More bad news about rape

In my round-up of 2019 I chose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my Words of the Year—partly as a protest against the way those words are avoided in many public discussions of sexual violence, and partly as a tribute to the women in Spain, Chile and elsewhere who used them so powerfully in public protests. I predicted that this story would continue in 2020, and sure enough, it has.

The Chilean anthem ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist in your path’) was performed again last week, in both Spanish and English, outside the New York City courtroom where the trial of Harvey Weinstein has now begun. In New York he is on trial for rape and sexual assault, and he has just been charged with the same offences in Los Angeles, where prosecutors reportedly considered bringing criminal charges in relation to eight different women’s complaints. In New York there are two complainants, but the court will hear supporting testimony from at least one woman whose case can’t be prosecuted because the events took place too long ago. Complaints that could potentially lead to further charges, including rape charges, have also been made in Britain and France.

In the light of all this, it is hardly controversial to refer to Harvey Weinstein as an ‘alleged rapist’. Yet on January 6, a report on BBC Radio prompted Sophie Walker to tweet:

Hey @BBCRadio4 there’s a clear, short word that you’re overlooking every time your journalist refers to allegations of ‘non-consensual sex’ against #HarveyWeinstein. Please use it. #rape

One reply to this tweet, from someone whose bio identified him as a journalism student, said: ‘I think they’re tied legally to not use the word rape. Frustrating but it could impact the case against Mr Weinstein’. I’ve seen this argument being made in other cases: it seems to be an increasingly widespread belief that using the word ‘rape’ (even qualified with ‘alleged’) before there has been a conviction is in itself prejudicial, and that its avoidance is legally required.

But this is a misconception. ‘The case against Mr Weinstein’ is, precisely, the case that he has committed what the laws of the state of New York define as the criminal offence of rape. That is what he is on trial for. So long as the media do not say or imply that he is guilty, it surely cannot be prejudicial for them to describe his alleged offence using the same word that appears on the indictment. On the contrary, if their job is to report the facts, there is no justification for not using that word. Substituting less ‘emotive’ terms implies a judgment which it is not their place to make.

The BBC has not consistently avoided the word ‘rape’ in its coverage of the Weinstein case. In a detailed timeline published on its website that word is used many times—it appears in every instance where a complainant has alleged that Weinstein raped or attempted to rape her. However, the piece does use the term ‘non-consensual sex’ when reporting statements made by Weinstein or his representatives. For instance, in relation to a rape allegation made by Rose McGowan in 2017, it says that ‘Weinstein has “unequivocally denied” any allegations of non-consensual sex in a statement released through his publicist’.

The placement of quotation marks here implies that ‘unequivocally denied’ is the only verbatim quote from the statement, but the fact that ‘non-consensual sex’ always appears in reference to Weinstein’s denials suggests that this phrase may also have been taken from that source. Either way, it raises questions. If the BBC is reproducing the language of the statement (without making that clear by putting the whole thing in quotation marks), does that give an accused rapist too much influence over the terms in which his case is reported? If ‘non-consensual sex’ is the BBC’s own wording, what’s the thinking behind that editorial choice?

Maybe they think it makes no difference, because (at least in jurisdictions which treat the absence of consent as a defining feature of the offence), ‘non-consensual sex’ means the same thing as ‘rape/sexual assault’. But I suspect Donna Rotunno, the lawyer in charge of Weinstein’s defence, knows better. Rotunno told an interviewer last September (as quoted in another piece on the BBC website) that

Any time we talk about men and women in sexual circumstances, I think we have to look at the fact that there’s always an area of grey. So there are these blurred lines, and I think sometimes one side walks away from an event feeling different from the other.

I think Rotunno understands why using ‘non-consensual sex’ rather than ‘rape’ (even when the message is that your client ‘unequivocally denies’ it) does make a difference. It’s not just that ‘rape’ is an emotive term. When you avoid what seems like the obvious word to use in a particular context, that prompts the recipient of the message to look for some unstated proposition that would explain the avoidance. In this case the conclusion a lot of people will come to is the one Rotunno spells out in the remarks just quoted, that there are ‘grey areas’ and ‘blurred lines’; it is possible for sex to be in some sense ‘non-consensual’ while still not quite counting as rape. For instance, it remains a widespread view that if a woman didn’t communicate her refusal clearly, the man can’t be blamed for (wrongly) thinking she consented. Maybe he’s obtuse but he’s not a rapist.

This is a belief Rotunno has clearly set out to foster in her presentation of her client, making a number of statements to the effect that his behaviour, though perhaps morally questionable, falls ultimately on the legal side of the line. (‘I’m not here to say he was not guilty of committing sins, but there’s a difference between sins and crimes’.) And it can only help her cause if the media use phraseology that supports this thesis.

