Young’s follow-up on Michael Kimmel is at the end.
By Cathy Young | MindingTheCampus.com | May 17, 2013
A few months ago, a post with a shocking claim about misogyny in America began to
circulate on Tumblr, the social media site popular with older teens and young adults. It featured a scanned book page section stating that, according to “recent survey data,” when junior high school students in the Midwest were asked what they would do if they woke up “transformed into the opposite sex,” the girls showed mixed emotions but the boys’ reaction was straightforward: “‘Kill myself’ was the most common answer when they contemplated the possibility of life as a girl.” The original poster–whose comment was, “Wow”–identified the source as her “Sex & Gender college textbook,” The Gendered Society by Michael Kimmel.
The post quickly caught on with Tumblr’s radical feminist contingent: in less than three months, it was reblogged or “liked” by over 33,000 users. Some appended their own comments, such as, “Yeah, tell me again how misogyny ‘isn’t real’ and men and boys and actually ‘like,’ ‘love’ and ‘respect the female sex’? This is how deep misogynistic propaganda runs… As Germaine Greer said, ‘Women have no idea how much men hate them.'”
Yet, as it turns out, the claim reveals less about men and misogyny than it does about gender studies and academic feminism.
I was sufficiently intrigued to check out Kimmel’s reference: a 1984 book called The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective by psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade. The publication date was the first tipoff that the study’s description in the excerpt was not entirely accurate: the “recent” data had to be about thirty years old. Still, did American teenage boys in the early 1980s really hold such a dismal view of being female?
When I obtained a copy of The Longest War, I was shocked to discover that the claim was not even out of context: it seemed to have no basis at all, other than one comment among examples of negative reactions from younger boys (the survey included third- through twelfth-grade students, not just those in junior high). Published in 1983 by the Institute for Equality in Education, the study had some real fodder for feminist arguments: girls generally felt they would be better off as males while boys generally saw the switch as a disadvantage, envisioning more social restrictions and fewer career options (many responses seemed based on stereotypes–e.g., husband-hunting as a girl’s main training for adulthood–than 1980s reality). But that’s not nearly as dramatic as “I’d rather kill myself than be a girl.”
Hoping for clarification, I emailed Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University in New York and a leading scholar in gender studies. Kimmel replied that he had indeed relied on the Tavris and Wade book; he added that he “had intended to remove the reference” as dated and would definitely do it for the next edition. (The Gendered Society has gone through five editions since 2000; the fourth, cited in the Tumblr post, appeared in 2011.) When I asked about the mismatch between his account of the study and his source, Kimmel promised to look into it after returning from a lecture tour; two weeks later, he emailed to say that he did not have The Longest War at hand and could not explain the discrepancy. He conceded that he might have “misquoted” Tavris and Wade, noting that he felt this did not affect his overall argument and hoping that I could “evaluate the larger value of the book without being distracted by a single error.”
What, then, about the larger value of The Gendered Society, described on its back cover as “one of the most balanced gender studies texts available”? Unlike some conservative critics of feminism, I am sympathetic to Kimmel’s professed goal of a society in which women and men are individuals first regardless of gender, and to his argument that the sexes have far more in common than Mars-Venus rhetoric suggests. Unfortunately, these principles coexist with a steady drumbeat of female victimhood and male wrongdoing–often backed by tendentious or downright distorted evidence.
Thus, The Gendered Society’s discussion of gender in the workplace briefly acknowledges that women’s earnings are driven down by family-related work interruptions–but still treats gender gaps in pay and advancement almost entirely as the wages of discrimination, summarily dismissing the factor of sex differences in worker motivation. (Amusingly, Kimmel also asserts that mostly female jobs pay less due to sexism but doesn’t notice that in his own tables of the most single-sex-dominated occupations, the two highest-paid jobs–dental hygienist and speech-language pathologist–are nearly all-female.) The narrative is often contradictory. Thus, after citing staggering statistics of how many women are sexually harassed at work, Kimmel claims that the motive for harassment is almost invariably hostile–“to put women back in their place.” A paragraph later, he notes that the truth in sexual harassment cases is often elusive because the man may see “an innocent indication of sexual interest or harmless joking” where the woman sees sexual pressure.
