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The Short Review: The holocaust of sex
[Amin Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 277 pp.]
This is an important book – and a difficult one. Provocative and thought-provoking, one of its many strong points is that it invites further conversation, debate, and productive agreement – and disagreement – about important, difficult topics in what is often referred to as “sexual politics.”
It is also a hard book to review, because it requires that the reviewer get in touch with [in this case] his own thoughts, feelings, and would-be positions on difficult issues in sexual politics, feminism, men behaving badly, gun violence, involuntary celibacy [key term], mental health, community well-being, social justice, incarceration, sex work, and the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – I mean, happiness.
Professor Srinivasan’s [Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford University]] book is not particularly confessional and the author remains fairly anonymous personally throughout. That is most proper in a scholarly collection – most people have uneventful lives that do not make a good memoir. However, a lot of things fell into place for me about her thought and writing when she acknowledged “offering a utopian feminist response to our current situation” (p. 121). Take a note – herein lie the strengths and limitations of utopian thinking – and this book.
While the author does not get personal, the reviewer must do so – or he risks being just another annoying crank (not to say that could not also occur). So get ready. There I was a seventeen-year-old kid, graduating from an all-boys college prep about to go to the University of Chicago. The really tasteless joke about it was that the squirrels on the quads were more aggressive than the boys but less hairy. Ouch! I was not so much celibate as, in plain English, “hard up.” I note as extenuating circumstance the lack of opportunity and the inhibition due to hell fire and damnation sermons from black-robed clerics about the spiritual dangers of masturbation. I started on the process of getting a lot of therapy and, mostly, it worked.
As part of my enthusiastic efforts to understand what girls were and really wanted – little did I realize this was an ontological inquiry – I saw this book at the Green Door Bookstore, The Second Sex. It had an out of focus picture of an attractive woman on the cover, naked, so I bought it. It turned out that most of the young women I was trying to date were not interested in discussing existential philosophy, which was one of the strong points of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental study.
How was I supposed to know? Beauvoir’s presentation seemed like common sense to me – this is how things worked or ought to work. Human beings are pour soi, not en soi, conscious beings, not unfeeling things. Biology is not destiny. Woman is not a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone [I am adding the latter]. Human beings get socialized – oftentimes badly – and biological sex gets distorted into freedom limiting gender roles. Mutually consenting partners have interpersonal relationships, including sexual ones. Get a job. Get economic freedom. Set boundaries – consent or withhold it. Be spontaneous – be free! Seemed like a good idea to me.
Now bring that to the battlefield called dating. “I just want to be your friend and have a meaningful conversation with you about existentialism – naked in bed.” Hmmm. In that regard, my self-study did not work very well. Fortunately, many women are empathic and appreciate men of integrity, even if they are socially awkward, men who want to relate to them as a whole person, including a sexual one.
Maybe I am kidding myself. I looked at my own father’s bad behavior and committed that things would be different in my own life; and fortunately, I had the education and the resources to make it come out that way. It did not work perfectly but it worked well enough. (See also the above about the therapy process.) In a world in which the vast majority of men of integrity support equal wages and equal opportunity and sharing domestic chores and childcare, we are all feminists now.
After reading Amia Srinivasan, I now know that my conventional feminism is significantly different than radical feminism, which, in turn, is different than Marxist feminism is different than psychoanalytic feminism is different than skeptical feminism is different than utopian feminism and so on. Who would have thought? The devil – and the politics – is in the detail.
Fast forward to November 2021. I hear Amia Sriivasan interviewed on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast introducing this (to me) new distinction involuntary celibate (“incel”). Now I definitely need to get out more, but this was the first time I encountered it. Cherish the moment when one can bring a “beginner’s mind” to the conversation.
An “involuntary celibate” is defined by Srinivasan as “a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it” (p. 73). The most famous incel was Elliot Roger, who perpetrated a mass casualty event, published a 107,000 word incel rant (“manifesto”) “My Twisted World” (p. 74), and took his own life.
Srinivasan draws together all the young men shooters who reference this celebrity celibate (incel) killer, Elliot Rodger (p. 111). Srinivasan reports that in 2017, the online discussion forum Reddit took down its 40K member incel support group for glorifying and inciting violence. Tough reading.
Srinivasan cites case-after-case of individuals, lonely young men, who talked themselves into that twisted point of view. It seems to be trending, which is to say delusional thinking is trending. It is.
