News Flash - Sociological Prose

June 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some jokes never get old, at least not at True/Slant, where Conor Friedersdorf has a pretty good parody, “What if sociologists wrote the news?”

    Untangling Race & Gender from Catastrophic Incidences of Corporate Exploitation In Semi-Natural Ecosystems: A Case Study
    . . . . attention is largely focused on efforts to plug the oil well undertaken by British Petroleum, a corporation founded in imperial Britain to exploit the oil resources of people of color.
    It is not insignificant to cleanup efforts, however, that even today BP’s leadership lacks adequate gender diversity, its board of directors being made up of fourteen persons, only one of them who self-identifies as a female, and all of whom earn significantly more than the median income in Louisiana, Alabama, and even the relatively privileged residents of coastal Florida.

And so on. It’s nothing new, but even an old joke is funny if you’ve never heard it (or written it) before.* And from Friedersdorf’s photo, I’d guess it was only a few years ago that he was taking Soc. 101.

Also, it’s good to be reminded of the excesses and shortcomings of our prose and our ideas. Of necessity, some professional writing is going to be arcane – a convenient shorthand for insiders but opaque to those unfamiliar with the concepts and arguments. Still, when you read over something you’re about to put out there for students, the public, or even other sociologists, it’s useful to ask, “Does this sound like a parody?”

*Speaking of old gags that are funny to the young, True/Slant also has a story from failblog about the U of Utah student newspaper’s year-end prank – farewell editorial columns set so the layout spells naughty words.

This Is Not About Sex

June 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today’s Washington Post has a nice article about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It’s by Peter Moskos, who ought to know. His father, Charles Moskos, was a military sociologist – the man who coined the phrase. The point of Peter’s article is that for his father, DADT wasn’t just some abstract rule or impersonal policy recommendation; it reflected his own feelings about sexuality.
My father believed in something that seems quaintly old-fashioned today: sexual modesty. He didn’t like being confronted with anybody’s sexuality, gay or straight.
He wasn’t going to ask, and he didn’t want to be around if somebody told.

I get the impression that a similar squeamishness is what underlies the current opposition to proposals to scrap DADT and allow gays to serve openly. The difference is that Charles Moskos was willing to admit it. The opposition today usually talks not about sex but about “good order and discipline” or “readiness.”

I remember Dale Bumpers’ speech defending Bill Clinton against impeachment. The impeachment came in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but what Clinton was charged with was lying under oath. The charge was perjury and obstruction of justice, but as Bumpers told the Senate,
H. L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money’– it’s about money.” And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex” – it's about sex.
I can’t help thinking that behind all the arguments about “unit effectiveness” and the like, what motivates these opponents is a kind of prudishness, a feeling of uneasiness about sexuality– maybe their own but certainly that of others, especially if those others are homosexual.

Counting the Un-askable and Un-tellable

June 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like Paul Revere warning that the British were coming, the Family Research Council has mounted up and is spreading the alarm about gays in the military. The Council is especially worried about “sexual assault.” Their report, written by Peter Sprigg, looked at all 1643 cases in the Pentagon’s 2009 annual report on sexual assault.
Our startling finding was that over eight percent (8.2%) of all military sexual assault cases were homosexual in nature. This suggests that homosexuals in the military are about three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are, relative to their numbers. [emphasis in original]
And that’s under the repressive Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell rules. If gays are allowed to serve openly, warns the FRC, it’s Matey, bar the door. (For more on their predictions, see my previous post.)

Counting sexual acts is tricky at best. When the sexual behavior you’re trying to measure can ruin a career, and when it’s something about which people are not permitted to ask or tell, and when you are counting only the officially reported cases, which is what the FRC did, you’re going to run into some big methodogical problems.

