Wednesday, March 02, 2011

On Bad Critiques of Rape Prevelance Studies (Part II)

Earlier, I flagged an article at Harry's Place regarding what the author, Michael Ezra, claimed were bad studies about the prevalence of rape. I didn't focus on Eve Ensler's contributions (though AAB discusses that some here), but on the older Mary Koss study finding that 1 in 3 women surveyed had been victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

In yesterday's post, I critiqued part of Ezra's argument that Koss' study did not accurately track the true definition of rape. My argument was that (a) the author was positing a single, unified (generally legal) definition of rape that does not exist, (b) that many of the specific alleged shortcomings identified by Ezra themselves do not track any modern definition of rape (e.g., that, in a case where a woman is too intoxicated to consent, the man must have been the person to ply her with alcohol or drugs and done so for the purpose of inhibiting her ability to consent), and (c) that even to the extent that Koss' definition doesn't track all legal variants, it's perfectly permissible for her to advocate her own definition of what rape is and measure accordingly.

In today's post, I want to turn to a very different argument Ezra made: the claim that many of the women surveyed whose experiences were coded as "rape" do not, themselves, characterize what happened to them that way. Again, quoting Gilbert, Ezra writes:
When asked directly, 73 percent of the students whom Koss categorized as victims of rape did not think that they had been raped. This discrepancy is underscored by the subsequent behavior of a high proportion of identified victims, forty-two percent of whom had sex again with the man who supposedly raped them. Of those categorized as victims of attempted rape, 35 percent later had sex with their purported offender.

There is obviously something to the notion that we should respect how women characterize their own experience, and should be appropriately skittish about labeling something rape when the alleged victim rejects that terminology. I recognize that, and thus consider this a more substantial critique than the claim of dissonance between Koss' definition and the (mythically-united) legal one.

Nonetheless, there are important limits to this proposition. For starters, to the extent we have some "easy cases" of when something is rape (i.e., ones in which there is considerable overlapping consensus that the event in question is rape), I think we are fair to give the act that label even if the victim herself wouldn't. Imagine the following spousal rape hypothetical, where the victim describes what happened in the following manner:
I was in bed with my husband, about to fall asleep, when he climbed on top of me and tried to enter me. I told him I didn't want to have sex and tried to push him off, but he ignored me and kept thrusting.

But when asked whether her husband raped her, the woman responds:
Oh, no. I wish he hadn't done it -- I wish he had listened when I told him no, and I hate when he forces himself on me -- but ultimately, we're married, and it's his prerogative to have sex with me at his discretion.

This is a pretty clear-cut spousal rape case. And assuming we do have a consensus that the marital rape exemption is bogus, I think we're right to label the act rape irrespective of the victim's self-description.

But obviously, many cases are hardly that clear-cut, and the problem is less a (mistaken) definition of what rape "is", and more about how people interpret ambiguous facts about (for example) what constitutes consent.

In discussions of rape, I think as a society we still have yet to fully emerge from Matthew Hale's famous claim that "rape is an accusation easily to be made, hard to be proved, and harder yet to be defended by the party accused, tho' never so innocent." I am exceptionally dubious that this was ever true, much less true now. The instinct seems related to a larger claim about the supposed ease of claiming victimhood. When something bad happens to you, the easiest thing to do is blame someone else, rather than own up to personal responsibility. In the public discourse about rape, this is operationalized as the belief that women who have sexual experiences that they consented to do but later regret retroactively label those experiences "rape". The assumption, following from Hale, is that (compared to the difficulty of admitting one simply made a bad decision), "rape is an accusation easily to be made". It's a cheap out for avoiding personal responsibility.

The idea that crying victim is common resonates with us because I think everybody knows somebody who we feel behaves this way: always blaming the world for his ails, never looking to himself. But what we forget is that we don't like those people. If the supposed benefits of crying victim is gaining public sympathy and avoiding stigma as the sort of person who makes stupid decisions, it tends to fail utterly. And I think that, if we're honest with ourselves, we'd admit that our distaste for this sort of behavior is strong enough that even in factually ambiguous situations, we're loathe to have much sympathy for the complainer. Bad things happen to everyone, but we take our lumps, and we focus on the things we could have done to avoid the harm so it doesn't happen again, rather than passively bemoan the cruel world which besot us with such travails.