The incel seems to think “right” means the necessity of entitlement, not permission. Theirs is an error in modal logic. Srinivasan gives numerous examples of individuals who rehearse their grievances, real and imagined narcissistic injuries, and upsets about some aspect of man/woman relations and work themselves up into a towering rage. This individual is headed for trouble; and when he takes time out from playing single person shooter video games and gets an actual weapon, then the community is headed for trouble.
In the title article “The Right to Sex,” and including “The Politics of Desire,” Srinivasan make a list of young men who either self-identity as incels or invoke the name of “Roger Elliot” in the course of perpetrating mass shootings. To say the list is disturbingly long is an understatement.
While we are making lists of the slaughters of innocents, Srinivasan calls out the suffering of woman victims and survivors in domestic, intimate partner violence without explicitly citing patriarchy expanding manifestos. These include named individuals Jyoti Singh, Delta Meghwal, Devi Punita (wife of the executed “rapist”), Maggie Reese ((e.g.) pp. 12, 16), which make the narrative accounts of the crimes and perpetrations highly impactful.
If there is a writerly or rhetorical method to Srinivasan’s series of essays, it is to be matter of fact, objective, giving an account of what happened. The reader goes along, taking it all in as the account unfolds. It’s awful. It appalling. It’s devastating. It’s soul damaging, even. It gets inside you, then blows up. It is stressful. It requires recovery time – like after spending time in a sweat lodge or chewing peyote. These incels – and assorted other deviants, individual and institutional – are damaged goods, and the reader gets a strong sense of that too, because it bores its way under the skin. It works.
Just as I sometimes had to put down writings about the Holocaust, lynchings in the US South, and the Armenia Genocide, I also needed frequent breaks to catch my breath. I hasten to add that it is important not to shoot the messenger, and Srinivasan is not performing a body count (except in a few equally disturbing footnotes). And yet the steady drum beat of violence against women is like the sound in the background of the clubs hitting the heads of the Armenian victims.
Srinivasan’s book is the holocaust of sex. The fires of the “holocaust” in question are not ones of passion or desire, but rather of anger and rage. Note the small “h” this time since there is only one Holocaust with a capital “H”. This holocaust is filled with the suffering of innocents, widespread injustice, and an awful lot of violence. It accurately paints a picture so bleak that further consciousness raising will likely expand our consciousness of misery and pain, nor do I here want to debate the need for it.
Now I can hear the concerned interlocutor: But, Lou, can’t you take it? Do you want to bury your head in the sand like an ostrich with your rear end high in the air? The answer is direct: I can take it. But do I want to?
Though the Nazis worked faster and were methodical beyond method, they only had about eight years total to murder the six million. What if they had two thousand (or five thousand, depending how one counts) years on which the patriarchs have been working to exercise domination?
Go back in mythical time and compare this with the death of Clytemnestra and the vindication of Orestes in the Greek tragic play, the Eumenides (458 BCE), one of the founding justifications of The Patriarchy [the unfair devaluing of women and the domination, enforced by men’s violence], which, to be sure, was already in place.
Recall that Orestes was found innocent of the crime of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, who Orestes really murdered, because she – the mother becomes “mother” – was just the vessel of his birth, the container, the nanny, there being really only one true parent, the father and his semen. You can’t make this stuff up; but you can connect the dots with the Sandy Hook mass shooting (2012) that began with one disturbed young man [an incel prior to the name?] shooting his mother – an act of domestic violence, a mom who bought him the gun and took him shooting prior to his killing her and all those teachers and children, everyone as cute as a button.
The long history of violence against women and the shallow, fake ideologies to support blatant power grabs by the patriarchs, enforced by violence. An angry response is motivated, valid, human, and, if you (the reader) are not upset by the narrative, in particular the first essay, then you are not neurotypical. There is a calculated rage, a quiet seething, scholarly rage behind this book; and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed the response is all the more powerful for not being expressed in loud exclamations or denunciations or rants. None of that here.
Since this founding Patriarchal injustice [which does not come up in Srinivasan, but, arguably, is a background presence], more than two thousand years ago, the sheer numbers of women, including females in orphanages and on the street in China and South Asia (and everywhere), killed, tortured, destroyed emotionally (if not physically) by abuse at the hands of men, dwarfs the work of the Third Reich. This is not good news. There is no silver lining.