There are worse offenders than the BBC. Rotunno has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because there’s so much interest in the case, but also because a woman defending someone like Harvey Weinstein is newsworthy in her own right (as Grazia put it, she’s ‘someone many are curious to get to know’). In profiles and other ‘soft’ pieces she’s been able to make controversial statements about Weinstein’s accusers without being seriously challenged. But while the BBC may not have given that kind of platform to people on Weinstein’s payroll, it still needs to think carefully about the way interested parties may be actively trying to manipulate the terms in which a story is reported.

This is not the only recent instance where the BBC has used questionable language. It has also done so in its reporting of the case of a young British woman who reported that she had been raped by a group of twelve young Israeli men in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. Later, following a lengthy police interrogation conducted without a lawyer present, the woman signed a statement retracting her original report. The men she had accused were allowed to leave Cyprus, while she was put on trial for causing ‘public mischief’, and eventually given a (suspended) sentence of four months in prison.

This case has prompted concern because there are reasons to think the woman’s rights may have been violated. She herself maintains that her retraction statement was dictated to her by the police, and that she signed it under duress. A forensic linguist who has analysed the statement believes it was composed by someone whose first language was not English. This linguist, Andrea Nini, was interviewed on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last week. In a clip from the interview which was tweeted out from the programme’s account, you can see a ribbon at the bottom of the screen reporting on a rally which had been organised to support the woman and protest her treatment by the authorities. The caption reads: ‘Rally in support of woman in Cyprus “rape” case’.

What is going on with those scare quotes around the word ‘rape’?

My guess is that the formulation ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ was meant to convey a neutral or non-committal stance on the question of whether the woman had been raped. Since her allegation remains unproven, because the suspects were released without trial—but at the same time, the finding that she lied can no longer be considered definitive because of evidence that casts doubt on the authenticity of her retraction statement—the caption writer may been looking for a form of words that would not commit the BBC to either of the two competing narratives (that the woman was raped and then forced to retract her complaint, or that the original allegation was false).

But if that was the objective, putting ‘rape’ in scare quotes did not achieve it. Scare quotes are a distancing device, a signal that whatever the quote marks enclose should not be taken at face value. But the stance their use conveys is not agnosticism or lack of certainty, it is scepticism or disbelief. (Scare quotes can also signal irony or mockery, but in relation to rape that’s a less likely interpretation.) So, while it may not have been intentional, the caption’s reference to the ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ is likely to have been taken as supporting the false allegation narrative.

Perhaps the caption could have referred to the ‘Cyprus rape controversy’: that’s compatible with the understanding that the facts are disputed, but it doesn’t suggest the BBC itself is taking sides. However, in this context I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to use the phrase ‘rape case’ without scare-quotes. ‘Rape case’ does not just have the meaning ‘court case in which someone has been found guilty of rape’, and we really need to push back against the idea that the word can only be used in that very narrow sense. Those who think its use should be restricted in this way may be sincerely concerned about protecting defendants’ right to a fair trial, but they seem to have difficulty grasping the point that reports which systematically avoid the word ‘rape’, put it in scare quotes or replace it with euphemisms, are not just neutral and inconsequential.

As the Glasgow Media Group long ago pointed out in an analysis of the reporting of industrial disputes (where it was always the management who made ‘offers’ while the unions made ‘demands’ or ‘threats’), the repetition of certain formulas over time tends to normalise their underlying assumptions. What is normalised by the repeated avoidance of the word ‘rape’ is the assumption that complainants’ accounts should be approached with extreme suspicion. And according to this in-depth investigation, that suspicion—the author calls it an ‘epidemic of disbelief’–is the single most important reason why so many rapists are never brought to justice.

This doesn’t just harm individual complainants. If we as a society have an interest in seeing rapists brought to justice, reporting that normalises disbelief cannot be said to serve the public interest. The BBC is not the only or the worst offender, but as a public service broadcaster it should arguably be setting a higher standard. When the story is sexual violence, it really needs to sort its language out.

Tedious tropes: the sexist stereotyping of female politicians

I don’t often find myself agreeing with the Conservative politician Amber Rudd, but this weekend she expressed a sentiment I agreed with 100%. Responding to a Spectator article in which Melanie McDonagh attacked the ‘relentless head-of-school self-righteousness’ of Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader who lost her seat in last week’s General Election, Rudd tweeted:

Can we stop criticising every senior female politician for being “head of school”, “headmistressy” or “like a school teacher”?

