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Sexism, Science and Journalism

Earlier today I stumbled on a Slate article by Mark Regnerus pondering Why Young Men Have the Upper Hand in Bed, Even When They’re Failing in Life. It raises many interesting questions, the most prominent of which being, Why on Earth is this dumbass writing for Slate?

The core argument of the article seems to be:

  1. Women have little interest in sex except as part of a long-term relationship leading to marriage and children
  2. Many observed sexual relationships aren't long-term nor destined for marriage or children
  3. It follows that men currently have the upper hand on the dating scene. To explain why, we turn to "sexual economics".

My beef is mostly with proposition number 1. First, while I certainly have no knowledge of Mr. Regnerus' sexual prowesses, I can't help but mention that while I'm a computer nerd who never hits the gym, I've been lucky enough to personally establish some anecdotal evidence that his premise is bullshit. But never mind that, let's see how he justifies it:

[O]n average, men want sex more than women do. Call it sexist, call it whatever you want—the evidence shows it's true. In one frequently cited study, attractive young researchers separately approached opposite-sex strangers on Florida State University's campus and proposed casual sex. Three-quarters of the men were game, but not one woman said yes.

So scientists have found that approaching strange women and offering to take them to your place so they can have sex with you is not a very effective strategy. Who knew?

How dim do you have to be to read this result and unequivocally conclude that women want sex less than men do? Really, you can't think of any other reason for this result? Let's think about it for about twelve seconds: I bet more than once you've heard a promiscuous girl being berated as a "slut". You're just as likely to have heard a promiscuous guy admired as a "stud". Can you even imagine the reverse occurring? Do words for "male slut" or "female stud" even exist? What do you think that says about social views on promiscuity? Don't you think that might play a role in how members of both sexes react to offers of casual sex from total strangers? And that's without even considering that the overwhelming majority of sexual predators are male, and that everyone knows this.

Now, as a general tip, whenever you hear or read anyone saying "I know this sounds outrageous, but the science says…", you better check the science. Here's that frequently cited study:

Of course, the sociological interpretation — that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex — is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women. Men may be more confident of their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women. Also, the remnants of the double standard may make women afraid to accept the man's invitation.

Another general tip: if you must quote an article in writing, unless you enjoy looking like an idiot, you should probably read it first.

Back to Slate:

I know: Women love sex too. But research like this consistently demonstrates that men have a greater and far less discriminating appetite for it.

This is not entirely wrong, but it's incomplete. It's worth mentioning that mostly-heterosexual women are much more likely to experiment with homosexual sex than mostly-heterosexual men are. (Again, not to question Mr. Regnerus' social life, but this is the kind of knowledge most people eventually pick up just by virtue of being alive.) This would seem to put a serious dent in the whole "women are mostly into sex for the children" theory.

But, more precisely, women are much more likely to report having flirted with same-sex experimentation. We don't know what men and women are actually doing, we can only compare what they admit they're doing. And this applies to just about every study about sex drive and promiscuity.

And yet everybody pretends these biases don't exist. What's the word for "male slut"? "Womanizer" is defined as "A habitual seducer of women." Compare that with "slut: (countable, derogatory) a sexually promiscuous woman or girl." How can one ignore that kind of societal reality when discussing how the different sexes react to offerings of sexual gratification?

This affects a lot more than sexuality. Among my crowd, it's hard to escape the fact that computer science and engineering are male-dominated fields. Even feminists such as myself who deplore this reality are not sure what, if anything, should be done about it. Quotas are far from a perfect solution. Other policies take ages to have any effect. And, yes, it's not impossible that there exists benign reasons why these fields are less attractive to women than men.

But one would be crazy to argue that the current imbalance is the result of a level playing field. I could list many reasons why potentially great female engineers never even consider the career, but Zach Weiner makes this point more elegantly than I can.

I'm not saying that women necessarily have the same sex drive as men. Nor that there cannot in principle be any differences in abilities for different tasks among the sexes — although everything I've seen tells me that the often heard "girls suck at math" is completely false. My point is that as long as these unacknowledged prejudices are entrenched in our society, it is extremely hard to draw any conclusion on what each gender is fundamentally good at, or what it fundamentally wants. (Arguably those "fundamentals" are really meaningless, because all relationships take place inside a social context.) But as long as we overwhelmingly accept these prejudices as "truths", those who fall outside their bounds will be less happy, and contribute less to society than they could.

Also, if you're writing a paper about gender attitudes towards sex, and you ignore this entire societal context, you're a fucking idiot.

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Reader Comments (1)

Excellent post!

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersjelly

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