Sex is a subject that generates a lot of impassioned debate, but how much of it is informed debate? Do women seek only companionship? Are all men potential rapists? Is pornography really such a big industry? Is there such a thing as “sex addiction”? And when newspaper headlines ask a question, is the answer “no?”
Dr Brooke Magnanti, who once worked as a call girl, sees a number of myths about sex being propagated by the media and wants to know how they come about. She has recently published The Sex Myth, a layperson’s guide to how moral panics in the media and even government policies are based on the flimsiest of evidence.
After a warm-up by her friend and comedian Richard Jow, Dr Maganti demonstrated her feedback model for moral panics to the audience. They begin when someone spots a shocking statistic, which can be fitted to a predetermined message without any critical thought applied to it. Sympathy is built up by pointing out that there is no support for the people concerned by it, and it will be written about in the media… where someone spots the shocking statistic again.
Focusing on notion that adult entertainment venues increase incidences of rape or assault, she identified a statistic from 2003 in which strip clubs were linked to a 50% increase in rapes in Camden. The trouble is, the Metropolitan Police had miscalculated this figure, and the figure only related to total numbers of rapes, not rates per population (which would be more useful to know, since population size can fluctuate). It also assumes that correlation implies causation, which is a common fallacy.
Dr Magnanti, drawing on her background in public health epidemiology, looked at the longer-term trends and found that the rates of rape in Camden increased until 2003 and then dropped; they were lower than in London boroughs with fewer strip clubs; and the trend in Camden matched the trend across the whole of England and Wales in the same period. Yet the original statistic from 2003 is quoted a decade later as if it was still valid; it is, she says, a “zombie statistic”.
Who could want to use it, and why? Dr Magnanti pointed out the high, non-refundable cost of applying for a sex shop licence in Glasgow – potentially a nice little earner for the city, which doesn’t always grant the licences, but will take the money anyway. Decisions are based on advice from a consultation made using the zombie statistics. She found the same story in Cornwall, in which the police claimed “everyone knows there’s a link” between strip clubs and sexual assaults, despite a decrease in rates since the clubs opened. (A Freedom of Information request asked what evidence the police claim was based on; none.)
Does this mean there is an inverse relationship between strip clubs and sexual crimes? No; Dr Magnanti warned against taking her statistics and using the same lazy assumptions to support strip clubs that are used against them. The relationship between the two is bound to be far more complex. This matters because it is too easy to paint men as slaves to lust, or seeking to empower themselves over women; simplistic arguments deflect attention from looking at the real causes of sexual assaults and divert resources from the police and support services. Worst of all, they result in well-meaning but misguided policies.
Dr Magnanti was a delightful speaker, and dealt with a sometimes emotional audience Q&A with perfect equanimity.
You can find out more information on her blog at http://sexonomics-uk.blogspot.
Jam House Review
Dr Magnanti’s talk appealed to stats-geeks in the audience (and there were a lot of those – this is a Skeptics group after all) but the mis-match between her reputation as Belle de Jour and her approach to her subject-matter as Dr Brooke Magnanti left the Jam House feeling short-changed. Sex myths at the Jam House.