Reader Query: “The Science of Sex Appeal”

A reader writes:

Has anyone seen the documentary “The Science of Sex Appeal,” and if so, could you please recommend academic sources that counter the claims made by this video?” While Cordelia Fine’s book is great for arguing against this evolutionary psychology bullshit more generally (sorry; maybe it isn’t all bullshit, but THIS stuff is), I’d really like to be able to point to specific claims made in the video and offer specific, scientifically supported claims to the contrary. I haven’t found anything through database searches.

UPDATE: This post has been a nightmare to moderate.  Do to many requests, I tried to confine comments to ones that really address the reader’s query, rather than dealing in big generalisations about whether feminists hate evolutionary psychology, etc. I’m now closing comments.


FURTHER UPDATE: This is being briefly re-opened.

“the boy’s club fallacy”

What I’m about to describe comes from some young men I like a lot and generally admire. It wouldn’t cross my mind to call them sexist, and the fact that each has employed the fallacy, leads me to worry that its sexism may be quite unobvious, at least to people living a privileged life. Indeed, in each form I didn’t recognize the fallacy as quickly as I would have liked to do. In my opinion, it can be quite damaging to diversity.

Two versions:

(1) my not picking her (for a student position) was not sexist, since I don’t know her at all. But I do know the other (male) candidate, admire his work, etc. So I picked him.

(2) He didn’t call on you (after calling on 7 men) because you were the only woman with her hand up and (1) the grad students we asked him to call on were all men; (2) The second male person was a very good friend of his; (3) The next male person was on the search committee…
And so on.

I take each of these to claim, in effect, that the decider has relationships that give him a reason to pick a or the men, while he has no reason to pick the woman. And so he doesn’t pick her. Women so often start out as outsiders, and this argument can further that dismal status.

My claim that the first was problematic was on email, and it was not well received. A senior male philosopher wanted to know what better grounds for his selection could he have had.

There may have been much more to say in each of these cases, and I don’t want to construe either in terms of the speakers’ personalities. In fact, I would expect each to avoid recognizable sexism. What I’d love to hear is your reactions.

Jezebel’s Lindy West on the National Review

Sometimes, my desire to blog about sexist cultural commentary is frustrated by my desire to avoid driving further blog traffic to a column obviously approved by editors in order to “trend” online.  But this week, Lindy West does all the hard work for me over at Jezebel, as she explains why a recent column in the National Review is over the top with the “Obama might as well have fallopian tubes” thing.

critical thinking class assignment: Left tolerant of misogyny?

(Thanks to EM for alerting us to the Slate blog post.)

Evaluate the following argument from a slate blog:

Conclusion:  the left is showing that it’s just fine with misogyny and violence against women as long as the women in question aren’t card-carrying liberal feminists.

Premise One: Donna Dewitt, the outgoing president of AFL-CIO South Carolina, bashed a piñata bearing a photograph of Gov. Nikki Haley, while men and women in the crowd shouted “Whack her harder” and “hit her again.” Dewitt continues to smack the piñata long after it’s knocked down, which is a nice touch.

(See the video below for a idea of the size of the crowd urging Dewill on.)

Premise Two: Elsewhere, Hustler has published an image—“a composite fantasy” in the magazine’s description—of conservative commentator S.E. Cupp with a phallus in her mouth.

Premise 3: … incidents like this happen with such frequency and casualness that it’s clear people think there won’t be any pushback if they attack a conservative woman.

With regard to the first premise, note Dewitt and the crowd:

With regard to the third premise, consider this from The Nation:

Feminists: Time to Stand With S.E. Cupp
Katha Pollitt on May 25, 2012 – 10:34 AM ET
Earlier this spring, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. This week, Larry Flynt PhotoShopped a picture of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp to look like she had a penis in her mouth and published it in Hustler as “satire’—Cupp wants to defund Planned Parenthood, you see. No? I didn’t either. This degrading image has nothing to do with political satire and everything to do with wanting to put an outspoken woman in her place—on her knees with a dick in her mouth to shut her up. It’s a pornographic version of “Iron my shirt” and “Make me a sammich.”

