Tag Archives: feminism

Post-summer reading list: The Family, gender, race, economics, gayborhoods, insecurity and overwhelmed

I was extremely fortunate to have a real vacation this summer — two whole weeks. I feel like half a European. In that time I read, almost read, or thought about reading, a number of things I might have blogged about if I’d been working instead of at the beach:

beach-reading-2

The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change

Yes, my own book came out. I never worked on one thing so much. I really hope you like it. Look for it at the Norton booth at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco this week. Info on ordering exam copies here.

About that gender stall

The Council on Contemporary Families, on whose board I serve, published an online symposium titled, After a Puzzling Pause, the Gender Revolution Continues. It features work by the team of David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman on a rebound in gender attitudes; new research on sex (by Sharon Sassler) and divorce (by Christine Schwartz) in egalitarian marriages; and how overwork contributes to the gender gap (by Youngjoo Cha). For additional commentary, see this piece by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/ Pen!, and an important caution from Joanna Pepin (who finds no rebound in attitudes in the trends for high school students). If I had written a whole post about this I would have found a way to link to my essay on the gender stall in the NYTimes, too.

Gender and Piketty

How Gender Changes Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’.” A discussion hosted by The Nation blog between Kathleen Geier, Kate Bahn, Joelle Gamble, Zillah Eisenstein and Heather Boushey

Scientists strike back at Nicholas Wade

Geneticists decry book on race and evolution.” More than 100 scientists signed a letter to the New York Times disavowing Wade’s use of population genetics. This story quotes Sarah Tishkoff, whose work Wade specifically misrepresented (as I described in my review in Boston Review). The article in Science also includes Wade’s weak response, in which he repeats the claim, which I do not find credible, that their objections are “driven by politics, not science.” He repeats this no matter how scientific the objections to his work.

Here comes There Goes the Gayborhood?

Amin Ghaziani’s new book has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the last few weeks. Here’s one good article in the New Yorker.

Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times

Marianne Cooper’s book is out now. From the publisher: “Through poignant case studies, she reveals what families are concerned about, how they manage their anxiety, whose job it is to worry, and how social class shapes all of these dynamics, including what is even worth worrying about in the first place.” Cooper led the research for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and the book is from her sociology dissertation.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time

Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post journalist, has written a really good book about gender, work, and family. (I was happy to listen to it during the drive to our vacation, because it helped me let go and ignore work more.) I’ll write a longer review, but let me just say here it is very well written and researched on the issues of time use, the household division of labor, and work-family policy and politics, featuring many of your favorite social scientists in this area. Well worth considering for an undergrad family course. (Also, helps explain why there are so many Europeans on American beaches.)

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The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

The other day I explained why, despite her mocking tone,  the “Factual Feminist” (Christina Sommers) doesn’t have the factual basis to undermine commonly-used statistics on rape. Now she has a video out on “feminist science.” No, it’s not a joke from The Simpsons, she says:

A new feminist biology program at the University of Wisconsin is all too real… Is feminist biology likely to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world? The Factual Feminist is skeptical.

The program in question is really just a post-doctoral fellowship. It looks like a privately-endowed fund to hire one postdoc. This is not a major curriculum intervention. The first postdoc in the program is Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who does work on ancient female pelvic bones and their implications for birth stuff. She was quoted by the right-wing Campus Reform (a project of the Leadership Institute) this way:

“We aren’t doing science well if we ignore the ideas and research of people who aren’t male, white, straight, or rich,” VanSickle said in an email to Campus Reform. “Feminist science seeks to improve our understanding of the world by including people with different viewpoints. A more inclusive science means an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

I don’t know the evidence on whether the ideas of biologists who aren’t male, White straight, or rich are ignored in science today, but this sentiment seems unobjectionable to me – we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? But Sommers, for some reason misquoting her only source for the story, says,

She explained to Campus Reform that, quote, in order to do science well, she said, we can’t ignore the ideas and research of people who just don’t happen to be male. But wait a minute. Women are hardly ignored in biology. In fact, they have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees. What is more, women are flourishing, and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.

