Wow. . . coming off the Silence is the Enemy rape awareness initiative, it’s more depressing than usual to see the Telegraph’s latest bad science reporting. Their story implies that rape victims deserve blame for what happens to them:

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester (source).

Ben Goldacre of the excellent Bad Science blog didn’t think so. So he tracked down the (student) author of the (unpublished) (MS) dissertation cited by the Telegraph. She said the article was completely wrong:

“We found no evidence that that women who are more outgoing are more likely to be raped, this is completely inaccurate, we found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.” (source)

Goldacre then asked about the “provocative dress” claim: while there was a slight correlation, it was “not statistically significant.” In fact, the researcher said “I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.”

What are they doing at the Telegraph? Simply calling whatever knee-jerk prejudices they have “news”, without reading the press release or actually listening to the scientists they call? And we wonder why these attitudes about rape persist. . .

PS: Another study presented at the same conference indicated that men have less sympathy for rape victims. Now why would that be? Because there’s a perception that women are asking for it with their behavior? Thanks again, Telegraph.

PPS. Via Ben Goldacre again: check out the list of previous “science” articles the Telegraph‘s “science correspondent” has written. Wow.


  1. #1 Adrian Morgan
    July 4, 2009

    I was puzzled by your first paragraph, because, of course, even if it were true it still wouldn’t imply that rape victims deserve blame for what happens to them. I think what you meant is that it’s liable to reinforce the notion among people who think that way.

  2. #2 BioinfoTools
    July 4, 2009

    He calls himself a ‘Science Correspondent’, a title that reads as ironic to me, as it would seem his words don’t correspond with the science he is reporting.

    Looking at what he’s done and if the titles of his previous work accurately reflect their content—have to be careful there as he won’t be choosing those titles—I come away with the impression of someone who looks for something that they can “spin”, without particular regard for accuracy…

  3. #3 Ethan Siegel
    July 4, 2009

    Wow, what a great thing you’re doing by exposing this awful, lying man. What a horrid, destructive, base thing for him to do as a news reporter.

  4. #4 Teddydeedodu
    July 4, 2009

    For heaven’s sake people!! This is the bleedin Telegraph we are talking about. It is a tabloid journalist’s paradise. It has the same credibility as Rupert Murdoch’s “balanced” Fox News. Or should I say Idiot News.

  5. #5 bioephemera
    July 4, 2009

    Teddydeedodu: so you’re saying we shouldn’t be upset when Fox News, the Telegraph, etc. make stuff up and present it as scientific fact? Wow. I don’t mean to be rude, but have you just given up caring or something? I may not be surprised, but I’m darn well going to be upset!

    Adrian: I, Ben Goldacre, and the researcher whose work was misrepresented all felt that the way the Telegraph spun the story implied rape victims brought rape on themselves (read Goldacre’s post). The researcher in particular was horrified. I don’t think it’s a big leap at all from “women who engage in [voluntary behavior] are more likely to be raped” to “women who engage in [voluntary behavior] are choosing to place themselves at risk of being raped”, do you? That’s why Ben titled his post “Asking for it,” and why I titled mine what I did.

    BioInfoTools: exactly! Go ahead and check out the climate science shrinks sheep story if you want to see more “science” “writing.” In that case, the subtitle is even better than the title (although it’s true he may be responsible for neither).

  6. #6 Adrian Morgan
    July 5, 2009

    I think we’re using the word “implication” differently. If I follow, you’re using it to mean the conclusion that the writer intends the reader to reach, irrespective of whether it would be a rational conclusion even in a hypothetical reality where the facts are as the writer presents them. I’m using it to mean the conclusion that would actually be justified in such a reality.

    What I know for certain is that I don’t want to live in a world where failing to do everything in your power to minimise risk, and letting every detail of your lifestyle and behaviour be dictated to you by fear of that risk (probably for the sake of some minuscule fraction of a percentage point in safety), is considered tantamount to deserving blame. To my way of thinking, that is not so much a leap as a gigantic chasm.

  7. #7 Meat Robot
    July 5, 2009

    Does the UK not have some sort of journalistic ombudsman with whom a complaint could be lodged? Surely this sort of story qualifies.

