Definitional Creep and Psychological Salient

Recognizing Harms Without Eroding Our Terms

This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.

There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.

Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.

Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.

This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.

For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.

When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.

Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.

It’s Time To Show Your True Colors

Do You Care About Protecting Women Or Just About Middle Class Values

It’s time for everyone claiming to support criminal bans on prostitution because they want to protect vulnerable women to choose sides. Are you really concerned about doing what it takes to protect vulnerable women or are you just using that as an excuse to justify your middle class values and your discomfort with the idea of exchanging sex for money?

Time to choose sides since it looks like research based on the (unfortunately brief) accidental Rhode Island experiment in decriminalizing indoor prostitution has some interesting results. Decriminalization resulted in a 50% drop in gonorrhea and a 30% drop in reported rapes (which, given the ability for prostitutes to go to the police without fearing prosecution, should have increased if rapes had stayed the same). Importantly, it appears that even women who weren’t in the prostitution industry saw a decrease in incidence of rape. I’d say these results were surprising except they weren’t to those familiar with the field, indeed, that’s why I’m willing to say this seems like a pretty solid result (maybe not the actual number but the direction of the change).

While no one suggests that the lives of most prostitutes (though the high end ones sometimes do well for themselves) are sweetness and light but sex workers who have experienced decriminalization will usually express strong support for the change and the ways it has changed their lives. However, one could still make an intellectually cogent case for decriminalization creating a real net harm, e.g., suggest that even if it makes the lives of sex workers better it makes more people into sex workers. However, if this research stands up, its just no longer even plausible to claim women are better protected in a regime which results in 30% more rapes. No matter how far you stretch the additional harm of increased numbers of sex workers (though often of a different class which isn’t as vulnerable) it doesn’t go that far.

But I’m pretty pessimistic. While I believe the passionate advocates in this area really do care about the victimization of women (though one can care so much that you are unable to let some go to save more) I don’t think that is what drives criminalization of prostitution at all. Rather, it’s just more of the usual human psycho-sexual drama about the threat which ‘virtuous’ women perceive from prostitution dressed up in new language.

The Effects of Decriminalization in Rhode Island

The study itself was a standard difference in differences design. Basically, that means they look at the data on rapes and STDs from both Rhode Island and the rest of the country before the decriminalization and then after the decriminalization. If the difference between Rhode Island and other states changes at the time prostitution is decriminalized then we infer that this difference in differences is a result of the change in legal status at that time. Of course, the actual statistical work is a bit more complex than this and uses data over a number of years but it’s a decent way to estimate the effect in a natural experiment provided one doesn’t believe that some other change singled out Rhode Island at the same time. To further shore up their work they use synthetic controls (basically they find the states which resemble Rhode Island in terms of the pre-decriminalization data and then use those as a control instead of the rest of the US).

Unfortunately, a reason why this study itself is only fairly persuasive and not highly persuasive is that the recriminalization results were not as strong. While rapes did rise again after Rhode Island made prostitution illegal again this result had a p-value of only .2. The story the authors offer is that the fact that this change was widely anticipated might dull the statistical power of the difference-in-differences method. In other words, they are suggesting that maybe the rapes started rising again once everyone realized they were going back to criminalization. I don’t find this very plausible since most mechanisms for this effect I can imagine, particularly including the author’s suggestion that rape is a partial substitute for paid sex, shouldn’t see much change, if any, until prostitution is actually recriminalized.

However, I think this result actually fits very nicely into a different model. In particular, while it may be the case that rape and consensual sexual encounters are partial substitutes I’m pretty skeptical that accounts for the effects here. Its not as if prostitution doesn’t exist when it is illegal or someone willing to rape for sex wouldn’t avail themselves of it. Rather, I suspect there are more general network effects at play here. In the pre-decriminalization world you have a system that relies on a system of pimps, organized crime and other bad actors to operate in which the girls involved may have little control/ownership interests and probably have only a minimal support network among themselves. Decriminalization not only removes this criminal element from the scene it also, as suggested by the health data, draws in a new class of prostitute who has better resources, planning, risk mitigation and isn’t at the mercy of her drug dealing pimp, i.e., more middle class prostitution. Recriminalization appears to have push some people out of the industry but it doesn’t change the fact that the criminal element is no longer present. A prostitute with a regular list of clients, a system for meeting new clients online and who isn’t already enmeshed with the criminal element has little need to return to their clutches even after recriminalization meaning the benefits linger. Sadly, I would guess that in the long term we will see a regression to previous levels as the police work to disrupt the organization and continuing business relationships these women have used to replace pimps and organized crime and eventually people will go back to securing prostitution through this element and rapes will rise.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to believe my analysis (which is just speculation) since one can rely on the fact that the results found for decriminalization are similar to what other studies have found.

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The Story Of Decriminalization

The story of how Rhode Island came to decriminalize prostitution is pretty neat so I advise you to read this article. I am not, however, please with the top billing they gave people who in my opinion were nothing but moralizing middle aged women who had never had to make really hard choices using the language of concern for vulnerable women to justify their disapproval.

Prostitution decriminalized: Rhode Island’s experiment

Around the world, there’s a growing movement to decriminalize sex work. Last year, Amnesty International, the largest human rights group in the world, came out with a recommendation that governments should decriminalize consensual sex work and develop laws that ensure workers are “protected from harm, exploitation and coercion.”