I’ve been complaining about this very thing since 2016, when Sylvia Shaw and I analysed press coverage of the 2015 General Election for a book we were writing about gender and political speech. We were struck by the frequency with which female politicians were compared either to head girls, headmistresses and school teachers, or else to nannies, nurses and ‘Matron’. There were other variations: Nicola Sturgeon was also compared to a dominatrix and a man-eating spider. But the headmistress/teacher/head girl comparisons were the ones that recurred most frequently. No one, by contrast, compared David Cameron to a supercilious prefect or Ed Miliband to a geography teacher.

heel boysLater in 2016, after the EU referendum result led to Cameron’s resignation, the competition to succeed him brought us more of the same clichés. The two female contenders, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, were both referred to as ‘Mummy’; when she won, May was depicted in the Sun as a dominatrix in spike heels. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton, the first ever female candidate for the US presidency, was disparaged for sounding like a bossy schoolmarm.

These clichés are deeply embedded in our collective imagination. Back in the 1980s. the management theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggested that women who play public roles tend to be assigned to one of four archetypal categories (Kanter called these ‘role traps’): they can be Mothers, Seductresses, Pets or Battleaxes. These archetypes reflect the roles and settings in which women have historically wielded power–either in the home, and institutions like schools and hospitals which originated as extensions of it (the Mother),  in sexual relationships with men (the Seductress) or, occasionally, in quasi-masculine roles like ‘ruler’ or ‘warrior’ (the Battleaxe). The teacher or headmistress is a variant of the Mother: she is ‘routinely described as schoolmarmy, bossy, frumpy or mumsy’. And as Amber Rudd says, this is probably the commonest role-trap for women in politics. They can also, of course, be Battleaxes (like Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’), but even the most powerful female leaders are always liable to be put in the ‘Mother’ box. (Angela Merkel’s nickname, for instance, is ‘Mutti’.)

In an era when these archetypes no longer reflect the real-world limits on what women can do or be, their persistence as ‘natural’ reference-points for female authority in general is both frustrating and depressing. Whatever position a woman speaks from–she might be a CEO, a bishop, a Chief Constable, the First Minister of Scotland or the US Secretary of State–what we hear is apparently still the voice of Mummy or Teacher, lecturing and scolding us as if we were naughty children.

8615-3006Not only do these comparisons belittle the women concerned, making their authority seem trivial and petty, they also tap into a deep vein of resentment towards ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole’s nickname for his wife). Older versions of the Mother, like Matron and the headmistress, are frequently caricatured as unnatural or monstrous, women whose need to dominate others reflects their sexual frustration and lack of feminine charm. Comparing a politician to one of these figures is thus a double put-down, implying that she is neither a proper leader nor a proper woman. It’s a way of reminding her that real power belongs to men: women who try to claim it are either ridiculous or repulsive.

Though the ‘mummy/teacher/Matron’ comparisons are wheeled out regularly by journalists of both sexes, in the sample Sylvia Shaw and I analysed it was noticeable that many of the most hostile examples were produced by right-wing female columnists. Melanie McDonagh, the author of the piece about Jo Swinson, was one of these; other repeat offenders were Sarah Vine in the Mail and Allison Pearson in the Telegraph. In Kanter’s terms, these women are ‘Pets’: they’re rewarded for acting as mouthpieces for the prejudices of the men who control the Tory press. Their editors know that if a man described Nicola Sturgeon as a power-crazed Lady Macbeth with a haircut like a Tunnock’s Teacake (I take this childish insult directly from a 2015 column by Allison Pearson), he’d just come across as a crude chauvinist bully. So the task of trashing women gets delegated to the ladies, producing a steady stream of female-authored ‘why I can’t stand [insert name of female politician]’ pieces.

But the journalists who occupy this niche may soon face a new challenge. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he plans to step down, the Labour Party is gearing up for a leadership contest in which it looks likely that most of the contenders will be female. So far, those who have been identified as potential successors to Corbyn include Yvette Cooper, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry—so far, along with one man, Keir Starmer. It will surely be difficult for the usual suspects in the media to write their usual ‘why I can’t stand X’ pieces about five different candidates without making it obvious that what they really mean is ‘I can’t stand women’. Which raises the question: in a contest as female-dominated as this one looks set to be, will sex–and therefore sexism–cease to be an issue?

Over in the US, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has prompted feminists to ask the same question. Whereas in 2016 the field included only one woman, Hillary Clinton, the 2020 campaign started with half a dozen. As Rebecca Traister wrote recently, this initially looked like a game-changer:

If there were six different women running for the country’s highest office, it would be far harder to caricature them in all the ways that ambitious women get caricatured: as mean, angry, crazy, elitist, lightweight, and dissembling.

