Friday, September 25, 2009

Brief: Are teachers more likely to be perverts?

One stereotype has it that adults who seek out jobs where they interact with teenagers all day every day are at least somewhat motivated by sexual desire. It raises our suspicions to see a 45 year-old man coaching a high school girls' soccer team, for instance.

The General Social Survey doesn't ask about the ages of the people you work with or are responsible for, but it does ask if you've volunteered in the education sector. If the above idea holds water, surely we should see it at work here. The GSS also asks whether you think pre-marital sex between two 14 - 16 year-olds is wrong or not. Surely those volunteering in education for ulterior motives would be more likely to say that it's OK. Here are the results of how wrong or right someone believes teen sex is, by whether or not they volunteered in education:

Clearly those who seek out (unpaid) work in education, compared to those who don't, are less tolerant of teen sex. Education volunteers are half as likely to say that it's merely "sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all." This mirrors the belief pattern of adults who have varying numbers of teenagers in their household:

So, those who have greater day-to-day interaction with teenagers, whatever the reason, are less tolerant of them having sex. Adults are more likely to have a "let the kids be free" attitude if they don't get daily reminders of how young people actually behave. Those who seek out education work, then, are motivated to be guardians or something similar to parents, not by ulterior motives. An alternative explanation is that these more intolerant views are defense mechanisms so that their minds "don't even go there," preventing them from viewing their charges as potential mates.

The picture doesn't change if we throw the volunteer's sex into the mix. A multiple regression that predicts tolerance by sex and volunteering shows that women and education volunteers are less tolerant. In this model, the effect of sex is statistically significant, and the effect of volunteering in education is marginally significant (p = 0.064). There are only 243 volunteers, so presumably if we had a larger sample size, the p-value would dip below the arbitrary 0.05 level.

The most likely reason for the stereotype of the pervert who seeks out work with young people is what psychologists call the availability bias -- we think events are more likely if we can remember examples of them more easily. Given that we have little direct experience with people who work in education, we rely on news stories, whether from the mass media or spread by word-of-mouth. The cases where the teacher and soccer coach behave themselves don't merit any attention; it's only when they do something unseemly that we talk about working in education and being a pervert. Emotionally charged events like that also stick better in memory, as opposed to bland examples of well behaved teachers and coaches.

Since it's easier for us to recall examples of a teacher or coach who acted like a perv, we think that that's more likely for them than for someone with a job not involving young people. This is another reminder of the value of checking the data rather than relying on our impressions.

GSS variables used: teensex, voleduc, teens, sex

No comments:

Post a Comment