Blog By Barry

January 27, 2009

Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 3: Truths and Lies

In a speech, self-described “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers said:

Let me turn to my second major objection to contemporary feminism: its reckless disregard for the truth. In doing research for my books, I looked carefully at some standard feminist claims about women and violence, depression, eating disorders, pay equity and education. What I found is that most –- not all —- but most of the victim statistics are, at best, misleading –- at worst, completely inaccurate. […]

I partly agree with Sommers: Too many feminists — including those we rely on to get facts right (such as academics and published writers) — have been careless about fact-checking their claims. Critiquing a textbook on domestic violence, Sommers writes:

Zorza also informs readers that “Between 20 and 35 percent of women seeking medical care in emergency room in America are there because of domestic violence.” This claim is ubiquitous in the feminist canon. But is it false. There are two legitimate studies on emergency room admissions: one by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and another by the Centers for Disease Control. The results of both indicate that domestic violence is a serious problem, but that it is far down on the list of reasons women go to emergency rooms. Approximately one half of one percent of women in emergency rooms are there seeking treatment for injuries from domestic violence.

Sommers cites a second recent textbook, The Penguin Atlas Of Women In The World, which repeats the same error. And she’s right — it is an error. (Although, as I’ll show in a future post, Sommers’ counter-claims are just as false.)

I think this is the strongest of Sommers’ claims. Sommers is right to say that “false assertions, hyperbole and crying wolf undermine the credibility and effectiveness of feminism in general.” And many errors could easily be avoided if authors just checked primary sources — something that professional writers and academics should do routinely.

Within feminism, there’s sometimes too little skepticism regarding statistics and news stories which emphasize harms against women. We’ve created a culture which does a rotten job of self-correction.

But although she has a point, Sommers is still substantially wrong, for two reasons. First, Sommers conflates unambiguous errors of fact — which will inevitably happen sometimes, especially in a movement the size of modern-day feminism — with well-reasoned disagreements. And secondly, Sommers’ own work is full of errors, and at times actually deceptive.

In her lecture, Sommers writes:

Some of you are probably thinking –- the literature on feminism is vast and complex –- there are bound to be some mistakes. So what? But I and other investigators have not found “some mistakes.” What we have found is a large body of blatantly false information. The Domestic Violence Law textbook and the Penguin Atlas of Women in the World are not the exception. They are the rule.

So here’s Sommers’ argument:

1) Feminist writers sometimes repeat “blatantly false information.”

2) This errors are the rule, not the exception. This is documented in the works of Christina Hoff Sommers and “other investigators.”

3) Therefore, feminism, as a rule, consists of “a large body of blatantly false information.”

The trick here is in point 2. Sommers wants us to believe that her critiques of feminism, as well as those by “other investigators,” are filled with examples of feminists making unambiguous factual errors. But that’s not true. In Sommer’s book Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers does catch feminists making some unambiguous errors, but most of the book is taken up by subjective political disagreements, not by fact-checking.

In order to accept that Sommers’ work demonstrates that a “reckless disregard for truth” is the “rule,” “not the exception,” we’d have to accept that anytime a feminist disagrees with Christina Hoff Sommers — because such disagreements take up most of Sommers’ work — that is evidence of a reckless disregard for the truth. But of course, it’s no such thing.

So what do I mean when I say that most of work consists of subjective political disagreements? By “subjective political disagreements,” I mean issues that reasonable, honest people, basing their opinion on well-founded evidence, can disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers on.

I will focus on one example: the rape prevalence research of Mary Koss. Koss’ research is probably the single example that “conservative feminists” have used most often to “prove” feminist dishonesty, ((Think I’m exaggerating? Here is an incomplete list of books which rehash the “conservative feminist” arguments against Koss’ research: The Morning After by Katie Roiphe; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex and Feminism by Carrie Lukas; Dead End Feminism by Elisabeth Badinter; Lip Service by Kate Fillion; Tax-funded Politics by James T. Bennett; A Nation of Victims by Charles J. Sykes; Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising by John Feteke; The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order‎ by Rene Denfeld; The Myth of Male Power by Warren Farrell; Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? by Warren Farrell, Steven Svoboda, & James P. Sterba. It’s likely there are additional books I’m unaware of, not to mention dozens of articles and hundreds of website.)) starting in the early 1990s in books like Sommers’ own Who Stole Feminism?, and continuing to this day (Heather MacDonald published an attack on Koss’ research just last year). According to the Independent Woman’s Forum, ((A Sommers-influenced “conservative feminist” think tank.)) Koss’ research is the “number one feminist myth” in America.

