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kbog comments on An Exploration of Sexual Violence Reduction for Effective Altruism Potential - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Marcus_N 14 November 2017 08:02:28AM *  2 points [-]

The case in this article draws heavily on the field of sexual violence research, but methodological problems in this field and premature thinking on the part of the author make this piece suffer from several problems: it skips over important methodological questions, misleads the audience about the rates of sexual violence, and advises hasty and socially punitive solutions.

It sounds like most of the audience hasn’t read the article closely and they are greatly underestimating the problems with it. As someone familiar with a lot of the literature referenced, my perception is that this article is recapitulating the standard feminist model of sexual assault, and attempting to insert this bottom line into an EA impact framework. My comment here is going to be a detailed multi-part rebuttal.

Sexual assault research is not valid

To understand what’s wrong with the validity) of the sexual assault research field, we will first examine the biasing incentives, and then we will break down the methodology of these studies in more detail.

Social science has a reputation for being a soft science, and sexual assault research is the softest corner of a softest field. Most of the researchers involved identify as political activists, feminists, or victim advocates. That’s not the most neutral approach. They get funding from government bodies with agendas, and their findings are used for political reasons: to expand the power of the federal government over universities, cause media outrage, create kangaroo courts, and to provide campaign-fodder for politicians. Sexual assault researchers have been caught committing outright fabrications and academic misconduct, which nonetheless become the basis for policy. Feminist researchers who produce high prevalence numbers will get lucrative consulting gigs or awards.

There is a strong incentive for sexual assault research to produce figures like “X% of women have been assaulted,” or “Y% of men admit to being rapists.” This article itself relies on these sorts of claims to present sexual assault as a common problem, and sexual assault prevention as a high-impact cause.

The original post cites figures like "36.3% of women and 17.1%” have been sexually assaulted. Elsewhere you, may see figures like “1 in 4” or “1 in 5” women have been raped. The article also cites a figure that 6% of men admit to committing rape.

Are these figures really credible, though? Of course not. Let’s take a look at these studies with our skeptic hats on.

You might be forgiven for thinking that 36.3% of women label themselves as sexually assaulted, or that 6% of men admit to committing rape. This is absolutely not how these surveys work. If people are asked such questions directly, there is a very low rate of agreement. For instance, in crime surveys, few women define themselves as a victim of the crime or rape or sexual assault.

Feminist researchers and activists had a bottom line: they believed that the true rate of rape was much higher, and that women were underreporting their victimization. So they started searching for a methodology to “prove” what they already believed, such as a Mary Koss’ “Sexual Experiences Survey”, which asks people if they were in certain situations, and then categorizes some of these situations as rape or sexual assault (based on conformance to a legal definition, or to the researchers’ own definition). This methodology generates much higher prevalence rates, which is why subsequent feminist researchers started using similar approaches. Very few people have pushed back against this approach, such as Christina Hoff Sommers. My argument here will be a more detailed version of hers.

So far we have reasons to distrust the field due to being greatly politicized or biased, but next we need to look at their actual methodology and see whether it is also biased. We can find the questions in the 2010 NIVS, Appendix C. I will excerpt some of them:

When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever…

  • had vaginal sex with you? By vaginal sex, we mean that {if female: a man or boy put his penis in your vagina}
  • {if male: a woman or girl made you put your penis in her vagina}? {if male}
  • made you perform anal sex, meaning that they made you put your penis into their anus?
  • made you receive anal sex, meaning they put their penis into your anus?
  • made you perform oral sex, meaning that they put their penis in your mouth or made you penetrate their vagina or anus with your mouth?
  • made you receive oral sex, meaning that they put their mouth on your {if male: penis} {if female: vagina} or anus?

Feminist sexual assault researchers count a “yes” on this question as evidence of sexual assault. But there are some obvious problems:

It’s ambiguous whether “unable to consent” modifies the whole list of situations, or just passed out. I think society generally agrees that sex with someone “passed out and unable to consent” is rape. But that question can be read in a way that someone could answer “yes” if they have had sex while drunk or high. But society does not agree with feminists that drunk or high sex is necessarily rape. In fact, it’s common for people to get drunk or high together as part of consensual sex.

