Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Only in a very narrow sense is this not a gender issue

[trigger warning]

"This isn't a gender issue" was a sentiment expressed a few times during the defendant anonymity debate.

As with many simple assertions, whether or not it's accurate is something that depends on what definitions you are using.

Firstly, looking at the numbers, estimated from the British Crime Survey and from Kelly, Lovett and Regan, the chance of being a victim of rape is considerably higher than the chance of being a victim of a false accusation for both government-recognised genders.

For adult women, the annual chance1 of being raped is approximately one in 375, and the annual chance of being falsely accused is basically zero. 2.

For adult men, the annual chance of being raped is approximately one in four thousand, and the annual chance of being falsely accused is at most one in 120 thousand (the chance of being charged as a result is at most one in 2.4 million, which is realistically the first time one's name might appear with the case in the press).

So for both government-recognised genders the plan is intended to protect a very small number of people (no women, and probably no falsely-accused men either) at the expense of a much larger group. In that very limited sense, it's not a gender issue, it's just a truly terrible idea.

On the other hand, the proposed law will also protect rapists, who are (to within rounding errors) all male. The studies cited in Lisak's summary suggest that around 6% of men3 will commit rape at least once (with serial rapists being more usual).

In that sense, it's very definitely a gender issue. The rapists the proposed law would protect are all men. Around 90% of the rape victims the proposed law would harm are women. A law doesn't have to say that its effects only apply to one gender for it to have a disproportional effect on people of that gender.

The most convincing proof that this is a gender issue, however, is to look at who is talking about it. For something that wasn't a gender issue, you'd expect that the proportion of people taking a particular side would not be dependent on gender.

Here's - up until the start of this week - the gender balance of those speaking for and against the issue in the House of Commons (the balance in the Lords is similar, but the numbers involved on either side are much smaller)

I'm including written questions and answers in this where they are relevant, and am counting all seven of the MPs in the coalition negotiations as "Against" (or one of them would have picked it up). Some of the judgements, especially around the "Neutral" category, are a little subjective, so don't be surprised if you get slightly different results on recounting.

Numbers, and percentage of MPs of that gender
For0 (0%)15 (3%)
Neutral3 (2%)5 (1%)
Against24 (17%)6 (1%)

In EDM signatures, 38% of the women in the Commons have so far signed EDM105, but only 9% of the men. Of the Labour MPs, 65% of the women have signed, but only 26% of the men.

In the media, and in debates on the internet, the picture is much the same. When women write about the issue, they are nearly all opposed to the proposals. When men write about the issue, opinions are more split, but a significant majority are in favour.

If it wasn't an issue that had significantly different effects on different genders, that would be very unlikely to happen, especially to the highly visible extent that it has. The support numbers of course mean that in a gender-balanced Parliament this proposal would get nowhere, which is yet another clue that it is definitely a gender issue.

1 Setting out an average risk for the millions of adult women in the UK is not necessarily particularly meaningful, of course. There are several groups particularly at risk from rapists for whom the chance of being attacked by one will be much higher.

2 It's probably safe to say that while it's not impossible, the number of women accused specifically of rape (as opposed to other serious sexual offences) in most years will be zero. The number of false accusations will be even smaller.

3 This means that, assuming undetected rapists are no more or less likely to enter politics than anyone else, there are approximately 30 undetected rapists sitting as MPs in the Commons, and another 30 undetected serious sexual offenders. In other words, an MP is statistically more likely to be an undetected serious sexual offender than they are to be a Liberal Democrat. No wonder it's difficult to get anti-rapist legislation through Parliament.