Ben “Bad Science” Goldacre has comprehensively taken apart this horrifically victim-blaming story in the Telegraph, which ran with the entirely misleading headline:
Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists
The story is a case study in the damaging way that journalists can ‘report’ on research to reflect their own agenda. According to the Sophia Shaw, the Msc student who carried out the research this is ‘based’ on for her dissertation, told the Guardian “every single one of the first four statements made by the Telegraph was an unambiguous, incorrect, misrepresentation of her findings”.
She had been discussing her dissertation at an academic conference when the British Psychological Society’s PR team picked it up, and put out the press release. We will discuss that later.
But first, the science. Shaw spoke to about 100 men, presenting them with “being with a woman”, and asking them when they would “call it a night”. The idea was to explore men’s attitudes towards coercing women into sex.
“I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self-report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, and participants were answering when sober, and so on,” she said.
Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? “This is completely inaccurate,” Shaw said. “We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.”
And what about the Telegraph’s next claim, or rather, the paper’s reassuringly objective assertion, that it is scientists who claim that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?
“We have found that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can’t say that’s an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.”
So who do we blame for this story, and what do we do about it?
Shaw said: “When I saw the article my heart sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.”
Since I started sniffing around, and since Shaw’s complaint, the Telegraph has quietly changed the online copy of the article, although there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate.