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"Tomato" statistics

What we find depends upon how we've defined. ... Just as tomatoes can vary drastically in size, so incidents ... can vary drastically in their seriousness. (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 69)

Chapter 3 in It Ain't Necessarily So deals with what the authors dub "tomato" statistics.

In the same way that a grocery store can promise customers 3 tomatoes for $1 and then offer to sell only the smallest varieties of tomatoes at that price, so too can researchers send the public into a frenzy with outrageous statistics that reflect rather unremarkable trends associated with small, commonplace incidents.

Take, for instance, the case-study statistics cited in the text:

  • "... 3.9 million women who were married or living with a man as a couple were physically abused in the past year ..."
  • "... 27.5 percent of college women reported having been raped at some point since age 14 ..."
  • "... about 350,000 children are abducted every year by family members ..."
(Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 57-58)

(The statistics in the first example were cited in the Washington Post, while the statistics in the other two examples were cited in the New York Times.)

The authors of IANS explain that these statistics all shared a common problem: the incidents that they reflected are impossible to define objectively.

How does one define "physically abused," "raped," or "abducted?"

Logically, you might argue that the legal definitions should suffice; but unfortunately, not even the courts can come up with definitions that everyone -- or even most people -- agree upon.

The problem goes even deeper than the legal definitions, though -- it goes straight to the subjective survey questions designed by the investigators in each case-study, which failed to properly incorporate the legal definitions.

The statistics for the physical abuse of women were based upon a survey that used some far-reaching questions. Would you use the term "physical abuse" to define a situation in which your spouse or partner ...

  • "... insulted or swore at you?"
  • "... stomped out of the room or house or yard?"
  • "... threatened to hit you or throw something at you?"
  • "... threw or smashed or hit or kicked something?"
  • "... threw something at you?"
  • "... pushed, grabbed, shoved, or slapped you?"
  • "... kicked, bit, or hit you with a fist or some other object?"
(Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 60)

(There were four other questions on the survey, which can be ignored due to the fact that when asked these questions, "not a single respondent answered 'yes'"; Murray, Schwartz, and Licther 61)

Certainly, it would be a huge stretch to say that most people agree with all of the above definitions of physical abuse. Adults insult and swear at one another all the time. They also frequently stomp around angrily, make threats they never intend to act upon, and throw, smash, hit, or kick things (other than the people they are angry at) in order to vent their frustrations.

The statistics for the rape histories of college women were also based upon a somewhat haphazard question:

Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs? (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 62)

As the authors note in the text, it's possible that some of the women who fit in the survey's definition of "rape" merely had a few drinks, had sex, and then later regretted it. In fact, 11% of the victims surveyed said they "d[id]n't feel victimized," and 49% said their "rape" experience was simply the result of "miscommunication" (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 62).

Of course, there are plenty of other questions that could narrow the definition of each woman's experience: did she ask for the drinks, herself, and then the man paid for them? Did she act particularly sexually forceful, perhaps even if the man was passive? Did she decide to later classify her experience as "rape" because it had unplanned, negative consequences, or because she was simply uncomfortable with her own actions? It should be noted that 42% of the women who were said "to have been raped went on to have sex again with their supposed rapists" (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 63).

Finally, the statistics for the abduction of children by family members included such incidents as when kids staying overnight at a parent's house violated divorce custody agreements, "when a child [was] forcibly transported for as little as twenty feet," "when [a child was] detained for only an hour," and "when the perpetrator [was] an acquaintance (a babysitter or neighbor) [or] a stranger" (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 65).

As the authors point out, these sorts of incidents don't really fit the "popular stereotype" of child abduction that the public generally accepts.

The investigators who performed the survey attempted to differentiate between serious and not-so-serious cases by doing it twice, once with a "Broad Scope" definition and then again with a "Policy Focal" definition of child abduction. Unfortunately, when the New York Times cited the "Broad Scope" statistics, it failed to mention that they were based upon such odd assumptions about what child abduction really is.

Through careful study of the facts and arguments provided in Chapter 3, it can be learned that newspapers and other organizations who frequently cite survey statistics are not always "wise to the ways" of those who conduct the surveys. Most of these surveys probably won't reach the general public through media other than newspapers; thus, it is extremely important for newspapers to comprehend the methods used to collect data that they provide to the public. Newspapers must be able to speak for the numbers, since "Numbers Don't Speak for Themselves" (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter 68).


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In the example you provided, I would definitely agree that the incident classifies as physical abuse -- that is, the guy should never have thrown her down or pulled her hair.

A slap on the knee can sometimes be meant merely as a sign of affection or comraderie, so I don't think that it should classify as physical abuse unless it's a hard hit meant to really hurt the person.

I'm probably bias on this issue. I perceive men (especially from my era) as having so much more power--physically and economically--than women. Also, I knew a woman who was physically and psychologically abused by her "line-backer" husband. He never actually punched her but would throw her down and pull her by the hair. For some reason, he liked to pull women by the hair (He had done that before, we learned). He had claimed that she had slapped him on the knee once. Of course, he was a head taller and considerably out-weighed her. Anyway, it was a terrible story. Nevetheless, as you say, it's good to stimulate discussion on it.

Oh, and I didn't mean to sound harsh, in case I did, Nancy.