So what was Koss’ rape research? In the 1980s, Koss pioneered a new approach to surveying populations about their past experiences with rape. Where previous surveys measured rape prevalence by asking respondents a single, sometimes hilariously vague question (“Has anybody ever attacked you in any other way?”), Koss asked a series of comparatively specific questions (“Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man threatened or used some degree of a physical force (twisting your arm, holding you down, etc.) to make you?”) about respondents’ experiences.

Koss’ study of “hidden rape” proved three important facts, which feminists and criminologists had long suspected: that rape happened much more frequently than official numbers indicated; that most rapes aren’t committed by strangers; and that most rapes are never reported to police or other authorities.

Koss’ study, in the decades since, has led two parallel lives. In one life — a life lived in books funded by right-wing foundations, anti-feminist websites, and the like — Koss’ work is an enduring symbol of feminist dishonesty and deception, and is considered a discredited joke, trotted out for rehashed debunkings every couple of years.

In another life, however — a life lived among academic experts — Koss’ work has been amazingly successful. Decades later, her work is respectfully cited in peer-reviewed studies — a few years ago I found that just two of Koss’ articles had been cited over six hundred times. ((In Who Stole Feminism, Sommers claims that Koss’s work is frequently cited by activists but “not so much by established scholars in the field of rape research.” It would in fact be hard to name a scholar of rape prevalence who has been cited more often in the professional literature.))

Although subsequent research has arguably improved on Koss’ 1980s work, her insight — that rape victims are more likely to recount their experiences in response to a series of behaviorally-specific questions — is accepted by virtually all published rape prevalence researchers. And Koss’ central findings (described above) have been replicated in study after study, including two major studies conducted by the Federal government.

By ordinary academic standards, a frequently-cited study which has been replicated multiple times is solid work. That’s not to say that Koss’ study was perfect — no study ever is — but citations plus replication is the gold standard.

Of course, reasonable people can sometimes disagree with professional researchers, and Sommers and other “investigators” are entitled to their opinions. ((To delve into the details of the debate, including detailed responses to the arguments most often brought up by Sommers and other “investigators,” see my past posts about the Koss controversy.)) But Sommers’ position on Koss’ research isn’t that reasonable people can disagree. Instead, she and other “investigators” have repeatedly used Koss’ research as their major example of feminist lying, even though Koss’ results are widely accepted by experts and have been replicated over and over.

This is the central dishonesty of Sommers’ thesis: She claims her work shows that feminists “as a rule” have “reckless disregard for the truth,” but most of her book concerns matters that an honest person could easily disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers about. ((It’s not just rape prevalence research; I could make similar arguments for how Who Stole Feminism? treats topics like domestic violence, education, the wage gap, etc….))

Sommers has to frame all her disagreements with mainstream feminism as feminist lying, because that is the basis of her case against feminism. If she admits that reasonable, honest feminists can disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers, she loses her claim that modern feminism consists of “a large body of blatantly false information… at best, misleading –- at worst, completely inaccurate.”

* * *

Earlier this post, I said that “Sommers’ own work is full of errors, and at times actually deceptive.” In my next post in this series, I’ll back that statement up, using her discussion of emergency room admissions as my example.

This post appears both at “Alas, a Blog” and at “Blog By Barry.” To facilitate intra-feminist dialog, the comments at “Alas” are only open to feminists, while the comments at “Blog By Barry” are open to all.



  1. I thought the comments you got on your Alas blog where good. There is no denying that feminist research can be proven to be misleading and much of yester-years research is being founded as untrue as research gets better.