But in practice it has turned out (as anyone familiar with Kanter’s role-traps might have predicted) that you can caricature six women almost as easily as one: all you have to do is put different women into different boxes. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is a battleaxe, elitist and angry (but not crazy or a lightweight); Marianne Williamson was lightweight/crazy but not angry. So although the criticisms are specific to each candidate, they all end up dealing with the same general problem: the perception that, in the words of a poll Traister cites, ‘most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable’.

This statement, which a large number of respondents agreed with, suggests that women’s ‘unlikability’ has very little to do with their qualities as individuals. If the judgment were being made on a single woman you might well think it reflected her own shortcomings, but as the number of women increases that begins to seem less and less plausible. What are the chances that you’d have six women in the same race who all just happened to be inherently unlikable?

What the judgment really reflects, we might suspect, is the phenomenon which psychologists call the ‘likability–competence dilemma’. A number of experimental studies have found that if a woman is judged to be highly competent, she will also be judged less likable than either similarly competent men or less competent women. (For men there is no such trade-off.)  So, the very fact that a woman is running for the presidency (which implies a strong claim to competence, as well as overt ambition) will make her, in many people’s eyes, unlikable. The more qualified and confident she appears, the less likable people will judge her.

This prejudice is a particular problem for women in politics, because in modern times, as the historian Claire Potter explains, likability has become closely linked to electability.  Even some progressive Democrats who are keen to support Elizabeth Warren in 2020 have wondered whether, in a campaign where the absolute priority is defeating Trump, it would make more sense, strategically, to get behind Joe Biden. He may be less appealing in other ways, but at least his sex won’t stop people voting for him.

But the unwillingness of the average citizen to vote for a woman may have been overstated. Last month the political scientists Mary McGrath and Sara Saltzer wrote a piece for the LA Times about an experiment they had conducted. They recruited two groups of subjects—one constructed to be demographically representative of the US, the other constructed to have a 50:50 balance between men and women and between registered Democrats and Republicans—and presented them with a series of choices between two political candidates. The candidates differed in age, education, gender and political views: the subjects were not told that gender was the variable being investigated. And when the votes were counted, it turned out that the female candidates had done better than the male ones. This preference was seen among subjects in all subgroups: men as well as women, and Republicans as well as Democrats. But it wasn’t the result of a direct pro-female bias: the most important factor influencing subjects’ decisions was how well a candidate’s policies matched their own political beliefs. Noting that other recent studies have produced similar results, McGrath and Saltzer comment:

a growing body of evidence shows voter preferences are not a major reason for the persistently low rates of women in elected office.

But in that case, what does explain the continuing over-representation of men? McGrath and Saltzer think the answer may be what some researchers have dubbed ‘sexism by proxy’, a tendency they illustrate using the findings of a poll conducted last summer. Respondents were asked first whether they personally would feel comfortable with a woman as president, and then whether they thought their neighbours would feel comfortable with a woman as president. Three quarters of the respondents answered yes to the first question, but only a third answered yes to the second. The conclusion McGrath and Saltzer draw is that

The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid.

The US presidency is something of a special case: in Britain I don’t think you’d find a quarter of the respondents in a poll expressing discomfort with the idea of a female prime minister. We’ve had two of them, and while one (Theresa May) did not impress, the other (Margaret Thatcher) is still widely regarded as a great leader: even people who found her loathsome (myself included) would be hard-pressed to make the case that she wasn’t up to the job.

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But although we no longer question women’s basic eligibility for the highest political office, our continuing ambivalence about female authority remains visible in the language that is routinely used, especially in the media, about the women we have elected to positions of power. It’s there in the belittling comparisons with nannies and schoolmarms, in the covertly gendered code-words (‘shrill’, ‘strident‘, ‘self-righteous’), in the popularity of innuendo-laden headlines and cartoons like the one shown above.

Since these tired old tropes are, to use a phrase beloved of Boris Johnson, ‘oven-ready’–a journalist on a deadline can just reach for them on autopilot–we may well see them being trotted out again once the Labour leadership contest gets going. Perhaps Emily Thornberry will be described as ‘headmistressy’ and Yvette Cooper will be the eager ‘head girl’; Jess Phillips might fill the ‘angry battleaxe’ slot while Rebecca Long-Bailey, said to be Corbyn’s preferred candidate, will be the ‘pet’. These descriptions don’t have to be accurate, or even especially apt, to stick. They just have to be repeated often enough.