The chapter on “The Gendered Classroom” uncritically repeats tales of girls’ woes–for instance, that girls’ self-esteem “plummets” in junior high school–without mentioning that they have been strongly disputed, not just by critics of feminism but by mainstream psychologists. The assertion that “girls’ IQs fall by about thirteen points,” compared to three for boys, is drawn from a 1935 book. (Ironically, Kimmel is then left scrambling to explain how “the systematic demolition of girls’ self-esteem, the denigration of their abilities, and the demotion of their status” results in a situation in which girls outperform boys academically at every level.)
Predictably, The Gendered Society also depicts American culture as saturated with male violence toward women. After quoting feminist anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday’s assertion that “the lower the status of women relative to men, the higher the rape rate,” Kimmel invites readers to consider what this says about women in the United States, which “has the highest rate of reported rape in the industrial world–about eighteen times higher than England.”
Oh really (to borrow the title of Kimmel’s sarcastic sidebars intended to rebut different views of gender relations)? According to United Nations statistics, in 2010 the reported rape rate in the U.S.–27.3 per 100,000 people–was slightly lower than in England and Wales, at 28.8 per 100,000; in the six years previous years, it was 5 to 30 percent higher. (Belgium’s reported rape rate in recent years has been similar to that of the U.S., and sometimes slightly higher; in Sweden, it stands at about 60 per 100,000, no doubt due to an unusually broad definition.) Since Kimmel’s footnotes did not indicate the source, I emailed again to ask him about it; the best citation he could offer was an essay by feminist psychologist Patricia Rozee, “Rape Resistance: Successes and Challenges” in The Handbook of Women, Psychology and the Law (2005), which offers the (unsourced) claim that the U.S. rape rate is “twelve times that of England.”
Kimmel also recycles the claim from feminist advocacy groups that “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the nation”; in fact, Centers for Disease Control and Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that women suffer about five times as many injuries from accidental falls and about twice as many from car accidents as they do from all violence (about a third of which is inflicted by partners or ex-partners).
Meanwhile, research on women as perpetrators of domestic violence is dismissed as “a small chorus of voices shouting about ‘husband abuse,'” with no mention of the fact that many of these voices belong to female scholars (except for one paragraph ridiculing sociologist Suzanne Steinmetz) or that there are by now over 200 studies indicating similar levels of male and female aggression in relationships. Kimmel also charges that such studies conflate aggression and self-defense, an argument that has been convincingly refuted. His use of anecdotal evidence is equally skewed: noting that talk of female violence is belied by the lack of battered men asking for protection, he adds in a sarcastic aside that “O.J. Simpson did call himself an ‘abused husband.'” But one could easily choose a different celebrity example–for instance, actor/comedian Phil Hartman, shot by his wife Brynn (who, friends’ accounts suggested, had been violent before) in a murder-suicide.
No scholarly text is ever error-free. But in the case of Kimmel’s book, there is a consistent pattern of using selective evidence and even pseudo-facts to stress women’s victimization and paint males (particularly American males) in the worst light. The fictitious claim that most boys would choose death over girlhood–which will undoubtedly live on the Internet after it’s gone from future editions of the book–fits seamlessly into the big picture.
Internet myths aside, The Gendered Society is widely used in college courses. And if it is indeed the most balanced gender studies textbook available–which may well be true–that says a lot about the rest.
By Cathy Young | MindingTheCampus.com | July 14, 2013
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my quest to track down a shocking “fact” from an acclaimed gender-studies textbook, The Gendered Society by Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel–that American teenage boys typically say they’d rather kill themselves than be a girl–and my discovery that not only was this claim based on a misreading of a thirty-year-old survey, but the book abounded in other factual inaccuracies and tendentious interpretations. A few days later, on May 20, Stony Brook announced the launch of a new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, funded with a $300,000 start-up grant from the MacArthur Foundation–headed by none other than Kimmel, whom the press release lauded as “one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today.”
