You can imagine what the feminist response was:
The statistics are appalling (there’s a surprise!), but it’s the attitudes that have me in despair, especially the attitudes of boys. The other beauty – 1 in 3 Australian boys think it’s okay to hit a girl.
These attitudes are strongest among 12 to 14 year old boys, which either suggests that older boys have grown up a little, and thought longer and harder about how to interact with girls, or that they have learned how to hide their attitudes, and come out with the socially acceptable platitudes.
I hope it’s the former, but given the incidence of rape and violence in our societies, I fear that it’s the latter. 1 in 3 year 10 girls (year 11 in NZ), that is, girls in their eleventh year of education, aged about 15 or 16, say that they have experienced unwanted sex. That would be rape, of course, but we daren’t use that word.
So one in three 15-year-old girls are being raped in Australia? Those who doubted such a claim were summarily dismissed:
Gringo: This is scary, although I thought it was interesting that the ABC article says that “these are attitudes that the youngest boys, boys from 12 to 14 show most strongly”. Does this suggest that attitudes change over time as the boys grow up begin to understand the world a bit more?
Deborah: I think it shows they learn to say the acceptable thing, given that the same survey shows that 1 in 3 year 10 girls say they have had ‘unwanted sex’.
Beppie: Ugh, how very depressing. I really don’t think I can bear to read the Sun Herald comment thread at the moment ... *sigh*
Rebekka: This makes me feel physically sick. Also, can I smack the idiots out there who claim we don’t need feminism any more?
Tigtog: Beppie, the comments are more about attacking the study as having an agenda against men and that the figures couldn’t possibly be really that high, there’s no defending of the idea that it’s ok to hit or force a woman to have sex.
Beppie: Ah, I see. I know from personal experience how hard many men find it to believe the stats pertaining to rape and other forms of violence against women.
But here's the fun bit. It turns out that the team headed by Dr Michael Flood made a very embarrassing mistake in their report on domestic violence. They misread the original research (National Crime Prevention study 2001). The research did not show 1 in 3 boys thinking it OK to hit girls, but 1 in 3 young people thinking it no big deal for girls to hit boys.
It was about boys being hit, not girls.
The ABC did at least issue a retraction:
On Monday November 17, 2008 ABC News carried stories reporting the findings of a study into the impact of violence on young people. The study was commissioned by the White Ribbon Foundation. It reported, in part, that “one in every three boys believe it is not a big deal to hit a girl".
The author of the report, Dr Michael Flood, has advised the ABC that this finding was in fact wrong. Dr Flood's team transposed information in compilation of that part of the report. The original report by the National Crime Prevention 2001 study upon which much of the White Ribbon report was is based made no reference to "boys hitting girls" In fact the report referred to "girls hitting boys".
And what of the other claim, that 1 in 3 fifteen year-old girls have had unwanted sex. This is a case of some of the feminist commenters misreading Dr Flood's report. The actual statistic is that 30% of Year 10 girls who have had intercourse have had unwanted sex. 24% of Year 10 girls have had intercourse. Therefore, it is around 7% of year 10 girls who have had unwanted sex, not 1 in 3.
Note too that the girls were not just asked if they had unwanted sex because their partners pressured them into it. They were asked as well if they had unwanted sex because they were drunk or high or because their female friends pressured them into it. According to these criteria 23% of Year 10 boys also reported that they had unwanted sex - pretty much the same figure as the girls.
So it seems that the Herald Sun readers were absolutely right to think "that the figures couldn't possibly be that high". Their scepticism was fully justified.
They were also right to think that there was an anti-male agenda behind the figures. I've written about Dr Michael Flood before. He is someone who believes in patriarchy theory: the idea that masculinity is a false social construct created to assert an oppressive power over women. His view of masculinity is therefore intensely negative.
Dr Flood thinks that male identity is a dangerous thing to be suppressed:
We should be wary of approaches which appeal to men's sense of 'real' manhood ... These may intensify men's investment in male identity, and this is part of what keeps patriarchy in place (Stoltenberg, 1990). Such appeals are especially problematic if they suggest that there are particular qualities which are essentially or exclusively male. This simply reinforces notions of biological essentialism ... (Engaging Men, p.3)
He doesn't believe in the real existence of the categories of man and woman:
Nor should we take as given the categories "men" and "women". The binaries of male and female are socially produced ... (Between Men and Masculinity, p. 210)
And yet he is often cited as a leading expert on sexuality and gender. This is from the Melbourne Herald Sun just last week:
State schools will run courses on how to show respect for women ... The Education Department has commissioned a report from VicHealth on the best way to introduce the measures.
Report co-author Dr Michael Flood, a sexuality and gender expert from La Trobe University, said there were many options ...
Dr Flood doesn't even believe in the category of women and yet is writing a report on how to respect them.
When I was at uni there was a Michael Flood who was a socialist and a queer activist. I don't know if he's the same person as the Dr Michael Flood now being hired to lecture heterosexual men on their behaviour. Dr Flood did, it must be said, author the following research, celebrating the queering of straight men:
Bent straights: Diversity and flux among heterosexual men
Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) La Trobe University
New formations of sexuality are emerging among heterosexual men, informed by constructions of ‘queer’ and ‘metrosexual’ masculinities and other alternatives.
Some straight men express alliance with gay men or question the binary of heterosexual and homosexual, or proclaim themselves to be ‘wusses’ and ‘sissies’, or take up egalitarian or even subordinant roles in their heterosexual sexual relations, or adopt a feminised preoccupation with personal grooming.
Such developments signal a weakening of longstanding constructions of heterosexual masculinity, and there is significant diversity in the contemporary sexual cultures of young heterosexual men. Yet at the same time, many heterosexual men’s social and sexual relations with women are organised both by gendered power relations centred on male privilege and by homophobic and homosocial policing.
This could just be Dr Flood faithfully following liberal autonomy theory, in which we are supposed to be liberated from any unchosen form of sexuality, instead choosing for ourselves from a fluid and diverse range of options.
Or it could be Dr Flood attacking a traditional heterosexual masculinity because it's something he personally doesn't share.
Either way, the Herald Sun readers were right to suspect that his research reflected an anti-male agenda.