On the screen flashes a table showing women getting 61% of BA degrees in biology, 59% of MAs, and 54% of PhDs. If we’re talking about whether women are ignored in biology, I think it’s the PhDs that matter, so 54% is not quite “far surpassed.” More to the point, although women first surpassed men in receiving biology BA degrees in 1988 — a quarter of a century ago – they are currently only 23% of full professors in biology. I’m not arguing about whether this reflects job discrimination against female biologists. The point is that if only a small minority of the most influential biologists are women, and if there are common differences in how men and women do biology, then the views of the latter are going to be less well represented.

To show overblown this worry is, Sommers then flashes this image of all those women winning Nobel Prizes in “that field” (actually the prizes are for “Physiology and Medicine,” since there is no Nobel for biology):

womennobels

Those women sure seem to be flourishing. And that’s every woman who ever won a Nobel in Physiology and Medicine — all 10 of them. Since the 1940s, when the first of these women flourished, men have been awarded 162 Nobels in that field — the other 94% of the prizes. The peak decade was in the 2000s, when women won 15% of the prizes (the most recent in 2009).

At Wisconsin, the single “feminist biology” postdoc will also develop an undergraduate course in gender and biology. This seems like a fine idea. Maybe it will encourage even more women to overrun the biological sciences. Call me naive, but we’re still not exactly drowning in female biologists.

After going on to pick on a few individual feminists, Sommers concludes that:

…feminist theory [has] been built on a foundation of paranoia about the patriarchy, half-truths, untruths, oversimplifications, and it’s immune to correction.

Raising the question: If feminism is rubber, and the Factual Feminist is glue, does what she say bounce of feminism and stick to her?

Full disclosure: My mother is a biologist. And a feminist. So you know I’m right. And objective.

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Getting beyond how the ‘Factual Feminist’ is wrong about the prevalence of rape

sommers

Christina Sommers

Christina Sommers, who works out of the American Enterprise Institute (along with Brad Wilcox and Charles Murray), thinks the Centers for Disease Control, President Obama, and the feminist establishment are exaggerating how much rape there is. I’m not an expert on measuring rape – and neither is she – but I’ve looked into it enough to say her debunking is basically bunk.

Then: What happens when we go beyond her argument?

Lifetime experience of rape

In a video put out for the American Enterprise Institute, under the misnom de guerre “Factual Feminist,” Sommers quotes Obama as saying, “one in five women will be a victim of rape in their lifetime.” I’m mostly going to focus on this empirical claim.

Obama gets that statistic from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the CDC (he says it like it’s a projection, but it’s just a cross-sectional lifetime prevalence estimate). Sommers complains that the NIPSVS finds a higher rate of rape than the National Crime Victimization Survey, which she asserts is the gold standard in this area. She says:

By using a non-representative sample, and vaguely-worded questions, the CDC yielded the one-in-five lifetime rate, and the 1.3 million female rape victims per year.

The NIPSVS reported that 18.3% of women had ever been the victim of rape, comprising three (non-exclusive) components: completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. Here is their table (click to enlarge):

NIPSVS

Sommers claims the CDC has too broad a definition of rape, including lots of namby-pamby complaints from women brainwashed by the victimhood-obsessed feminist establishment.

So the most important point in response to that is that the lifetime reported rape rate in the NIPSVS is actually pretty low. The CDC’s other major survey, the National Survey of Family Growth, in 2002 found that 22.6% of women in the ages 18-44 had ever been forced to have intercourse (the last time they asked these questions). This is surprising because the NIPSVS measure is broader: it includes attempted rape as well as oral or anal penetration, and penetration by objects other than a man’s penis, including acts performed by women. The NSFG asked only about vaginal intercourse by a man. So the NIPSVS has a broader definition and finds a lower rate of lifetime rape prevalence. Given the difficulties in defining and measuring these experiences, this seems within the realm of reasonable.

Sommers’ only specific complaint about the NIPSVS rape prevalence statistic is that they include alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. To make this point she engages in a misleading rant about sex under the influence of alcohol and drugs, not exactly misstating the NIPSVS method but carefully not describing it accurately. “What about sex while inebriated?” she asks. “Few people would say that sex while intoxicated alone constitutes rape.” Right, and neither does the NIPSVS. The survey asked, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever…” and then it lists various kinds of penetration. The key phrase there is and unable to consent. They are not saying all drunk or drugged sex is rape.