Hustler may not be a beacon of the liberal media, as conservatives are gleefully claiming—but it’s all too maddeningly true that misogyny can be found all over the political spectrum, and needs to be denounced, by both men and women, wherever it appears. When it comes to women exercising their right to participate in public debate, we are all Sandra Fluke, and we are all S.E. Cupp as well.

What you can do:

Sign The Women’s Media Center statement of solidarity with Cupp, e-mail it to your friends, and post it on your Facebook page.

Tweet your support at #IStandWithSECupp.

Let the media—left, right, center—know that the crude sexualization of women who voice their opinions in public is not “satire.” It’s misogyny.

Sexism as a winning strategy in a sexist society

In a sexist society where there is a very long tradition of women being excluded from a wide range of desirable public roles, we should expect many of the following things to be said of men and these roles:

People expect a man to be doing X.
People associate manliness with important features of this role. (E.g., a male voice has more authority.)
Men have much more of a proven track record at X.
(Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.

So what do we think of appealing to such beliefs as a reason to favor picking only men for such roles? One response is to label it as the ‘Sexism Wins’ strategy, with the implication that the actions are sexist. What would you suggest? Notice that the strategy is different from the frequently false response to the effect that there just aren’t any women who have enough of the needed skills or interests.

I have noticed this strategy being invoked in two recent cases. One is in a shocking response fron the NYTimes ethicist in response to Lori Gruen. See the comments on this post. Another was earlier in March in a BBC News Magazine articled linked to from a post of ours.

I’d love to hear of more examples of the use of this strategy. And it would be good to know if you think it is worth labelling it.

Here we go again: Should toys be gendered?

In the NY Times, Peggy Orenstein asks, “Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free?”After at least one non-sequitur:

Hamleys, which is London’s 251-year-old version of F.A.O. Schwarz, recently dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft Toys) and interests (Outdoor).

That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have by the fall. … the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty salon. ….

So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings? Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt to stoke their interest in engineering?

And at least one citation of very questionable science as fact (see our post here):

Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008, researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys (like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls.

She makes some interesting points:

Preschoolers may be the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views… [And]Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?

So: children’s adherence to certain types of toys may be a product of policing done by children, presumably children keen on adult approval, and the traditional gendered toys can be seen as tools for training children for traditional roles, which is of questionable benefit.

That old mind-body problem

Sallie Mae offers various savings/insurance programs for the education of one’s children.  According to the NY Times:

… earlier this month, it added a curious product known as tuition refund insurance, which can make you whole if an ill child must withdraw from college sometime during the term.

The insurance, which Sallie offers in partnership with Next Generation Insurance Group, a company it recently bought a stake in, doesn’t treat all sickness equally, though. If a student withdraws because of a physical illness or injury, a family gets 100 percent of its money back. People who leave because of mental health problems, however, get only 75 percent back.

So mental illness is less real and mentally ill students are less worthy.  It is hard to believe this is actually going on. 

It might also be good to  take a critical reasoning class through such an example.  There’s a switch from the mind as higher than the body to the mind’s illnesses being less worthy that is should not be  completely obvious to students however familiar the move is.

putting philosophy to the test

(This post has almost nothing to do with feminist philosophy, but rather records an announcement that bears on various  philosophical arguments.  It’s a product of my surprised recognition.)

The Independent tells us that scientists are worried that the standard kilogram does not weigh what it used to.  In fact, that is old news; the new news is that they are going to “redefine the kilogram”.

This metal block, known as the International Prototype Kilogram, has been used since it was first registered with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in 1889 as the definitive unit of mass against which all other kilograms are measured. .. However, scientists now believe it is time to redefine the kilogram because there is evidence that the precise mass of the international prototype in Sèvres is not as constant as it should be.

And that’s enough to raise the question:  In Quine v. Wittgenstein, Who wins? Does one of them lose?

On the left (?) is Quine, Two Dogmas:

Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.

While on the right is Wittgenstein, PI 50:

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one meter long, nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris.   But this is of course, not to ascribe any extraodinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a meter-rule.

