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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Would Make Me a Feminist: Response to Comments and Criticisms

            My argument is that there is an important distinction between women’s rights as a goal and feminism as an ideology. I support women’s rights, though I prefer to advocate for universal human rights without exclusion or demarcation. The feminist ideology, however, is far too problematic for me to identify with. I write this fully aware that feminism has various strains.

            Feminism, in my experience, relies on an insultingly crude dialectic: men, women, and patriarchy. This formula leads to some facile and incendiary assumptions and claims. In my first post, I argued that too many feminists fly into rages over the income gap, even though differences in wages are the result of many complex factors and the role of discrimination may be vanishingly small. There is a report of a study that found 6.9 % of the income gap in 2004 was unaccounted for by other factors stemming from different preferences. But eight months after the paper was covered, it has yet to be published, suggesting it failed to make it through peer review. (It may still appear, but we should reserve judgment.)

            If the 7% figure holds up, I admit I’ll be surprised. But I doubt there will be many feminists who look at the twenty percent income gap and rush to remind everyone that over ninety percent of the difference is attributable to divergent preferences regarding fields, working conditions, and family management. (For a more sober discussion of the pay gap from a staunch conservative--strange bedfellow--go here.) I have to emphasize that my argument is not based on a complete absence of any pay gap; it focuses rather on the assumptions feminists make about it. Again, the vast majority of it can be attributed to choices freely made.

            My secondpost took on the feminist tendency to conflate male attraction with oppression. Many complained that the idea of “objectification,” though perhaps untrue, was nevertheless useful. Men who engage in harassment or sexual violence, they maintain, are not recognizing their victims’ humanity. These commenters are mistaking familiarity with usefulness. If objectification theory actually did identify factors that make violence more likely, then we could conclude it was useful. But it simply doesn’t. The theory points to media portrayals of women that emphasize body parts (objects) over emotions or intelligence and suggests such portrayals encourage men to dehumanize women, which might lead to violence. Psychological experiments find this not to be the case at all. Further, as the availability and consumption of pornography have exploded over the past decade, sexual violence has actually decreased. Objectification is an invalid theory with offensive implications about men. And there are better factors to target—like economic inequality—to address the issue of violence.

            My third post took on the ridiculously facile assumption that all gender differences stem from stereotypes and socialization. Many feminists charge anyone who suggests natural differences in behavior or career preference with essentialism. This is nonsense stemming from scientific ignorance. None of the commenters brought up any challenges that require addressing.

            While my problem with feminism begins with the term itself—because it comes freighted with tribal implications—I accept that unconditional opposition would be pretty much meaningless. So here are some things that would make me more accepting of feminism:

-         Evidence that people learning about feminism are systematically warned of the dangers of demonizing or vilifying men.

-         Evidence that feminism, as an ideology and not as an extension of Enlightenment ideals regarding human rights, has contributed valid or useful insights that have advanced science or benefited society.

-         Evidence that being a feminist has beneficial effects for individuals.

On this last point, a study that was published with much fanfare in 2007 reported that feminism had no ill effects on romantic relationships and that men in a relationship with a feminist were more likely to say their sex lives were satisfactory. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, is titled, “The Interpersonal Power of Feminism: Is Feminism Good for Romantic Relationships?” The authors, Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, leave little doubt regarding the purpose of their study:

            What is particularly disturbing is that, by eschewing feminism, women themselves may
be participating in backlash. Thus, it is important to understand the reasons why women
today tend not to embrace feminism.

It’s amazing to me that something this blatantly ideological got published in a scientific journal. What the media coverage failed to mention is the study actually discovered that the female participants who labeled themselves as feminists actually reported higher levels of conflict within their relationships. Rudman and Phelan felt this was a statistical artifact, though, and dismissed it. I don’t understand their reasoning, and I have to assume if it wasn’t valid the reviewers would’ve picked it up. But it does suggest the methods they used might not have been sufficiently sensitive.

            The biggest issue I have with the study, however, is that it willfully conflates support for career women with feminism; in this study, I would have been counted as a strong feminist. The authors justify the move by pointing to a strong correlation between the actual label and attitudes toward women in high-powered positions. But the self-reports didn’t match up in many cases—as they wouldn’t have in mine. Using attitudes toward working women as a stand-in for feminism also opens the door to confounds like higher education and the benefits to a household of having two incomes.

            With regard to my concerns about ideological feminism, the Rudman and Phelan study is completely meaningless. Some studies I’d like to see: a comparison between academic departments measuring relationship satisfaction and stability; some objective measure of women’s support for feminist ideology, like knowledge of prominent authors, compared with attitudes toward men as measured by self-report and results from Implicit Association Tests; an objective measure of men’s exposure to feminism, like a test of their knowledge of feminist authors, and both their attitudes toward women and the satisfaction and stability of their relationships. I would also like to know more about how ideological feminism impacts young girls and boys.

            We shouldn’t keep giving this tribal ideology a free pass because we assume it’s in the service of a good cause. We shouldn’t celebrate studies designed to produce congenial results. Feminism, like any other idea, needs to pass empirical muster if it is to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, policies inspired by it continue to be implemented in the absence of any tests or challenges.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why I Am Not a Feminist—and You Shouldn’t Be Either part 3: Engendering Gender Madness

             "As a professional debunker I feel like I know bunk when I see it, and Wertheim has well captured the genre: 'In all likelihood there will be an abundant use of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!! Important sections will be underlined or bolded, or circled, for emphasis.'"