She also claims that the NIPSVS is unrepresentative because it had a low response rate of about 30%. That’s life in the big city of surveys these days, and they attempted to compensate for it by using a weighting scheme to make the data representative of the national population. It’s not ideal but it’s not terrible, and that just means it should be interpreted cautiously and corroborated – neither Sommers nor I have any reason to believe this contributes to an inflated estimate of rape prevalence (though of course that’s possible).

In summary: If you have to pick a number to put to the lifetime prevalence of rape, I don’t think “one-in-five” is an unreasonable choice.

 What is rape

The NSFG survey, which arrived at a higher lifetime rape rate, combined two sets of responses to reach 22.6% for it’s 18-44 year-old respondents. These questions were in the self-administered portion of the survey due to the sensitivity of the topic. In one part of the survey they asked, simply, “At any time in your life, have you ever been forced by a male to have vaginal intercourse against your will?” In another part they asked a two-part question. First:

Think back to the very first time you had vaginal intercourse with a male. Which would you say comes closest to describing how much you wanted that first vaginal intercourse to happen?

  • I really didn’t want it to happen at the time
  • I had mixed feelings—part of me wanted it to happen at the time and part of me didn’t
  • I really wanted it to happen at the time.

And then, this followup:

Would you say then that this first vaginal intercourse was voluntary or not voluntary, that is, did you choose to have sex of your own free will or not?

If the respondents said it was not voluntary, that counted as ever having forced sex. This is not a criminal definition of rape. Rather, it identifies people who had sex involuntarily — from their perspective. It is understandable that this measure produces higher estimates than the criminal law does.

Naming violence

I think we need a definition of rape that is not the same as the criminal law’s definition, because the law is not intended to make criminal all of the ways that people experience sexual violation or coercion. The routine coercion of sex within unequal marriages, for example, must lie outside the reach of criminal law — or the next thing you know we’d have workers claiming that their employers’ profits constitute theft. In that sense, the definition used by NSFG seems reasonable.

Extending this further, however, we might find that drawing the line between sex and violence, between sex and rape, my not just be difficult, it may the wrong question.

Look back at the NIPSVS. They include “sexual coercion” under the category of “other sexual violence” — other meaning not rising to the level of rape. (To be clear, this is not part of the rape prevalence estimates I discussed above). They offer this definition:

Sexual coercion is defined as unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.

Sommers is incensed this counts as “violence.” Her voice drips with contempt as she recites the description, at how feminism’s pretty little flowers are upset that somebody lied to them. I don’t share this contempt. But neither would I insist that these forms of coercion be counted as “violence.” Sexual coercion does not have to be defined as violence in order to be important, or bad, or an essential element of many people’s sexual experience.

kittengun

You can’t handle the truth?

The feminist argument for the distinction between sex and violence is partly a defense of “normal” sexual relationships and against the accusation that it is normal sexual relationships that feminists oppose. This is exactly the tone Sommers takes: feminists treat women as passive victims who can’t handle normal relationships — you can’t even get drunk and have sex with your spouse anymore! Arguing with her over the definition of violence is a losing battle. I’ll give up “violence” if you agree that sexual coercion is systematically related to patriarchal power and gender inequality.

Here’s an excerpt from Catharine MacKinnon’s old discussion of rape versus sex (from the 1981 essay, “Sex and Violence,” published in the collection Feminism Unmodified), which influenced my attitude on this question. She said it is…

…potentially cooptive [to formulate the question as] these are issues of violence, not sex: rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality… I hear in the formulation that these issues are violence against women, not sex, that we are in the shadow of Freud, intimidated at being called repressive Victorians. We’re saying we’re oppressed and they say we’re repressed. That is, when we say we’re against rape the immediate response is, “Does that mean you’re against sex?” “Are you attempting to impose neo-Victorian prudery on sexual expression?” … To distinguish ourselves from this, and in reaction to it, we call these abuses violence.

To argue with Sommers about where to draw the line for sexual violence is to inhabit the shadow of Freud, in MacKinnon’s view. Rather than adopt that defensive posture, MacKinnon argued, feminists should own women’s fundamental, non-objective (in the sense of disinterested) position:

We have a deeper critique of what has been done to women’s sexuality and who controls access to it. What we are saying is that sexuality in exactly these normal forms often does violate us. So long as we say that those things are abuses of violence, not sex, we fail to criticize what has been made of sex, what has been done to us through sex, because we leave the line between rape and intercourse … right where it is.

