In which I abuse some poor defenseless numbers.

October 11, 2009, 7:47 am

I’ve hesitated to post on this for a couple of days now, largely because I am in agreement with the conclusion: men, don’t hit on strange women in public, it’s obnoxious as hell.  But I find the reasoning to be pernicious, and since I’ve been thinking about it for three days…

The piece follows on the heels of this boneheaded xkcd comic, in which hero Stick Man decides not to talk to a strange woman on the train because he doesn’t want to come off as creepy, and it turns out she was trying to attract him by pulling out her netbook!  True love lost!  The takeaway, I imagine, is that nice guys lose, because they no longer read the universal symbol of desire that is the eeePC.

So, the piece.   It’s called Schrödinger’s Rapist.  Nice men should not approach women on trains because women think like this:

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?

I don’t.

This is presented as a rational calculation, so I think I can say that it’s going to be completely irrelevant to point out that I don’t actually worry about rapists on public transit or when I walk home late at night. (Statistically, living near a campus, I probably reduce my risk of rape by walking away at night, and the thing I fear is getting mugged.  More on this in a bit.)  If the number’s one out of sixty guys who are rapists, I should be worried.  I’d be irrational not to.  Right?

Let’s take the number as given, and play with it.

1. Imagine that you had a child, and your child had the misfortune to be born with a rare but severe genetic disorder.   Really rare, actually; only 0.4% of the population suffers from this disorder.  You, being an enterprising sort, decide that you’re going to raise money for this disorder.  You’ll pick a color, and a slogan, and your ads will feature a concerned-voice announcer gravely intoning one of the following options:

  1. 99.6% of Americans will never suffer from this disorder.
  2. 0.4% of Americans will suffer from this disorder.
  3. 1.2 million Americans will suffer from this disorder.
  4. 1 out of 250 babies will be born with this disease.

Which sounds the most scary, assuming the humanities major hasn’t bobbled the math?  The first one’s out; it focuses on the healthy people.  The second one makes it sound like it’s no one’s problem at all.  The third and fourth are scary. My sense is that the fourth is the most scary, because 250 is a number we can encounter — it’s the size of an undergraduate lecture hall or a graduating class — and it makes us think about people we know,  and one of them having the disease.

(I’m sure the sociologists and cognitive scientists have a name for this phenomenon.  Googling, “you know, that thingy, like in advertising?” isn’t helping me, though.)

Let’s apply the lesson.  One out of sixty men is a rapist!   1.7% of men are rapists.  98.3% are not.    How should I understand this?

Let’s play war or car!  (Everyone loves a good game of war or car.) If you’re sitting on that train, and that train is in America, it is statistically more likely that guy voted for Nader (2.7% sez Wiki.)

Wait, you say.  Nader voters aren’t very scary, nor is encountering one going to be a major life changing event. We are right not to fear the Nader voter.

Okay.  It’s more likely, if you’re on the pill, that you will get pregnant (8% with typical use!) than that guy will turn out to be a rapist.  (“One in twelve women will become pregnant while on the pill”, the abstinence-only video announcer intones. “Gee!” says the youth group, “the pill isn’t reliable.”)

My point here is that we should really be careful about using the 1 out of 60 number as the justification for a social norm of not harassing strange women in public.  If that really were the reason men shouldn’t hassle women on the subway, we’d have to conclude that women are by and large being irrational, and if we were to give that advice to young men of good intentions (the piece’s target), they’d have to conclude that xkcd probably has a better read on what’s probable.

Onto why I think this is pernicious, rather than just a misguided mental exercise.

2. Let’s play with the 1 in 6 number.  This is the chance that a woman will be the victim of sexual assault in her life.  I’ve heard this number as 1 in 4 or 1 in 8 or 1 in 9.  It’s generally calculated by taking the FBI statistics for sexual assault and then, since rape is generally agreed to be underreported (60%  is what I’ve heard), the figure is adjusted upward, to give women a more accurate sense of their risk.  It varies based on the year, on what sets of stats someone is using, etc.

But most of these rapes are not stranger rapes.  The overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim; probably someone she thought was safe.

Here’s why this is relevant.

This advice really seems to assume that avoiding rape is something women should try to do by ascertaining the risk of a guy; the advice here is to the guy, but the guy is being told to imagine himself in the place of the woman and to follow her train of thought to figure out what he should do.  That’s why you shouldn’t approach women on the subway, the advice says — she has to figure out whether you’re a rapist first. If she’d think you’re safe, then approach her.

But most rape is committed by guys who are already thought to be safe, not by strangers. You know, like that nice guy, at church, your mom knows his mom.  Or that cute boy in your chemistry class.  Or that guy you met through your friend.  Or your dad’s hunting buddy.  Or the guy you married.  All guys who didn’t walk up to you on the train.

It would be bad if the takeaway from this were “young women should fear to walk home alone at night because one out of sixty men might turn out to be a rapist, but they should not fear as much in social situations, like frat parties, where everyone is of their age and social class and seems to be safe.”  I don’t think it’s the intended takeaway, but that’s the frame.  Don’t approach until she has determined you are safe, because she has to do this to protect herself from rape.

I don’t want the rationale for being left alone on the train to depend on heightening the threat of stranger rape and minimizing acquaintance rape.

3. So what should we tell the nice guy?  I think women should have the presumption of their personal space on public transit because they’re human beings, not just because they fear rape.  So, with that in mind:

Imagine you’re a genuinely nice guy, kind, loyal, and a little bit shy.  You have a hard time meeting people, and your workplace is dull.  One day, you see a man on the train.  He is young, handsome, and dressed in the cornflower blue shirt, black suit, and dark peacoat that is the uniform of the newly minted professional guy, so he’d probably be a good business contact and he’d fit in well with the rest of your friends.  On his finger is a ring from your alma mater, so you know you have something in common.  His face is genial and he’s kind, always giving up his seat to old ladies.  This morning he’s listening to his iPod and typing on a small laptop and completely ignoring you and everyone else.

Are you inclined to interrupt him and ask him to be your friend?  Are you going to think that you’re justified because you really, really need a friend?   Are you going to put your hand on his arm to get his attention?  Are you going to heap abuse on him later over beer, thinking that it’s no wonder he doesn’t have any friends and he’ll probably die friendless and alone because  you could have been his perfect friend, his soulmate, and now he’ll never know?

No?  Then why do you think it’s acceptable behavior towards a woman?
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