This is from Skeptic editor Michael Shermer's review of a book on the demarcation problem, the thorny question of how to recognize whether ideas are revolutionary or just, well, bunk. Obviously, if someone's writing begs for attention in way that seems meretricious or unhinged, you're likely dealing with a bunk peddler. What to make, then, of these lines, to which I have not added any formatting?

"Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to make a girl in grade school question whether she’ll have any interest in or aptitude for science than to present her with a 'science for girls' kit."

"And, science kits that police these gender stereotypes run the risk of alienating boys from science, too."

"I really don’t think that science kits should be segregated by gender, but if you are going to segregate them at least make the experiments for girls NOT SO LAME."

"If girls are at all interested in science, then it must be in a pretty, feminine way that reinforces notions of beauty. It’s mystical. The chemistry of perfumery is hidden behind 'perfection.' But boys get actual physics and chemistry—just like that, with no fancy modifiers. This division is NOT okay..."

To the first, I’d say, really? You must have a very limited imagination. To the second, I’d say, really? Isn’t “police” a strong term for science kits sold at a toy store? I agree with the third, but I think the author needs to settle down. And to the fourth, I’d say, well, if the kids really want kits of this nature—and if they don’t want them the manufacturer won’t be offering them for long—you’d have to demonstrate that they actually cause some harm before you can say, in capitals or otherwise, they’re not okay.

Were these breathless fulminations posted on the pages of some poststructuralist site for feminist rants? The first and second are from philosopher Janet Stemwedel’s blog at Scientific American. The third is from a blog hosted by the American Geophysical Union and was written by geologist Evelyn Mervine. And the fourth is from anthropologist Krystal D’Costa’s blog, also at Scientific American.

           You’d hope these blog posts, as emphatic as they are, would provide links to some pretty compelling research on the dangers of pandering to kids’ and parents’ gender stereotypes. One of the posts has a link to a podcast about research on how vaginas are supposed to smell. Another of Stemwedel’s posts on the issue links to yet another post, by Christie Wilcox, in which she not-so-gently takes the journal Nature to task for publishing what was supposed to be a humorous piece on gender differences. It’s only through this indirect route that you can find any actual evidence—in any of these posts—that stereotyping is harmful. “Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is anything but harmless,” Wilcox declares. But does humor based on stereotypes in fact reinforce them, or does it make them seem ridiculous? How far are we really willing to go to put a stop to this type of humor? It seems to me that gender and racial and religious stereotypes are the bread-and-butter of just about every comedian in the business. 

            The science Wilcox refers to has nothing to do with humor but instead demonstrates a phenomenon psychologists call stereotype threat. It’s a fascinating topic—really one of the most fascinating in psychology in my opinion. It may even be an important factor in the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Still, the connection between research on stereotypes and performance—stereotype boost has also been documented—and humor is tenuous. And the connection with pink and pretty microscopes is even more nebulous.

           Helping women in STEM fields feel more welcome is a worthy cause. Gender stereotypes probably play some role in their current underrepresentation. I take these authors at their word that they routinely experience the ill effects of common misconceptions about women’s cognitive abilities, so I sympathize with their frustration to a degree. I even have to admit that it’s a testament to the success of past feminists that the societal injustices their modern counterparts rail against are so much less overt—so subtle. But they may actually be getting too subtle; decrying them sort of resembles the righteous, evangelical declaiming of conspiracy theorists. If you can imagine a way that somebody may be guilty of reinforcing stereotypes, you no longer even have to shoulder the burden of proving they’re guilty.

          The takeaway from all this righteously indignant finger-pointing is that you should never touch anything with even a remote resemblance to a stereotype. Allow me some ironic capitals of my own: STEREOTYPES BAD!!! This message, not surprisingly, even reaches into realms where a casual dismissal of science is fashionable, and skepticism about the value of empirical research, expressed in tortured prose, is an ascendant virtue—or maybe I have the direction of the influence backward.

           On two separate occasions now, one of my colleagues in the English department has posted the story of a baby named Storm on Facebook. Storm’s parents opted against revealing the newborn’s sex to friends and any but immediate family to protect her or him from those nasty stereotypes. In the comments under these links were various commendations and expressions of solidarity. Storm’s parents, most agreed, are heroes. Parents bragged about all their own children’s androgynous behavior, expressing their desire to rub it in the faces of “gender nazis.” 

From the Toronto Star
             From what I can tell, Storm’s parents had no idea the story of their unorthodox parenting would go viral, so we probably shouldn’t condemn them for using their child to get media attention. And I don’t think the “experiment,” as some have called it, poses any direct threat to Storm’s psychological well-being. But Storm’s parents are jousting with windmills. They’re assuming that gender is something imposed on children by society—those chimerical gender nazis—through a process called socialization. The really disheartening thing is that even the bloggers at Scientific American make this mistake; they assume that sparkly pink science kits that help girls explore the chemistry of lipstick and perfume send direct messages about who and what girls should be, and that the girls will receive and embrace these messages without resistance, as if the little tykes were noble savages with pristine spirits forever vulnerable to the tragic overvaluing of outward beauty.