Next question:

How many people have ever used physical force or threats to physically harm you to make you…

  • have vaginal sex?
  • {if male} perform anal sex?
  • receive anal sex?
  • make you perform oral sex?
  • make you receive oral sex?
  • put their fingers or an object in your {if female: vagina or} anus?

Surely an assent on this one is clearly sexual assault, right? Not so fast. Remember, we are reading this with our skeptic hats on, and our chivalrous hats off (and definitely with our feminist hats off). To people who are not bourgeois feminists, it’s likely that this is actually a loaded and convoluted question, which is not perfectly correlated with rape.

  • Physical force? It may shock feminist academics, but many consensual sexual relationships have some level of light physical forcefulness, which is sometimes referred to as “rough sex” or “passion.” Feminists themselves sometimes admit that sex is not always people gently caressing each other, on the condition that people engage in complex verbal rituals for consent if they want to get wilder. This is known as “BDSM” among people with high verbal IQ. However, much of the population doesn’t agree with feminists that rougher sex requires tedious verbal negotiations, and they negotiate it nonverbally. Sometimes this results in rape, but it is incorrect to equate physical force with rape by definition, because it’s part of the fabric of common sexual patterns. (As an extreme example, try to define consent in a mutually violent relationship, like portrayed here.

  • Similar problems with the wording of “make you.” Maybe it means rape, but it’s not analytically equivalent to “rape.” There is no guarantee that respondents understand it to mean rape. If the researchers were asking about rape, why not ask explicitly?

What is the false positive rate on these questions? 1%? 10%? 50%? Who knows, but it’s definitely not 0%. And that poses a problem for these prevalence figures, and any activists who are hawking them. They are being dishonest by not acknowledging this.

The same logic and methodological problems apply to the claim that 6% of men are admitted rapists. No, they aren’t. 6% of men answer convoluted questions on surveys that cause feminist researchers to categorize them as rapists. That’s not the same thing as being rapists.

Sexual assault prevalence rates are highly sensitive to methodology and operationalization. There may be no way to find the “true” rate of rape or sexual assault, because the answer to those questions is “it depends on how you ask the questions.” The way that feminists ask the questions is very convoluted and idiosyncratic, and an assent on a sexual violence survey has low external validity and does not generalize well to real-world situations.

If your female friend comes to you in real life and says that she was raped, then you have a large amount of information from her body language, and you can hear her story. This is a totally different level of evidence from someone checking a box on a survey and the researchers categorizing that response as rape.

Feminist researchers could have sidestepped a lot of these questions by using a less broad and more defensible definition of rape. For instance, they could ask “have you been raped,” or “have you ever raped someone.” There would be a lot less debate about what responses to those questions mean. However, this approach would have generated much lower prevalence numbers, and meant that the researchers got scooped by other feminist researchers using a broader definition. There is a general statistical problem that the larger the magnitude of your results, the less probable they are.

After looking at these studies with a critical eye, do EAs really want to bet that the approach here is optimal?

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 15 November 2017 01:22:23AM *  5 points [-]

If people are asked such questions directly, there is a very low rate of agreement.

Did you even read the study? The men were asked directly, and 6% of them admitted to committing rape. I don't see what your complaints about feminist literature even has to do with it. Lisak and Miller are both psychologists. Violence and Victims is a broad journal with no specific dedication to feminist ideas. You're just using "feminism" as a term for research on gender issues which doesn't conform to your opinions.

It may shock feminist academics, but many consensual sexual relationships have some level of light physical forcefulness, which is sometimes referred to as “rough sex” or “passion.” Feminists themselves sometimes admit that sex is not always people gently caressing each other, on the condition that people engage in complex verbal rituals for consent if they want to get wilder. This is known as “BDSM” among people with high verbal IQ. However, much of the population doesn’t agree with feminists that rougher sex requires tedious verbal negotiations, and they negotiate it nonverbally

What the hell? BDSM is not the same thing as rough sex, and yes, you must discuss it verbally beforehand; not doing that is startlingly bad practice. And "rough sex" does not entail being physically forced to have sex.

6% of men answer convoluted questions on surveys that cause feminist researchers to categorize them as rapists.

Could you do us a favor and tell us which of the questioned behaviors does not count as rape?

Specifically, do you believe that having sex with someone by "using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc) if they did not cooperate" is not rape?

Or do you believe that having "sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated to resist your sexual advances" is not rape?

