Prosecute the torture.

May 7, 2015

An Interview With Christina Hoff Sommers

This week, I had the good fortune to interview, by phone, Christina Hoff Sommers (and yes, that's her AEI webpage).

If you were to ask why you should continue reading this blog post, considering the political slant of AEI and the political slant of this blog, all I could off you as a response would be this quote from Bertrand Russell:
A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own. When I was young, I lived much outside my own country in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. I found this very profitable in diminishing the intensity of insular prejudice. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours.
Hearing differing opinions can only lead you to having a "Yes, but..." moment or two in dealing with them - and possibly your own.

Remember, every intellectual statement is a "Yes, but..." statement.

Let's start with a couple of direct quotations from Professor Sommers:
  • Rape crimes are horrific and they do happen on campus.
  • A feminist is someone who wants for women what they want for everyone - fair treatment.
Keep those in mind as you continue reading.

So what's been happening with Professor Sommers these days?  In mid-April, she lectured at Georgetown and Oberlin on feminism and things did not go well.

An editorial from the The Hoya:
The Georgetown University College Republicans hosted Christina Hoff Sommers, an author and philosophy professor known for her criticism of contemporary feminism and her disavowal of a so-called “rape myth,” last week.

By giving Sommers a platform, GUCR has knowingly endorsed a harmful conversation on the serious topic of sexual assault.

Giving voice to someone who argues that statistics on sexual assault exaggerate the problem and condemns reputable studies for engaging in “statistical hijinks” serves only to trigger obstructive dialogue and impede the progress of the university’s commitment to providing increased resources to survivors.

It is necessary and valuable to promote the free expression of a plurality of views, but this back-and-forth about whether or not certain statistics are valid is not the conversation that students should be having.
From a letter written to the Oberlin Review prior to the lecture:
The Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians are bringing Christina Hoff Sommers to speak on Monday, April 20. This Monday happens to be a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which makes the timing of this talk particularly objectionable. Though OCRL advertised Christina Hoff Sommers as a feminist with a “perspective that differs from the general Oberlin population,” they failed to mention that she is a rape denialist. A rape denialist is someone who denies the prevalence of rape and denies known causes of it. Christina Hoff Sommers believes that rape occurs less often than statistics (those which actually leave out a plethora of unreported rapes) suggest.
And:
By denying rape culture, she’s creating exactly the cycle of victim/survivor blame, where victims are responsible for the violence that was forced upon them and the subsequent shame that occurs when survivors share their stories, whose existence she denies. This is how rape culture flourishes. By bringing her to a college campus laden with trauma and sexualized violence and full of victims/survivors, OCRL is choosing to reinforce this climate of denial/blame/shame that ultimately has real life consequences on the well-being of people who have experienced sexualized violence. We could spend all of our time and energy explaining all of the ways she’s harmful. But why should we?
By the way, each venue had a separate space set aside for those individuals who, upon hearing the lecture, needed some place to feel safe - though at Oberlin, it was Professor Sommers who was granted the police escort.

So which is it?  Is she some sort of anti-feminist who denies rape culture or not?

It all depends, of course, on your definitions.  Only if someone can show some disconnect between Sommers' definition of "feminist" and her own actions, that first part is clearly wrong.  The only way it could be wrong would be if there's another distinct definition of "feminist" out there.  But if that's the case then what is it and who decides which definition is more valid?  Or at the very least why it would be more valid than "A feminist is someone who wants for women what they want for everyone - fair treatment"?

As I see it, as there's no reason to disagree with Sommers' definition, the charge that she's an anti-feminist is clearly wrong.

As for "denying rape culture" the entire argument has to rest on the extent of rape on campus.  Note that no one is saying that there's no rape on campus - the disagreement here is to the extent of the problem.  Sommers does not deny that rape occurs or that it's anything other than "horrific." 

In describing the extent of the problem, she says one thing and her accusers say something different.  Who's closer to being right?  The Hoya editorialist is exactly wrong in writing that:
...this back-and-forth about whether or not certain statistics are valid is not the conversation that students should be having.
No. That's exactly the conversation students should be having.  Which statistics are more valid?  If public policy is to be guided by statistics, let it be guided by as clear a statistical picture of the problem as possible.  Just as no one would want to minimize as serious an issue as campus rape, no one should want to inflate it, either.