Our age is one “by the numbers” – so do the numbers, albeit of a kind on the back of an envelope. Patriarchy (and a close set of closely related misogynist movements and political identities such as incel-ism (if that is a word)) over the centuries has produced orders of magnitude of suffering pain, injustice, darkness, and evil. The reader’s head reels.
This is the annulling of relations between the sexes. The emotion overrides the impeccable logic and marshalling of case after case of gender-based violence. As far as I am concerned, “Justice” Brett Kavanaugh, Dan Turner, Amy Cony Barrett [does she really subscribe to the “woman as vessel” theory of Aeschylus?] belong “under the bus” with Weinstein, Ray Rice, Crosby, et al. Along with the incels, these people are easy to dislike. Nor am I saying we should like them. I am asking: Is there any hope – for relations between the sexes (like, you know, men and women)?
This book requires a truth and reconciliation commission between the sexes. This would be similar to that formulated by Desmond Tutu in South Africa for the perpetrators of apartheid to tell the truth about what they did to the victims and see if the survivors can find something to forgive. That would be a practical, albeit utopian response.
Such parties to such a Truth and Reconciliation process might be able, someday, to have lunch together at the mall, but it is unlikely they would ever be able to have sex (intimate physical relations). Neither will the oppositely gendered readers of this book. Blame patriarchy, not the book or its author. Yet it makes me sad. Maybe that’s bedrock. The work of mourning of so many loses.
The Long Review: Don’t Say What is Wrong, Say What is Missing
This is a book rich in empathy, deep compassion, and committed to building a more inclusive community over the course of the next five years. And if you believe that, I want to sell you the London Bridge. No doubt I missed something – how else to explain the lack of a single gesture in the direction of empathic relations between men and women? Note that the word “empathy” does occur twice towards the backend, but then only in the context of the breakdown of empathy (solidarity) between mainstream feminists, radical feminists, and skeptical feminists (pp. 161 – 162).
The possibility of empathy between men and women as men and women is not acknowledged. It is missing. I hypothesize the reason: The dystopia of Patriarchy (systematic unspoken sexism) crushes the empathy and compassion out of all of us. This is an issue for this reader because: in the face of so much violence, can we find or recover a shred of our humanity? I do not need to say “shared humanity,” because “unshared humanity” is not humanity.
Since this is not a softball review, I put this book down and wonder: All the happy couples, whether on their honeymoon, in their golden years, celebrating the birth of their first child or their third, are self-deceived, kidding themselves? If they are experiencing happiness, that is what they are experiencing. If one were to argue that all happy couples are also unhappy couples [an issue missed by Tolstoy], I would have to acknowledge the point. But that does not mean one should not enjoy the moment.
Even if Patriarchy is the ideology of male chauvinism and its corrupt power dys-dynamic, the attempt to step outside the conflict of ideologies and utopias, risks precipitating an authoritarian regime. How to manage the risk?
Is a shared framework of communication between men and women even possible? This is not changing the subject: One widely accepted approach to the philosophy of science according to Thomas Kuhn is that translating between paradigms involved a strong element of incommensurability. Something is lost in translations – usually the scientific theory. Aristotle and Galileo were talking scientific languages so different (because they were inhabiting world so different) that it made no sense to try to translate between their theories of motion and of nature. One had to undertake an apprenticeship from the ground up to learn from scratch by dwelling in the other paradigm. Rarely was that practical or possible.
“The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” by Donald Davidson tried to show that the entire idea of a conceptual framework was flawed. If one assumed diverging conceptual frameworks (as did Kuhn or in another context P.F. Strawson) and if one succeeded in translating between them, then one soon realized the frameworks were not that different; or not the sort of thig it made sense even to try to translate between – e.g., witchcraft / sorcery and biochemistry. These remain like Mayan Glyphs in comparison to Egyptian Hieroglyphics prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. However, then it turns out they were all calendars after all! Vastly oversimplifying matters for this review, the metaconceptual framework itself is natural, ordinary language.
But what about that tribe of indigenous people where the adult men and women really do speak two mutually incomprehensible languages, diverging in both vocabulary and syntax? Although Srinivasan’s book is extremely well-written, hard-hitting, compelling, and even a tad funny at times, I repeatedly came away thinking we really are speaking two mutually incomprehensible dialects, like the men and women in those tribes.