The way that feminists ask the questions is very convoluted and idiosyncratic

What is convoluted and idiosyncratic about asking someone "have you ever had sex with someone when they didn't want to?"

Comment author: Marcus_N 15 November 2017 07:12:45AM *  0 points [-]

Methodologies like Lisak’s—where respondents check a box on a multi-clause question—leave room for doubt over whether the respondent read the question carefully and understands the terms in the same way that the researchers do. Any of the terms that you believe are diagnostic of rape, such as "force", "didn't want to", etc... might be interpreted differently from how you would interpret them. You might think that the additional clauses would help clarify the matter, but actually the longer the question is, the higher the chances that the respondent will misinterpret it or focus on only one part of it.

Remember, most of the people answering these surveys are not feminist programmers or BDSM-practicing logicians. Words mean different things to different people.

The other way to get a false positive would be if someone agreed with one of those questions, but lacked the element of intention of mens rea. Rape refers to a crime involving mens rea. Feminists often discuss rape as an experience of violation by a victim, but this is a redefinition and case of the non-central fallacy. The high stigma of rape is calibrated towards cases where the perpetrator knows what he is doing. Cases of reckless or negligent sexual conduct—even if they cause an experience of violation—should be placed in a morally separate category from intentional or purposeful violations.

These issues are going to lead to a certain rate of false positives for Lisak's methodology, or Mary Koss' "Sexual Experiences Survey", or another methodology based on them. What is that rate of false positives? 1%? 10%? 50%? Who knows. But there is always going to be a cloud of doubt hanging over these methodologies.

Why might men answer positively on Lisak's study, if a rape had not occurred? I feel like you are trying to lay a trap with these questions rather than having open-minded curiosity. I don’t know why someone might check those boxes as a false positive. Maybe someday someone will do a study and ask them what happened. I don’t pretend to know what goes on in other people’s bedrooms. But what I do know is that sexual practices are highly varied based on culture, class, and ethnicity. I think we should be careful to avoid generalization from our own consent practices and interpretation of terms about consent that other people may not share.

I have it on good authority that sometimes neurotypical humans lightly spank each without getting consent first. In the wild, feral homo sapiens sometimes bite each other, scratch each other, or pull each others’ hair without verbally clearing it with each other. Is this nonconsensual BDSM behavior a “bad practice,” and must they change their ways? Is it sexual assault?

The problem with bourgeois-feminist sensibilities around sex is that they portray people with different norms as constantly assaulting and violating each other, when these people naively think they are fine. This variation in sexual practice and communication styles—such as some populations having a higher baseline level of verbal indirectness, mutual physical forcefulness, or token resistance—makes it harder to design a one-size-fits-all survey to demarcate rape.

What would be a better methodology for measuring rape perpetration? There are 3 methodologies that I would consider plausible:

  1. A criminal conviction.
  2. An explicit admission that uses the word "rape."
  3. A qualitative interview, where followup questions can clarify what happened, and establish intention and mens rea.

These methodologies would establish the lower bound of rape perpetration, and I don’t think anyone could debate them, because they don’t have interpretive gaps. I think that this is better than trying to establish the upper bound in a questionable way. Unfortunately, the ecosystem of activists, bureaucrats, journalists, and politicians, need the high stats for political reasons. It might be worth thinking about how to approach sexual assault prevention without using prevalence statistics.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 15 November 2017 09:26:06AM 5 points [-]

Methodologies like Lisak’s—where respondents check a box on a multi-clause question

But that wasn't Lisak's methodology. That was the methodology used by other researchers in other studies.

leave room for doubt over whether the respondent read the question carefully and understands the terms in the same way that the researchers do. Any of the terms that you believe are diagnostic of rape, such as "force", "didn't want to", etc... might be interpreted differently from how you would interpret them.

I don't see how. Those are pretty straightforward terms.

The other way to get a false positive would be if someone agreed with one of those questions, but lacked the element of intention of mens rea. Rape refers to a crime involving mens rea

No, rape is defined by the BJS as "Forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion and physical force. Forced sexual intercourse means vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by the offender(s). This category also includes incidents where the penetration is from a foreign object, such as a bottle. Includes attempted rape, male and female victims, and both heterosexual and same sex rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape." I have no clue where you got this idea that mens rea is involved.

