Feminism’s zombie stats: 63% of young women would rather be glamour models

Zombie stats are numerical factoids that just won’t quit, however dead they get. They lurch up from their graves in every subject, drawn to the juicy warm flesh of public consciousness by some unkillable primal instinct, spreading their intelligence-murdering contagion wherever they shamble. There’s a special pang in seeing their rotten heads pop up in a debate you know and care about, so this week, I am going to bust the mouldering brain pans of feminism’s favourite zombie stats.

Starting with this one:

63% of young women would rather be glamour models than nurses, doctors or teachers

What an indictment of the grotesque aspirations we feed our girl children this one is: raised in a culture that prizes fame, individualism and female sexual availability above all else, nearly two thirds of young women would rather get their norks out for the lad mags than do a job which actually helps people. This one appeared yesterday in a very interesting article by Terri White, who formerly worked as associate editor of Nuts and deputy editor of Maxim. For her, it demonstrated the damage done by the culture she helped perpetuate.

This dread percentage shows up in Kat Banyard’s 2011 book The Equality Illusion. It lurches its way through the 2009 NUS Women’s Campaign Policy (PDF), where we’re told that “the glamorisations [sic] of lap dancing clubs is linked to 63% of girls surveyed saying they would rather be glamour models than doctor or teachers”. It’s in Object’s FAQ on lad mags: “We find these findings alarming as it says a great deal about the kinds of aspirations that are being held out for women in our society,” says the campaign group.

From a certain feminist perspective, this is evidence that women are trained by a sexualised media to see success in purely sexualised terms. If you think about it a little, it isn’t particularly flattering to women. In glamour modelling analogies, this is a wonky-titted phonesnap in a bathroom mirror rather than a cheerfully posed bit of page three flashing: it doesn’t look very good. What it suggests is that young women are grossly impressionable and deeply selfish. By this account, we’re all just boobed blank slates, waiting to be imprinted by our first encounter with a newsstand.

That doesn’t sound very plausible. Well, surprise! Nor is the survey. It’s from 2005, was done for a “mobile entertainment company” which now doesn’t exist (meaning the zombie stat has outlived its creator), and its methodology was deeply dodgy. For one thing, it’s intent was always to secure publicity rather than uncover the secret truth of Britain’s female psyche: with a little googling, you can find the company’s spokesman expounding on the equally scientifically sound subject of “shag bands”.

For another, the study didn’t ask girls whether they wanted to be glamour models. It asked 1,000 girls aged 15-19 whether they’d rather be like “Abi Titmuss, Germaine Greer or Anita Roddick”, and 63% picked Titmuss – who as well as being a glamour model is also a qualified nurse, unlike Roddick or Greer, so there’s a confounding factor to think on. As Dr Petra Boynton pointed out when the statistic was first published, the survey was both a badly designed and hideously unethical (unless we’re all OK with asking 15-year-olds if they want to go topless), but that may not matter anyway because Boynton has learned since that it’s possible the research was never conducted anyway.

Grab a spade: we’re about to finish this one off. One of feminism’s prize pieces of evidence for the damaging effects of “sexualisation” is taken from a press release for a company flogging mobile downloads. The survey (if it happened) was a shoddy and shady thing. Its repetition over the last seven years (seven!) is down to plain lazy churnalism on the part of news media, coupled with a strong feeling on the part of certain feminists that it fits so neatly with their understanding of a harmful, sexist media that it simply must be true.

It’s not true. Repeating it is insulting to young women – and insulting young women was never part of feminism’s mission statement. It helps to pervert feminist priorities by cementing the idea of sexist media as a major cause of harm to youthful female brains. And, as people learn what a stinking piece of numerical meat it is, it makes feminism look stinky by association. Next time you see that 63% come towards you, rotting and groaning, look it in the eye and smash it in the head.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; illustration by tohoscope, used under Creative Commons

19 thoughts on “Feminism’s zombie stats: 63% of young women would rather be glamour models

  1. Great post. Almost all of these surveys are pure advertising – a way of getting your companies name in the media. It’s much cheaper than paying for advertising space. It can even get you onto places like the BBC which don’t otherwise do ads at all.

    I wrote about this a while back: http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/yougovre-having-laugh.html

    Most of the time, the results of these surveys are quickly forgotten once they’ve served the purpose – they were never intended to be taken seriously. But occasionally they strike a nerve with someone, and live on to become zombie stats.