In the context of popular sex psychology, John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (1992) series expresses the same idea, though with a large collection of tips and techniques for actually doing the translating. I can see Professor Srinivasan now quoting Nietzsche “Ekel! Ekel! Ekel [Disgust! Disgust! Disgust]” and making a corresponding gesture. No one can be faulted for not writing a tips and techniques book. But I wonder if blowing up the entire system and starting over is a workable, viable anything, not that she proposes such a gesture.
Here is the rub. In spite of Srinivasan saying she is NOT playing a zero-sum game (winners and losers are required), she is. She is scoring intellectual points against an opponent who is not interested in debating and in many cases not capable of it. Notwithstanding the impeccable logic and marshalling of data, the potential for self-deception LIVES in this work. It’s a hard hitting conceptual analysis. It really is. It is a hard-hitting political parsing of the different kinds of feminism and options available to them in the face of continuing bad behavior on the part of men and the institutions that men continue to dominate. The inauthenticity is this is a high-end academic treatise and it is nothing personal and one should not take it personally or make it personal. Any yet … And yet if sex is not personal, then I would not know what is. Maybe that is why there is no way else to be in the face of this mess we call “humanity” other than utopian. The better angels of our nature are in short supply here, which, once again, is not necessarily the author’s doing but still must be charged to her account (narrative).
This is how personal she gets: Srinivasan is a utopian feminist (p. 121). This is the strength and limitation of utopian thinking. The power of utopian thinking is the power of language – the power of the condition contrary to fact statement(s). Simone de Beauvoir expressed some of that in a vision of a society in which free women and men could encounter one another as equals, economically, politically, sexually, and humanly. It hasn’t worked out – at least not well enough, fast enough, or comprehensively enough. Patriarchy dies hard – especially if is joined with economic, hegemonic, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, antiimmigrant, ideologically distorted modes of discourse. However, utopian thinking can also become a refuge for the powerless and frustrated. It is hard to hit a moving target. Did I mention, this is the limitation of utopian thinking?
Now once a person picks up a weapon (or a date rape drug) to perpetrate violence against his [female] neighbor – whether he is an incel, a Don Juan, one of the Marx Brothers, or one of the Muppets – the matter is no longer psychological, political, or medical – it is a matter for law enforcement. Even if such individuals need therapy – the right to therapy? – they still must be incarcerated to protect the community from their boundary violations.
At the risk of a really bad pun, Srinivasan takes no prisoners. The carceral system – wide spread incarceration of young men of color and female sex workers – ignores the deep causes of most crime – poverty, racial prejudice, borders, and caste. Most mainstream feminists have little to say to incarcerated women “implicated as they themselves are in the carceral system” (p. 163). [Ouch!] Srinivasan innovates (for me) a new distinction – “immiseration,” expanding the oppression of the worse off woman in the short-sighted attempt to create a better long-term future, expanding criminalization of sex work and sex workers.
Insofar as Srinivasan writes things that upset radical feminists, mainstream feminists, and the confused masses in between, she is definitely on the right track. There may have been a brief radiant moment about the time that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex created a clearing for economic, political and sexual self-determination; but those days are history. The debate about whether women as a group represent an exploited class in the Marxian sense is still a bone of contention for radical and conventional feminists, but if there is any doubt about it read on.
Given that the Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch [“powerful white woman”] questions whether abortion promotes equality for women, it is clear that some successful, establishment women are willing to throw their “sisters” of color under the abortion abolition ban bus. The devil may quote scripture in saying that more than half of high-end corporations surveyed offered some form of parental leave, including unpaid leave [Nicole Ault, Wall Street Journal, Nov 28, 2021]. White lies, damn lies, and statisticians? Srinivasan notes that abortion bans do not result in fewer abortions, but rather increase the number of women who die.
Perhaps we could/should turn our prisons into university-like facilities where professors from Oxford or the UChicago hold seminars with the incarcerated – the idea has merit – but better check with the professors first. Though Srinivasan does not say so – this would have been a specific utopian proposal – I think she would sign up to hold the seminar. I have my doubts about the other colleagues at Oxford or the UChicago. I am assuming that we could manage the risk of all this turning into Mao’s “reeducation camps” that flourished in the so-called cultural revolution.
The Unreview: After the tragedy comes – the comedy
Humor and empathy are closely related. In both practices one crosses the boundary between self and other. However, in the case of empathy one does so with a certain commitment to preserving the integrity and wholeness of the relatedness whereas with humor a large mixture of sexual and/or aggressive inuendo is perpetrated. We will start with empathy and work our way in the direction of a couple of really bad jokes.