In short, for most people and in most cases I think the conventional wisdom has it precisely backwards. There are massive harms associated with claiming to be a victim (both in terms of internal self-evaluation and interpersonal treatment); the path of least resistance is "lumping it", of characterizing the event as an unfortunate happenstance, perhaps, but certainly not rape. There's a good analogy to discrimination claims, which labor under a similar presumption of frivolous victim-claiming. There, too, the research seems to indicate that frivolous complaints are less of a problem than a systematic hesitation -- on the part of both potential victims and fact-finders -- to label anything discrimination. The net result is that we underestimate the degree to which people with legitimate complaints choose not to view them that way, and consequently overestimate the degree to which the claims that are made are just sour grapes:
[A]ccording to one study, two-thirds of white women and members of minorities who report they have experienced discrimination on the job refrain from complaining to any third party, including legal officials, despite their rights under the laws against discrimination. Kristin Bumiller’s study of discrimination victims who do not sue concludes that they perceive the high costs of complaining and the real benefits [of] ‘lumping it,’ or absorbing the injury without complaint. Her interviews show that complaining through the civil rights laws means accepting the role of victim, which is itself demeaning and also ‘transforms the conflict into an internal contest to reconcile a positive self-image with the image of oneself as a powerless and defeated victim.’ In addition, complaining forces the individual into a visible role and, paradoxically, demands the differential treatment of public attention and dispute because of allegations of differential treatment. A new label, ‘troublemaker,’ also carries negative consequences for the individual. And besides risking a painful reconstruction of the discrimination event before an agency or court, the potential complainant may fear that the process will be unavailing. Other people may fail to confirm the story, or the legal system will prove unresponsive; meanwhile, the individual loses control over the incident and the process. There are special costs involved in hoping and then losing, costs that may even be more painful than never hoping at all.

Besides avoiding the negative consequences of complaining, people may discover direct benefits from enduring discrimination without complaint. Members of minority groups, especially minority women, come to expect discrimination as inevitable and may find an opportunity to exercise strength and pride in surviving without confrontation. The very act of submission may be an expression of autonomy and dignity precisely because it is a chosen response. Similarly, in her study of a religious Baptist town in Georgia, anthropologist Carol Greenhouse found women who tended to internalize conflicts within their families, coming to terms with such conflicts by refining their own roles and by focusing on their spiritual identities. Although this solution may work for some, it suggests complex reasons why people refrain from using the avenues of relief that law makes available. Most important, individual decisions to swallow injury fail to alter sources of hurt or discrimination, leaving those who cause harm undisturbed." (Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law (Cornell UP: 1991), 92-93)

There is a significant analogue in rape cases, which incorporate many similar concerns. As in discrimination cases, the prevailing narrative about rape accusations being "easily made" means that many woman undoubtedly have internalized the belief that the only sort of person who makes a rape claim (at least, outside certain exceptionally outrageous fact patterns) is the slut who can't own up to the consequences of her own choices. Consciously refusing to define the event as rape enables one to reestablish agency over the situation, maintaining control of the future process as well as preserving a self-image as a person in control of their own destiny.

There are other reasons why potential rape victims have a strong incentive not to view the relevant act as rape but rather, attributable to their own choices. In prior work on the subject, I've made reference to the Just World theory, a cognitive bias by which persons systematically try to interpret events so as to confirm a belief that the world is fair and just. One prominent manifestation of this bias is that, when presented with injustice that an observer is unable to prevent, the observer is far more likely to blame the victim. For example, researchers ran an experiment where a "learner" was given harsh electric shocks for giving wrong answers to academic questions. The research subjects both observed this happening, but one group was made simply to watch, while the other was given the option to end the shocks at any time. The latter set nearly invariably elected to do so and then described the shocking as immoral. The former group (which was unable to stop the shocks) was far more likely to consider the victim to be to blame for her maltreatment.

Why does this phenomenom exist, and what relevance does it have to rape? One of the reasons we believe in a just world is because we want to believe that if we behave correctly, good things will happen to us (or at the very least, bad things won't). Hence, when something bad does happen, it makes sense for us to (if at all possible) interpret it as our own fault. Why? Because if it stems from something we did wrong, then it's something we can fix (from a rationalist perspective, it makes good sense for us to overestimate how much our own actions influence our destiny). The alternative, that it doesn't matter, that you can do everything right and still be raped, is too scary to contemplate. So we shut out that interpretation, and replace it with one in which I did something bad. And if I'm to blame, then I wasn't raped, for rape is something that occurs to the blameless.

