Monday, January 18, 2016

How Do Fraternity Men Talk About Women When There Are No Women Around?

Content note: this piece contains quotes which are graphically sexual, sexist, and racist, as well as quotes which endorse rape.

There are numerous allegations of sexism against fraternities; men who join are three times more likely to commit rape, even though they are no more likely to commit rape before joining. This makes you wonder just what these men are saying behind closed doors, a question that becomes particularly pressing when you consider that fraternity culture doesn’t magically dissolve upon graduation: it becomes incorporated into bastions of power that include Wall Street firms and billion-dollar companies as fraternity members disproportionately assume leadership roles in society.

It’s of course difficult for a woman to know how fraternity men talk when they’re alone. (My friends vetoed my plans to subpoena a fraternity’s emails or “fall asleep” at a fraternity party and listen to what happened.) But there is a public data source that claims to capture fraternity culture: the website Total Frat Move (TFM), which receives roughly 8 million monthly visits, according to a site administrator. The site covers all aspects of fraternity life, but its “Girls” section posts pictures of women for site users to comment on. I statistically analyzed the more than sixteen thousand comments on the Girls section. Most posts fell into one of three categories. 56% were “Instagram Babes of the Day”, containing Instagram photos of a single woman; 14% were collections of topless photos (careful where you open that); 17% were collections of photos from a particular sorority. To provide context for my analysis of the comments, I also contacted fraternity men who posted on the site and fraternity men I knew socially.

While TFM does not provide a perfectly representative sample of fraternity members (and non-fraternity members can comment on the site), it does provide a far larger sample than, for example, a story about a sexual assault at a single fraternity. It represents a substantial slice of fraternity culture. To give you a taste of what wins you approval on this site, here are some of the comments about women which got the most upvotes.

“There’s just something about those knee-high socks that screams ‘I do anal’.”
“10/10 would do… 0/10 would take home to mom.”
“When I think of all the money I could save by marrying that ass and not having to buy tits or a brazzers membership, it’s really just prudent investing.”
“I bet her butthole tastes like fruit loops.”
“She looks like her life will consist of manicures, attending her children’s equestrian events, and country club fundraiser dinner parties.”
“9/10 would follow from a safe distance.”
“Dear Santa, I can explain… My dad wasn’t around much.”
“I’ll say it, she’s getting fat. Those Hindenburg’s are great, but the tit-to-waist ratio is way off.”
“She really needs to stop fucking around and just get fully nude.”
“Someone tell Kelly that I’ve seen her butt, and I’ll pee there as soon as I can…”
“Look, it’s not like this site could piss feminists off anymore than it already does. Can you just get rid of the fucking sailboats and let us see some nipple?”
“Am I the only one who thinks an American flag somewhere on a women automatically makes her 10 times hotter?”
“Why do some of these girls think it’s ok to take pictures with zits on their boobs and asses? I can’t unsee that shit.”

The most frequently mentioned body part is “ass” (outnumbering “smile” 25 to 1, and “eyes” by 10 to 1), followed by “tits”; “face” comes in third, followed by “butt” and “boobs”. After reading these comments, I had two questions: 

1. Do fraternity men really talk this way in person? 
2. Why do women submit their pictures to this site?

As you can perhaps guess, I went into this project with a strong distrust of both TFM and fraternities in general. I came out, however, both enjoying my conversations with every fraternity man I spoke to and fascinated by the complex and contradictory world they inhabited. Some of the men I talked to were more fluent in feminist tropes than I was. When I asked one if men ever tried to “steal” girls from each other at parties, he gently chided me, “The very language of your question reveals the problematic views on women that lead to sexual assault."


Most fraternity men I spoke to agreed that while men were much cruder when they were talking only to other men, they were not as crude in person as TFM implied. One said that fraternity men were more willing to push boundaries online, on the fraternity email lists, even though it created a permanent record and some of them planned to run for political office.