What do you think?

(There are a number of differing interpretaters of Wittgenstein’s remark, among them Cora Diamond, Heather Gert, and Saul Kripke. )

It’s those chimps again! Updated

They are on CNN and the NY Times, along with a press release R sent to us.  And before you get upset, notice that “fallacy” is used as a category for this post.

The NY Times tells us that young  female chimps play out a motherly role:

Young female chimpanzees like to play with sticks as if they were dolls, according to a new study in the journal Current Biology.

Although both juvenile male and female chimpanzees were seen playing with sticks in Kibale National Park in Uganda, females were more likely to cradle the sticks and treat them like infants.

Some chimps will even build little nests for the sticks.

CNN says

It’s just days till Christmas, and many young girls around the world will be thrilled to find little dolls under the tree to play with.

But there’s new evidence that it’s not only human girls who enjoy playing with imaginary babies — young apes may be showing the same behavior.

A research paper published Tuesday has found what its authors say is the first-ever evidence that young female chimpanzees in the wild “play” with sticks as if they are dolls.

“We find that juveniles tend to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of rudimentary doll play,” they write in the current issue of Current Biology. “And, as in children and captive monkeys, this behavior is more common in females than in males.”

Get it?  Being a mother is natural for female primates and the chimps show that.  So give up already on dolls for boys, unless they are soldier dolls or police and fireman dolls and other manly dolls like that.  From the press release:

The two researchers say their work adds to a growing body of evidence that human children are probably born with their own ideas of how they want to behave, rather than simply mirroring other girls who play with dolls and boys who play with trucks. Doll play among humans could have its origins in object-carrying by earlier apes, they say, suggesting that toy selection is probably not due entirely to socialization.

Here is the problem, however.  first of all, one and only one colony of chimps has been observed manifesting this behavior, according to the press release.  Secondly:

“We have seen juveniles occasionally carrying sticks for many years, and because they sometimes treated them rather like dolls, we wanted to know if in general this behavior tended to represent something like playing with dolls,” says Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard. “If the doll hypothesis was right we thought that females should carry sticks more than males do, and that the chimpanzees should stop carrying sticks when they had their first offspring. We have now watched enough young chimpanzees to test both points.”

But one person’s inference to the best explanation (which is what this quote may illustrate) is another’s fallacy of affirming the consequent.  To get the first and better label, we’d need to have some reason for thinking that it employs the best explanation or at least a very good one.  But does it?

Well, many feminists have argued that research like this simply borrows models from human behavior and then finds them (surprise!) in untutored nature.  But maybe there are quite different explanations.  We know that animals can copy one another.  (Anyone who dealt with the blue tit coordinated assault on bottle tops in England had evidence that birds can copy one another, and this can easily occur in social animals.  Blue tits are not born with bottle top lust.)  On the face of it, the stick carrying behavior has caught on in a group of female chimps.

For the behavior to catch on, there almost certainly has to be some reward.  It could be an inherited tic of some sort, but let’s suppose it is the result of copying rewarding behavior.  What would the reward be?

NPR talked to a primatologist at Emory University who advances an alternative explanation for different choices in young chimps and human children; it may be just a difference in energy conservation, with males more willing to expend energy in play:

Another primate researcher, Kim Wallen at Emory University in Atlanta, would like to see more evidence. For instance, Wrangham’s study includes a picture showing a young female chimp carrying a stick. Is she really cradling it like a baby?

A 9-year-old female chimp carries a stick, seen just below her left arm.

A 9-year-old female chimp carries a stick, seen just below her left arm.


“This doesn’t happen to look like that to me,” Wallen says. “This looks like pausing to reconnoiter before shuffling off into the woods.”

As for whether that difference comes from biology or culture, Wallen prefers to say that biology produces a bias, which is channeled by experience.

“For example, the bias could be something as simple as increased energy expenditure in males and less energy expenditure in females,” he says.

But environment — and culture — could channel that difference in energy toward specific ways to play. And so we get trucks for boys and dolls for girls. Maybe, even, among chimpanzees.