I've read many accounts by women who have, belatedly, determined that they were subject to rape but -- in the confused aftermath -- had slept with their rapist again. It is very consistent with this claim of cognitive rationalization by which the event is sanitized in their own mind, restoring their own sense of control and agency. It's part of the process of normalization, of reassuring oneself that nothing bad happened, nothing out of the ordinary happened, that there's no reason not to have sex with this person again. By choosing to have sex with the man the second time, one retroactively affirms that one chose it the first time, and by doing that, one extracts oneself from the status of passive, helpless victim, and back into the realm of a controlled, active agent.

So to sum up, there are many reasons why we should expect women who have been subjected to acts legitimately termed "rape" to not label their experience that way. First, there may simply be disagreement over what counts as rape, as in the case of people who believe that marriage creates irrevocable blanket consent to sex, and we can thus simply claim that some conclusions are wrong no matter who is promulgating them. Second, identifying oneself as a rape victim clashes with important aspects of most people's self-identity -- in the popular lexicon, it forces them to admit that they are vulnerable and that they weren't in control, and then forces them to exacerbate that lack of control by placing their experience into the public eye and open themselves to judgment. Third, people are well aware of the fact that most people don't like those who complain about anything, and thus have a strong incentive to not come off as a whiner, even when they have a very real and legitimate grievance. Fourth, reinterpreting the events in question as being one's own fault is cognitively more soothing than the alternative -- a brutal, capricious world where bad things happen to good people and you can be a perfectly good citizen and still be raped.

For those reasons, I think there is ample room for divergence between our measurement of how prevalent rape is, and how individual victims characterize their own experience.


Francis said...

-- Please note that Koss herself later admitted that the study was flawed. ("At the time I viewed the question as legal; I now concede that it's ambiguous.")

-- I couldn't help but smile at this line: "I think there is ample room for divergence between our measurement of how prevalent rape is." As many people besides me can attest, in women's studies courses or in sociology courses taught by feminists, the Koss figure is an established fact, a statistic that one cites to establish one's moral probity, not a problematic study that can be questioned in good faith.

-- The irony is that it cuts against another feminist saw that rape is about power rather than sex. To make sense of an eye-popping figure like 1 in 4, the vast majority of rapes would likely have to be "date rapes" (loosely defined). And to square the reality of date rape with the Power Doctrine, one has to maintain that, once consent is revoked, the rapist instantly shifts his goal from having sex to exercising power over a woman in a penetrative but mysteriously non-sexual way.

-- One of the lamentable things about discussions of rape in academia is the coral reef of sanctity that has grown around the feminist interpretations. (1 in 4, power not sex, "rape culture," etc.) It leads to complacency and obtuseness among the left and encourages an intemperate and seemingly callous style of critique on the right.

David Schraub said...

1) I think that just goes to the point in the other post that "rape" is conceptually and legally ambiguous -- that there is no question (even if we attempting to hook ourselves to, say, Ohio law) that could unambiguously sort cases definitively into rape or not-rape. It's not just that there are borderline cases, it's that the border is very fuzzy.

2) That hasn't been my experience. I took one Feminist Theory course in college (I'm enrolled for another one at the Law School this Spring), and I don't recall the issue coming up either way. The most sustained discussion of "what is rape" came in a Philosophy of Law class I took at Carleton discussing State v. Rusk (taught by a female prof), and, as I noted, the outcome of that discussion was not exactly stock feminist doctrine (though I think it tracks very well with the points made in this post).

3) I think this is a caricature of the feminist position (not the least in the sense that it presents it as a singular), and a poor one at that -- I don't think the sex/power claim is supposed to divorce sex from power but to link them, and to the extent that there are separated, it's a reconstructive effort (we shouldn't even view much of what we call sex as sex, because we should conceptualize sex as something better than that).

Francis said...

Regarding (3), I am not caricaturing at all.

The president of the CA chapter of NOW: "The truth, of course, is that rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power, control, and violence."

Jill, writing at Feministe on 11/29/10: "It's standard knowledge on a feminist blog that rape isn’t about sex; it's about power, entitlement and violence. It's about keeping women in their place, and keeping women as a class fearful. It's at least a step forward that large media outlets are catching on, and aren't characterizing rapists as simply sex-crazed maniacs."

A 2001 op-ed in Boston Globe: "Rape is not about sex; it is about violence and the use of sex to exert power and control...Domestic violence and sexual assault are manifestations of the same powerful social forces: sexism and the glorification of violence."

A 1993 United Nations report: "The primary objective [of rape] is to exercise power and control over another person."

The ur-text might be Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book Against Our Will: "[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which *all* men keep *all* women in a state of fear."

I could aggregate examples like these endlessly.

Every statement is false. They draw a distinction between sex and power, rather than noting their union in the act of rape.

