Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Violence and Sexual Coercion

As a result of discussion in yesterday's workshop, I ended up coming across this survey of Sexual Coercion among University Students in the United States and Sweden.  It is not an economic study, but it still brings up some useful data and is worth discussing.

They surveyed college students in each country, when meant, bluntly, that they were sampling rich White kids in each place.  So we can assume that the demographics are roughly identical, and that we are measuring cultural differences among people of similar socioeconomic status.  Surveys are notoriously unreliable, which is why economists don't like using them, but let's just assume that the unreliability is the same in both places and the differences are real.

The survey shows that, in the United States, about 50% of males and 70% of females report that they had been subjected to nonphysical coercion (constant arguments, lying, intoxication) to engage in sexual activities.  In Sweden, the numbers were about 20% for males and 40% for females.  Basically, Swedes of both genders are 30% less likely to be the victim of sexual pressure, and women in each country are 20% more likely to be the victims.

The survey really should have asked if people did these things, and how many people they did them to.  That way we would know if the increased victimization rates were the result of more people doing these things, or of the perpetrators doing them to more people. But the following analysis holds in either case:

Economic theory says that people will use a tool if the benefits are higher then the costs.  If a tool is used more often, it could be because the costs are lower, or because the benefits are higher.  Given that there are no legal sanctions for nonviolent coercion in relationships, the costs of using coercion are either psychic or social.  Either you feel bad about doing it, or word of your actions gets out and leads to ostracism.  The benefit of this behavior is, presumably, a higher chance of having sex.  Even if the costs were exactly the same among two different groups of people, you would see differences in the activity if one group places a greater value on sex, or if these actions were more effective at obtaining sex.

So we have four theories that might explain the observed differences:

1) Swedes feel worse about using coercion.
2) Swedes are more likely to socially punish people who use coercion.
3) Americans desire sex more.
4) Americans are more willing to give in to pressure to have sex.

Their survey cannot tell us which of these four theories is correct, but a properly designed survey could.  You could test theory 1 by asking people how they felt about their actions.  You could test theory 2 by asking how they would respond to a friend who used these tactics.  You could test theory 3 by asking people about their level of sexual desire.  You could test theory 4 by asking about how people respond to pressure.

But they don't do this.  They just speculate and say that 'more research is needed' without making any useful suggestions for how to do that research.  They seem to be working mainly in the framework of Theory 1, talking about how socialization and education make people less willing to use coercion and force.  Theories 3 and 4 are not mentioned at all.

There is actually a fifth theory that could explain the results.  Sexual coercion is only used when one partner wants sex and the other does not.  So the differences could come entirely from sorting mechanisms.  To see what I mean, imagine two societies with identical people and identical costs and benefits of sexual coercion.  In each society, half the men and women want sex, and half do not.  In one society, people openly announce their sexual desire and use that to choose partners.  In this case, all the men and women who want sex pair up with each other, as do the nonsexual ones.  There is no sexual coercion in any relationship.  In the second society, people do not announce their sexual desire and partner assignment is random.  In this case, 25% of the relationships will be between two sexual people, 25% between two nonsexual people, and 50% of the relationships will have one person who desires sex and one who does not.  In this society, we will observe much more sexual coercion, even though the people are identical. 

The survey also uncovers interesting data about physical violence.  In the US, approximately 28% of men and 35% of women report using physical violence ( throwing things, roughly shoving, hitting) against their partners.  In Sweden, the numbers are about 15% for men and 25% for women.  So Swedes of both genders are about 10% less likely to initiate violence, and women in each country are 10% more likely then men to initiate violence against their partners.

So it seems at first glance, that women are more likely to use physical violence and men are more likely to use nonviolent coercion.  But the question about nonviolent coercion only related to sex.  They should have also asked how likely people were to use nonviolent coercion for nonsexual reasons.  That way we could separate the type of coercion used from the desire for sex.  They do ask how often men use physical violence to obtain some kind of sexual contact, and the number is about 16% for US men and 4% for Swedish men.  Women almost never use physical force to obtain sexual contact, even though they seem more likely to use physical force in other contexts.

This all shows why scientists must be guided by theory and must be very careful about the questions they ask.  This survey tells us very little about the differences between men and women, or why Sweden is different than the USA.  The only thing it really tells us is that Sweden is a much better place to be in a relationship or to go out on a date.  But without knowing exactly why, we really don't have a useful guide to making things better here.

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