I got a contrary perspective from one of the widest-read authorities on fraternity culture: Tucker Max, who achieved notoriety by writing New York Times bestsellers chronicling his drunken hookups.

Of course frat guys talk like that. I would say the overwhelming amount of men AND women talk to their friends in ways that would shock people if they were displayed to the world...” Tucker told me. “You have to remember that young guys are basically animals that can talk. I don't mean that literally of course, but the developmental psych evidence is very clear; most young men have vastly underdeveloped empathy, compassion, and other higher order thinking capabilities as compared to women their age. If you make it a rule to assume that a guy under about 25 probably thinks like a sociopath, then you're going to be more right than wrong.”

Okay then. Of course, Tucker’s perspective is also influenced by his own debaucherous experience. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between: as one TFM commenter told me, “I do think the vibe and attitude is not far off from how fraternity guys actually talk, but it's much less exaggerated and embellished in real life.”

Why do they talk this way? Several fraternity members emphasized the strong role of social norms within fraternities. One explained that fraternities seemed to create feedback loops that produced more extreme behavior (both positive and negative) because people did not want to disappoint their friends. Another explained that members would deliberately say edgy things in order to win approval, and that younger members might try to win status by pushing boundaries.

One man told me that sexually explicit commentary was encouraged within fraternities because social standing was tied to sexual prowess; men who could not get women, or who hooked up with women deemed unattractive, were mocked. He described how members of his fraternity would congregate for hungover Sunday sessions where they detailed their sexual exploits from the night before. (These stories sometimes clashed with reality: a guy would claim he had had “amazing” sex with a girl and spent the night with her, when other members knew he had never gone home with her at all because they had seen her at another party entirely.) One TFM commenter described how these discussions served as bonding rituals, “one of the things guys can do that separates them from the girls. I think we feel like in a society that is currently trying to knock males, especially white males down a peg, this is a way we can all go to try to maintain our masculinity that in the 70s and 80s was so prevalent but now we're being told is wrong to have. I think we feel it's natural, biologically, to ogle girls and think things about them, and this is a place where we can let that out.”

Many men emphasized that comments on TFM were jokes or satire, although it was possible to go too far: for example, a commenter who made light of driving drunk was brutally criticized. The line often seemed arbitrary to me: sexism was obviously acceptable, as was racism (“She definitely has sex with multiple black guys at the same time” one commenter wrote about a woman; someone responded, “Once you go black, we don’t want you back”, and another, “Once you go black… You’re a single mom”). Rape comments were sometimes but not always okay: “No shame in how rapey I just felt…” one commenter wrote about a woman, to which someone responded, “Well there should be”; on the other hand, “Ramming is [sic] in her ass while she’s sleeping and bragging to your frat bros you get her to do anal,” received a dozen upvotes.

I am skeptical of the “just a joke” defense when it comes to problems as pervasive as rape, sexism, and racism. The difference between a rape joke and a dead baby joke is that while very few people kill babies, 5 - 10% of college men admit to committing rape. If a rape joke on TFM is read by 50 average college men and 50 average college women, there’s a 99% chance one of the men will have raped someone and an even higher chance one of the women will have been raped [1]. This makes the joke slightly less funny. More importantly, jokes are not necessarily harmless one-liners that leave the listener unchanged: studies provide some evidence that hearing sexist jokes does make men more tolerant of rape.


I found the women of TFM even more interesting than the men: why would they submit their photos to the site? A TFM site administrator initially told me that the women volunteered, and several commenters told me that this made them more comfortable making crude comments -- perhaps the online equivalent of “she was asking for it”.

But not all the women volunteer. One of the women featured on the site told me that she had never heard of TFM before the site posted her pictures; possibly someone else had sent them in without telling her. While she was not upset by this, I found multiple cases in which the featured woman had subsequently made her profile private. (I took a random sample of women’s pages and found that roughly one in five had been taken down.) So TFM appears, in at least some cases, to be making money off the pictures of college women without their consent by posting them for thousands of anonymous viewers to ogle and abuse. At least some of the women are taking measures to protect their privacy after their pictures are posted on the site.