            When they’re thinking clearly, all parents know a simple truth that gets completely discounted in discussions of gender—it’s really hard to get through to your kids even with messages you’re sending deliberately and explicitly. The notion that you can accidentally send some subtle cue that’s going to profoundly shape a child’s identity deserves a lot more skepticism than it gets (ask my conservative parents, especially my Catholic mom). This is because identity is something children actively create for themselves, not the sum total of all the cultural assumptions foisted on them as they grow up. Children’s minds are not receptacles for all our ideological garbage. They rummage around for their own ideological garbage, and they don’t just pick up whatever they find lying around.

            Psychologist John Money was a prominent advocate of the theory that gender is determined completely through socialization. So he advised the parents of a six-month-old boy whose penis had been destroyed in a botched circumcision to have the testicles removed as well and to raise the boy as a girl. The boy, David Reimer, never thought of himself as a girl, despite his parents’ and Money’s efforts to socialize him as one. Money nevertheless kept declaring success, claiming Reimer (who was called Brenda at the time) proved his theory of gender development. By age 13, however, the poor kid was suicidal. At 14, he declared himself a boy, and later went on to get further surgeries to reconstruct his genitals. In his account, written with John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, Reimer says that Money’s ministrations were in no way therapeutic—they were traumatic. Having read about Reimer in Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I thought of John Money every time I came across the term gender nazi in the Facebook comments about Storm (though I haven’t read Colapinto’s book in its entirety and don’t claim to know the case in enough detail to support such a severe charge).

            Reimer’s case is by no means the only evidence that gender identity and gender-typical behavior are heavily influenced by hormones. Psychiatrist William Reiner and urologist John Gearhart report that raising boys (who’ve been exposed in utero to more testosterone) as girls after surgery to remove underdeveloped sex organs tends not to result in feminine behaviors—or even feminine identity. Of the 16 boys in their study, 2 were raised as boys, while 14 were raised as girls. Five of the fourteen remained female throughout the study, but 4 spontaneously declared themselves to be male, and 4 others decided they were male after being informed of the surgery they’d undergone. All 16 of the children displayed “moderate to marked” degrees of male-typical behavior. The authors write, “At the initial assessment, the parents of only four subjects assigned to female sex reported that their child had never stated a wish to be a boy.”

            An earlier study of so-called pseudo-hermaphrodites, boys with a hormone disorder who are born looking like girls but who become more virile in adolescence, revealed that of 18 participants who were raised as girls, all but one changed their gender identity to male. There is also a condition some girls are born with called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), which is characterized by an increased amount of male hormones in their bodies. It often leads to abnormal testes and the need for surgery. But Sheri Berenbaum and J. Michael Bailey found that in the group of girls with CAH they studied, increased levels of male-typical behavior could not be explained by the development of male genitalia or the age of surgery. The hormones themselves are the likely cause of the differences. 
From Psychology Today and Satoshi Kanazawa

           One particularly fascinating finding about kids’ preferences for toys comes from the realm of ethology. It turns out that rhesus monkeys show preferences for certain types of toys depending on their gender—and they’re the same preferences you would expect. Girls will play with plush dolls or with wheeled vehicles, but boys are much more likely to go for the cars and trucks. And the difference is even more pronounced in vervet monkeys, with both females and males spending significantly more time with toys we might in other contexts call “stereotypical.” There’s even some good preliminary evidence that chimpanzees play with sticks differently depending on their gender, with males using them as tools or weapons and females cradling them like babies.

            Are gender roles based solely on stereotypes and cultural contingencies? In The Blank Slate, Pinker excerpts large sections of anthropologist Donald Brown’s inventory of behaviors that have been observed by ethnographers in all cultures that have been surveyed. Brown’s book is called Human Universals, and it casts serious doubt on theories that rule out every factor influencing development except socialization. Included in the inventory: “classification of sex,” “females do more direct child care,” “male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures,” “males more aggressive,” and “sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary” (435-8). These observations are based on societies, not individuals, who vary much more dramatically one to the next. The point isn’t that genes or biology determine behavioral outcomes; the relationship between biology and behavior isn’t mechanistic—it’s probabilistic. But the probabilities tend to be much higher than anyone in English departments assumes—higher even than the bloggers at Scientific American assume.

            Interestingly, even though there are resilient differences in math test scores between boys and girls—with boys’ scores showing the same average but stretching farther at each tail of the bell curve—researchers exploring women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields have ruled out the higher aptitude of a small subset of men as the most important factor. They’ve also ruled out socialization. Reviewing multiple sources of evidence, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams find that

            the omnipresent claim that sex differences in mathematics 
            result from early socialization (i.e., parents and teachers 
            inculcating a ‘‘math is for boys’’ attitude) fails empirical 
            scrutiny. One cannot assert that socialization causes girls to 
            opt out of math and science when girls take as many math 
            and science courses as boys in grades K–12, achieve higher 
            grades in them, and major in college math in roughly equal 
            numbers to males. Moreover, survey evidence of parental 
            attitudes and behaviors undermines the socialization 
            argument, at least for recent cohorts. (3)

If it’s not ability, and it’s not socialization, then how do we explain the greater desire on the part of men to pursue careers in math-intensive fields? Ceci and Williams believe it’s a combination of divergent preferences and the biological constraints of childbearing. Women tend to be more interested in social fields; while men like fields with a focus on objects and abstractions. However, girls with CAH show preferences closer to those of boys. (Cool, huh?)

