Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Alcohol And Sexual Aggression. Or Was That Harassment Caused By the Booze?

Several sites have written about a study titled ""Blurred Lines?"  Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture."  The study is available at the linked site in its entirety, which is good news for all the geeks who read this.

This study gets so much attention because of that ongoing debate about alcohol and its role in sexual abuse and rape.  That debate covers arguments such as Taranto's statement that inebriated sex is like two cars colliding but only one of the drivers (the male one) gets taken to court for the collision.  It also covers advice to young women not to drink because drinking makes them obvious and natural prey for the obvious and natural predators out there, and it covers the arguments that the role of alcohol in such events shouldn't be the excuse for what happened.

That's why the current study is of interest.

What does it have to tell us about alcohol and sexual aggression?  Here's what the NPR says about the study findings:

Young women are often the targets of aggression when they're out in bars, but the problem isn't that guys are too drunk to know better.
Instead, men are preying on women who have had too much to drink.
When researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington observed young people's behavior in bars, they found that the man's aggressiveness didn't match his level of intoxication. There was no relationship.
Instead, men targeted women who were intoxicated.
The researchers hired and trained 140 young adults to go into bars in the Toronto area and note every incident of aggression they saw. They found that 25 percent of all incidents involved sexual aggression. And 90 percent of the victims of sexual aggression were women being harassed by men.
Almost all of the aggression was physical, with about two-thirds of the aggressors physically touching women without consent. About 17 percent threatened contact. And 9 percent verbally harassed their targets.
Men may perceive intoxicated women either as more amenable to advances or as easier targets who are less able to rebuff them because they don't have their wits about them, the researchers say.
Well, sort of, if we allow for the usual magnification and simplification of research summaries in the popular media.

It's indeed true that the study found no relationship between the aggressor's level of drunkenness and how invasive and persistent the harassment was, whereas the drunkenness of the "target" of harassment was found to be correlated with how invasive the aggression was, and that gives some support to the view of inebriated women as more vulnerable and therefore as more obvious prey for the predators among us.

But note that the observers in the study rated inebriation of the participants in these events on a scale from 0 (sober) to 9 (falling-down drunk).  Here is what the study tells us about the average inebriation level among the initiators (the aggressors) and the targets:

On average, initiators were rated 4.98 (SD = 2.10, range = 0 to 9.00) on the intoxication scale and targets rated 2.26 (SD = 2.30, range = 0 to 9.00).
In plain language, the aggressors were more likely to be drunk than the targets of the aggression, so it's not quite true that  "men are preying on women who have had too much to drink" as the NPR summary states, or at least it's not true that overwhelmingly sober men are preying on overwhelmingly  drunk women.

The nature of this study cannot tell us how the "initiators" in the bars the observers frequented might differ from those who did not initiate any kind of harassment, and neither does it tells us how possible "non-targets" for harassment might have differed from the "targets."  But that's the information we would also need, to state conclusively what the role of alcohol in the occurrence of harassment might be.

This post is not really criticizing the study as such, merely suggesting the kinds of things further studies might look at.