    Feminism is another Chicken Licken just like:

    #Global Warming
    #Millenium bug, and planes falling out of the sky
    #Asian takeover
    #The ‘Nuclear Winter’ after the inevitable war with Russia
    #Climate change from Atom Bomb tests
    #Communism taking over the world
    #The coming Ice Age (still on it’s way I believe)
    #The Sun exploding and destroying the earth (not canceled- but don’t hold your breath)
    #Meteor (ite) strike
    #The BIG ONE earthquake
    etc. etc.

    The only difference is that feminism gets billions in Government Grants to stay alive.

    You only have waves of feminism because the gullible soon wake up and you need a gap to reach the next gullible generation.

    Comment by mareika — January 29, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  2. The comment count here and the comment count there should help you understand why separate but equal is wrong. And in this case, unneeded except to keep an actual dialog from occurring, which presumably, is your intent.

    Mary Koss’ (UofA) research demonstrates that 25% of college women will be raped prior to graduation.

    ASU has 52,000 students. Let’s say 24,000 women (because it divides easier). In four years that’s about 6,000 rapes per year, or about 500 rapes per month, or about 15 rapes each and every day.

    So according to Koss’ research there are 15 women every day being raped at ASU.

    The ASU student newspaper, searched for rape, reveals no rapes, but a lot of rape prevention efforts (as of 2/2009)

    The same search at the AZ republic, reveals one rape lawsuit, settled, and no other rapes.

    This azcentral page says the campus police stats are not 1 in 4, but 1 in 20. Campus police estimate 1 in 20 victims tell police.

    If Ross’ stats are correct, I cannot understand why the Web Devil (Student newspaper) or the AZ Republic are failing to report on the 15 rapes per day that are occurring. Even with 5% of rapes being reported, that should mean there is a rape being reported to police every day (at least every other day.)

    Why is the Web Devil covering this up? Why is the AZ Republic covering this up? Why are AZ politicians covering this up (including Democratic former governor Janet Napolitano, and Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard, and Tough on Crime Sherriff Joe Arpaio, and I would think that Arizona citizens, parents, students would be outraged.

    The silence of this ASU rape epidemic confounds me.

    Comment by jerry — February 8, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  3. The comment count here and the comment count there should help you understand why separate but equal is wrong.

    This blog is much newer; it’s illogical to compare it to a blog that’s six years old and expect it to have developed equal readership already.

    And in this case, unneeded except to keep an actual dialog from occurring, which presumably, is your intent.

    My intent is just what I said it was — to facilitate intra-feminist dialog. If you choose to believe I’m lying about my intent, that’s your problem, not mine.

    Mary Koss’ (UofA) research demonstrates that 25% of college women will be raped prior to graduation.

    No, that’s not what Koss’ research says. This isn’t a matter of opinion: you are totally wrong. You don’t know even basic facts about the research you’re criticizing.

    What Koss’ research found is that about 1 in 4 female college students had experienced rape or attempted rape at some point in their life since the age of 14.

    Also, Koss’ research showed that the vast majority of rapes did not take place on campus, and were never reported to authorities. Using back-of-the-envelope math, I calculated that, if Koss’ numbers are correct, we’d expect that about 1 rape will be reported to campus police each year on an average-sized college campus.

    Comment by Ampersand — February 8, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

  4. You don’t even believe that. If you did, for instance, you would link to it from Alas,

    Comment by jerry — February 8, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  5. To start with, we need to ask “how many female undergraduates are on an average college campus?” (Koss’ statistic about rape victims included only female undergrads). According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2000 there were 12,450,587 undergrads in the USA. Of those, 55.9%, or 6,959,878, were women. There are 4,096 colleges and universities in the US, which works out to an average of 1,699 female undergrads per college campus.

    ASU has 52,000 students. 26,000 women. That’s 15 times your BOTEC. That’s presumably 15 rapes a year believing all your other calcs. That’s at least 1 rape reported each month.

    Again, where are the rape reports? Web Devils, the campus newspaper and the AZ Republic are not reporting 1 reported rape each month. You can’t even find them reporting your claim of one rape a year.