This is legal: if a woman doesn’t like having her Instagram photos on TFM, she can request that they be removed (a TFM administrator said that the site honored these requests) although it’s unclear how many of the women are actually aware of this option, or that their pictures have been used at all. The pictures could also propagate further: for example, the line between appearing on TFM and appearing on pornographic sites can be blurry. Many comments on TFM encourage the women to become porn stars, and several women who appeared on TFM also had their images appear on pornographic sites.

But while some women on TFM may have had their pictures used without consent, it seems unlikely that all of them have. There are good reasons to pursue such attention: it could increase a woman’s online presence or aid careers, like acting or modeling, that privilege physical beauty; separate from such rational calculations, not all women dislike crude sexual attention. (This is not to say catcalling women is ever acceptable, because many women do hate and feel threatened by it.)

So let’s dig a little deeper. Individual women can apply to be featured on the site in two places: as “Instagram Babes of the Day” or “TFM Sweethearts”. There are important differences between the two. First, TFM users can comment on the photos of Instagram Babes, but not on the photos of Sweethearts. Second, Sweethearts have profiles, and Instagram Babes do not. I analyzed the profiles of 181 Sweethearts in an effort to understand them. Two thirds were single; they overwhelmingly appeared to be white; they were most disproportionately likely to come from Nevada, Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, and South Carolina, and most frequently majored in Marketing, Psychology, Nursing, Communications, and Journalism. Most said they were planning to have careers: 30% mentioned further schooling in their post-graduation plans, and 40% mentioned work (only 9% mentioned marriage, children, or family). They were impressed by men with manners, which were more frequently mentioned than other popular answers like good conversation skills or a sense of humor (more than two dozen mentioned liking it when men opened doors).

So why were career-oriented women who valued manners above all volunteering as sweethearts for commenters who talked about peeing in women’s butts?

The women on the site were not eager to answer this question; though I contacted dozens, very few were willing to talk to me. One Sweetheart explained that Sweethearts were not a TFM invention; some real fraternities have had Sweethearts for over a century. A Sweetheart was “viewed like a member of the fraternity, privileged to wear their letters and learn some of their secrets...It’s a loftier position than dating the President or similar, and she's highly respected”. Perhaps it is this respect that makes TFM ban comments on the Sweethearts pages, even though it allows comments on the other women on the site: an administrator told me this kept the pages “clean”, which I guess is one way to put it.

I was struck by the many contradictions in fraternity culture: by the respectful lack of commentary on the Sweethearts, contrasting with the comments directed at the other women on the site; by the fraternity members who aspired to be gentlemen but spewed sexist vitriol; by the Sweethearts who admired chivalry, but nonetheless associated with such men; by the need to push boundaries to win social approval, but not to go too far; by the men who told me they loved their own fraternity, but thought fraternities in general were harmful; by the man who joked on TFM about girls’ daddy issues but addressed me via email as “ma’am”, and defended the site by saying:

We do not have prejudices, regardless of what the satirical comments may lead others to believe...We address social and political issues, we help people who need help, we offer prayers for those who need them and we love our girls and will defend them to our dying day.”

The fact that fraternity men are often civil and thoughtful in isolation makes articles that dehumanize them simplistic. But the individual civility of fraternity men is if anything a criticism, not a defense, of fraternities. It’s a little like saying, of the characters in Lord of the Flies, “But they’re such nice boys individually!” If that’s true, then take them off the island.

My journalist friends tell me that this piece does not adhere to journalistic conventions -- for example, it includes anonymous quotes. So please take it as creative non-fiction, not as journalism.

Update: The original version of this piece used a public traffic estimator to estimate TFM's traffic at 1.2 million monthly visitors. The piece has been updated with their more accurate internal estimates.