The Center, which will open this fall and will host regular seminars and forums as well as an international conference in 2015, is clearly meant to play a major role in the emerging field of “masculinity studies.” With this in mind, another look at Kimmel’s work and outlook is in order.
Like most academic work on gender, Kimmel’s writings are based on the premise that all traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity are socialized and oppressive. While this is a debatable perspective that has an unfortunate tendency to turn into gender-studies dogma, it need not be anti-male; authors such as Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power (1993), argue that gender-role pressures and stereotypes limit and harm both women and men. Ostensibly, Kimmel agrees (though for him, such pressures on men come only from other males and patriarchal structures); at times, as I noted in my analysis of The Gendered Society, he also stresses similarities between men and women to counter notions of a fundamental Mars-Venus gap. Yet his work is pervaded by sweeping assumptions of male power that easily translates into knee-jerk male-blaming. When Kimmel talks about men and boys–at least ones unreconstructed by feminism–it is often in a tone that ranges from ironic condescension to scolding rebuke and outright antipathy.
Porn Is a ‘White-Guy Thing’
A case in point: Kimmel’s best-known non-academic book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Guys Become Men (2008), which focuses on the American male in transition from boyhood to manhood. Kimmel, who draws on interviews with nearly 400 “guys” in their late teens and early twenties, professes sympathetic concern for the young men he sees as both victims and enforcers of destructive codes of masculine conduct. Yet the book offers such a relentless catalogue of male deficiencies and iniquities, such a parade of misogynistic, entitled, videogame- and porn-obsessed jerks that the concern eventually looks a lot like defamation. (The main targets of this friendly fire are white men, since Kimmel argues that the dynamics of “Guyland” are rooted in white-male privilege and anger at its erosion; misconduct by minority males is relegated to the passing admission that “white guys do not have a monopoly on appalling behavior.”) Occasional disclaimers that not all young men inhabit “Guyland” and few conform to all of its norms hardly change the overall effect. When Kimmel acknowledges that “most guys are not predators, nor criminals,” it is only to add that the sadistic bullies, rapists, and school shooters are “the farthest extremes on a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that stretches back to embrace so many young men.”
The quality of the social science behind Guyland can be gauged from one example: Kimmel’s claim that pornography is not just a guy thing but a white guy thing, with far less appeal to other ethnic groups. His evidence consists of comments from two Asian-American men, two African-Americans (an Emory University graduate and a graduate student) and a survey from the early 1990s indicating that black men report less frequent masturbation than white men. Yet a study of actual pornography consumption by teens, published three years before Guyland, found roughly equal rates of porn use for white and black boys and higher rates for Hispanics. (A more recent report based on 1973-2010 General Social Survey data concludes that nonwhite males are somewhat more likely to use pornography and that this gap widened in the 2000s.)
His Evidence Is Underwhelming
Elsewhere in the book, Kimmel makes a related claim promptly contradicted by his own research: that the college “hook-up culture” of casual sexual encounters is a “white guy thing” (emphasis in the original). He quotes a couple of black students who assert that “hooking up” is viewed as “acting white.” But non-anecdotal evidence from the Online College Social Life Survey, a collaborative project on which Kimmel works, turns out to be underwhelming: “[B]lacks and Latinos are somewhat less likely to engage in hooking up, and Asian students are far less likely to do so.”
As in The Gendered Society, Kimmel obliviously makes contradictory claims: for instance, that the sexual terrain of “Guyland” is male-dominated, with women playing by men’s rules, and that “guys” seek porn as a refuge from real-life sex which they see as female-controlled. Concerns about overbroad redefinitions of sexual assault that include gray-area situations and misunderstandings are dismissed as backlash from victim-blaming “anti-feminists” (myself included); yet an account by one of Kimmel’s own interviewees starkly illustrates the validity of such concerns. “Alex,” a college senior, found himself battling attempted rape charges after a drunken make-out session at an off-campus party–even though he stopped and apologized the moment the girl told him to stop.
