Friday, 27 March 2015

An Outbreak Of Zombie Prostitutes

Good news everyone! The press have found themselves a study to report. Data journalism! It’s topical as well, a great big bomb into the middle of the SWERF wars. For the uninitiated, SWERF stands for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and the SWERF wars are closely related to the TERF wars for reasons beyond my ken. 

The study is looking into the numbers of students who are involved in the sex industry. While the survey’s definition of sex work is relatively broad, encompassing everything from prostitution to glamour modelling and online cam shows, it is inevitably illustrated with pictures of women’s fish-netted legs on street corners, and will find itself slap bang in the middle of that debate. 

So every site in the land is running with the figure of 5% of students being involved in the sex industry. This is patently nonsense. Anyone who has ever been to university knows it is nonsense. It in no way passes the sniff test. Things get worse when we dig into things a little further. 5% of men are involved, while only 3.5% of women. Quite how this sums to 5% in total I’m not sure, but hey. It also contradicts almost everything we know about sex work. It’s a tricky area to get figures for, but there’s pretty much nobody claiming anything in the ballpark of 50% more men. This study looking into online profiles on a sex work website gives us a figure of about 42% of sex workers being male. I'm a little sceptical it is that high. The male users seem considerably less active. Could their profiles be a joke, or a bit of a fishing expedition, while they never actually go any further? It also seems to suggest an improbable number of men signed up as straight and hoping to attract female clients. This contradicts other reports on the subject, suggesting that most male sex workers sell services to other men.

In addition, there is the claim that 1/5 students have 'considered' going in to sex work. I'm not sure how much 'considering' you need to do to count in the figures here. If someone asks me if I've considered becoming a sex worker, I immediately consider it. I've considered lot of things in my life, jumping off a cliff, becoming an astronaut, running away to join the peshmerga. That's what people do. They don't suddenly become sex workers because of it, so I'm not too sure we can read much into this.

The most likely explanation of the survey findings is simple self-selection bias. It’s a pretty decent sample size, with over six thousand respondents, but was conducted through a simple mass e-mail. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to whether students working in the sex industry are more or less likely to respond to a survey about students working in the sex industry?

“Hey guys, I’d really appreciate it if you could complete my study looking into World of Warcraft players among the student population. Here’s a link.”

“New survey shows over 90% of students play World of Warcraft.”

We’re still left with a bit of a conundrum though. While self-selection bias is probably enough to account for the whopping overall figures, does it explain the crazy discrepancy between men and women? It could do. Two thirds of the people who responded to the survey were female. This could indicate that in general men were less interested in the topic, which may lead to a stronger self-selection bias.

That may not be the whole story though. The final puzzle piece is something explained with far greater style than ever I could by Scott Alexander, the idea of a lizardman constant. Essentially this is the noise in any poll, especially notable in small numbers. It’s made up of a combination of people who misunderstood the question, those who agree with anything a researcher says, and people who are deliberately sabotaging the poll results. Alexander speculates it adds up to about 4%, about the number of US residents who will agree, when prompted, that lizardmen are running the world. This isn’t to say we should discount any polling figure that is so low, 3% of the UK population said they were black at the last census and that’s probably correct, but on slightly less official online surveys it could well be an issue.

Could it be a big part of the results here? It seems useful, especially in explaining the discrepancy between male and females. Are university aged men more likely than university aged women to say they’re a prostitute for a joke? Would your typical uniLAD think it is totally top bantz? Seems pretty plausible to me, certainly more plausible than there being more male student sex workers than female. It doesn’t have to explain the whole figure, undoubtedly there are some male student sex workers, but it could easily account for a few percentage points, and at what is such a low figure to start with it could even make up most of it. Lots of people really are total dicks.


Andrew Sabisky adds an interesting side point point here about the lizardman constant versus social desirability bias, and how we shouldn't trust what people say on surveys. 0.5% of mothers will claim their pregnancy was in spite of their virginity.

I'm not aware of any research into gender differences here, but it may be something to consider in the future. I doubt self-selecting female sex workers answering a survey about sex work will be influenced much by social desirability to deny it though.


My final major point of contention is that the researchers performing the study should have realised this. In addition to their quantitative survey, they added in some qualitative interviews with participants.

“Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were performed with student sex workers. Eight students (one male and seven female) participated in the interviews.”

In the light of their study findings, this seems strange. They are claiming that there are 50% more male student sex workers in the UK than there are female. If so, why have they only managed to find one to interview, compared to seven women?

I support legalised sex work, but this work seems to be more designed to push a narrative than to find reliable numbers. It seems pretty plausible that if people believe there are more student sex workers, they will be more supportive of the case for their acceptance. Indeed, the survey makes a big point of this. Before we get on to any of the actual findings of the survey, the authors present us with data telling us that these findings make people more accepting of sex work. Research with such a blatant ideological aim is unlikely to have much relation to the truth. Their incentives are all to inflate the numbers, and the structure of their study means it is almost guaranteed to.

The most interesting question here is whether anyone reporting on or tweeting about the study actually believes it. I'm not convinced anyone really believes 5% of guys on campus are sex workers, it's obviously implausible. Instead it seems more likely that by sharing it people are saying 'yay, sex workers!' and showing their loyalty to the cause. 