In other words, if feminists argue over whether women’s perception of involuntary sex matches the legal definition, then we lose the ability to explain that unequal sex is systematic rather than deviant. It may not be that one-in-five women has experienced rape according to the definition within criminal law (though that is certainly within the realm of possible). But if that many women have had sex involuntarily, and many more have experienced sexual coercion of various kinds, isn’t that bad enough?

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Who likes public intellectuals?

One simple answer to a big question, in one chart.

Using the method of gathering demographic data described by Neal Caren, I asked Facebook for the “audience size” of an ad targeting people who “like” some famous academics, and then specified men or women to get the gender composition of the (U.S.) audience.

I started with Camille Paglia, after this old quote of hers surfaced: “Masculinity is aggressive, combustible, unstable. It is also the most creative cultural force in history.” I thought it was dumb as well as offensive, and wondered how many women like that stuff. Her Facebook “like” audience is quite small at 7,600, and it turns out 45% of them are female.

From there I tried comparing her to some feminists, and then some people to compare feminists with. Next thing I knew I had 15 scholars, 5 of them largely known for feminism (if you don’t count Paglia, the least popular person on the list). They are living people who interest me, who have academic jobs and didn’t become famous with major media jobs (like Paul Krugman) or political jobs (like Robert Reich). I seem to have forgotten about historians. And I accidentally included Barbara Ehrenreich, who doesn’t have an academic job.

Here are the results:

who likes public intellectuals

Note that some people don’t report a gender to Facebook. People with observable numbers of gender-abstainers (the numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand) include: bell hooks 7%, Judith Butler 6%, Cornell West 5%, E. O. Wilson 4%, Angela Davis 3%, Henry Louis Gates 3%, Barbara Ehrenreich 2%, Noam Chomsky 2%, and Jared Diamond 1%.

Lots of interesting people — like, sociologists — didn’t turn out to have enough likes to register. Feel free to add others in the comments.

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Gender Gap Statistic Gets it from All Sides

I was very happy to write this post for the Gender & Society blog, where it first appeared.

The “gender gap” has gotten a lot of attention this fall. This hard-working statistic is as often abused and attacked by antifeminists as it is misused and misunderstood by those sympathetic to feminism. But it is good for one thing: information.

The statistic is released each year with the U.S. Census Bureau’s income and poverty report. This year they reported 2012 annual earnings as recorded in the March 2013 Current Population Survey (CPS): the median earnings of full-time, year-round working women ($37,791) was 76.5% of men’s ($49,398). That is the source of (accurate) statements such as, “Women still earned only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012.”

In the category of reading too much into a single number, I put this data brieffrom the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which helpfully informed us that, “Most Women Working Today Will Not See Equal Pay during their Working Lives.” Here is the chart:

Cohen_image1

Of course, real life projections are not usually made by simply extending a trend with a straight line. The future is not that easy to foresee. If you did want to fit a line to that trend, however, the bad news is that it’s not a straight line that fits, but a third-order polynomial (which improves the measure of fit from .90 to .98). And projected this way, the trend will never reach equality:

Cohen_image2

Fortunately, curvy lines are often no better at predicting the future than straight ones.

Flog that stat

Some defenders of equal pay for women misstate the statistic, as President Bill Clinton did when he said:

“How would you like to show up for work every day, but only get to take home three out of every four paychecks? … if you get paid 75 percent for the same kind of work, it’s as if you were only picking up three paychecks, instead of four, in four pay periods. The average woman has to work, therefore, an extra 17 weeks a year to earn what a similarly-qualified man in the same kind of job makes.”

The mistake here is that he said “same kind of work” and “similarly-qualified man.” That led to the screaming headline on the American Enterprise Institute website, “Still Hyping the Phony Pay Gap.”

But he also went on to say:

“Yes, some of this can be explained — by differences in education, experience and occupation. But even after you make all those adjustments, there is still a very significant gap.”

So he belatedly acknowledged the complexities, and that second statement is true.