Now purely as a thought experiment – you know, like in Physics 101 where we take a ride on a beam of light, knowing full well it is not technically possible at the moment – let us try a thought experiment with the incels.
After incarcerating or canceling or cognitive behavioral theraputizing the incel, let us try engaging him with – empathy. Key term: empathy. Let us take a walk in his shoes. Knowing full well that the incel is like a ticking bomb, let us engage with one prior to his picking up a weapon.
I cut to the chase. It is not just sexual frustration, though to be sure, that is a variable. There is also a power dynamic in play. This individual has no – or extremely limited – power in the face of the opposite sex. He is trying to force an outcome.
Here we invoke Hannah Arendt’s slim treatise On Violence. Power down, violence up. Whenever you see an individual (or government authority) get violent, you can be sure the individual (or institution) has lost power. The water cannon, warrior cops, and automatic weapons show up. (I could not find it or Arendt in the index or notes.)
The incel is powerless – okay, include a large dose of sexual frustration too – lacking in the key skill of swiping left /swiping right [on an online dating app] – in the face of human beings who are also women. The incel embraces his own frustration like Harlow’s deprived Macaque monkeys embraced their cloth surrogate mother, even though it lacked the nipple of the wire-framed one.
From the inside, the incel is a deeply aggrieved person. He nourishes and rehearses his grievances. He waters the tree of his sorrow and anger – and naturally the tree grows. He has gotten his feelings hurt by woman or women or his fantasy about them – and wherever there are hurt feelings, can narcissistic rage be far away? Is he more attached to his grievance [about not getting (sexual) encounters] than to having a life, however imperfect that life may be? Apparently so.
Now I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering. Srinivasan’s work presents us with a long narrative of suffering women, suffering humanity, presented objectively and without much rhetorical affect so that it may land all-the-more powerfully with full emotional impact. It does. And it is not appropriate to put the incel’s suffering in the same class or category as that of the victims or survivors. But that does not mean he is not suffering.
I repeat: I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering; but that does not mean we cannot enjoy a lighter moment amidst this holocaust of sex. I don’t know – upon further reflection, enjoying a lighter moment does seem like an impossibly high bar. But I am going to try anyway. After the tragedy, we have the satyr play – like this review.
We can repurpose jokes about virgins and lawyers as “incel jokes”. An incel and a philosopher (female) walk into a bar. The bartender asks: Why would the incel rather date a lawyer than a philosopher? Give up? Because then he is sure to get screwed.
Remember the more tasteless and objectionable the joke, the funnier it is (until it isn’t):
The incel kidnaped this girl last night. Fearing for her life, she yelled: “Please – I don’t want to die a virgin!” The incel thinks: If that isn’t consent, I don’t know what is.
[Right – he still doesn’t get it.]
The incel’s dystopian life points to his utopia, which consists in two words: “Get laid.”
Here is a draft of a cold open for a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch between an incel and his new therapist. This work would really require about two years. You have two minutes.
Light, action, camera: We are now in session:
Therapist (T): Dude, it’s ladies’ choice these days – swipe left / swipe right.
Incel (I): Drop dead! I want it [sex] on my own terms or not at all.
T: Where’s your sense of humor? Women like guys who are considerate and funny.
I: I am happy having a satisfying relationship playing video games.
T: By the way, when is the last time you changed that t-shirt?
I: Who needs to waste time changing and showering. Personal hygiene is for losers – love me as I am, dude.
T: I really get it, man – showering is overrated – but how about showering with a consenting woman friend? Just saying…
I: [Insert an avalanche of devaluing language about women – not suitable for polite company]
T: Look it, man – you are just not in touch with your inner jerk. Key term: inner jerk.
I: Cut the psychobabble. [Additional devaluing language about women – and now about the therapist – not suitable for polite company]
T: This is tough stuff and I can see your suffering is significant – but are you aware you got a chip on your shoulder the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza?
I: Cut the travel brochure – I won’t get on an airplane to travel if I have to wear a mask.
T: Okay – the chip is only the size of the Washington Monument – women like guys who respond to them as a whole person – their interests outside the bedroom as well as in it.