    I can easily imagine some women being misled by the story and unnecessarily modifying their behaviour. I can also see unscrupulous men modifying the targets they aim at, in some sort of horrid self-fulfilling prophecy.

  8. #8 Johan
    July 5, 2009

    “I don’t think it’s a big leap at all from “women who engage in [voluntary behavior] are more likely to be raped” to “women who engage in [voluntary behavior] are choosing to place themselves at risk of being raped”, do you? ”

    Well no, but that is also not the question. Of course people choose to take more or less risks of being exposed to crime, including perhaps rape. Taking less risk often involves restricting how you live your life in other respects and isn’t always worth the decreased chance of being a victim of a crime.

    Carrying money increases the risk that someone will steal from you, or even rob you, but it hardly means any victims of theft have themselves to blame. The blame lies squarely on the perpetrators.

  9. #9 BioinfoTools
    July 5, 2009


    I know some people would say that merely the fact that the piece is in The Telegraph should mean that it should be taken with (huge) scepticism. While you might argue that, even in the tabloids there are articles that are considered “fact”. I’d like to see The Telegraph try misreport the results of sporting events, for example. They’d lose their readership to the competition very fast if they did! This is may seem a contrived example, but it does illustrate—to me at least—that merely that fact that the article is in a tabloid doesn’t provide much in the way of a defence.

    To me, articles that are misleading are wrong, no matter who publishes them. There are legitimate uses for teaser headlines if the article very clearly puts the “tease” right. There are valid use of articles that “lead” readers down a line of thinking, only to invert it. (I imagine it doesn’t suit the usual style of newspaper articles, though.) But straight-out wrong is straight-out wrong whichever way you look at it.

    The title ‘Science correspondent’ serves to imply the author presents factual material, accurately. If he’s not doing this, then the title is at best suspect. (The editors could place the article under some sort of subsection title to cue readers how to read his piece. In this case Misreported science might do well 🙂 I’m kidding, of course.)

    On another note, it occurs to me that press releases of preliminary research results have more issues than most, as they must be more vulnerable. (I can’t help but think that targeting a student—if that’s what was done—is a vulnerability, too, but one in which the journalist carries some responsibility.) Making it clear that the work is preliminary should be part of reporting it accurately, too.

    (As an aside, I have to love this comment on Ben’s blog: The list of previous articles is interesting indeed. If two “scientists” on here say that Richard Alleyne is an idiot, could we all then blog “Richard Alleyne is an idiot, claim scientists”?. Some might say this is already happening, though…)

  10. #10 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 5, 2009

    Yes, the telegraph is a shitty rag that seems to exist solely to advance a cartoonish patriarchal agenda. And yes, it is still worth debunking this shit when it appears. And yes, even if drunk women in short skirts are more likely to be raped than sober women in overalls, it is still solely the responsibility of men to not rape women.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    July 5, 2009

    Adrian and Johan, the problem is not people like you who think the “blame lies squarely on the perpetrators.” It’s the people who blame the victims. And if you don’t think those people exist, look at the link in my post – at the same conference where these results were presented, other research was presented showing that men blame rape victims for being raped more than women. “Journalism” like this story gives those individuals fodder for their unjust beliefs, and that’s why I object to it.

  12. #12 daedalus2u
    July 5, 2009

    There is a very interesting review in Science on a related topic.

    When you are actively trying to avoid something, there are physiological pathways that (under some circumstances) make it more likely to happen.

    This may be part of why blaming the victim is such a pervasive part of human nature. People who are “trying too hard” to avoid something can be pretty obvious about it and (to some), that is sufficient reason to fault them for exactly the thing they are trying to not do. If someone is trying hard to not do something, obviously they have reasons for doing so, and calling attention to what they are trying to avoid doing is an effective bullying technique. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be trying to not do it. If they do care, then wrongly calling attention to it is a good bullying technique. Blaming the victim is good bullying.

    Someone who is very consciously trying to be completely non-sexist and non-racist may slip up and inadvertently say something with sexist or racist overtones via this effect.

    A woman who is trying very hard to not be a victim of rape may through her actions show herself to be vulnerable to being raped. It isn’t anything that she is doing, other than “acting like a victim”. That subtlety is difficult to capture in a description of her behavior and may be oblivious to all but potential rapists who are looking for victims.