● Underreporting. The military population numbers nearly 1.5 million, yet there were only 1643 cases in the report. Underreporting wouldn’t matter if victims of heterosexual assault and homosexual assault were equally unlikely to report the offense. But women may also feel more vulnerable to social and perhaps semi-official sanctions for filing a report against a heterosexual male. Women may define an aggressive pass not as sexual assault but as just “what some guys do.” The one reference on this I came across found similar rates of non-reporting for both men and women – nearly 80%.*

● Seriousness. The military definition of sexual assault includes everything from forcible rape to “unwanted fondling.” Even if Sprigg’s numbers are accurate, heteros may commit a higher proportion of serious assaults. In the non-reporting study, the most frequent reason given by male victims was that the offense “wasn’t important enough.” Among women victims, the most frequent reason for not reporting was “Felt uncomfortable making a report.” These data strongly suggest that the unreported heterosexual attacks were, on average, more serious.

For example, in his section on “Risk of homosexual assault in sleeping quarters,” Sprigg excerpts a dozen cases, presumably the juiciest ones he could find. These turn out to be mostly unwanted gropings.
“Subject groped Victim’s crotch several times when helping Victim, who was intoxicated, into his bunk.”
“Victim awoke in his rack to a hand moving up and down his leg and touching his groin area.”.
The “sodomy” cases are typically a sleeping or passed out sailor awakening to find another man giving him an unsolicited blowjob.

● False reporting. Remember, gay sex can get you booted out of the military. But victims don’t get kicked out of the military; homosexuals do. So when an instance comes to light, a more or less consenting partner might claim that he was victimized by the other guy. We don’t know how many such cases there are.

● Unknown base rates. Sprigg assumes that the proportion of gays in the military is no greater than in the civilian population. I agree, but since we can’t ask, and since the people in uniform can’t tell, there’s no way to be sure. If for some reason, gays are overrepresented in the military, then we’d have to pare down the estimate that they are three times as sexually assaultive as straights.

● Sex or power. The most serious male-on-male sexual assaults may be committed by men who identify themselves as heterosexual but who are using sex as a means of humiliation. Prison rape is probably the best-known non-military example; some fraternity hazing also plays on this theme. The same may be true of some of the incidents in the military, especially those involving multiple offenders.

For all these problems, it would be very useful to have other sources of data. The Pentagon reports may be the most comprehensive account of sexual assault in the military – this is not my area, and I’m not familiar with the literature – but before I conclude that gay soldiers are three times more sexually assaultive than straights, I’d like to see more evidence.

* I am using the assumption that most of the female victims were victims of heterosexual assault and that most of the male victims were victims of homosexual assault. It is merely an assumption, and there’s good reason to believe that many of the males were victims of heterosexual offenses. Also, Sprigg and the FRC think that underreporting is greater for male victims, not females. But nobody really knows. I wish I knew of some relevant data.

The Family Prediction Council

June 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Family Research Council came out last week with a report warning us about the dangers of allowing gays to serve openly in the military. The author, Peter Sprigg makes two predictions:
1. Welcoming open homosexuality in the military would clearly damage the readiness and effectiveness of the force—in part because it would increase the already serious problem of homosexual assault in the military. [emphasis in original]

“Clearly damage?” It remains to be seen what the damage, if any, would be. Allowing homosexuals in the military doesn’t seem to have damaged the readiness and effectiveness of the Israeli army. As for an “already serious problem,” it consists of about 150 homosexual assault incidents reported last year in a military population of 1,450,000.

2. If the current law against homosexuality in the military is overturned, the problem of same-sex sexual assault in the military is sure to increase. [emphasis in original]
Sure to increase? Most of these assaults are unwanted gropings. Maybe if homosexual men and women were allowed to use their words, a privilege now afforded only to straight soldiers, the number of these sexual assaults might decrease.

Suppose that heterosexual men were prohibited from asking a woman if she might be interested in a romantic encounter. How might they find out? They can’t ask, and she can’t tell. What’s left? Fondle, caress, grope, perhaps, and see how she responds.

But the organization is not the Family Prediction Council, and Sprigg has in fact looked at some evidence. More on that tomorrow.