I: Nobody gets me, man, they are just not in touch with my greatness. [Additional devaluing language about women – and about the therapist]
T: I get it – you are angry – you feel invisible – not acknowledged as a possibility – you are feeling frustrated – say more about that
I: [More devaluing language – but now more sexualized and seductive – includes actual and alleged narcissistic slights perpetrated by a girl he tried to ask out on a date years ago in 8th grade. ]
T: That must have hurt. It does sound like you have not been treated well – still sometimes she has to say “No” to establish a boundary before she can freely say “yes” and get intimate. And “no” does indeed mean “no” – but it is okay to check back in a week or two – unless she tells you not to do so.
I: [Additional devaluing language about women]
T: You know, it occurs to me [dangles foot with high heel] that you may be overthinking this whole sex thing.
I: I do think about sex a lot; but what I need is action.
T: Keep it simple. When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not. Desire happens. Arousal happens. Keep your powder dry, and plan on being around when it happens – to her.
I: I just can’t seem to score, man. [Breaks down and shares an instance of premature ejaculation or impotence or a same sex encounter or a boundary violation perpetrated by an adult member of his family on him when he was still of tender age (this list is not complete)]
T: I really get it – but sex with a willing adult partner is more like ordering a pizza than scoring points – each of you suggests a couple of toppings – and let the fun begin. Just a tip for beginners – don’t take off your clothes until you have had at least a couple of good make out sessions on the couch.
[Stage notes: Fade to black and break for a commercial – an online dating service where you meet your “soul mate.” At this point, the sketch is no longer funny – if it ever was.
Stage notes (continued): the therapist is a conventionally attractive woman, professionally dressed, with skirt that exposes the knees, legs crossed and high heels visible – one leg dangles seductively at key points in the conversation and is as expressive as the dialogue: think – the incel’s worst nightmare of the unavailable object: the nervous [male] energy will automatically be translated into laughter.]
Srinivasan’s book presents a spectrum of incompletenesses from which none escape – neither the incels, the Patriarchs, the Marxists, the radical utopians, the traditional feminists, the skeptical feminists, the psychoanalytic feminists. All we have are fragments of human beings. As Nietzsche (a misogynist if not an incel) wrote: nothing but fragments of human beings – not a whole human in sight. How do we make things whole?
For most people, the fulfillment of one’s project of becoming a complete human being requires relationships with both genders. Note this does not necessarily mean consummating sexual relations with both genders, but rather interacting in the symbolic and social realms. Therefore, a recommendation to the author for her next book, perhaps on feminisms and empathy: reach out to Jeremy Howick of the Oxford Empathy Programme. He’s in the neighborhood [https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/oxford-empathy-programme ].
According to Alain de Botton, “We need both art and love to make us whole…” [How to Think More About Sex, p. 72]. I would add laughter and empathy.
 Richard Brooks (April 26, 2017),”Cultures Where Mean and Women Don’t Speak the Same Language,” https://www.k-international.com/blog/men-and-women-dont-speak-the-same-language/ [checked December 13, 2021]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
A scientist has not been burned at the stake in over 350 years – and even then it was Giordano Bruno, not Galileo. Find out how Professor Alice Dreger (PhD) become an advocate for survivors of intersex sexual reassignment surgery and she becomes a strong candidate to be burned in effigy by those for whom she was advocating.
This is a reposting of a book review from 2015, now included as a podcast (originally recorded on April 29, 2015 with Alice Dreger, PhD, Professor of Medical Humanities, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine).
With transgender dynamics, identity, politics, and everything exploding in the headlines, the need for empathy around sexual identity and related issues is even more urgent and timely today than when originally broadcast.
Join me for a conversation with Alice Dreger about the conflict between scientific evidence and some interpretations of social justice and “empathy” (in quotation marks). Dreger starts out as a graduate student exploring the condition [previously] known as “hermaphroditism,” people born with sex organs that are ambiguous as to male or female, now called “intersex.”
In reading the text books studied by her medical student husband, she discovers the interventions performed to “normalize” people sexually into the two canonical categories of male or female. The parents usually follow the recommendations of the physician-surgeon who are articulating a supposed community standard that one’s genitals should unambiguously be either male or female. Dreger discovers that many of the people whose genitals were surgically transformed were subsequently lied to about their natal [birth] sex by well-intentioned doctors and well-intentioned parents following the well-intentioned doctor’s guidance. Thus, the road to hell. Find out what happens when Dreger’s research surfaces evidence that does not align perfectly with the interpretation of a social justice agenda.
