Media criticism / Rape

Smut, rape, and premature conclusions

Steve Chapman, writing for The Chicago Tribune, doesn’t endorse the theory that easy access to Internet pornography explains the decline in sexual crimes reported by the FBI in their annual Uniform Crime Report: rape is down 72% since 1993, and other sexual assaults have dropped by 68%. He even paints the theory — proposed by Clemson University economist Todd Kendall — in dubious terms, as the “most surprising and controversial account” of this downswing. What then is the point of drawing our attention to a remarkable phenomenon in need of explanation, and then offering up an explanation put forth by a credible expert? Come on, Chapman, don’t be coy. If you agree, say so, and your only misstep will be leaping prematurely to a conclusion that is wholly not supported by the data. At least you won’t be accused of being disingenuous.

Klemson presented “Pornography, Rape, and the Internet”in October 2006 at Stanford, in front of students enrolled in a Law and Economics Seminar. Since his research was presented as a working paper, it did not purport to demonstrate clear causation between web porn and the incidence of rape. Indeed, Klemson is quite cautious in his conclusion:

The associated decline in rape illustrated in the analysis here is consistent witha theory, such as that in Posner (1994), in which pornography is a complement for masturbation or consensual sex, which are themselves substitutes for rape, making pornography a net substitute for rape.

Given the limitations of the data, policy prescriptions based on these results must be made with extreme care. Nevertheless, the results suggest that, in contrast to previous theories to the contrary, liberalization of pornography access may lead to declines in sexual victimization of women. [bold mine]

So an economist throws an analysis at some data, observes what may be something worth investigating, and cautiously reports that he’s looking into it. When journalists do their job, they are condensing and repacking news about this sort of scientific development; when they fail to pay attention, they are distorting and exaggerating the claims of scientists in order to nudge public perceptions.

People are properly interested in learning what science has to say about the origins of sexual assault. The media is going to continue misrepresenting scientific research for the sake of the sales that come with sensationalism. So please be skeptical of what you read; the gravity of rape demands more than sensational, unreflective explanation.

When this paper was making the rounds last fall, it caught the notice of more than one blog. At Freakonomics, Steven Levitt is skeptical of the conclusions being attributed to Kendall, his former student, explaining that “the concern is always, with this kind of approach, that there are other factors that might be driving both the adoption of the Internet and the decline in rape.” At 2x3x7, blogger Falstaff proffers a thoughtful analysis of the maths, and wonders whether if it “isn’t it more likely that what we’re seeing is just multicollinearity unrealistically inflating the regression estimates?” Translation: it looks like correlation rather than causation.

But the economist jury is still out. Rape, like any other (anti-) social phenomenon, is the product of multiple causes interacting in manifold ways. That the moral aspect of the crime is as simple as they come does not mean we should settle for simplistic explanations of the causes behind it. Simplistic answers, attractive though they may be to pundits eager to thicken their opinions with a little research,  beget ineffective policies and inaccurate perceptions.

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