For her part Professor Sommers is on record about for instance the statistic that asserts that 1-in-5 college women will be sexually assaulted:
The one-in-five figure is based on the Campus Sexual Assault Study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and conducted from 2005 to 2007. Two prominent criminologists, Northeastern University’s James Alan Fox and Mount Holyoke College’s Richard Moran, have noted its weaknesses:

“The estimated 19% sexual assault rate among college women is based on a survey at two large four-year universities, which might not accurately reflect our nation’s colleges overall. In addition, the survey had a large non-response rate, with the clear possibility that those who had been victimized were more apt to have completed the questionnaire, resulting in an inflated prevalence figure.”

Fox and Moran also point out that the study used an overly broad definition of sexual assault. Respondents were counted as sexual assault victims if they had been subject to “attempted forced kissing” or engaged in intimate encounters while intoxicated.

Defenders of the one-in-five figure will reply that the finding has been replicated by other studies. But these studies suffer from some or all of the same flaws. Campus sexual assault is a serious problem and will not be solved by statistical hijinks.
On the other hand she's also pointed towards this document coming out of the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics and she's said:
The 1-in-5 claim is based on a 2007 internet survey with vaguely worded questions, a low response rate, and a non-representative sample. Other studies with similar findings have used the same faulty methods. But the real number, according to the BJS, is 1 in 53; too many, but a long way from one in five. Does that mean that sexual assault is not a problem on campus? Of course not. Too many college women are victimized, and too often they suffer in silence. But it is not an epidemic and it is not a culture. Exaggeration and hysteria shed no light and produce no solutions, and actually diminish the real problem
She gets her 1 in 53 number this way.  From Appendix 1 of the report, she's taken the estimated rates of rape and sexual assault (per thousand ) of college women aged 18-25 from 4 recent years:
  • 2010 (4.1)
  • 2011 (4.6)
  • 2012 (5.9)
  • 2013 (4.4)
And averaged them to 4.5 per thousand or 1 in every 210.5.  Then by applying that to 4 years (where it becomes 4 out of every 210.5) she comes up with 52.6 which she then rounds up to 53.

So there's a flawed limited study on the one hand and DOJ statistics on the other.  Which is more valid?   This is hardly a harmful conversation to have.  This is hardly rape denialism, either.

Nor is it anywhere near where this protest poster was pointing:


(Note: OCRL is the "Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians" - the organization that hosted Sommers at Oberlin.)

A university education is supposed to be a challenge.  It's supposed to include exposure to ideas you might not like.  It's supposed to be a little bit scary that way.

From what I could tell, Professor Sommers' protestors have a vastly different definition of what constitutes a university education.

4 comments:

EdHeath said...

Some further parsing could be done. Ms Sommers is objecting to the "sexual assault" study, saying that it overstates rape on campus. Well, am I wrong in saying that sexual assault by definition is not solely rape. That I don't see Ms Sommers explicitly acknowledge makes me question how accurate she is trying to be. That one in five women on a college campus over their four year career might be exposed to some form of harassment that they feel is worth reporting to a study really does not stretch the bounds of credibility. Of course, one can fairly argue that we lack appropriate measures to address such a broad (no pun intended) category of offenses, but that's not the question here.

I'll agree that Ms Sommers does go some distance towards taking a reasonable stance. But unitl she further qualifies her remarks, it is difficult to say that the is doing much more than trying to provoke a reaction from people.

Frances said...

“The estimated 19% sexual assault rate among college women is based on a survey at two large four-year universities, which might not accurately reflect our nation’s colleges overall. In addition, the survey had a large non-response rate, with the clear possibility that those who had been victimized were more apt to have completed the questionnaire, resulting in an inflated prevalence figure.”

It's also a clear possibility that those who have been victimized refrain from surveys, because recounting trauma can lead to retraumatization.

That's just one point I'll make.

If this blog post is the direction 2pjs is taking, I'll be moving along, sorry.

Maria Lupinacci said...

Rebuttal in the works.

Zeus0209 said...

My undergrad exposure to the scientific method left me one glaring certainty - of all the possible ways to come to conclusions, survey's were the absolute worst with respect to a "representative" sample. From limited sample size (who actually has exposure to said survey or more importantly, who doesn't - limiting the study to one campus over another campus) to complete exposure of said campus population to the survey itself (some people simply don't log on to the net) to willingness of population to actually participate (along the lines of Frances' suggestion of those who may refrain) to tainted sample (false reporting) and the list goes on and on. The human element too often throws a wrench in the works to determine hard conclusions.

All things considered, the safest bet on this one is to consider that where there's smoke there's fire. As far as the angle Ms Sommers preaches, well, I wonder if she believes there's no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to her own advancement.