This goes back to the critique of patriarchy and, more broadly, a quasi-Marxian, quasi-Rousseauian belief that male sexual *nature* cannot be blamed (at all) for the occurrence of rape, but rather that rapists are socialized to behave that way. (Again, the false dichotomy is the gender feminists', not mine.) If social institutions were corrected, rape would virtually disappear. This latter view is sometimes buttressed by tendentious readings of anthropological studies, attempting to demonstrate the existence of rape-free societies. (See Sanday 1981).

Another way to look at this: it's an ironic consequence of the naturalistic fallacy. As Steven Pinker summarizes, "Since the 1960s most educated people have come to believe that sex should be thought of as natural, not shameful or dirty. Sex is good because sex is natural and natural things are good. But rape is bad; therefore, rape is not about sex. The motive to rape must come from social institutions, not from anything found in human nature."

For what it's worth, Pinker later adds: "I believe that the rape-is-not-about-sex doctrine will go down in history as an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. It is preposterous on the face of it, does not deserve its sanctity, is contradicted by the mass of evidence, and is getting in the way of the only relevant goal surrounding rape, the effort to stamp it out."

Francis said...

What's astonishing about this post is that the blogger's citation contradicts the power-not-sex doctrine, but she robotically proceeds to enunciate it anyway.

chingona said...

And to square the reality of date rape with the Power Doctrine, one has to maintain that, once consent is revoked, the rapist instantly shifts his goal from having sex to exercising power over a woman in a penetrative but mysteriously non-sexual way.

This misstates how I have always understood the distinction between power/sex.

It's not about sex in the sense that people do not rape because they are driven wild with desire by the victim/target, which was a traditional understanding of rape ... the "he just couldn't help himself" rape.

I would be a card-carrying feminist if they gave out cards, but I do think there is a certain type of date rapist for whom rape is about sex, in that what he mostly cares about is getting his dick wet, and if that happens with enthusiastic consent, that's great, and if it doesn't, that's fine too. It's about sex, but he views sex as winning the game, not about mutual pleasure.

There also is, however, the type of guy that has to keep pushing and pushing until he finds the thing you don't want to do, and then he'll pressure you to do just that. That's about power. Sexualized power, but power nonetheless, and that type is also in the date rape category.

I agree there is a certain rhetorical weakness there. I saw it come up recently in a big of a blog storm over the term "birth rape." Activists have taken to using this term to describe abuse of obstetrical power in birth - things like cutting an episiotomy as the woman repeatedly says, "No, don't cut me." A lot of feminist bloggers came out against this term because ... this type of abuse didn't have sexual gratification as a motive.

Just to throw out one more example - women sometimes are raped with objects with the intent to inflict maximum injury and no obvious intent for sexual gratification by the rapist.

So while I agree it's not quite as simple as "It's about power," I don't think you can just say, "Oh, it's obviously about sex."

Anonymous said...

As an expert who took one feminist theory course, let me tell you where you're wrong.

N. Friedman said...

David write:

'I think that just goes to the point in the other post that "rape" is conceptually and legally ambiguous'

No. The issue is not whether rape is conceptually and legally ambiguous. The issue is a flawed study, which used questions able to attract false positives. And, there is the flaw that women may sometimes, perhaps often, take alcohol to lower inhibitions. So, we are dealing with poor concepts, not about rape but about determining when rape occurs.

For what it is worth, Francis has made very poignant and important claims.

I think the other point worth noting is that the feminist movement is at a cross-roads, where it can examine the world seriously or take its own ideas as gospel. From what I have seen, it is mostly worried about ideas, not what actually occurs.

Rcoutme said...

Perhaps a better argument would be that we don't have enough words in our lexicon? If the rape is a demonstrably violent act intended (in effect) to cause the woman harm that could be classified at a top level. If the woman was okay with the sex and then, just before the male climaxed, asked him to stop (and he did not--perhaps even felt that he could not) that might be more at the bottom of the rung.

It seems to me that having more clarification of the acts (and their brutality levels) would be far more useful at the moment than trying to incorporate all actions that are partially or wholly nonconsensual as the same thing. It is much more likely that our vocabulary has prevented women from recognizing some of the acts we call 'rape', rather than a deep psychological longing on the women's part to avoid feeling helpless.

azzura said...

Interesting article. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but I did like it.

My $0.02 on the feminist power/sex issue -- there's an awful lot of feminist schools of thought. Rape=power is a pretty major one, which I personally think came out of a desire to separate rape from the context of (consensual) violence in sex. Also, rape is a bit more complicated than sex, which, let's face it, is a complicated enough thing in itself.