Monday, September 01, 2008

Rational and irrational hysteria about rape: some data   posted by agnostic @ 9/01/2008 10:05:00 PM

Aside from grunge music, what made the late '80s and early '90s culture so gay was a Third Wave of feminist panic, this time without a threat on the ground to respond to. A full employment plan for professional feminists thus required cooking up a boogeyman, and because they prey mostly on impressionable undergrad and grad students, they found it useful to invent the threat of "campus rape" and "date rape." There was a real rape problem in the general population leading up to 1992, though, so Third Wavers were simply parasitizing the popularity of a campaign aimed at helping real rape victims. Let's have a look at whether the various rape hysterias, measured by coverage in the NYT, responded to a real or manufactured threat.

To begin with the facts on the real threat, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the US Department of Justice, has data available on forcible rape from 1960 to 2006...

Here is a graph:

There is a fairly steady increase from 1964 to 1992, and a pretty steady decrease from then to 2006. To measure the national hysteria, we will count how many articles appeared in the opinion-leading NYT in a given year that contain some relevant phrase, which tells us how "in the air" the idea is. [1] Here is the graph for "rape crisis," almost always in the context of rape crisis centers, their organizers, and so on:

Overall it looks like it's tracking something real, namely the forcible rape rate: the phrase first appears soon after rape crisis centers were founded in the early '70s, and the graph steadily rises until 1993 and steadily falls afterward. A separate question is whether the level of panic in a given year is "appropriate" to the threat -- is there too much or too little coverage? That's a value judgment, or perhaps a tough empirical matter, so I won't explore that. What is clear is that the trend in coverage of rape crisis centers tracks the trend in forcible rape rate pretty well, so these articles are reporting on something real.

Rape crisis centers were not confined to colleges -- they were part of community outreach programs, so it makes sense that they would have been more in touch with reality. What happens if we look just at the hysteria about rape on college campuses? Heather Mac Donald wrote a good overview of the subject, called "The Campus Rape Myth". Here is the graph for "campus rape," "rape on campus," or the plural forms of these two phrases, which supports her use of the term "myth":

The graph is very different from before: there is almost no coverage until the late '80s, there is an abrupt spike lasting through the early '90s, and a sudden return to a lower level. The increase-then-decrease pattern is correct, and the peak is roughly where it should be, but the rest of the shape is all wrong. There should be a steady increase up to and away from the peak, not a sudden spike.

What the "campus rape" meme resembles is a bit of gossip that flares up and burns out quickly. The rise and fall of real rape happens on the time scale of decades, while the rise and fall of the "campus rape" myth unfolds on the scale of years. That's what we expect from a gossip model, since gossip spreads very quickly -- by word-of-mouth -- while the social forces that cause the rape rate to change cannot produce such fast changes, judging by how "slowly" social change in related areas proceeds (such as the rates for homicide, illegitimacy, divorce, etc., which also rise and fall on the order of decades). The fact that the two peaks are very close suggests that this myth "piggy-backed" on the popularity of a real threat; otherwise it wouldn't have been taken seriously. [2]

Lastly, let's look at the popularity of the more nebulous concept called "date rape." Here's a graph for articles containing "date rape," "date rapes," or "date raped":

As with "campus rape," the coverage is mostly divorced from reality: there is almost no coverage until the late '80s, an abrupt spike, a sudden downturn, and a steady but still high level afterward. So, unlike "campus rape," the "date rape" myth remains popular. Now, "date rape" is a great myth because it is too vague to easily measure, and therefore difficult to show it's not a grave threat. We know that this coverage cannot reflect forcible rape in general, since that has been declining since 1992, not stabilizing after 1995. One useful definition of "date rape" is rape by an acquaintance, as opposed to those dark-alley events. Here is a relevant fact from a journal article on the decline in many forms of abuse against minors since the early 1990s (another story you haven't heard anything about in the gossip-driven media):

Sexual assaults of teenagers have dropped, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). From 1993 through 2004, overall sexual assaults decreased 67% (Figure 2). The subgroup of sexual assaults by known persons was down even more.

Granted this is for victims aged 12 to 17, but the pattern among 18 to 24 year-olds must surely mirror this. Women far north of this are less likely to be raped at all, and in any event they are not the ones who the media portray as victims of date rape -- it's usually a naive college freshman, as in that dopey movie Higher Learning (a wonderful reflection of the zeitgeist). So, as with "campus rape," most of what you hear about "date rape" is folk mythology.

To close, how did the rape panics affect the average person? It likely gave well-to-do women an exaggerated view of the dangers of male sexuality, and likely left their male counterparts' heads spinning, with lasting effects. Let's take 1991 to be the peak year of these hysterias, and include the two years on either side, when the irrational ones were in their spike phase. Then let's consider people who were 15 to 24 years old -- those still forming their identities, growing into adulthood, figuring out how the social world works, who are open to new views, etc.

This creates a cohort born from roughly 1965 to 1978 that would most strongly bear the imprint of this hysteria, and especially those born around 1971 -- basically, Generation X, with Roissy's and Udolpho's cohorts being near ground zero, Half Sigma being one of the elder members, and Thursday being a younger member. Because the hysteria was so abrupt, there is a strong contrast right outside of this cohort -- for example, Steve Sailer and Alias Clio are not very far outside, but the tone of voice they use when talking about the battle of the sexes is very different, regardless of who turns out to be more accurate in a particular case. The same holds for most Baby Boomers.

The young people I'm friends with or have tutored, who were still in diapers in 1991, don't seem to bear the imprint of the hysteria -- you had to be a struggling adolescent or young adult at the time for it to really fuck with your mind. Children were too blissfully ignorant, while full adults' outlook on the world had already comfortably congealed, more or less. It is no accident that this cohort produced the pickup artists like Mystery -- the women in this group are more psycho than in other cohorts, and the men still have a bad taste in their mouths from being on the receiving end of a national witch hunt. (Full disclosure: I was born in 1980.)

Why didn't the nutty Second Wave of feminism leave a similar imprint on those born before 1965? All of that Andrea Dworkin stuff couldn't have been easy to stomach. I think because, as exaggerated as the Second Wave ideology was, there was a real and steady increase in violence against women at the time, not to mention the parallel increase in homicide, drug use, race riots, and all other kinds of sick shit. You may not have agreed with their assessment of how bad things were, or what caused them, but you could still tell that things seemed to be getting worse -- at least they weren't making everything up.

However, the '90s reversed just about every awful social trend of the previous 30-odd years. Surrounded by evidence of things not being so bad, you could only react with total bewilderment when a group of average women -- not just the bulldog lesbians -- got in your face about how awful men are for date raping their friends and turning college campuses into rape zones, so that women needed to Take Back the Night. The appropriate response to this is, of course, "Are you all fucking crazy?" But that would have only strengthened the witch-hunters' suspicion that you were a closet-rapist. It's a hardening experience to be told that you and the other guys in the room are potential rapists of the girl sitting the next row over.

Tomorrow I'll look at a closely related myth, though this time one that is still increasing in popularity, and I'll propose a model for it and estimate parameters.

[1] I eliminated any "duplicate" results, such as a "summary of the Metro section" that only mentions that there's an article on rape inside (I only counted the real article), or in some cases if what should have been a single long article was salami sliced into 6 or so short pieces -- for example, if a single day's feature on "campus rape" had 6 vignettes focusing on 6 campuses, I counted only one of them. Overall these were rare, though. The 2008 data-points are up through September 1, but I included them just to get a hint of where things are now.

[2] In terms of differential equation modeling, the growth rate of the parasitic response would be an increasing function of the current level of the real threat, and perhaps of the rational response too.

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