  Ceci and Williams also point out that women who excel at math tend to score highly in tests of verbal reasoning as well, giving them more fields to choose from. (A recent longitudinal study replicates this finding - 3-26-2013.) This is interesting to me because if women are more likely to pursue careers dealing with people and words, they’re also more likely to be exposed to the strain of feminism that views science as just another male conspiracy to justify and perpetuate the patriarchal status quo. Poststructuralism and New Historicism are all the rage in the English department I study in, and deconstructing scientific texts is de rigueur. Might Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and all their feminist successors be at fault for women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields at least as much as toys and stereotypes?

            I have little doubt that if society were arranged to optimize women’s interest in STEM fields they would be much better represented in them. But society isn’t a very easy thing to manipulate. We have to consider the possibility that the victory would be Pyrrhic. In any case, we should avoid treating children like ideological chess pieces. There’s good evidence that we couldn’t keep little kids from seeking gender cues even if we tried, and trying strikes me as cruel. None of this is to say that biology determines everything, or that gender role development is simple. In fact, my problem with the feminist view of gender is that it’s far too crude to account for such a complex phenomenon. The feminists are arm chair pontificators at best and conspiracy theorists at worst. They believe stereotypes can only be harmful. That’s akin to saying that the rules of grammar serve solely to curtail our ability to freely express ourselves. While grammar need not be as rigid as many once believed, doing away with it altogether would reduce language to meaningless babble. Humans need stereotypes and roles. We cannot live in a cultural vacuum.

            At the same time, in keeping with the general trend toward tribalism, the feminists’ complaints about pink microscopes are unfair to boys and young men. Imagine being a science-obsessed teenage boy who comes across a bunch of rants on the website for your favorite magazine. They all say, in capital and bolded letters, that suggesting to girls that trying to be pretty is a worthwhile endeavor represents some outrageous offense, that it will cause catastrophic psychological and economic harm to them. It doesn’t take a male or female genius to figure out that the main source of teenage girls’ desire to be pretty is the realization that pretty girls get more attention from hot guys. If a toy can arouse so much ire for suggesting a girl might like to be pretty, then young guys had better control their responses to hot girls—think of the message it sends. So we’re back to the idea that male attraction is inherently oppressive. Since most men can’t help being attracted to women, well, shame on them, right? 

(Full disclosure: probably as a result of a phenomenon called assortive pairing, I find ignorance of science to be a huge turn-off.)
Check out part 2 on "The Objectionable Concept of Objectification."
And part 1 on earnings.
These posts have generated pretty lengthy comment threads on Facebook, so stay tuned as well for updates based on my concession of points and links to further evidence.
And, as always, tell me what you think and share this with anyone you think would rip it apart (or anyone who might just enjoy it).
Update: Just a few minutes after posting this, I came across Evolutionary Psychologist Jesse Bering's Facebook update saying he was being unfairly attacked by feminists for his own Scientific American blog. If you'd like to show your solidarity, go to
Go here to read my response to commenters.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why I Am Not a Feminist - and You Shouldn't Be Either part 2: The Objectionable Concept of Objectification

          Feminists theorize that one of the ways men subjugate women is by objectifying them. The idea is that a man, as part of the wider male conspiracy, makes a point of letting girls and young women know they’re constantly being ogled by people who are evaluating them and comparing them to other women—based solely on their physical features. Even compliments can contribute to this heightened awareness and concern for appearance, since they let women know what aspects of their persons are attention-worthy. The most heinous example of objectification is the casual dismissal of a woman’s ideas in the workplace and the substitution of some remark about her appearance in place of the serious consideration her idea deserves.

            Or maybe the most heinous example of objectification is the parading of impossibly attractive actresses and dangerously thin models all over the media landscape, setting the standards of beauty so high young women can never even hope to compete. In Hollywood, directors are fond of lovingly sweeping their cameras over their favorite parts of a female’s anatomy to let every young woman viewing the films know precisely what men find most appealing. The lustful male gaze is thus a powerful tool of oppression because it causes women to feel self-conscious and insecure—or so the feminist theory suggests (or, rather, one of the feminist theories).

            Looking through the  ever-looming feminist lens at statistics about how much more common self-esteem issues and eating disorders are among girls has a predictable impact on how we view boys. “Inevitably, boys are resented,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in her book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, setting them up to be

seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. There is an understandable dialectic: the more girls are portrayed as diminished, the more boys are regarded as needing to be taken down a notch and reduced in importance. (23-4) (excerpt)

The effect on young boys of being taught this theory of oppression by objectification must be akin to the effect of Catholic preachings about the fallen state of man and the danger to their souls of succumbing to the temptations of carnal desire. At some point, they’re going to start experiencing that desire, they’re not going to be able to do anything about it, and it’s going to make them feel pretty guilty. It’s a bit similar as well to what young homosexuals must experience growing up with families who believe attraction toward members of the same sex is sinful and unnatural.