The constant repetition of sexist stereotypes may not be up there with rape and death-threats as a deterrent to women’s participation in politics, but it undoubtedly constrains their freedom to participate on equal terms with men. In addition to actually doing their jobs, women must try to pre-empt the predictable criticism and mockery by engaging in continuous self-surveillance (‘is this outfit too mumsy? Do I sound like a bossy schoolmarm?’) We shouldn’t underestimate the energy-sapping effect of this–nor the emotional impact of being trashed in the media. People may say it ‘comes with the territory’–‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’–but some things only come with the territory for women.

So, for once I am happy to add my voice to Amber Rudd’s. Can we stop criticising female politicians in ways we don’t criticise male ones? Can we find ways of thinking and talking about female authority that bear some relation to the realities of the 21st century? And can we please consign the ‘why I as a woman can’t stand this other woman’ genre of political commentary to the toxic waste-dump of history?

Marie and Fiona go to Washington

This week something unusual happened. Two women participated in a high-stakes, high-profile political speech event, and were widely praised for their ‘authoritative’ performances. Even their voices attracted no criticism: they were not described as ‘abrasive’, ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’.

The event in question was the ongoing inquiry into whether Donald Trump should be impeached; the women who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee were Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, and Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who had served as an advisor to the Trump administration. Both women presented themselves as non-partisan public servants who considered it their duty to give evidence. As Hill told the committee, ‘I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction except toward the truth’.

Of course, the inquiry is itself partisan, initiated by the Democrats and opposed by the Republicans: not everyone thinks these women are sheroes. But the Trump-supporting media were surprisingly muted in their criticisms. Yovanovitch even got some support from the unlikely quarter of Fox News, where one anchor described her as a ‘sympathetic witness’, while another went so far as to tweet that if you weren’t moved by her testimony you probably didn’t have a pulse. Meanwhile, over in the liberal media camp, admiration for the two of them knew no bounds. ‘What does female authority sound like?’ asked the Washington Post: ‘Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill just showed us’.

In cases (though I found few) where sexism did come into play, it didn’t always come from the direction you would have predicted. Writing about Yovanovitch for the Guardian, for instance, Art Cullen praised the ‘decency’, ‘modesty’ and ‘restraint’ shown by this ‘61-year old single woman’ who had devoted her life to serving her country. These virtues were apparent, he said, in her ‘downward gaze’ and ‘the timbre of her quiet voice’. This picture of Yovanovitch may have been stereotypical, patronising and reductive, but it was a long way from the usual portrayal of women who expose men’s wrongdoing as lying bitches or vengeful harpies.

Whereas Yovanovitch was applauded for her restraint, Fiona Hill was praised for her forthrightness. USA Today called her ‘fierce, focused and fearless’;  it credited her with delivering ‘punchy lines of testimony’ and noted that her ‘wit and humor were on full display’. It also quoted, approvingly, the committee member who called her ‘steely’. One frequently-referenced symbol of this ‘steeliness’ was her voice–or more exactly her accent, which still bears witness to her working-class British origins (she is a coalminer’s daughter from County Durham). It’s not unusual for the media to fixate on women’s voices, but in this case the commentary completely bypassed all the sexist clichés (does she sound too shrill and squeaky, or is she harsh and grating?) that usually dominate the discussion. Instead, Hall’s accent became a positive symbol of both her toughness and her successful journey from the coalfields to the corridors of power.

The Washington Post’s question, ‘what does female authority sound like?’, alludes to something that was said during another high-profile political speech event that took place this week, the fifth debate featuring contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Amy Klobuchar spoke about the authority we grant to men who may not, as individuals, have done much to earn it: her comments were aimed at Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy is being treated as seriously as that of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Klobuchar herself, though they are experienced national politicians, while he is just the mayor of a small midwestern city. Because men have always been our models for what authority sounds like, we find it easy to compare men like Buttigieg with other male leaders we’ve admired in the past. For women, however, there are fewer comparators (as Klobuchar reminded us, in the case of the US presidency there are none); consequently we lack what the Post writer Monica Hesse called ‘the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness and power’. And that’s where she thinks Yovanovitch and Hill have made a difference:

Perhaps the next time an authoritative woman steps forward…listeners will remember that they’ve heard a voice like that before, and trusted it when they did.

But while I agree that it’s desirable for people to hear more authoritative female voices, I think Hesse overlooks an important point. It isn’t true that we have no cultural template for ‘what female authority sounds like’: the problem is rather that centuries of male dominance have imbued the figure of the powerful woman with all kinds of negative associations. Some of these are linked to our experiences (and perhaps especially men’s experiences) of resenting female authority in childhood: that’s why women who exercise power over adults are so often belittled by comparing them to overbearing mothers, nagging nannies and bossy schoolmarms—this both expresses resentment and metaphorically puts women (back) in their place. Other archetypes of female authority, like the ‘iron lady’ and the witch (remember Hillary Clinton’s ‘cackle’?) do the opposite, magnifying women’s power to the point where it becomes grotesque–unnatural, tyrannical and threatening.

