Dodgy methods and bogus statistics
Men's rights groups use flawed methodology to make false claims about the impact of fatherlessness. In Fatherhood and Fatherlessness (Australia Institute, Discussion Paper No. 59, November, pp. 21-23) Michael Flood reveals the junk science behind the National Fatherhood Forum's claim that "boys from a fatherless home are 14 times more likely to commit rape".
(Source: Flood, Michael (2003) Fatherhood and Fatherlessness. The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper No. 59, November, pp. 21-23. To order the full report, go here.
This paper has critiqued simplistic claims about the relationships between fatherlessness and social problems, particularly claims about family structure, divorce and children's well-being. But there is a broader problem in much of the rhetoric about fatherlessness: its flawed methodology. In populist texts such as Popenoe's Life Without Father (1996) and in public statements and materials by some fathers' advocates, discussions of fatherlessness are characterised by the confusion of correlation and causation, the reduction of multiple social variables to bivariate associations, the highly selective use of research evidence, neglect of contradictory or competing evidence, and treatment of small differences as if they were gross and absolute (Coltrane 1997, p. 8). Bogus statistics, with no factual basis, are used by some advocates for fathers' rights in asserting their political agendas.
To give one detailed example, the claim that 'Boys from a fatherless home are 14 times more likely to commit rape' was part of the '12 Point Plan' released by the National Fatherhood Forum in June 2003. The assertion was highlighted in media coverage of the Fatherhood Forum(1) and it is one of the claims commonly made by those who argue for the destructive effects of father absence on families and society. Yet this statistic is an invention. And although it has no basis in fact, it is regularly repeated on the websites of men's and fathers' rights, child custody and conservative Christian groups such as the Australian Men's Network.(2)
To assess the claim's accuracy, its origin must first be determined. The National Fatherhood Forum's '12 Point Plan' cites Rex McCann's On Their Own: Boys growing up underfathered (2000, p. 47). McCann cites a fathers' rights newsletter on the Internet. The relevant article in this newsletter(3) cites an American men's newsletter, Getting Men Involved: The Newsletter of the Bay Area Male Involvement Network (Spring 1997). The statistics themselves are attributed to a 1994 email message by Marty Dart.(4) It is here finally that we see how this 'statistic' was constructed. The text states, '80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes (Source: Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26, 1978.)' It then goes on to state, 'These statistics translate to mean that children from a fatherless home are: ... 14 times more likely to commit rape'.
The 'boys are 14 times more likely' statistic was thus constructed from the finding in a 1987(5) journal article on typologies of rape that 80 per cent of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes. There are six problems with the statistical extrapolation being performed here.
(1) First, '80 per cent of rapists' does not translate into boys being '14 times more likely'. In 1985, approximately 20 per cent of children aged 0-17 in the US lived with a single mother (Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2002, p. 54). If children from fatherless homes were proportionately represented among rapists, then they should be 20 per cent of the population of rapists. So if 80 per cent of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes, then children from fatherless homes are four, not 14, times more likely to commit (this type of) rape. In e-mail correspondence, Marty Dart, the author of the original figures, himself acknowledged that the numbers appear faulty.(6)
(2) The statistic shows correlation, not causation. Both the absence of a father in a household and children's rates of rape perpetration may be shaped by other factors, such as poverty, violence and drug use. Marty Dart does not note, for example, that half to three-quarters of the 108 convicted and imprisoned rapists in the study were physically abused as children and many were neglected (Knight and Prentky 1987, pp. 414-415).
(3) A study among 108 convicted prisoners in Massachusetts cannot be extrapolated to the population at large.
(4) Even if this extrapolation were plausible, the claim takes no notice of changes over time in fatherlessness, rape and a host of other social factors. Contemporary repetitions of the alleged statistic rely on material which is 16 years old.
(5) According to the text, it is not 80 per cent of all rapists, but 80 per cent of rapists with a particular motivation (and again it is not clear how this translates into the '14 times' figure).
(6) While the 1997 text states that children, not boys, are 14 times more likely to commit rape, commit suicide, suffer behavioural disorders and so on, 'children' becomes 'boys' in most repetitions of these claims.
Thus, the source for an alleged statistic regularly circulated in 2003 turns out to be an inaccurate and misleading extrapolation of a figure from an article written a decade and a half ago.
In contrast to such simplistic accounts of rape's causality, contemporary scholarship assumes that violence is 'a multifaceted phenomenon grounded in an interplay among personal, situational, and socio-cultural factors' (Heise 1998, pp. 263-264). The perpetration of sexual assault by men and boys is shaped by attitudes and norms related to gender and sexuality, definitions of masculinity as dominant and aggressive, unequal power relations in families and communities, and economic and social marginalisation.
1 See for example, 'Boys with absent fathers 'more likely to rape',' The Age, 26 June 2003.