            Men look at women and assess their attractiveness. They even get aroused merely from the sight of women who have certain features. Movie-makers and marketers know all about men’s fondness for checking out women. I’m not going to cite any of the research from the field of evolutionary psychology that explores whether or not men’s passion for beautiful women is something that occurs reliably in diverse cultures, or whether or not there are certain features that are considered beautiful by men all over the world. I’m not going to recite the logic of natural selection as it pertains to mate selection and the relative cost of reproduction. You can find that stuff anywhere, and you’ve probably already got some response to it worked out.

I’m going to do my best to explain why objectification can’t be a valid theory and doesn’t in any way establish the need for any social and political movement pitting the genders against each other at as purely practical a level as I can manage.

Objectification goes wrong before even getting beyond the term itself. Men aren’t—humans aren’t—with a few rare exceptions, attracted to or sexually aroused by objects. By being attracted to or sexually aroused by a woman, a man is in fact acknowledging her humanity. We humans are physical beings, and sex is a physical act. It stands to reason that in assessing a potential sexual partner’s compatibility, we focus a great deal on physical attributes. We have to distinguish humans from objects obviously, and we have to have some other criteria on which to base our decisions about who to couple with. For one thing, we need a way to figure out whether the prospective partner is mature enough for sex—so features signaling sexual maturity tend to be seen as attractive. And, since most people prefer to couple with members of one sex over the other, features signaling that membership will also tend to be seen as attractive.

Individualist feminist (there’s got to be a better term) Wendy McElroy, in a defense of pornography, points out the flaw in thinking of objectification as automatically and invariably degrading, using logic very similar to mine:

The assumed degradation is often linked to the 'objectification'   
of women: that is, porn converts them into sexual objects. What 
does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because 
objects don't have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that porn 
portrays women as 'sexual beings' makes for poor rhetoric. 
Usually, the term 'sex objects' means showing women as 'body 
parts', reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with 
this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or 
souls. No one gets upset if you present women as 'brains' or as 
'spiritual beings'. If I concentrated on a woman's sense of humor 
to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this degrading? 
Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?

Few women, as far as I know, complain about being treated as sexual beings by men they happen to be attracted to. The trouble arises when they’re treated that way when it’s inappropriate, as in the work situation I’ve described. The problem in such situations—and of course I agree it’s a problem—isn’t that the woman is seen as an object; it’s not even that she’s being recognized as attractive; it’s that someone is refusing to see her as more than merely a sexual being.

            But why do men have to be so obsessed with sex? And why does it seem like a woman’s role as a sexual being takes precedence over her other roles so frequently? Practically speaking, if two people who don’t know each other are going to begin a physical relationship, at least one of them must be motivated to pursue and get to know the other. Since the pursuer doesn’t yet know anything about the pursued, all there is to go on is physical appearance. Think about this for a second or two and you’ll come to a realization most women take for granted and, as long as it’s not in the context of a discussion about gender oppression, freely admit: Being the one who is the most motivated to pursue a relationship puts you at a disadvantage. An attractive woman has the power to accept or reject overtures from any of her suitors—and the more attractive she is the more of them she’ll have to choose from.
From CDC

           It’s just as legitimate to look at the numbers of women who suffer from eating disorders or undergo risky surgeries to improve their looks as evidence of an intense desire on the part of females to have the upper hand over men. The problem young girls face is the same problem young boys face—competition for attractive partners is unavoidable. Judging from suicide statistics, the consequences of this competition are even direr for the boys. The explanation for girls’ increasing self-consciousness and their more readily resorting to more extreme measures is probably the simple fact that media technology has opened the world up to everyone like never before, so that now the standards of beauty are determined by a contest with a much larger pool of contestants—not to mention the technological wonders of digital alteration.

            All the panic notwithstanding, this wider field of competition may actually be a societal boon. Some people of both genders harm themselves trying to be thin or athletic. At the same time, though, the obesity epidemic is doing even more harm. It’s easy to find stats and figures on anorexia, but how many people, after seeing a Victoria’s Secret model or that Twilight kid with his shredded abs, simply forgo that extra helping they were tempted to devour? And the competition extends beyond the realm of physical appearance. We don’t usually complain about how the work of geniuses makes it difficult for us to say anything interesting—even though we have to assume many first dates end in disappointment owing to lackluster conversation. What’s so special about attractiveness that it calls for protection from high standards? (This is not to say that there aren't plenty of other good reasons not to watch crap TV and read glitzy crap magazines.)

            Even if women admit that they like sex and that male attention is flattering, most of them will still attest to having experienced unwanted or inappropriate sexual attention or commentary at some point. While a lot of the time their complaints about this issue are probably bragging in disguise, that at least sometimes male attention can be downright scary or just outrageously inappropriate is undeniable. Still, women have to keep in mind that men like to tease their friends, often aggressively, and the point at which intimate liberty-taking shades into something more malicious is often ambiguous.