Feminists often discuss rape as an experience of violation by a victim, but this is a redefinition and case of the non-central fallacy

No it's not, because the badness of rape doesn't derive from mens rea. Don't wield fallacies like weapons if you don't understand them.

The high stigma of rape is calibrated towards cases where the perpetrator knows what he is doing

I don't see any reason to believe this.

Cases of reckless or negligent sexual conduct—even if they cause an experience of violation—should be placed in a morally separate category from intentional or purposeful violations

Again, I don't see any reason to believe this.

These issues are going to lead to a certain rate of false positives for Lisak's methodology, or Mary Koss' "Sexual Experiences Survey", or another methodology based on them. What is that rate of false positives? 1%? 10%? 50%? Who knows

And presumably an equal rate of false negatives, unless you can give some specific reason to the contrary (which you haven't).

I don’t know why someone might check those boxes as a false positive.

Then it sounds like you don't know what you are talking about.

Maybe someday someone will do a study and ask them what happened.

That's exactly what Lisak did.

But what I do know is that sexual practices are highly varied based on culture, class, and ethnicity. I think we should be careful to avoid generalization from our own consent practices and interpretation of terms about consent that other people may not share.

There aren't any cultures or classes or ethnicities which interpret "force" or "didn't want to" in some unique way that makes forcing someone who doesn't want to have sex to have sex something other than rape.

I have it on good authority that sometimes neurotypical humans lightly spank each without getting consent first

That's not BDSM. It sounds like you don't know anything about BDSM. It's also not forcing someone to have sex.

The problem with bourgeois-feminist sensibilities around sex is that they portray people with different norms as constantly assaulting and violating each other, when these people naively think they are fine. This variation in sexual practice and communication styles—such as some populations having a higher baseline level of verbal indirectness, mutual physical forcefulness, or token resistance—makes it harder to design a one-size-fits-all survey to demarcate rape.

Seems pretty easy to me. You take the standard definition of rape, and ask people if they do it.

A criminal conviction

But lots of rapists aren't convicted.

An explicit admission that uses the word "rape."

But there are lots of people, such as yourself with your strange invocation of mens rea, who use nonsensical definitions of rape to make it seem like a narrower concept than it actually is.

A qualitative interview, where followup questions can clarify what happened, and establish intention

Well that's what Lisak did.

and mens rea.

Which is nonsense, as I have pointed out.

Comment author: Marcus_N 16 November 2017 02:21:18AM *  -1 points [-]

Your response comes off as very defensive and lacking in substance, so I don't have much to say other than reiterating my previous views.

Intent is a critical part of moral and legal philosophy, and rape is a general intent crime. The stigma for rape comes from a time when rape was considered to be an unambiguous or obviously intentional violation, such as a stranger jumping out of the bushes. It is both inaccurate and socially harmful to apply this stigma to a wider range of situations that may involve lack of intent or male-female communication problems.

I think the statistical approach to rape is barking up the wrong tree. Lisak's work, whether quantitative or qualitative is especially untrustworthy, and sheds doubt on the entire field. Using a more conservative, and less-debatable criteria for rape is essential, because the more aggressive definitions have large externalities in terms of distrust between men and women, policies that destroy civil liberties, and tear apart institutions and communities with finger-pointing.

People can interpret terms like "want to" differently. Here is a study by feminists discussing a category of "consensual unwanted sex."

As for other people's sexual psychology and consent practices, our perspectives seem very different, so there is little point in discussing it further.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 17 November 2017 04:19:58AM 1 point [-]

Your response comes off as very defensive and lacking in substance

Is that because I gave a point by point rebuttal to each of your ideas?

Intent is a critical part of moral and legal philosophy

Actually, in consequentialism intent is irrelevant.

The stigma for rape comes from a time when rape was considered to be an unambiguous or obviously intentional violation, such as a stranger jumping out of the bushes. It is both inaccurate and socially harmful to apply this stigma to a wider range of situations

That doesn't follow. The stigma for rape also comes from a time when the world population was less than 5 billion, but that doesn't mean that rapes that happened when the world population was more than 5 billion aren't equally bad.

I think the statistical approach to rape is barking up the wrong tree

Why?

