Opinion: Fight Sexual Predators in the Military – But Not with Junk Data

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Sexual Predators in the Military In January of 1993, a group called FAIR, or Fairness and Accuracy in Media ran a Superbowl ad drawing attention to the problem of domestic violence. All well and good. But in statements the group released to the press at the same time, they also told reporters that women’s abuse shelters reported a 40 percent increase in requests for help on or immediate after Superbowl Sunday.

Meanwhile, Sheila Kuehl, speaking at that time for the National Women’s Law Center, also told reporters that there was a 40 percent increase in reports of violence against women after the Superbowl, as well as after Redskins victories, in her local area. She was actually citing an earlier academic study, “The Impact of Professional Football Games Upon Violent Assaults on Women,” G. F. White, J. Katz, and K. E. Scarborough, Violence and Victims, vol. 7, no. 2, 1992.

Kuehl and FAIR believed that the Superbowl contributed to an environment of hyper- or übermasculinity. The combination of having a bunch of men over for testosterone-fueled bonding, alcohol, time off work, and women all led to an increase in abuse. One group even sent out mailers warning women not to stay at home with their husbands or boyfriends for the game.

It was one of those stories the media loves that’s just too good to check. Good Morning America, the Orlando Sentinel Tribune, the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the Hartford Courant all ran with the story. The Times even called the game “The Abuse Bowl.” Boston Globe’s reporter cited FAIR as her source for the 40 percent increase story. But the story was garbage from the beginning. Walter Ringle, a reporter for the Washington Post, tried to track down the numbers. A close look at the statistics revealed that the claims were baseless. There was no statistically significant increase in reports of domestic abuse during or immediately after the game that could not be explained by a holiday and an increased number of people off work. FAIR and the Women’s Legal Network were either lying or hopelessly misunderstood the statistics.

Nevertheless, even though the story has long since been debunked – with in days of its first appearance, a lie can go round the world twice before the truth has a chance to put on its boots. Some reporters are still falling for the bogus story. 

Christina Hoff Summers tells the story in more detail in her book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women.

Similarly, Gloria Steinem once claimed that 150,000 to 200,000 women in America die of anorexia each year – a claim that is absurd on its face. The real number was about 100 in 1983, when she made the claim. But that didn’t stop Naomi Wolf from repeating the bogus stat in her own book, The Beauty Myth, nor Ann Flanders, nor a number of college textbooks and credulous media members. It’s not hard to find the stat unquestioningly cited today. But again, a number of media sources ran with it, because the story was too good to check. (After Sommers published Who Stole Feminism, FAIR pushed back against Sommers, who, in turn, responds to their criticisms here.)

Women’s advocacy organizations and their allies in politics and media have a long and rich history of leveraging dubious statistics, junk science and outright lies to advance their claims. “We’re not talking about a few errors, we’re not talking about occasional lapses; we’re talking about a body of egregiously false information at the heart of the domestic violence movement,” Hoff Sommers said of domestic violence statistics and claims in a 2011 speech. “False claims are pervasive. False claims are not the exception, they are the rule.”

The motivation, very often, is money. The more push-polling they can generate, and the more of a media frenzy they can create, the more funding they can generate for non-profit organizations that pay big salaries to women and reliable Democrat campaign donors.

So you’d think there’d be a little more circumspection on the part of policymakers and the media this time around.

No such luck.

It’s not an isolated instance of factual misstatement, says Hoff Somers. “We’re not talking about a few errors, we’re not talking about occasional lapses; we’re talking about a body of egregiously false information at the heart of the domestic violence movement. False claims are pervasive. False claims are not the exception, they are the rule.”

Fast-forward to today’s focus on sexual misconduct in the military. The media – us included – are happy to breathlessly repeat the military’s own data that say that 19,000 women in uniform last year were the victims of sexual assault. But if you look deeply into the data gathering mechanism, it’s not clear at all what the statistic measures. 

Last week, Senator Kristen Gillebrand (D-NY) took a page from the National Women’s Law Center – the same crew responsible for the junk Superbowl data referenced above argued that the DoD should strip unit commanders of their ability to prosecute sexual assaults and give it to special inquisitor lawyers, exclaimed that some commanders “can’t tell the difference between a rape and a smack on the ass.” 

I’ve never met such a commander or servicemember. But I have seen the surveys – and the fact is that it’s not commanders who can’t tell the difference: It’s the data gathering system itself. For example, a look at the most recent report to Congress on the state of sexual harassment and assault at the service academies reveals that there is nothing in the data to differentiate a rape from a smack on the ass. Both of them statistically qualify as sexual assaults. The service academies report itself states that “unwanted sexual contact is the survey term for the crimes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that constitute sexual assault, which range from rape to abusive sexual contact.”

Abusive sexual contact could be anything from an unwanted locker-room towel snap to a rape or attempted rape. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing any kind of differentiation between the acts reflected in the data – but they all get conflated in breathless claims of tens of thousands of servicemembers – half of them men – being victimized. They are all reported the same. There is no mechanism in the data to tell one from the next. All get lumped in to generate the 19,000 women assaulted figure that gets run by the media. To believe it, you have to believe that a division’s worth of men gets sexually assaulted every year… and another division’s worth of women.

We don’t have to tolerate any of it, but the military, being led by the nose by some of the very same organizations such as the Women’s Law Center responsible for recklessly issuing bogus data in the past, is having trouble correctly defining the problem. If we cannot define the problem, and calibrate a response appropriate to towel snaps vs. unwanted shoulder rubs vs. sexual assault and rape, then we cannot adequately address it without causing a devastating witch hunt atmosphere within the military – and tipping the balance of power in favor of the small minority of people willing to file false claims. There were 444 allegations of sexual assault within the military in 2012 that were classified as “unfounded,” a 35 percent increase since 2009, according to reporting from the Washington Times. Some of these claims may simply have been unproveable or disbelieved by investigators, while others were fabricated outright. It is impossible to tell how many, though the experiences of the Duke University lacrosse team, falsely accused of rape and charged on trumped up premises by a corrupt prosecutor should give everyone pause – especially so in in a world where the percentage of false rape allegations range from 2-10 percent to as much as 41 percent of all forcible rape cases in this study.

Everyone agrees that sexual predators of all ranks should be drummed out of the service. Everyone agrees that those who commit crimes against servicemembers – or anyone else – should be put in jail. But unless the DoD does a better job of managing their data and analysis points, they run the risk of cracking down on 956 out of every five actual sexual predators.


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