            And if you think a workplace dominated by females would be some kind of peaceful utopia, you probably haven’t spent much time around groups of women. If a man has a problem with you, he’s much more likely to tell you directly. Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to smile to your face and then attack your reputation when your back is turned. This is one of those patterns that emerge reliably across cultures; psychologists call it indirect aggression. I’m citing it because it’s not about beauty standards or male desire—and because it underscores the point that when a man makes some comment about a woman’s "proper role" it’s an act of aggression perpetrated by an individual, not an act of political or economic oppression for which the entire gender is guilty.
From 1
            Those perpetrators are also much more likely to be at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy than they are at the top. Studies of natural hierarchy formation find that self-sacrifice and altruism are key determiners of status. There is also strong evidence that people resort to aggression primarily to compensate for low status. Although unwanted sexual advances aren’t acts of aggression, a rejected man’s effort to save face can certainly be frightening. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that even these face-saving measures aren’t politically motivated. The guy’s not belittling the woman from a position of power; his position is in fact pitiable. (I'll even make a prediction: the guy who's bugging you--he's short isn't he?)

            What do neuroscientists and psychologists say about the nature of men’s lustful gazes? A small preliminary imaging study presented at an AAAS meeting in Chicago by Susan Fiske seemed to offer some support for the idea of objectification. When men were put in scanners and allowed to look at pictures of women, the region of the brain that motivates and manages male conspiracies lit up like a Christmas tree--sorry, couldn't help myself. Here is the claim Fiske actually made: 

            I’m not saying that they literally think these photographs of 
            women are photographs of tools per se, or photographs of 
            non-humans, but what the brain imaging data allow us to do   
            is to look at it as scientific metaphor. That is, they are  
            reacting to these photographs as people react to objects.   
            (Quoted here)

However, Fiske goes on to say that when she matched the scans with surveys of attitudes she discovered that “the hostile sexists were likely to deactivate the part of the brain that thinks about other people’s intentions.” So along with the part of the brain associated with using tools, people who aren’t “hostile sexists” actually do think about naked people’s intentions. This finding has actually been replicated.

            The most comprehensive study to date on how people’s attitudes are affected by viewing pictures of scantily clad women and men concludes that while seeing skin does in fact lead to a diminishment in assessments of agency, it leads to an increase in assessments of a capacity to experience either pleasure or pain. The authors write: 

            To the extent that this modified framework concerning    
            perceptions of the mind and body turns out to be correct, it is 
            inaccurate to describe the body focus as inducing  
            “objectification.” People who seem especially embodied are 
            not treated as mere physical objects but, instead, like 
            nonhuman animals, as beings who are less capable of 
            thinking or reasoning but who may be even more capable of 
            desires, sensations, emotions, and passions. (12)

Looking at other humans like they’re animals isn’t much better than looking at them like objects—but the study was of people looking at pictures of individuals they’d never met. Assuming a capacity for desires, sensations, emotions, and passions is, at least in my opinion, a really good start considering the pictures are of naked people in sexually suggestive poses; people with more clothes were perceived to be more like robots. (So show more skin to hide your agendas, as if you didn't already know.) The authors not only take issue with the term objectification; they also failed to discover any justification for thinking the changes that occur in attitudes toward strangers based on how much skin they’re showing are only experienced by men:

Objectification is often discussed in terms of men objectifying women …, but we found that both men and women strip agency and confer experience to both men and women when a bodily focus is induced. (11)

This study’s findings dovetail almost perfectly with those of a study that found men who watch a moderate amount of pornography demonstrate less sexist attitudes in general, but when sexism does emerge in relation to porn it tends toward so-called "benevolent sexism," the supposedly paternalistic, protective, and worshipful variety (the measures for which are shot through with dubious feminist assumptions).

            Benevolent or not, men's feelings toward women in porn are probably the starkest proof that objectification is a nonsensical idea: if men were aroused by objects or instruments, the women in x-rated videos would be passive and inert as often as they are active and enthusiastic. I don't have any numbers to cite on this but I'd say most men, by far, cringe at the thought of taking pleasure without reciprocating. Advocates of objectification theory seem to worry that someone will sneak up behind a man and slap him on the back while he's looking at a woman as a sexual being, causing his mind to get stuck that way. I can't be the only man who on more than one occasion has had sex with one woman only to drive to work a short time afterward and speak to other women in a purely professional capacity. Guys looking at porn and then going to work--got to be happening millions of times a day. People shift modes all the time.
            The study that questions the term objectification is titled “More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification.” Tellingly, when Peircarlo Valdesolo reported on it for Scientific American, the headline read “How Our Brains Turn Women Into Objects.” In my future post on the hysteria (yes, I’m using this term with a sexist etymology ironically) over the “gendering” of children, I’m going to point out how this flagship publication for popular science seems to be bowing to pressure to be more feminist-friendly. Valdesolo, to be fair, did include a subheading: “There is, it turns out, more than one kind of ‘objectification’.” Those quotation marks notwithstanding, I still have to object—no, in fact, there aren’t any kinds of objectification. (A later “60-Second Mind” podcast has a much more accurate title and subheading: “How We View Half-Naked Men and Women: Research finds that scantily-clad women and men are judged in similar ways.”)