    The other motivation behind blaming the victim is it lets non-victims have the illusion that they are in control and can avoid being raped through their own actions. Abused children very often become provocative, such that they can have the delusion that they are in control of their own abuse that they are bringing on the abuse by being “bad” and by acting provocatively.

  13. #13 John
    July 5, 2009

    That’s reprehensible journalism.

  14. #14 Johan
    July 5, 2009

    “It’s the people who blame the victims. And if you don’t think those people exist, look at the link in my post – at the same conference where these results were presented, other research was presented showing that men blame rape victims for being raped more than women.”

    Well yes they surely exist.

    But I would suggest that you don’t fight them most effectively by suggesting that they would be right if it turned out that “drunk women in short skirts are more likely to be raped than sober women in overalls” this would give support to their opinion.

  15. #15 daedalus2u
    July 5, 2009

    Jessica’s point is that the “blame the rape victim” meme is so strong that it distorts people’s ability to read, understand and report facts accurately.

    The journalists didn’t have the ability to read, understand and report the facts accurately because their perception is so distorted by the meme that women who are raped are asking for it.

    The journalists had already come to their conclusion that women who drink, dress provocatively and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, so the facts didn’t change their conclusions or even matter.

    This isn’t a question of simply getting some facts wrong, it is about a systematic distortion of the facts to fit a preconceived agenda. Maybe the journalists don’t have a conscious bias that they blame women who are raped, but they do blame women who are raped, so much so that it distorts their ability to report research about it.

  16. #16 bioephemera
    July 5, 2009

    Thanks, daedalus2u. Nicely explained!

    Let me be clear: No one here is saying that if the data had said women who drink were more likely to be raped, that would mean the crime was their fault. It doesn’t matter what behavior the victim is engaging in; rape is never his or her fault.

    What I am saying is that the Telegraph took data that said *the exact opposite,* and twisted it. They twisted it to fit a very common preconception – that the victim is partially to blame for what happens to her. Why did they do that? I suggest it’s because this framing was most consistent with the blame-the-victim meme, the easiest conclusion to leap to, and the most likely to resonate with readers.

    Here’s an interesting question. Ask yourself if you think the *opposite headline* – “women who stay sober more likely to be raped” – would have been as appealing to the Telegraph. That headline fits the data better (though I still feel it would be misleading), and you could argue it is even more surprising/dramatic. So why didn’t they use it? Are surprising, counter-intuitive headlines more or less effective? I don’t think this is a simple question at all – my guess is it depends on the topic and the audience. There is a huge market for news that reinforces the audience’s preconceived biases, rather than challenging them.

  17. #17 Adrian Morgan
    July 5, 2009

    I want to clarify this. The point I raised was never intended to raise a debate about facts or ideology. It was about clarity. I was pointing out, for Jessica’s benefit, where I think her choice of words did not say what she intended them to say. Specifically, the phrase “their story implies” in the first paragraph.

    Now, I made a major grammatical error in #6, though I think my meaning was clear. Can’t edit comments, though.

  18. #18 Jessica Palmer
    July 5, 2009

    Let me quote the researcher who did the study, from Ben Goldacre’s blog:

    “When I saw the article my heart completely sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all.”

    I agree with her, so my choice of words says pretty much what I intended them to say.

    Note also this update on Ben’s blog post:

    “Since I started sniffing around, and Sophia complained, the Telegraph have quietly changed the online copy of the article, although there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the original Telegraph article archived but it had a worse spin than what you are seeing now. It appears they’ve made several of their statements more innocuous, although they didn’t admit any fault.

  19. #19 Zuska
    July 6, 2009

    Excellent post, Jess, and Adrian’s boring concern trolling is completely off-point.

    Rape is caused by men choosing to rape women, plain and simple. Doesn’t matter what you wear, how you act, etc. You can be a virginal 85 year old nun in a full habit and you still aren’t safe. Articles like this piece of crap Jess reported on here are terrible because they do support the vicious notion that women somehow invite rape through various behaviors and dress and are thus somehow responsible for it and in control of whether it happens or not; and articles in popular tabloid press organs like the Telegraph are tremendously influential over a wide population. We have to fight back against this crap when it appears. It’s bad enough when the press reports on less-than-reliable research that just exists to shore up standard patriarchal prejudices but when they are actually making up crap! and reporting stuff that is going to make people even dumber than they were before they started reading! well then I think it behooves us to say something. Good for you, Jess. Adrian, sit back, stop typing for awhile, and try to learn something from this.