  2. Yes, you’ve nailed the shonky stats market there. I think this one’s survived so well because it serves everyone’s needs: feminists have a narrative about the harms of the patriarchy, leerers can use it to say all girls love it really and censorious types can spin it as “all girls are slags”.

  3. Great post. I think dodgy stats as a huge problem in a lot of contemporary feminist activism, which I find really frustrating. I do think it’s partly because there is so much energy coming into feminism from young arts and humanities students and graduates, which is awesome and I don’t want to criticise them, but as a former-young-arts-graduate myself, I don’t think we have the best grasp of statistics and how to use them responsibly!

    The one I worry about is “one in four women will be raped”. I traced this back to Kate Painter’s 1991 study of rape in marriage, where she questioned 1000 women in the north of England about their experience of rape and forced sex within marriage. She also asked women about their experiences of rape outside marriage, and that’s where the 1 in 4 figure comes from. But it wasn’t the key subject of enquiry in the survey – and, of course, it’s now more than 20 years old. I think there was a Glamour magazine survey more recently that found a similar figure, but I don’t know that I would trust the academic rigour of a survey carried out by a magazine.

    I don’t think that one in four is an impossible figure by any means, but it’s certainly not a reliable one. And it’s had a life way bigger life than either of those two surveys can really validate. Also, it seems COMPLETELY ASTONISHING that we actually don’t have a reliable, detailed, academically-rigorous study that looks at how many women will experience rape in their lifetime and how many report it. It just seems like a huge hole and you’d think that someone would have got some funding to fill it.

  4. It’s the perfect Daily Mail statistic: quite apart from its air of “common sense” plausibility (always a bad sign) it perfectly begs to serve as a basis for a censorious anti-sex article illustrated with copious acreage of Abi Titmuss.

    As the man said, you couldn’t make it up. Oh no wait.

  5. While I appreciate the debunking of this stat, I think you’re overreaching in trying to debunk the idea that media images are sexist and that that affects young women. What’s your evidence for this? Surely not just the fact that a single survey was unscientific, no?

    If the point behind this (I’m guessing, here) is that you believe young women to be intelligent and thus somehow immune to how media may influence their behavior and self-image, you’re kind of barking up the wrong tree. Of course young women are intelligent, but that doesn’t mean media images aren’t influential. If the suggestive power of marketing weren’t effective, no-one would use it. The storm of messages telling girls and women that they aren’t good enough as they are, and thus require the help of commercial products to enhance themselves in some way, is enormous, pervasive and constant. The message gets taken to heart by enough people that it then starts getting peer-enforced. And we all know where that ends. Media influence is a very real thing, and it affects everyone–male, female, young, old, rich, poor. No one is immune–not even people who believe themselves to be quite savvy about just what it is that marketers are trying to get them to think and therefore buy. It is not an indictment of the abilities and intelligence of young women to acknowledge what that industry does to them, and it is not paternalistic or patronizing to want to find ways to mitigate that damage.

    The reason a stat like this seems real is because it’s plausible. We’ve all seen the effects of media pickling of young folks’ attitudes first-hand, and we’ve all (I hope) seen plenty of quite-valid statistics that underline this very real problem. Yes, this particular survey and most likely several others is invalid, but that doesn’t mean the underlying principle–that we have a responsibility to at least educate young people as to how they are influenced by media–isn’t sound.

  6. Yes, the Grauniad seems obsesses with these factoids.
    It is closely related to the 50% increase in rapes in Camden caused by lap dancing clubs.
    This was achieved by picking a low year for rapes (1999) and comparing it with 2002 to get a bogus correlation.

    Liberal newspapers should not be creating false fears to get bad laws passed.

  7. Andy, it’s not the Guardian to blame for this one. It’s been reported and repeated by the Mail, Telegraph, Sky News, BBC and various anti-feminist websites. So while the Guardian has been among the news sources helping this one live its busy afterlife, it’s not a matter of liberal newspapers trying to get bad laws passed.

  8. “The reason a stat like this seems real is because it’s plausible.” No, it’s not plausible at all, and if any of the various news sources had thought to check its origin, they would have found out soon enough how little credence it deserves. It survives simply because it serves various prejudices and fits rather nicely into several pre-existing narrative, including the one about sexist media being harmful. I happen to believe that sexist media is harmful, and there are several elegant experiments cited in (for example) Cordelia Fine’s Delusions Of Gender that show how exposure to stereotype affects performance in certain tests. But this particular stat is false and misleading; it misrepresents young women’s intelligence and ambitions, and it should not be tolerated in feminist discussions.