[1] I am aware that surveys of sexual assault often have low response rates. But even surveys with high response rates imply that the frequency of rape on college campuses is high, as Shengwu Li and I discuss here.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Racial Discrepancies in Police Shootings

When the government decided not to use force to remove armed antigovernment protesters in Oregon, many people asked if the police would’ve responded violently had the protesters not been white. It’s a question, of course, that has been asked increasingly often of late: do the police show racial bias in whom they shoot? That is, given a white American and a black American behaving identically, are they are more likely to shoot the black American?

Prior to this year, there was no good data on police shootings. If it seems amazing that the American government wasn’t keeping proper track of how many of its citizens its police shot, I find this even more so: when independent organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post began tracking police shootings, they found that police shot about 1,000 people in 2015 -- a count more than double that recorded by official FBI statistics.

This new data makes it clear that white, black, and Hispanic Americans shot by police are behaving very differently.

To be clear: most people shot by police are armed and are attacking. But there are substantial racial discrepancies. Black and Hispanic Americans shot by police are younger than white Americans shot by police, more likely to be unarmed, and more likely to not be attacking [1]. White Americans are more likely to be mentally ill.

White Americans Shot By Police
Black Americans Shot By Police
Hispanic Americans Shot By Police
Average Age
Was Unarmed
Was Not Attacking
Showed Signs of Mental Illness

These disparities are large, statistically significant, and and consistent with previous analyses -- black Americans shot by police are more than twice as likely as white Americans shot by police to be unarmed, and more than 50% more likely to not be attacking.

When I mapped shootings to zipcodes, I found that black Americans are also disproportionately shot by police in poor zipcodes: poorer than those in which white Americans are shot by police, and poorer than zipcodes in which the average black American lives [2]. Police shootings overall occur in zipcodes which are poorer and blacker than that in which the average American lives. (White Americans are also shot by police in poorer zipcodes than those in which the average white American lives; I found no large disparity for Hispanic Americans. These findings are broadly consistent with FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of a smaller dataset; I looked at a few other things which I describe in this footnote [3].)

Now, one obvious explanation for the fact that white Americans are less likely to be unarmed when shot is that the police show racial bias in whom they shoot: given a white American and a black American behaving identically, they are more likely to shoot the black American. But there are other explanations as well. One is that white Americans are interacting with police differently: to take an extreme hypothetical, if every white American interacting with the police was carrying a gun, we would expect every white American shot by police to be carrying a gun as well.

To check whether white Americans were more likely to be armed when interacting with the police, I looked at FBI data on crimes committed in the United States in 2013 from the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). I checked whether white Americans were more likely to carry weapons when committing the same crimes, focusing on white and black Americans because I could not find good data on ethnicity in the UCR. I checked both whether the perpetrator was carrying a gun and whether they were carrying any weapon at all, and I examined more than a dozen of the most common crimes where perpetrators frequently carried weapons [4]. And I actually found the opposite: black Americans were in general more likely to carry weapons when committing the same crimes [5]. Maybe black Americans are just stopped by police doing less severe crimes, where they’re less likely to carry weapons? I could not find evidence for this either in the UCR.  So it’s not that all black Americans who interact with police are more likely to be unarmed; only those shot by police are.

I want to be clear: this analysis doesn’t prove the police are more likely to shoot a black American than a white American behaving identically. In an ideal world, we’d have data on every police encounter and we could look at whether race was significantly correlated with whether someone was shot when we controlled for other factors. But instead we have one dataset of people shot by police (compiled by non-government organizations) and one dataset of some police encounters (compiled by the government, and lacking many minor police encounters like traffic stops) which has completely different features. I can’t think of a way to match up these datasets neatly enough to rule out all plausible alternate explanations for the data. Maybe black Americans have more unarmed encounters with police which are too minor to be recorded in the UCR but might still produce police shootings; white Americans are in general more likely to own guns. Or maybe there’s a correlation with a third variable, like location: maybe black Americans tend to live in areas where police are more likely to shoot unarmed people of any race. (Neither of these alternate explanations is reassuring, of course, since they still imply that systemic racial disparities are a major factor in police shootings, but they do change our understanding of why they occur.)  All these explanations are very hard to rule out without a single complete dataset; let me know if you have ideas or other approaches.

