Widgets Magazine


In fighting sexual assault, we need to argue from data

I am concerned about recent arguments being made by Stanford advocates against sexual assault. I share your anger: I have lost plenty of sleep working against cultures of assault, and I understand the falsehoods we still have to refute, including that assault is rare, frequently lied about, not a big deal or the victim’s fault. But in pushing back against these false beliefs, I think we’ve propagated some of our own, and I want to give two recent examples of this.

First, consider the email the ASSU sent out last week to the entire student body criticizing the Stanford administration because they “attempted to establish a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual violence.” The causal relationship between alcohol and assault is not a conspiracy cooked up by a cabal of old white men; it is a scientific fact backed up by decades of both associational and experimental research. The association is irrefutable: People are far more likely to assault or be assaulted when they’re drinking. And the causal explanations for this are numerous: Alcohol makes people more likely to say they would commit assault, more sexually aggressive, more likely to miscommunicate and less able to escape or resist. Saying that alcohol causes sexual assault doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks will commit assault (just as saying that drinking soda causes diabetes doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks soda will get diabetes). It certainly does not mean that drunk victims are culpable or drunk assaulters are not (just as saying that guns cause violence doesn’t mean that murderers aren’t culpable). Nor does it mean that we should ignore the many other factors which cause assault, including cultural ones.

I sympathize with the ASSU’s desire to push back against Brock Turner’s attempt to get away with his crime by blaming alcohol, but the fact that idiots twist science doesn’t mean we should refuse to talk about the science. We need to have the complicated discussion where we simultaneously discuss the many ways alcohol contributes to assault, discuss the many other things that contribute to assault, and don’t blame the victims or exculpate the perpetrators — and all the Stanford students I know can handle these complexities.

As a second example, consider the reaction to Stanford’s survey on the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Activists criticized the survey for its definition of sexual assault and demanded that Stanford repeat the survey using the American Association of Universities’ methodology. While one could take issue with Stanford’s definition, the AAU’s survey was hardly a good model either; it suffered from a very low response rate and was widely criticized. A survey is not methodologically rigorous just because it yields results which agree with your prior beliefs.

In both cases, I can make a sympathetic case for why advocates said what they did, and I know they are fighting for the same world that I am. But sexual assault is not an issue on which we can afford pronouncements more impassioned than precise. We are right to be angry. But if we truly care about helping survivors, we need to argue from data and prioritize, as Lily Zheng and Erika Lynn write, “effectiveness over satisfying our moral outrage.”

— Emma Pierson B.S. ’13 M.S. ’13

Current Ph.D. student in CS


Contact Emma Pierson at emmap1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.