            Make no mistake, those hostile sexists are out there. But not all of them are men. Some people, women and men, are hell-bent on plunging this country back into the dark ages and on dispelling all the evolution craziness that gets taught in schools, all the global warming crap, all the godlessness. These people are sure to belittle and disparage anyone, woman or man, with more liberal or libertarian leanings (and we them). Make no mistake on the point too that while mixing up objectification and attraction is wrong and offensive, there are acts that really do deny the humanity and sovereignty of women and men. In America, we can be glad that it's overwhelmingly more likely for the most disadvantaged people to be either the perpetrators or the victims of such acts. I believe, nonetheless, that by targeting the forces behind their disadvantage we can and should be doing more to prevent such acts.

           The stats on part 1 of Why I Am Not a Feminist: Earnings are still blowing up. But the comments have stopped coming in. Please let me know what you think. Feel free as well to share this post with anyone you think can tear it apart.
Read part 3: Engendering Gender Madness
Read my response to commenters.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why I Am Not a Feminist—and You Shouldn’t Be Either part 1: Earnings

From a Georgetown University study called "Education, Occupation, and Lifetime Earnings"
           In order to establish beyond all doubt the continuing criticality of the battle for women’s equality, feminists rely heavily on data demonstrating an earnings discrepancy between genders. Women make less money in America, and therefore women are not yet equal. If women aren’t making as much as men who work in the same industry, if women aren’t making as much as men with the same education level, isn’t that an injustice? So how can I claim something is wrong with feminism, a movement seeking equal rights and equal treatment and equal pay for half the population of the country?

            There’s a point at which dwelling on the crimes committed against a group of people becomes a subtle form of bigotry toward other groups. Jews like to rehearse their long history of persecution for a reason. Focusing on anti-Semitism can bolster solidarity among Jews—if for no other reason than that it fosters suspicion of gentiles. This is not to minimize the true horrors and hatreds faced by God’s chosen people, but rather to point out that no matter how horrible their past is it doesn’t justify atrocities against other groups of people.

            I’m not writing merely to bemoan male-bashing, and I'm not suggesting feminists are guilty of atrocities (though a case could be made that they are). I’m writing because the good cause of equal rights and equal pay shades with distressing frequency into sloppy thinking and unscientific, perfervid preaching. Feminism has become a free-floating ideology, a cause inspiring blind frenzies and impassioned pronouncements about mysterious evils unlikely to exist in the world of living, breathing humans. And, yes, it is unfair to men, mean to boys, and counterproductive to women.

            I am an advocate of universal human rights, and many of my positions overlap with those of feminists. A pregnant woman has the right to choose whether or not to carry her baby to term. Any type of legal or educational enforcement of gender roles is a violation of the right of individuals to choose their own lifestyles, educational trajectories, careers, and the nature of their relationships. But this freedom in regard to gender roles also means that girls and boys, women and men, have just as much of a right to choose to be traditional or stereotypical in any of these domains. Any law or educational policy that goes after any aspect of gender freely chosen or naturally occurring is just as much of an injustice as one that forces individuals to take on roles that don’t fit them.
From a 2011 Gallup Report
          If it were true that the figures showing earnings discrepancies in fact represented compelling evidence of hiring or promoting biases favoring men, I would support the cause of reform—not in the name of women’s rights, but in the name of human rights, in the name of fairness. As stark an image as they paint, however, the results of the studies these figures come from are no more proof of bias than a study showing boys win more often in school sports would be proof of cheating. Just as you would have to address the question of how many girls are even playing sports, you have to ask how many women are applying for top-paying positions. Fortunately, several studies have looked at the application and hiring process directly—at least in academic fields.
From a CDC 2011 Report
            Before discussing those results, though, I’d like to point out (only somewhat flippantly) that earnings aren’t the only area in which reliable gender differences occur. Men have more heart attacks than women. And men tend to die at an earlier age than women, heart disease being the single most common cause of death. One of the main concerns of feminists is the so-called objectification of women and, more specifically, the theory that media portrayals of underweight actresses and models instill in young girls the conviction that they must be dangerously skinny to be attractive. Might it also be the case that media portrayals of extremely wealthy men instill in boys the notion that in order to be attractive they must make extremely large incomes, incomes they go to dangerous lengths to secure, say, by working long hours, spending little time with family and friends, ignoring their health, stressing themselves out, and working themselves into early graves.

            A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton begins its discussion of results thus:

            More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but 
            less money is associated with emotional pain. Perhaps 
            $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in 
            income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what 
            matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending 
            time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and 
            enjoying leisure. According to the ACS, mean (median) US 
            household income was $71,500 ($52,000) in 2008, and about 
            a third of households were above the $75,000 threshold. It 
            also is likely that when income rises beyond this value, the 
            increased ability to purchase positive experiences is 
            balanced, on average, by some negative effects. recent 
            psychological study using priming methods provided 
            suggestive evidence of a possible association between high 
            income and a reduced ability to savor small pleasures. (4)

Perhaps a monomaniacal lusting after money is a pathology, one that men suffer from in much greater numbers than women. But my point isn’t that I think we should try to do something to protect these men from harm; it’s rather that income is not necessarily an absolute good. So why should it be a benchmark for women’s rights that they make dollar for dollar what men make? We have to at least consider the possibility that women have it as good or better than men already today.

