I have been critiquing claims about the implications of getting married for a very long time. I’ve seen one outrageous proclamation after another. It takes a lot to shock me. But wow, did you see the headline of a recent story in the Washington Post? Here it is, in its original version:
“One way to avoid violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married.”
I guess that did not sit well with readers, because it was soon changed to:
The rewritten title was slightly less inflammatory, but no more accurate. The article itself was riddled with false claims, victim-blaming, singlism, matrimania, and scientifically illiterate and irresponsible interpretations of data.
Starting with Singled Out, I have spent more than a decade critiquing claims like these. I go after the faulty assumptions, the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people and the fawning over married people. Most importantly, though, I show how the actual results of the studies are often misrepresented or misinterpreted.
Here’s what’s different this time: Someone else got to it first. And I could not be happier.
At FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver’s site), Mona Chalabi published an article titled, “The Washington Post Misused the Data on Violence Against Women.” She studied the data, and contacted the original author. That’s how she learned that the data were misrepresented.
The data mentioned in the Post article came from charts made available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sometimes reports like those focus on just one factor, such as marital status. As I’ve noted in Singled Out and so many other places since, we can never know, in the most definitive way, the effects of getting married because we cannot do the best scientific studies of the matter – studies in which people are randomly assigned to get married or stay single.
When married and single people are compared at one point in time, any differences between them could be due to marital status, or they could be due to all sorts of other factors associated with marital status, including social class, education, wealth, race, and age. If violence against women varies in any of those ways, then that factor, and not marital status, may be the true explanation of the results.
In some studies, especially those published in prestigious journals, researchers try to “control for” some of those factors statistically. Those kinds of basic controls were not incorporated into the charts that the authors of that awful Post piece cited.
An even better approximation to causality is to study lives over time. When authors Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson said that one way of decreasing violence is to get married, I think they were suggesting the following: If you are a woman getting pummeled by your boyfriend, just marry him and he’ll settle down and become dramatically less likely to ever hurt you again.
The authors also perpetuated the usual myths about how getting married makes men better in all sorts of ways. At the end of this article, I’ve listed links to articles in which I critiqued some of those claims in detail.
One more unusual and heartening thing happened after that Washington Post article was published – even beyond the critique of the critique of the misuse of the data, the article was widely condemned and mocked.
I hope this marks the start of more intensive scrutiny of all of the false and misleading claims about the implications of marrying, and is not just one isolated example. (Check out: “Everything you think you know about the benefits of marrying is wrong: The evidence.”)
[UPDATE: It has been less than a day since I posted this, and already there are some very insightful comments. Take a look if you are interested.]
My Previous Critiques of Singlist Claims about Single Men and Matrimaniacal Claims about Married Men
Those Pitied, Mocked, Envied Years Between the Late Teens and Late Twenties: What Are They Really About? [see the section on Guyland]