The one in twenty figure is a great statistic, surely destined to be quoted in a thousand student union debates. It may join the ranks of the great zombie stats, those that simply refuse to die in spite of repeated refutation, such as one in five women are raped at university, or several about women’s wealth. In terms of what we really can take from the study, I think it's safe to say that there are some students out there working in the sex industry. Past that I'm not confident of anything, and it would take a far better and more difficult to perform study than this to say anything more.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Neoliberalism and the Death of Universal Education

Over the past few years we’ve seen university become increasingly marketised. Students are starting to pay for their own education, rather than have it funded by government. As it stands, this is still a fairly regulated market. Students almost all go through the official loans system, few providers enter or leave the market, and all courses cost the same. Competition for students is thus based mainly on location and academic prestige, with the fees cap low enough to discourage much price competition. This however seems to me like it may well change in the future. The fees cap is likely to be removed at some point (as per the Browne review), and we may well see new firms entering the market. Under such a system universities may well become increasingly specialised. In the face of extreme market forces, they could focus on particular niches to exploit their comparative advantage. Not all students want the same type of education, and that’s completely ok, a market based system is perfectly placed to provide this. The customer is always right, and at these prices the student is one hell of a customer. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

The opportunities offered to and constraints imposed on students could vary between institutions. In the States, there are plenty of colleges with strict honour codes for those who desire it. Mitt Romney attended the largest, Brigham Young University. Mormon teachings are at the core of its mission, and as such it enforces chastity, a strict dress code, abstinence, attendance at church and a prohibition on foul language. This code is both official and unofficial. Students who sort themselves into such a place have chosen to live by it, and being surrounded by like minded people amplifies the effect.

This puts me in mind of the safe space debate currently occurring on campuses. There is a demand for restrictions on speech and behaviour that is not currently being met by our educational institutions. Would students agitating for it vote with their wallets in future if they had an option? Why not create an entire university that is safe? For chastity, read any form of sexual morality that takes your fancy. For dress code, why not ban offensive shirts? Lad culture could be curtailed by prohibiting the male organisations that perpetuate it, let’s ban fraternities and sports teams, or at least heavily regulate them. Instead of church attendance, let’s require all students to attend mandatory workshops. Students shouldn’t have to hear language and music they dislike, so let’s ban that while we’re at it. Again, this isn’t purely an official prohibition, institutions like this would attract people who want to go there, the people sadly triggered by many elements of more mainstream education, and the social norms that developed there would be more suited to them.

Equally, some universities may well choose to present themselves in the opposite way. How about a place for students who hate all this social justice stuff? A university which was an explicitly ‘Dangerous Space’? Students could be encouraged to compete for who could be the most offensive. All staff members could wear t-shirts with misogynistic slogans on them. Compulsory internet harassment lessons on a Sunday morning. Let’s subsidise the student bar and hand out free roofies to anyone who comes in. That’ll show the PC brigade!

Now let’s assume for a moment that the main social function of university is signalling. The actual facts that you learn aren’t especially important, just the fact that you were capable of learning them. There is a large literature out there on this model, but I’ll quickly explain it here for those of you unfamiliar. Everyone knows the vast majority of what you learn on a typical university course isn’t particularly useful. History grads and English grads go for the same graduate jobs, in spite of there being little overlap in what they have learned. Students cheer when classes are cancelled, despite paying for those very classes to happen. At a typical university, it would be almost comically easy to attend every lecture without ever paying a penny in tuition, and yet nobody does. The most parsimonious explanation for all this is that what you’re actually paying for isn’t the education, merely the signal that you were capable of getting through it.

If we accept that this is the case, why not fit form to function a little more effectively? We can deal with the signalling function via a decent battery of IQ tests spaced out throughout the course, and maybe the odd 9am taking of attendance to show at least some level of commitment. Once we’ve done this we’ve got a lot of time and money to play with. Sure, we could simply drive down costs and reduce the course length, but that’s no fun at all. That this doesn’t happen suggests the possibility there there may be something more here. Maybe young people really want a licence to spend three years of their lives being shielded from the real world. Drinking, partying and sleeping in until midday, while mummy and daddy are still inexplicably proud of us. Many people will talk about their time at university as the best of their lives, and one last blowout before the real world may well serve a worthwhile social function. So let’s speculate as to what we could do to help them enjoy themselves.

Our typical progressive student imagined above may well find aspects of a more typical lecture course upsetting. Too many microaggressions, macroaggressions and cishetwhitemen. If we're not careful, somebody may invalidate their very real lived experiences, and cause them actual harm. Not to worry, we can scrap the lectures. But what do we replace them with? Humans need some sort of structure and ritual in our lives, otherwise what’s the point. Thankfully I’ve found a solution. For the student who simply can’t cope with the real world, instead we have the ultimate safe space, “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

I’m not saying this solution is perfect, but it’s not obviously worse than what we have now. Keeping students with competing political views together is clearly causing conflict and upsetting a lot of them. Nobody seems particularly to be learning from this diversity of opinion, instead we have needless petty fights over what universal code of behaviour should be in place. What is there was no universal code at all. Those who want a diverse body of opinion among their fellow students can go somewhere that has it, and those who want to behave like animals can find somewhere they are free to do so. As so often, neoliberalism finds itself extremely well suited to the goals of social justice. A patchwork education system may be the answer.

In New York we can see the beginnings of just such a system. A preschool for those of us who find the real world just a bit too difficult. Starting at $333 it’s a snip compared to more mainstream education, and if I’m right about where things are going it’s likely to be a roaring success. Give it a few tweaks, upscale and bolt on some intelligence testing and it's good to go. A hundred years from now could Preschool Mastermind be up there with Cambridge, Harvard and MIT?