I'm merely trying to continue to stimulate this discussion with new questions, and sometimes that means asking questions that can't help but sound harsh.

Sure, calling someone stupid can hurt them just as much as hitting them.

However, the statistics were for physical abuse, thus it makes no sense to me to group both physical and psychological abuse together to create one numerical figure. They're two completely different things.

Chris, I hope I didn't sound critical. Let me ask you this, do you think there is such a thing as psychological abuse? For instance, do you think that calling someone stupid, could be just as damaging as hitting them?

Nancy, I can agree with you that a man pushing a woman can be classified as abuse -- I didn't mean to imply I felt otherwise in my entry or my presentation.

The things that I feel cannot be classified as physical abuse were the things I highlighted during my presentation: insulting others ("You're all stupid!"), throwing an object that is not intended to hit someone (in the way that I threw the book to the ground), and stomping around angrily.

As for the cases in which men are abused by women -- isn't it a bit hypocritical to advocate women's rights and equality between women and men, as activists do, and then to also say that the definition of "physical abuse" should change depending on which sex does the abusing? Just because women are not as strong as men does not mean that it should not classify as physical abuse. The type of behavior *and* the severity of the behavior should both be taken into account, whether a man or a woman is responsible. That is true domestic equality.

Great presentation, Chris. I don't think statistics tell the whole story, nor should we minimize someone's experience. For instance, if a woman is pushed by a man and considers it to be threatening; it's abuse (in my opinion). My point is that just because he didn't punch her does not me it's not violent. Also, if someone's child is abducted by his or her spouse, that person still experiences the pain and loss of being separted from their child. That's not to say that people don't stretch the definition of rape, domestic abuse, or child abductions. As Johanna and I were discussing on one of her blog entries, each case should be looked on for its own merits. (Another note: I'm sure that their are women who abuse their husbands but those cases are rare. Few women, have anywhere near the strength of a man. A woman pushing a man cannot be compared to a man pushing a woman, in my opinion. And of course, that's just my opinion.)

You really researched your topic well and I think that it's hard to cover because the issue of rape is so touchy. I've been called a feminist by some, as I do strongly support female autonomy, giving the woman a right to choose, but I think women often misuse it. Many times when a person's free will acts against them, they try to blame other people. I feel sorry for the men in some of these statistics because the label of rapist or abuser is so loosely used. A man who stomps and yells at his wife is put in the category of a man who stabs a woman. If journalists just made a small note defining or explaining that more than one situation is being clumped under one label, readers might not get a misconstrued point of view from this. Women are just as bad, we throw things and scream I think more than men do at times (usually with just cause in our minds :)) and I even know some women that hit their boyfriends. It is such a double standard that women can get away with doing the same things as men. You hardly ever hear statistics about the poor men. I feel hitting should never be done by either party. If a woman wants to "act like an abusive man" she should be treated like one.

I am also not contesting that women get raped and that it is wrong.

But there are cases where women take advantage of the touchiness and abuse the claim in order to further their own agenda.

I was staying at my sister's apartment in New York and we heard a woman screaming rape outside. My brother-in-law rushed downstairs and when he came back up he told us that it was a hooker being busted by a cop, and she was hoping the rape cry would cause enough confusion and give her time to escape.

There are so many true victims of rape who don't press charges or are too scared to say anything and it really angers me when a false claim is made, or a woman only makes a claim because she regretted the decision.

Because of the touchiness it has become much easier for women to prosecute rape, but it is still a very difficult process legally and emotionally. The last thing that is needed are false claims making that process more difficult.

No worries. I think I assumed you were referring to me because of the word "webmaster."

Thanks for the support, Dr. Jerz. I agree that this is a touchy subject; so much so that I even got a little too emotionally involved in it while putting together my entry and responding to your first comment.

Oh, don't worry, Chris, I'm not at all saying that you *are* anti-woman -- that would be way out of line, and would in fact be the kind of knee-jerk response that I like to think I'm devoting my career to preventing.

It's just that the situation is so touchy, and the general emotional drive towards sympathy is so powerful... well, remember the adage -- if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

That *worry* -- the fear of being labeled as unsympathetic -- can shut down critical thinking, and that means that people (including reporters) may advance a line of thinking that depends on faulty facts, and little good comes of that in the long run.

I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear in my comment... I was actually trying to commend you for tackling this very touchy subject.

Ah, forgive me, I'm not sure why I thought you were referring to *sexual* violence against women, in particular. I forgot about the domestic violence statistics.

But still, the same general principle applies. I was merely thinking of a more extreme case.

Simply reading my entry in its entirety should clue readers in to the fact that the statistics I gave are not to be trusted, methinks.

As for being anti-woman (which is a huge, completely unfair generalization term)... I had a close female friend a few years ago who was a victim of rape, and I saw the suffering it caused. I am certainly not contesting the general fact that some women are raped and that it is wrong, thus I feel I cannot be labeled anti-woman.

Since the issue of violence against women is so touchy, it's difficult not to worry that you might be seen as anti-woman if you challenge shaky statistics that are being used in what many feel is a noble cause. But a journalist must seek out the truth, not simply repeat statistics posted by a well-meaning but misinformed webmaster.

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