Yovanovich and Hill were neither belittled nor demonised: they were presented not only as authoritative, but also as likable–‘decent’, ‘sympathetic’, ‘sincere’, and, even, in Hill’s case, ‘funny’.  For women to tick both these boxes simultaneously is a rare feat, and we might well wonder how they managed to pull it off.

I suspect the answer has less to do with the details of their speech than with their perceived motivations for speaking, and with their status as public servants rather than politicians. For them there was no quid pro quo: they were seen to be acting in the public interest, and not in pursuit of their own power. Unfortunately, that may limit what can be learned from their example, particularly by women who are running for elected office. However dedicated they may be to public service, politicians are also seeking power for themselves; and for women that’s still a problem. The civic-minded whistle-blower isn’t automatically protected from misogyny (see Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford), but the openly ambitious woman is a prime target.

But even if Hill and Yovanovitch haven’t changed the game for women, both the impeachment inquiry and the Democratic debate suggest that the rules of the game are changing. Feminist criticism of sexism and misogyny, which has taken on a new urgency since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the advent of #MeToo, is being picked up and amplified more widely; many women have stopped pretending that sexism is not an issue for them, or that it’s something they should discuss behind closed doors to avoid putting men publicly on the spot. The voice of female resistance, in short, sounds louder and more militant in 2019 than it did in 2015.

We heard this resistance in Amy Klobuchar’s remarks during the debate; we also heard it during Fiona Hill’s testimony. At one point Hill referred to a ‘blow-up’ between herself and Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, and added: ‘I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people’. This remark seems to be channelling the post-#MeToo literature on women’s rage, and I’m inclined to read it as a strategic move by Hill, designed to counter any attempt by Sondland or his allies to portray her as ‘difficult’ or ‘hysterical’. The ‘no free pass for sexists’ message has also reached some men: when one of the Republicans subjected Hill to a lengthy exposition of his party’s arguments against impeachment, a male Democrat apologised for his colleague’s ‘epic mansplaining’.

Of course there’s still a long way to go, as Rebecca Traister noted recently in a piece about the Democrats: even with several women in the race (whereas previously the maximum was one), people’s judgments of them continue to be shaped by well-worn sexist stereotypes–they’re ‘meanies, lightweights, crazies, or angry, dissembling elitists’. And people still say, when pollsters ask them, that women who run for president ‘just aren’t that  ‘likable‘. Clearly, political cultures don’t change overnight. But this week, for once, I feel hopeful.

Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.

 

Postscript

Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.

 

Unreasonable doubt

Content note: This post deals with the reporting of sexual violence, and contains details of a very distressing case.

In the first week of 2019, news media around the world reported that a woman in a healthcare facility outside Phoenix, Arizona, had unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy. This was not a happy event. The woman had been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage many years earlier (some reports said ‘over a decade’, others 14 years; later it was suggested she had spent as long as 27 years—by implication, most of her life—in full-time medical care, relying on others to take care of her most basic needs. Yet her pregnancy went unnoticed until, alerted by her moaning, a staff member realized she was in the advanced stages of labour.

Clearly, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about this horrific case. And while it isn’t the most important or the most urgent, one of those questions concerns the way it was reported by the media.

Criticism of the media’s coverage of sexual violence often focuses on the twin problems of victim-blaming and ‘himpathy’, the tendency to make excuses for men or to present them as victims themselves. In this case those problems did not arise. But there was another problem with the language used in reports, as you may notice if you look at these examples:

  1. The police in Phoenix have opened an investigation into allegations that a woman in a vegetative state at a private nursing facility was sexually assaulted and gave birth to a child last month (New York Times)
  2. An Arizona health care facility is investigating what it calls a “deeply disturbing incident” that a local television station has said involved the alleged sexual assault of a patient in a vegetative state (People)
  3. Local news outlet KPHO-TV reports that the Phoenix Police Department began investigating the incident as a possible rape case after the woman gave birth on Dec. 29. (Huffington Post)
  4. Police in Phoenix, Arizona, are investigating a possible sexual assault after a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at a healthcare facility on Saturday (Insider.com)
  5. Woman in vegetative state gives birth after apparent assault (ABC News)
  6. She gave birth on December 29 after apparently being raped at the facility some months earlier. (Mail Online)