  20. #20 Adrian Morgan
    July 6, 2009

    Zuska, I am not going to labour the point because this is Jessica’s blog and arguments between one commenter and another on other people’s blogs are so very tedious … but to say it once and for all, I have been in total agreement from the very beginning about how stupid and anticonstructive the article is, and I was perfectly clear about that.

    I’m not offended by your accusation that I was trolling, because it’s so completely disconnected from both reality and the evidence available to you that it’s impossible to take seriously. Jessica retains my full respect. Zuska less so. If you want to argue, my email address is two clicks away.

  21. #21 Jessica Palmer
    July 6, 2009

    Adrian, you’re not a troll in my book. I appreciate the feedback on the post; we disagree, that’s cool. We all agree on the important issues here (that victims are not to blame regardless).

  22. #22 AlekNovy
    July 6, 2009

    Why is the knee-jerk reaction always to cry “ooooh ooooh victim blaming, victim blaming!!”


    Let me give you the most simple analogy on the planet. If the telegraph said:

    “”People who drive expensive cars, wear top-brand watches and are outgoing are more likely to be murdered, claim scientists at the University of Leicester””


    No one would cry “Why are we blaming the murder-victim bohooo!!!”

    So why is the exact same cliche response had every time about rape? There’s nothing scientific about it.

    Basically Jessica, you’re not doing anyone a service with the cliche oversimplification and putting words in someone’s mouth. There are 573 different ways to interpret that paragraph article, but you interpreted in the most negative way possible, and then ascribed your own interpretation as being the intention of the publisher.

    Let’s get back to being scientific and leave that linguistic manipulation to groups like radical feminists?

  23. #23 AlekNovy
    July 6, 2009

    In response to: “””Jessica’s point is that the “blame the rape victim” meme is so strong that it distorts people’s ability to read, understand and report facts accurately.”””

    But it was radical feminists who invented that mene in the first place!!! The biggest source and distributor of this meme is articles like Jessica’s where they actually give power to that meme and spread it.

    What you reaffirm grows. There was a great post above from daedalus2u about the re-affirming effect.

    Basically feminists are going around such incredibly DAMAGING lines such as zuska did above:

    Zuska says: Rape is caused by men choosing to rape women, plain and simple

    WHAT did zuska do here!?! She just started a meme that “men choose to rape women”. Do you get it!? That’s an affirmatin. Its a hypnotic suggesting bouncing around saying “men CHOOSE TO rape women”.

    She ascribed that act to “MEN”, not “some men”, not “rapists”, but “MEN”. As a label.

    If a child reads what zuska wrote, he now has the affirmation that when he becomes a man, he needs to “choose to rape women”.

    Just another case of how a group that thinks is solving a problem is actually perpetuating it.

  24. #24 Jessica Palmer
    July 6, 2009

    See, Adrian? YOU aren’t a troll – AlekNovy is. Definitely a huge difference. 🙂

  25. #25 AlekNovy
    July 6, 2009

    See Jessica, you’re doing the exact same thing I wrote my comment about.

    Currently, there is no discussion allowed on the subject in any way, and anyone who dares point out that the discussion could be done in different ways is labeled a troll, guilted, shamed or mis-represented.

    I gave 3 very specific points about the subject, the methodology used, and how it might not be constructive. Your response? Personal insults.

  26. #26 Jessica Palmer
    July 6, 2009

    AlekNovy, that wasn’t an insult. It was a statement of fact based on your comments here and on other Sb blogs. You are indisputably a troll spoiling for a fight. Also, you are the only person in this entire thread to make the discussion personal, which is a most regrettable turn of events.

    That kind of attitude is not welcome on my blog. Goodbye.

  27. #27 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 6, 2009

    Just another case of how a group that thinks is solving a problem is actually perpetuating it.


    What a fucking moron.

New comments have been disabled.