Stealthing, statistics & scaremongering

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon strip which has Charlie Brown and Lucy arguing as usual. When Charlie Brown rattles off an impressive list of numbers to bolster his case, Lucy asks where he got his statistics from. “I just now made them up!”

Journalists and activists rarely make up statistics out of whole cloth, but they do distort, misrepresent, and – more often than not – simply misunderstand the statistics they throw about like confetti. When a journalist starts bandying statistics, be wary (and yes, that goes for me, too), and keep your bullshit-detectors up.

One useful rule of thumb for dealing with statistics, especially when journalists are trying to scare you, is: if you never knew it was this bad, it probably isnt.

Case in point:

One in three women and almost one in five men have been the victim of non-consensual condom removal, also known as “stealthing”.

Wow, that’s pretty scary. No doubt you, like me, never thought it could be that bad.

That’s because it probably isn’t.

A Melbourne Sexual Health Centre and Monash University study surveyed more than 2000 people who visited the clinic run by The Alfred hospital over three months beginning in December 2017.

The study, believed to be one of the first of its kind in the world, found more than 30 per cent of 1189 women surveyed had been “stealthed”.

About 19 per cent of 1063 men who have had sex with men surveyed had been stealthed.

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A statistic is only as valid as the method by which it was gathered, and as even many of the Age’s readers pointed out, this statistic relies on a decidedly questionable method. A well-designed survey should ideally be randomly selected from the target population – in this case, all Australian adults.

The survey in question was most definitely not random, nor representative of the target population. The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre is a sexually-transmitted disease clinic. Its clients are obviously already concerned about having been exposed to unsafe sex.

This is like surveying jail inmates and concluding from that that 100% of the general population have been convicted of serious criminal offenses.

That’s not to say that “stealthing” never happens, or shouldn’t be taken seriously. But using gussied-up statistics to try and scare and intimidate everyone is not journalism, it’s activism.

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