But I also want to be straightforward with you about what I believe. Yes, if I had to bet, I’d bet that police bias plays a role in explaining these results. I believe this for three reasons. The first is that it’s a clean explanation for data which is otherwise somewhat difficult to explain. The second is that we know that bias exists at many other levels of the criminal justice system, and it would be weird if it suddenly disappeared when an officer was pointing a gun. The third is that experiments from social psychology do find that police officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in simulations -- though, importantly, they’re less biased than civilians are. (I liked this summary of relevant social science research.)

At the very least, this data points out a flaw in the argument, made by MacArthur Fellow Sendhil Mullainathan, that “eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African American killings”. He bases this on the fact that while black Americans are much more likely to be shot by police than the general population, they are also much more likely to be in police encounters than the general population, and their odds of being shot given that they are in a police encounter are roughly the same. The problem is that this argument doesn’t control for the nature of the police encounters. For example, if black Americans were only stopped by the police when jaywalking, and white Americans were only stopped by the police when brandishing large knives, it would be very weird if both groups were shot at equal rates. The new data on police shootings shows us that this objection is more than hypothetical: white and black Americans shot by police are in fact behaving differently, and it is entirely possible that police bias plays a role. (I contacted Mullainathan for comment and will update this if he replies.)

In closing: we need better data -- a single, complete dataset of police shootings that includes data on all police encounters. To quote the director of the FBI, the lack of data is “embarrassing and ridiculous”. It is not the obligation of the Washington Post or the Guardian to cobble together flawed datasets on police shootings; it is the obligation of the state that annually shoots 1,000 of its own citizens in ways that show disturbing correlations with race.

The code for this analysis is available on GitHub. I am a computer scientist with no background in criminology and this data is complex, so I welcome your suggestions, corrections, or extensions via email. Thanks to Simone Landon, Leah Pierson, Nat Roth, Shengwu Li, and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz for helpful thoughts.
[1]  This uses the Washington Post’s data. All these differences are statistically significant (p < .002) using logistic regression regardless of whether I coded race as a categorical variable or used “is_white” as a boolean variable. I examined only black, white, and Hispanic Americans because they were the only large groups in the data.
[2] I used the Guardian’s data, mapped it to zipcode using Google’s API, and compared to zipcode data from the American Community Survey. I also wanted to control for crime rate by sampling from the UCR rather than the overall population distribution, but unfortunately, so far as I can tell, the UCR does not include zipcode information for each crime; it’s only down to the police department level, and one department may include many zipcodes.
[3] I looked at a number of other zipcode features as well. Black Americans were shot in zipcodes that were about 33% black, about the same as the zipcode in which the average black American lives; white Americans were shot in zipcodes that were about 8% black, about the same as the zipcode in which the average white American lives; Hispanic Americans were shot in zipcodes which were about 50% Hispanic, slightly more than zipcodes in which the average Hispanic American lives (46%). (These numbers also speak to the extraordinary racial and ethnic segregation in living patterns.) I also examined whether black Americans tended to be shot in zipcodes with greater racial income inequality, but found no difference. My analysis disagrees with FiveThirtyEight’s on one point: they do not find that black Americans are shot in poorer neighborhoods than those in which black Americans live. I also looked at whether victims of police shootings were more likely to be unarmed when shot in poorer or blacker neighborhoods; I did not find a significant effect.
[4]  I compared white and black Americans because I could not find good data in the UCR on Hispanic origin.
[5] This remained true when I ran a multiple regression controlling for the age, race, sex, and type of crime simultaneously, and was true regardless of whether I looked at all weapons or only at guns.