            Still, if a woman wants to go toe-to-toe with her male counterparts to see who can earn more, there should be no institutional barriers hampering her ability to compete. Before we look at those earnings charts and imagine sinister cabals of Scotch-swigging conspirators, however, we must determine whether or not the numbers result from choices freely made by women. “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Math, and Engineering Faculty” is the 2010 report of a task force established to investigate this very question. The main finding:

For the most part, male and female faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university, and gender does not appear to have been a factor in a number of important career transitions and outcomes. (153)

How does the study account for the underrepresentation of women in these fields? “Women accounted for about 17 percent of applications for both tenure-track and tenured positions in the departments surveyed” (154). So the plain fact is that women apply for these positions less frequently. Could it be because they despair of their chances for getting an interview? It turns out that “The percentage of women who were interviewed for tenure-track or tenured positions was higher than the percentage of women who applied” (157), which does sound a bit like discrimination—against men. And it gets better (or worse): “For all disciplines the percentage of tenure-track women who received the first job offer was greater than the percentage in the interview pool” (157). Fewer women applying to positions in these fields, not discriminatory hiring or promoting, explains their underrepresentation.

            Reviewing this and several other research programs, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, in a report likewise published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled "Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science", explain that 

            Despite frequent assertions that women’s current       
            underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex 
            discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and 
            search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well 
            as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable 
            resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering 
            fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in 
            interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal 
            publications because of their sex. It is due primarily to 
            factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, 
            gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career 
            preferences—some originating before or during adolescence 
            —and secondarily to sex differences at the extreme right tail 
            of mathematics performance on tests used as gateways to 
            graduate school admission. As noted, women in 
            math-intensive fields are interviewed and hired slightly in 
            excess of their representation among PhDs applying for 
            tenure-track positions. The primary factors in women’s 
            underrepresentation are preferences and choices—both freely 
            made and constrained: “Women choose at a young age not to 
            pursue math-intensive careers, with few adolescent girls 
            expressing desires to be engineers or physicists, preferring 
            instead to be medical doctors, veterinarians, biologists, 
            psychologists, and lawyers. Females make this choice 
            despite earning higher math and science grades than males 
            throughout schooling”. (5)

These "math-intensive" fields (Wallstreet?) are central to our economy and accordingly tend to mean higher pay for those who chose them. Since the study that compared incomes by gender and education level failed to account for what field the education or the career was in, the differences in fields chosen probably explains the difference in pay. The PNAS study authors cite a Government Accountability Office report whose findings accorded well with this explanation. Ceci and Williams write that

            the GAO report mentions studies of pay differentials,  
            demonstrating that nearly all current salary differences 
            can be accounted for by factors other than 
            discrimination, such as women being disproportionately 
            employed at teaching-intensive institutions paying less 
            and providing less time for research. (4)

Conservatives are fond of the principle that equality of opportunity doesn’t mean equality of outcome. Though they are demonstrably wrong when it comes to economic inequality in general (since inequality and mobility are negatively correlated), the principle is completely sound. I have no doubt that some men are barring the doors of employment to some women in America today. There are probably places where the reverse is true as well. But feminism is a body of facile assumptions that leads to ready conclusions of questionable validity. The assumption of discrimination when faced with earnings discrepancies is just one example.

Feminism is the political and social effort to attain equality between the sexes. While this sounds perfectly innocuous, even admirable, it frames relations between women and men as fundamentally antagonistic; it’s us versus them. Even a whiff of tribalism tends to make otherwise admirable efforts take tragic turns. How many relationships have been undermined by the idea that difference means inequality means oppression, by the notion that within every man lurks the impulse to dehumanize and dominate women.

In future posts, I’m going to look at the faulty assumptions inspired by feminism in the realms of sex and attraction—i.e. the bizarre notion of objectification—and in the upbringing of children, where so much pointless hand-wringing takes place over whether gender stereotypes are being subtly imposed. For now, I’m going to close with some questions from a graduate level textbook, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism by Ann Dobie. They’re from a section devoted to helping burgeoning scholars learn to write feminist essays about literature. The idea is to pose these questions to yourself as you’re reading. See if you can spot the assumptions. See if you think they’re valid or fair.

-What stereotypes of women do you find? Are they oversimplified, demeaning, untrue? For example, are all blondes understood to be dumb?
-Examine the roles women play in a work. Are they minor, supportive, powerless, obsequious? Or are they independent and influential?
-How do the male characters talk about the female characters?
-How do the male characters treat the female characters?
-How do the female characters act toward the male characters?
-Who are the socially and politically powerful characters?
-What attitudes toward women are suggested by the answers to these questions?
-Do the answers to these questions indicate that the work lends itself more naturally to a study of differences between the male and female characters, a study of power imbalances between the sexes, or a study of unique female experience? (121-2)

In case you missed it, let me quote from the first page of the chapter: "The premise that unites those who call themselves feminist critics is the assumption that Western culture is fundamentally patriarchal, creating an imbalance of power which marginalizes women and their work" (104). While I acknowledge the assumption was historically justified, I have a feeling people will keep making it long after its promise of a better tomorrow is exhausted.
Read part 2: The Objectionable Concept of Objectification
and part 3: Engendering Gender Madness
Read my response to commenters.