Friday 23 August 2013

Men and women, feminism and rape


Can anything be deduced from books? Reading them is pretty tedious. It is hard to detect anything about social processes from the scribbles of a single person. Books have plots, story lines and other nonsense. However, if one were to take all books and conduct a meta-analysis at the level of the words alone, one might detect a bigger picture.

Consider the simple words: “men” and “women”. The relative frequency of those words may reveal the importance of these items in the popular mind, or at least the minds of readers, probably the slightly brighter, richer and supposedly more refined of the citizenry.

Sure enough, in the 1800’s men (0.0753) were discussed almost 8 times more frequently than women (0.0079). Not until 1983 did they achieve parity of mention at 0.032, and after a brief surge in which women were ahead they are at a rough parity again. Seekers of refinement should be gratified to learn that “lady” and “gentleman” showed no such disparity. Although more common two centuries ago, those genteel words are paired together, with lady (0.004) ahead of gentleman (0.002) as they should be.

The somewhat colder terms “female” (0.0048) and “male” (0.0028) are much less frequent than man and woman, and despite small differences effectively can be ignored.

Finally we get down to the very small numbers for words which are infrequently used like “rape” which was rarely used in the 1800s (0.00027), and then became slightly more rare till the 1970s. Feminism first appears in 1910 or thereabouts, and in the 1970 there is a sharp rise in unison in both these words, peaking in 1997 and falling thereafter. Compared with stalwart words like men and women, both these word have always been rare in books.

At this point in social science reporting everything pauses, like in the Hitchcock murder movie “Psycho” where a psychologist is called in to give The Explanation. I can only advance a few cautionary words: I do not think that rape was low throughout the last two centuries, rising only in the 1970’s for two decades and then falling back. It is notoriously difficult to collect data on rape in any era, but this looks like a consequence of openness of reporting and discussion. The fall since 1997 is less easy to explain. If openness has been achieved one would expect sustained use of the word.

I think this little analysis illustrates a larger point, which formed part of the critical evaluation of “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”. By choosing what to measure one can frame and potentially distort the search for causes. For example, the word “dominance” rises in a similar way, but the match is not so good with rape. “Masculine” also rises, but is not so good a fit. I have tried a bunch of others which might conceivably be informative: “manly, seductive, powerful, arrogant, forceful, brutal, entitled” and they are all a poor fit. The match between feminism and rape remains strong.

At the moment it seems that, as is often the case in social science musings, “more research is needed”.




  1. Very interesting. Very low frequency, peaks in 1918 and declines thereafter, very poor fit. Suggests that virile was a casualty of the First World War.