A fancy name for what concerns me about these examples is ‘epistemic modality’—the expression of meanings relating to certainty or uncertainty, belief or disbelief. Suppose I’ve lost my keys and you ask me when I last had them. I can convey the same basic information—that I had them yesterday—in a range of different ways that communicate different degrees of confidence in the truth of that proposition. I might say, for instance (though there are many other possibilities):

It must/ might/ may/ could have been yesterday
I know/ think/ guess I had them yesterday
It was definitely/ probably/ possibly yesterday
I’m absolutely/ quite/ pretty/ almost sure it was yesterday

I’ve deliberately used a banal example to make the point that we all do this all the time. But in some contexts it’s particularly important to pay attention to this aspect of language. News reporting is one example. In a genre where, proverbially, ‘facts are sacred’, reporters must choose their words to make clear whether a proposition is being presented as a fact, a theory, a belief, a rumour, a supposition, a speculation or an opinion.

In news reports on the Arizona case, the proposition that the woman who gave birth had been sexually assaulted or raped (Arizona’s state law uses the term ‘sexual assault’ for both) was persistently worded in a way that implied a lack of certainty. In the first two examples reproduced above, the assault is said to be ‘alleged’ or an ‘allegation’, i.e. a claim someone has made that could be either true or false. The next two refer to a ‘possible’ sexual assault or rape. In the last two we get ‘apparent(ly)’, which suggests a higher degree of confidence, but stops short of full commitment (‘we don’t know for sure, but this is how it looks’). In everyday talk ‘apparently’ is often used to indicate that a proposition is hearsay, second-hand information whose truth the speaker can’t vouch for independently (e.g., ‘she’s broken up with her girlfriend, apparently’).

I didn’t make a full survey of the coverage, but this was the dominant pattern in the sample of reports I looked at. Among those which did not fit the pattern, most avoided taking any position at all (for instance, by reporting only that the woman had given birth and the police had launched an investigation). I found only one report, in the Washington Post, that expressed a high degree of confidence a crime had been committed:

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

By using the modal verb ‘must’, this report presents the proposition that the woman was assaulted as something we are logically obliged to treat as certain. Even if there were no witnesses (or more exactly, none capable of making a statement), there is no other explanation for what some people did witness, the birth of a child to a woman who had been in a vegetative state for (much) longer than the duration of her pregnancy.

To me, and I imagine most readers of this blog, the conclusion drawn by the Post is self-evidently the correct one, while the caution displayed in other sources is excessive. If ‘sexual assault’ is understood to mean sex without consent (which is how Arizona’s legal code defines it), then there is no doubt that this woman was assaulted. Her pregnancy is evidence of sex (or in a hypothetical alternative scenario involving artificial insemination, of a bodily intrusion that would also count as assault by Arizona’s definition), and because of her vegetative state we can be certain that she did not consent, nor do anything that could have been construed as consent. In any case, under Arizona law a person affected by ‘a mental disorder, defect, drugs, alcohol or any type of impairment’ lacks the capacity to consent to sex.

In this case there really are no ifs, buts or maybes: what was done to this woman was a criminal assault. Why couldn’t the media just say so, without all the hedging and equivocating? The impression their language gave was that they didn’t understand either the legal definition of sexual assault or the concept of consent. The hedging invited readers to look for reasons why this might not have been rape, potentially reinforcing well-worn myths like ‘it’s not rape if he doesn’t use force’ and ‘it’s not rape if she doesn’t resist’.  Or in this situation, ‘it’s not rape if she’s in a permanent vegetative state’. (Yes, it’s a horrible thought–but there are men who think it’s not rape if a woman is asleep.)

On Twitter, I saw a number of comments suggesting that cautious language had been used for legal reasons (‘they can’t say it’s rape when it’s still being investigated’). In some cases, it’s true, the legal presumption of innocence obliges the media to remain non-committal on the question of whether a rape occurred. If the defendant in a case is denying he raped the complainant and claiming it was consensual sex, then the complainant’s account of it as rape cannot be presented as factually true, or even as more credible than the alternative, because that would be prejudicial to the defendant, presupposing his guilt before it has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction). Unless and until there is a conviction, the complainant’s statement can be presented only as an ‘allegation’. And most rape cases where the disputed issue is consent do not result in a conviction. The arguments made by defence lawyers and the conclusions drawn by jurors reflect the attitudes of the wider culture, which is not only predisposed to doubt women’s accounts, but willing to accept almost any argument for doubting them as ‘reasonable’.