  9. I’m afraid I don’t follow you. Either media messages influence behavior (negatively, at times) or they don’t. You can’t have it both ways.

    Pointing out that girls and women often make bad choices because of cultural influence isn’t saying that they’re stupid or incapable of making their own decisions. It’s simply pointing out a reality of human psychology. Pretending that the choices we make in a sexist culture are all made freely and without duress serves no-one.

    I’m not saying that this particular stat is valuable. Obviously, it’s not. I’m just saying that the logical leap you’re making here–“this stat is bogus, therefore all narratives indicting the influence of sexist media are bogus”–is flawed.

  10. Well, I haven’t made the logical leap you’ve ascribed to me. There’s no line in my post that makes the case you’ve accused me of making.

  11. Fantastic piece. If you had asked me, I would rather be Abi Titmuss because she hasn’t sold her ‘ethical’ company to L’Oréal, hasn’t turned her back on a million brilliant feminist arguments with lots of crap about transsexuals being rubbish, has got to be on Casualty (yay!) and she’s younger (ie probably has a longer life ahead of her than Greer, and Roddick suffered a lot of ill-health before her death). In short, if someone asked me that question, I’d subconsciously assume it was “who would you rather be – if you were really still you”, and not “would you like to get your tits out for the lads” (um, not particularly). Basically, I’d be Abi Titmuss right now then take the money and run (go off and be a feminist activist, or purchase Zoo in order to tear it to pieces, that sort of thing). You are so right to say taking the statistic as an overly meaningful fact underestimates young women – and pointing out the flaws as you do doesn’t undermine the fact that Nuts and Zoo “culture” remains deeply damaging. Thanks for this (whenever my heckles rise at “statistics” like this I always think “am I just in denial?” – but it’s not just me!)

  12. Great piece. To the list of feminist zombie stats I would like to add the much-publicised ‘1 in 10 women have been raped’ figure that recently came from a Mumsnet survey. The survey was conducted to support a rape campaign by Mumsnet called ‘We Believe You’ (which is generally a pretty good campaign, no complaints there) but the figure has been widely reproduced uncritically, rather than specifying that 1 in 10 women WHO REPLIED TO THE SURVEY WHICH WAS POSTED ON A WEBSITE AND NOT SCIENTIFICALLY TARGETED AT ALL have been raped. Can’t help but worry that’s going to be one doing the rounds in lazy journalism for some time, when feminism would be much better served by doing some proper research into how many people have actually been affected by sexual violence.

    Also, ‘A Mediated Life’, you do yourself few favours by presenting this piece and your own opinions as an either/or choice. Yes, sexist media negatively influences women’s perceptions of themselves and other women, and yes, this sexualisation is something that women/feminists should be aware of and guard themselves against. But that doesn’t mean that all young girls are vacuous bimbos who can be filled up with sexist rubbish without them noticing. There’s often a more complex process of awareness, helplessness and resistance going on. See, for example: http://douchebagandshoes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/page-three-and-me.html – clearly still not entirely a positive reaction, but more nuanced than ‘I want to be one of those pretty girls with their tits out’

  13. In response to the post wondering about the much-publicized ’1 in 10 women have been raped’ figure.

    I’ve heard similar ‘facts’ thrown around over here in the US, often with week citation. So I thought I’d check on them.

    The US Government’s Bureau of Justice Statistic publishes yearly ‘Criminal Victimization in the United States’ statistics based on a 3 year rolling survey of about 40,000 US households. And this survey appears to define rape more broadly – including sexual assault and men – than the recently much publicized and criticized US Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.

    So I went and downloaded the stats for 2008, for some reason the most recent tables I could get my hands on.

    These tables list a rape/sexual assault rate of 1.3 per 1000 females per year.
    Depending on the life expectancy one uses (e.g. 70-80?) to calculate lifetime risk, one will get the following:

    1 in 10.1 – 11.5 women will experience rape/sexual assault in their life time.

    So, while these stats don’t tell us whats going on over the pond in the UK, it seems that the
    1 in 10 number is roughly accurate for the US.

    And given the severity of this problem, I’m not sure it makes sense to quibble about 1 in 10 vs. 1 in 12, as long as the magnitude is about right.

    So take that, Zombie stats!

    Keep the Zombie stat slaying coming!

    Cheers from the US

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