t any to be found. There’s skepticism, ignorance, assertions, and moral outrage, but very little science. Perhaps it’s worth quoting Palmer and Thornhill (2003), quoting Coyne on the matter, since Coyne is an authority to Marcotte:

“It is true that in recent decades, the discussion of rape has been dominated by such notions [as rape is not about sex, but about violence and power], though one must remember that they originated not as scientific propositions, but as political slogans deemed necessary to reverse popular misconceptions about rape”

Would you look at that; Coyne seems to think Marcotte is wrong about the “not sex” thing too.

References: Hickman, S.E. & Muehlenhard, C.L. (1997). College women’s fears and precautionary behaviors relating to acquaintance rape and stranger rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 527-547

Palmer, C.T. (1988). Twelve reasons why rape is not sexually motivated: A skeptical examination. The Journal of Sex Research, 25, 512-530

Palmer, C.T. & Thornhill, R. (2003) Straw men and fairy tales: Evaluating reactions to A Natural History of Rape. The Journal of Sex Research, 40, 249-255

Petralia, S.M. & Gallup Jr., G.G. (2002). Effects of a sexual assault scenario on handgrip strength across the menstrual cycle. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 3-10

Thornhill, R. & Palmer, C.T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ullman, S.E. & Knight, R.A. (1993). The efficacy of women’s resistance strategies in rape situations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 23-38.