Oh, and that exchange occurred in 2000. How far we’ve come.

When Clinton, ever a repository for handy statistics, essentially repeated his statement on September 29 of this year, he played right into the screaming headlines of today’s anti-feminists, including Hanna Rosin, who declared, “I feel the need to set the record straight” in a piece she titled, “The Gender Gap Lie.” Kay Hymowitz also has written extensively to debunk the gender gap, arguing that it mostly results from women’s choices – the educations and occupations they choose, the hours they choose, the “mommy track” they prefer. (Naturally, sociologists are very interested in that construction of “choice.”)

There is no single number that can tell us the true state of gender inequality. But if you had to pick one, this one is pretty good. That’s because it combines factors that affect employment levels, work experience, occupational distributions, and pay discrimination – to give a sense of the place of the typical worker. As long as that number is not zero, there is a gender inequality problem to discuss, whether it results from socialization, family demands, educational sorting and tracking, hiring and promotion discrimination, or pay discrimination – and the details depend on further scrutiny.

Take your pick

We could use a different gender gap. The next figure shows some gender gaps for earnings among full-time, full-year workers in the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). I’ve cut the sample to compare men and women by education, long-hours status (50+ hours), parenthood (no co-residential children) and marital status (never married). As you can see, the gaps range from a low of 65% for women with an MA degree and no children all the way up to 93% for never-married professional degree or PhD holders with no kids. Generally, the 50-hour limit doesn’t help, but marriage and children make a big difference.Cohen_image3

Another way of restricting the data to consider real-world gaps is shown in the next figure. Here, from the same data, I’ve taken full-time, full-year workers who have a bachelor’s degree and no further education, and sorted them by college major. So these gaps account for educational specialization, and reflect – in addition to any hiring and pay discrimination – occupational sorting within those categories, as well as other educational processes such as university prestige and school performance. The gaps range from 69% for transportation science majors all the way up to 94% for architecture majors.

Cohen_image4

Finally, we might look more closely at occupations. In this figure, again from the 2011 ACS, I have sorted 484 detailed occupational categories according to the median earnings wage gap within them, for full-time, year-round workers. The y-axis shows the cumulative percentage of women who work at or below each level as you move from less equal occupations on the left to more equal ones on the right. I’ve labeled the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile, showing, for example, that half of women work in occupations with a wage gap of 83% or worse.Cohen_image5

Although this figure shows inequality within occupations, it is occupational segregation itself, which extends the gender division of labor into the labor market, that lies behind much of the gender gap – representing the culmination of historical and contemporary processes of allocating people to tasks.

In summary, the wage gap clearly is smaller in some situations than others – smaller for workers without children, especially if they’re never married, smaller for some college majors and in some occupations. Each of these comparisons tells us something different. (More complete statistical analysesthat control for several factors at once create counterfactuals that don’t actually exist, but that do help us isolate important dynamics behind the gender gap.)

We mustn’t read into these numbers more than they can tell us. None of the numbers I’ve shown can discern occupational choice from employer discrimination, for example; or the cumulative effects of time out of the labor force versus discrimination in previous jobs. But the gender gap numbers are measures of inequality. And as long as we are accurate and responsible in our use of these numbers, they are useful sources of information.

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Does history repeat itself, but with more porn?

In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos.

And network TV used to be a major source of exposure. I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview, because it was a big deal (OK, I was a culture studies major). The correspondent intoned: “nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.” They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time). In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:

Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.

Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.

The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)

mileymadonna1

No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”

Of course I think this because I’m old, but I think the conversation has slid backward. In Lisa Wade’s excellent comment, she draws on a 1988 article, “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” which concluded:

Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.

I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?

mileymadonna2

Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.

The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”

She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”

Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:

I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and . . . people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?”

And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”

I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence. But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation.

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Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?

sexgendermaze

(This post includes research from my excellent graduate assistant, Lucia Lykke.)

Recently I was corrected by another sociologist: “Phil – ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to one’s sex, not gender.”

Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.

Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:

It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.

Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:

The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.

In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:

socialconstructionofgender

The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:

Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.

Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):

Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.

From another perspective, Joan Fujimura argued for mixing more social into that biological scheme:

My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.

… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.

For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.

In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.

The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”

But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).

So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.

This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.

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