    And if ASU is like most campuses, it’s not 50% women, it’s more like 55% women. And the AZ Republic and Web Devils have similar majorities of women on staff.

    Why is no one there reporting rapes to match your claims? Why are all these women keeping silent? How come we can’t find the websites of women discussing their rapes at ASU or how their rapes were silenced?

    Why is the Arizona Democratic government and the get tough on crime sheriff not reporting this stuff? Why aren’t critics of ASU not bringing the “real” rape numbers as you would claim up?

    If ASU is abnormal and has abnormally low amounts of rape, how come we don’t hear about their program being a model of success?

    Comment by jerry — February 8, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  6. Jerry, do you admit that you were completely wrong about what you thought Koss’ study said? It’s off-putting that you can show yourself to be a complete ignoramus, and you don’t even have the grace or intelligence to say “sorry, I got that wrong. Moving on….”

    You don’t even believe that. If you did, for instance, you would link to it from Alas,

    I would link to what from Alas?

    As for ASU, who knows? Koss’ study used a nationwide sample. It’s illogical to expect individual campuses in 2008 to have results identical to that of a nationwide sample in the 1980s, unless you think that regional and temporal differences are impossible.

    Maybe rapes really happen less often on ASU campus, and the campus should be a model. Or maybe the campus culture there doesn’t encourage reporting. Or maybe most rapes reported to campus police aren’t reported in school newspapers. There’s no way I can tell from here in Oregon. To seriously answer your questions, someone would have to do legitimate, detailed studies of what’s going on at the ASU campus.

    The legitimate comparison is the one I made — I compared Koss’ nationwide sample to the nationwide average for rapes reported to campus police authorities. That individual campuses don’t match the nationwide figures doesn’t prove that the nationwide figures are wrong, any more than pointing out that some men are five feet tall disproves that the average height for a male is 5’9″.

    As I’ve pointed out several times, Koss’ findings have been replicated again and again, including by major federal government studies. It’s not just Koss you’re disagreeing with at this point; it’s a substantial body of literature.

    Comment by Ampersand — February 8, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  7. You don’t link to “this blog” from *anywhere*. You don’t link to it from, you don’t link to it from your short blogroll, you don’t link to it from your long blogroll.

    You haven’t posted to this blog in 2 1/2 weeks.

    As I said, this should show you that your separate but equal policy is nonsense.

    It’s perhaps true I got Koss’ research wrong, and in my defense, it’s the same error most people make and the same error about it that is constantly reported about it. Almost always when reading about Koss, or anti-rape programs, what is cited is that women have a 1 in 4 chance of being raped in their college years. If it is the case that that wasn’t her research, you should be trying to correct the feminists and rape programs that keep on misstating her. But I thank you for your correction.

    I like how you disregard the stats coming out of ASU using actual numbers that show that your paper numbers and hers are nonsense.

    That’s not how science works Barry. Science works not by leaning back on your paper numbers, but by comparing theory to reality, not by ignoring it.

    You’re not the only person who wants to stop rape. So if ASU’s experience is abnormal, then we would expect to see ASU’s police/rape programs/feminists/coordinators making hay of their enormous success. That they don’t make large splashes in the news with their justifiably excellent program demonstrates they don’t think their success is as abnormal as you do.

    Regarding how her research has been replicated, amongst the possibilities are that in this field, it’s been so heavily politicized by folks such as yourself, that it turns into a self-fullfilling research trap, like the infamous 2% number of false rapes claimed by Brownmiller. That number has been shown to have no underlying credibility, and yet we have one paper after another citing it as truth.

    This blog of yours is dead. You don’t care about. You have it here to justify your wrongheaded policy of separate but equal.

    Comment by jerry — February 15, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  8. Earlier this post, I said that “Sommers’ own work is full of errors, and at times actually deceptive.” In my next post in this series, I’ll back that statement up, using her discussion of emergency room admissions as my example.

    I was hoping that you were going to back up this contention, but you haven’t posted in almost a year.

    Comment by Fallacist — December 24, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

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