Lisak's work, whether quantitative or qualitative is especially untrustworthy,

Why? That article doesn't do much to indicate that he is untrustworthy. Right-wing blogs on the Internet are not very trustworthy either, so I'm not sure why I should take anything at face value here.

and sheds doubt on the entire field.

What field? You do realize that "feminism" is not an academic field, right?

Using a more conservative, and less-debatable criteria for rape is essential

What is debatable or controversial about the statements in the surveys used in Lisak's study? Can you name a kind of sexual assault which would count as rape in that study, but which we shouldn't care much about?

because the more aggressive definitions have large externalities in terms of distrust between men and women

Pretty sure that there's just as much distrust whether rape is accidental or not.

People can interpret terms like "want to" differently

And in none of those ways is it okay to have sex with someone who doesn't want to.

Here is a study by feminists

What makes you say they are feminists?

discussing a category of "consensual unwanted sex."

And also discussing a category of "nonconsensual wanted sex," indicating that Lisak's figures may well be underestimates.

Comment author: DavidMoss 17 November 2017 05:29:47PM 2 points [-]

Actually, in consequentialism intent is irrelevant.

It might be relevant to the evaluation of the rightness of acts (in a certain sense), but it's not irrelevant (for consequentialists) to what type of act an act is or the evaluation of the actor. (We have other moral concepts aside from the rightness of acts) Consequentialists don't claim that open heart surgery is a murderous stabbing if it happens to be unsuccessful.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 20 November 2017 06:58:46AM *  0 points [-]

Consequentialism doesn't care about "what type of act an act is" because it views the rightness of acts purely in terms of their consequences, not in terms of what type of act an act is, or what kind of actor an actor is. Imagine if you said, "Utility is irrelevant for Kantian ethics", and then I said "no, it is relevant, because even though Kantians don't make decisions on the basis of utility, the amount of utility caused by a decision affects the Kantian's belief about the amount of utility caused by an action." So what? It's still irrelevant.

Comment author: DavidMoss 21 November 2017 01:30:27AM *  1 point [-]

Consequentialism doesn't care about "what type of act an act is" because it views the rightness of acts purely in terms of their consequences

This is definitely false, because consequentialists can and do analyse and evaluate acts in terms other than their rightness. I made this clear in my first sentence, whereas in your reply you are sliding from "consequentialism doesn't care..." to consequentialism "views the rightness of acts."

The claim MarcusN is making above is about what does and what does not count as rape. Consequentialists can say anything they like about their criterion for the _rightness of acts and it does not tell us anything about what type of act an act is. Put simply: irrespective of whether intent is relevant to the rightness of an act, consequentialists (the same as anyone) can still say that intent is relevant to whether an act is rape, just as they can say that consent is irrelevant to the rightness of an act, but relevant to whether it counts as rape.

Edit: For example, whether someone is intentionally killed may be irrelevant (to the consequentialist) to whether the act is wrong, but it's not irrelevant to whether it counts as murder.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 21 November 2017 06:06:06AM *  0 points [-]

This is definitely false, because consequentialists can and do analyse and evaluate acts in terms other than their rightness. I made this clear in my first sentence

If you mean it is normatively relevant to consequentialists what type of act an act is or what kind of actor is doing it, you are incorrect. Consequentialists are only normatively concerned with consequences, hence the name.

The claim MarcusN is making above is about what does and what does not count as rape. Consequentialists can say anything they like about their criterion for the _rightness of acts and it does not tell us anything about what type of act an act is. Put simply: irrespective of whether intent is relevant to the rightness of an act, consequentialists (the same as anyone) can still say that intent is relevant to whether an act is rape

But whether an act is rape or not is irrelevant to the consequentialist, because the consequentialist cares about the consequences of an act, not whether or not it counts as rape. I literally just addressed this in my prior comment and you are repeating yourself. Imagine if you said, "Utility is irrelevant for Kantian ethics", and then I said "no, it is relevant, because even though Kantians don't make decisions on the basis of utility, the amount of utility caused by a decision affects the Kantian's belief about whether actions are utility-maximizing or not." Yes, in a basic and trivial sense the Kantian's beliefs depend on the question, but in a normative sense it's totally irrelevant and a silly thing to bring up.

Never mind the fact that it is blatantly false that the definition of rape involves intent; Marcus gave no definition or support for this claim, even though I gave a substantive source to the contrary.