But in the Arizona case it should have been obvious that these considerations did not apply. No police officer or lawyer will ever question this woman; no jury will ever be asked to determine whether she consented, or whether she lied. If there’s a trial, it will be all about the DNA. How, in these circumstances, could anyone have thought it was necessary, or indeed accurate, to report that the police were investigating an ‘alleged’ assault? Who is supposed to have made the ‘allegation’? Clearly not a woman who is unable to communicate. And if it’s the staff at the facility, what they did was not ‘allege’ something but report something some of them had directly witnessed. As for ‘possible’ assault, when you describe something as a ‘possible X’, you’re saying it might turn out that either nothing happened or that what happened was something other than X. In this case, what would that have been? Abduction by aliens? A miracle?

What were the people who wrote this stuff, or passed it for publication, thinking? One answer to that question might be quite simply that they weren’t thinking: they just reached for the conventional formulas on autopilot, without stopping to ask themselves whether in this situation the result would be inaccurate and misleading. Like the political writers George Orwell criticized in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, they were stringing together stock phrases in the manner of ‘a prefabricated henhouse’.

Feminist efforts to change the language of rape reporting have often assumed that this thoughtless recycling of outdated formulas is the central problem, and that the solution is a combination of awareness-raising—getting people to notice what’s implied by the language they habitually use—and offering practical alternatives. That’s the approach taken in, for instance, this checklist for journalists produced by Canada’s Use the Right Words project , which touches on the question of epistemic modality: it notes for instance that ‘allegedly’ may be necessary in certain contexts but warns against over-using it, and recommends that complainants’ statements should be framed using neutral verbs (e.g., ‘she said’) rather than verbs that imply doubt or blame (like ‘she claimed’ or ‘she admitted’).

But while this kind of advice can be helpful to those who are disposed to take it, the problem it can’t address is that which words are ‘the right words’ depends on what story you’re using them to tell. What if the media use the words they do strategically, because they are in fact the ‘right words’ for the narrative being constructed? Is the problem the words themselves, or is it the narrative?

In a 1992 article entitled ‘The linguistics of blame’, Kate Clark analysed the vocabulary and grammar used in the Sun newspaper’s reporting of violence against women,  and found that different patterns were associated with two contrasting narratives: one in which an innocent victim—a child, a chaste young woman or a good wife and loving ‘mum’—was attacked by a man described as a ‘monster’, a ‘beast’ or a ‘fiend’, and another in which a bad woman—a negligent or frigid wife, a provocative ‘Lolita’ or promiscuous ‘blonde divorcee’—was held responsible for provoking whatever had happened to her. In addition to being a standard-bearer for sexism, the Sun was a staunch supporter of right-wing ‘law and order’ policies: cases of violence against ‘innocent’ women could be used to advance that part of its political agenda. More recently we’ve seen some sections of the press eschewing the usual scepticism and victim-blaming where that enables them to construct a racist narrative in which ‘our women’ [i.e., white women and girls] are being exploited and abused by non-white, foreign or Muslim men.

In the Arizona case it seemed the media had no strong or consistent narrative. We might have expected this to be, in the Sun’s terms, an ‘innocent victim abused by a monster’ story, worded to express outrage rather than caution. But the outrage was noticeably muted (‘a deeply disturbing incident’ was as strong as it got). Though the victim’s ‘innocence’ was not in question (many reports contained obfuscation and needless scepticism, but none engaged in actual victim-blaming), there did not seem to be much empathy for her either. As this comment piece notes, abusers of women with disabilities (who as a group suffer disproportionately high levels of sexual violence) can exploit not only their victims’ inherent vulnerability, but also their cultural invisibility. The mistreatment of disabled people in institutions is hidden from public view, and the media that might bring attention to it are, as one disability activist quoted in the piece puts it, ‘still largely uncomfortable seeing disabled people as, well, people’.

Even if they are deemed ‘innocent’, some victims may still be treated as less deserving of our sympathy and concern than others. Race, class, age and (dis)ability all influence the ranking. (Another pertinent example recently in the news is the way the media covered R. Kelly’s marriage to 15-year old Aaliyah in the 1990s, described in this piece as a ‘collective shrug’ which resulted from a combination of celebrity-worship, himpathy and misogynoir.)

I am not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize the media’s use of specific words, stock formulas or linguistic strategies (something I’ve done myself in this post), but I do think we need to recognize that the problem here goes far beyond language. The language of rape reporting is more a clue to the problem than a cause of it: it reflects the narratives the media construct around sexual violence, the culture of disbelief those narratives spring from, and the male dominance which that disbelief protects. Those things, ultimately, are what we have to change.

Update: since this post was written a man who worked at the Arizona facility as a practical nurse has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and vulnerable adult abuse.