While Kimmel admits that Alex is “a decent guy” and that similar cases “occur with alarming frequency,” he shows little actual alarm over the scary implications for young men. Instead, he waxes enthusiastic about “rape awareness” measures that treat all men as potential rapists–such as “splash guards” on a college’s public urinals with the slogan, “You hold the power to stop rape in your hand.” Tackiness aside, such a stunt directed at any other group would be readily seen as “hate” (imagine proposing that “You are looking at someone who can stop terrorism” be inscribed on bathroom mirrors at a campus Islamic center).
Misusing Data to Promote Ideology
Also worth noting is Kimmel’s active campaign against equal recognition for male victims of domestic abuse (an ironic crusade for someone dedicated to shattering male/female stereotypes). While men’s rights activists do tend to exaggerate “gender symmetry” in partner violence (most notably by downplaying women’s higher risk of injury), Kimmel’s anti-gender symmetry polemic, published in the journal Violence Against Women in 2002, is at least as skewed. In a 2006 analysis on the politics of domestic violence scholarship, psychologists Donald Dutton of the University of British Columbia and Kenneth Corvo of Syracuse University bluntly accuse him of misusing data “in a direction favoring activist ideology” and trying to “manufacture” desired conclusions.
Thus, in critiquing studies based on the “Conflict Tactics Scale” questionnaire, which usually find similar rates of family violence by women and men, Kimmel invokes the 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey in which both women and men were asked about experiences of victimization: “The NVAW found that in 1998, men physically assaulted their partners at three times the rate at which women assaulted their partners.” But that disparity was for reports of lifetime assault; for the past year, men reported such assaults at about two-thirds the rate of women. (Men may be more likely to forget them over time for various reasons–including, perhaps, lack of cultural support in the victim role.)
Kimmel also cites leading family violence researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Straus as saying that “nearly three-fourths of the violence committed by women is done in self-defense.” But he omits the crucial fact that Straus later repudiated this claim as based on his own mistaken assumption that mutual violence was always male-initiated.
Near the end of his article, Kimmel offers an obligatory disclaimer: male victims do exist and deserve assistance and compassion. Yet in The Gendered Society, a text widely read by college students, he discusses the abuse of men in a snidely dismissive tone, with sarcastic asides about O.J. Simpson’s claim to be “an abused husband” and a battered men’s shelter in Canada which quickly closed “because no one came to it” (the source for this factoid is unclear). Confusing and contradictory statistics are trotted out with no apparent purpose but to minimize the issue (at one point Kimmel cites old Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers showing that about 8 percent of partner assaults are on men, then adds that “perhaps it’s a bit higher” so that “as much as 3-4 percent of all spousal violence is committed by women”). The late sociologist Susan Steinmetz, who pioneered the concept of “battered husband syndrome,” is ridiculed as a crank who supposedly twisted a small study of couples with no husbands reporting abuse into “bogus data” of 250,000 husbands battered every year. (In fact, Steinmetz’s estimates were based on several sources including a major national survey on domestic violence.)
A Men’s Auxiliary of Women’s Studies
“The study of men and masculinities” as conceptualized by Kimmel and his like-minded colleagues is, at bottom, an academic vehicle for a political attack on “white male privilege” (and, in practice, often on white males themselves), with little interest in either positive views of maleness or an understanding of male-specific problems that cannot be blamed on patriarchy or males themselves. This is undoubtedly the brand of “men’s studies” that Stony Brook’s new Center will promote. The makeup of the Center’s advisory board confirms as much: according to the press release, it features an array of Very Important Feminists including Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame), Jane Fonda, and psychologist Carol Gilligan, along with a few honorary males. It hardly comes as a surprise that, according to Kimmel, one of the Center’s primary functions will be dialogue between academics and “activists.”
One could make a good case for serious scholarship on the male side of gender issues. The last thing the academy needs, however, is a men’s auxiliary of women’s studies. Under Kimmel’s tutelage, that’s exactly what Stony Brook is going to get.
Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.