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Ethics and Alcohol Research

September 27th, 2005

Dr Petra

There’s been a really hot story in the press today – all about women’s problem drinking.

The research by the Portman Group* indicated in a survey of 1000 18-30 year old men and women that 36% of women reported being sexually assaulted when drunk. The survey also claimed gender differences on issues such as fights, unprotected sex, accidents, arguments and injuries when drunk (with women more likely to report these problems). However many of the percentages seemed fairly close (e.g. 11% women and 9% men admitted getting into a fight) and since the research was not statistically analysed we can’t claim gender differences based on percentages alone. Not that this stopped the media from doing exactly that.

What was really depressing about the reporting of this ‘survey’ was the media’s reaction. Rather than questioning risks posed to women, a concern that 36% women had been sexually assaulted, or that seemingly a large proportion of men knowingly or unknowingly coerced women into sex, the papers took a different stance. The tone was clearly victim blaming. The subtext that women can’t hold their alcohol, get into trouble when they drink, and as a result end up being sexually assaulted.

How sad that in this day and age the ‘she was asking for it’ argument still seems so popular.

If that’s not worrying enough, no newspaper or media report I’ve read actually questioned the robustness of this research or the results it produced.

The ‘survey’ was completed by a market research company (LM Research) between 9-12 September. This includes a weekend period and it isn’t clear if questioning happened over the weekend or just the days either side of it. The research was released to the press two weeks later. Now for a serious and complex issue like alcohol consumption, health and risk, one might expect that a piece of research would take months or years, not be turned around in a fortnight.

Predictably as with any PR/market research survey no analysis was completed on the results, meaning we don’t truly know if there were genuine gender differences as claimed in the press release and dutifully reported in the press. More concerning is the way in which sexual assault was asked about and measured. Although it’s the lead headline in the Portman press release (and subsequent news reports) there’s nothing to explain how ‘sexual assault’ was presented to respondents. If asked ‘have you been sexually assaulted when drunk?’ women are far more likely to say ‘yes’ (there’s a greater social stigma for men to admit to sexual assault). However ‘sexual assault’ is a vague enough term to include anything from an unwanted kiss to rape.

That’s not to say sexual assault isn’t a serious issue, just from these statistics we’ve no clear idea what actually has happened to the 36% of women affected. More concerning still is how this survey was conducted. If one in three women truly has been the victim of a sexual assault when drunk, what are the ethics of a survey company cold-calling women and asking about this experience? Were the people completing this research trained to offer support and advice to those women who did disclose assault and were distressed by it? Did the survey designers consider that asking these questions (or even the tone of voice of the researcher) could both cause distress and affect outcomes? What are the ethics of men cold-calling and asking women about sexual assault? And why didn’t the research also measure subsequent distress caused or action taken?

Because it wasn’t a proper health survey, it was a PR exercise to promote the Portman Group’s new website.

In theory it’s a great way to get coverage and seem responsible. Outlining women at risk from assault. But it’s far less worthy when the angle of the press release and subsequent media reports blames, rather than empowers women – and the underlying research may have caused distress.

In a reputable piece of research there would have been steps in place to look at how the questions were phrased and asked. Training would have been given to researchers and cold-calling would have been forbidden. Women would probably have interviewed female participants, and most certainly those who reported a negative experience – from assault to arguments – would have been monitored for distress caused and where appropriate offered support or information to help them. The research would have taken several months, if not years to complete, and would have been ethically approved to ensure no harm could come to participants. It would have been based on existing evidence and inform future studies. Finally it would have had some action points leading to policy change or help for women (and men) – not just some sexy news statistics (sorry, percentages) to ensure a story hits the headlines.

Regardless of the Portman Groups research, we already know women’s drinking is a problem – mainly because alcohol manufacturers (most of which are part of the Portman Group) are deliberately targeting advertising and sales campaigns at increasingly younger female drinkers. Women are encouraged to drink, then blamed for doing so.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the Portman Group’s press release: “Alcohol affects your judgement and the fact that so many young women are being sexually assaulted after getting drunk is shocking. If you are planning a big night out make sure you always stay in control”. So what about those who are assaulting women staying in control or having their behaviour questioned? Why doesn’t the Portman Group suggest a programme for those who sexually assault women? Why is it that women who somehow or other don’t ‘stay in control’ (whatever that is) are held at fault if they are assaulted? And how about the many women who stay sober and ‘in control’ and also are sexually assaulted? How does the Portman Group explain that?

What’s concerning about this whole exercise is not one journalist picked up on the ethics or robustness of the research, but all seemed happy to take a shoddy ‘study’ at face value in order to pursue a women-blaming agenda.

I don’t know what’s worse – the unethical and inaccurate study behind these headlines, or the judgemental reports that followed.

*The Portman Group are an organisation of alcohol brewers and distributors whose membership includes Allied Domecq; Bacardi Brown Forman Brands; Beverage Brands; Carlsberg UK; Coors Brewers; Diageo; Interbrew UK; Pernod Ricard; and Scottish & Newcastle. The Portman Group states its purpose, as “The Portman Group’s purpose is to promote responsible drinking; help prevent alcohol abuse; encourage more informed discussion on alcohol issues; and encourage responsible marketing”.

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