This is a powerful and disturbing work. Dreger delivers a compelling narrative. A penis smaller than a person’s adult thumb or clitorises larger than one little finger, according to (some) conventional wisdom, have got to go. I am not making this up. The standard procedure was to surgically “delete” the offending member and surgically construct [some version of] the female genitals. This will, of course, resonate with Freudians everywhere as something motivated at the deepest levels of the unconscious. Not so Freudian is the proposition that if sex assignment from male to female and the raising of the infant as one rather than the other sex is the consequence, so be it. (Dreger is not interested in Freud in this text – that is my hobby.)
Dreger marshals evidence that people whose genitals are not surgically transformed as infants – but who have non-standard but otherwise healthy functioning genitals – are not worse off than those whose genitals were modified, and in many cases flourish. In at least one case, where the boy could not urinate standing up – and write his name in the snow with the stream of urine – due to the opening to the urethra being beneath the pen, the result of the surgery often produces a “cripple”. Yet the surgery continues to be performed. In other instance, the major concern expressed by the medical text books was that the child would become lesbian or gay. Ouch.
Dreger “goes to bat” for these intersex individuals, recovering their narratives out of medical records and journals where they had been documented as cases. She advocates for them. She lobbies, blogs, publishes in the popular press. Then the unintended consequences hit. Some of those for whom she is advocating don’t like some of the evidence Dreger publishes. It is not sufficiently “on point” about transgender issues being exclusively a function of a man’s brain born in a woman’s body or vice versa. The idea that a man could love himself as a woman and so want to become a woman does not compute.
As one might expect, research produces subtle nuances that require more than a sound byte or even a blog post. Suddenly Dreger finds herself the target of anger from the advocates for whom she was lobbying. It is not pretty. It gets ugly. Think self-righteous indignation as an expression of narcissistic rage and having one’s deeply felt values questioned by the evidence. There is no easy way to say it: some advocates of social justice seem to feel that the end justifies the means. The “means” include rampant forms of bullying and in-your-face confrontation, including charges of dubious ethical violations, invalid research, fictional claims about the researcher’s relations with his or her children and family, and the posting of toxic gossip on the Internet. The cause may be righteous, but the behavior is wicked and mischievous if not heinous.
Dreger survives and is vindicated. But then she begins to wonder if her experience of the collision of scientific evidence with advocacy and versions of its conventional wisdom was exceptional. Like most survivors she asks: “Is it just me?” It is not. It reminds her of the conflict between Galileo and the sedimented beliefs of the Church of his time.
A point that underlies Dreger’s work and may usefully be made more explicit: The facts of empirical science are fragile. Not only can they be shouted down by bullies, purged by tyrants such the Italian Inquisition of the 16th century, or simply ignored by the average person, the facts can also be set upon by academic, university, or institutional agendas more dedicated to building a corporate brand – and being financially well funded – than attaining an evidence-based version of the truth.
(An early version of this thesis, perhaps unknown to Dreger, is Hannah Arendt’s work on Truth and Politics. Not a historian of medicine but of political theory, Arendt makes the powerful point that if all versions of Euclid’s Geometry had been destroyed, mathematicians would still be able to recreate formal geometry out of the a priori forms of space and time; but if Stalin had really succeeded in purging all examples that such a person as Leon Trotsky had existed, then we really never would have heard of such an individual’s factual existence. Facts are fragile. )
A case in point. It is conventional wisdom since Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Wills (1975), that rape is primarily an act of power by the perpetrator (usually a man), not one of sex. While not primarily a scientific treatise, it becomes the basis for research that gathers sufficient evidence and the thesis “power not sex” becomes “conventional wisdom.”
Enter a young (male) scholar who has a strong hunch he can prove an exception to the rule. No, sometimes rape is motivated by sex. Sometimes a guy, who has no prospect that the intended woman would have sex with him (but who he desires sexually) decides to use force. This naïve academic sees a dissertation topic that is a cut above the usual scholarly drivel. A dissertation is delivered to that effect. Not only does all hell break loose – he is silenced by angry activists – but it gets worse. The phone rings. It is a prosecuting attorney needing help with a case.
The District Attorney is bringing charges against a perpetrator, an alleged rapist standing trial for his crime. The defense is arguing effectively that science has shown that rape is about power, not sex. The perpetrator could not possibly have been motivated to the crime by sex. Science says so. Wait a minute. Rape is never about sex? It is now a defense against rape that there was no other motive than sex?
Since 1975 we have seen date rape and the use of incapacitating “date rape drugs” such as anesthetics facilitate the violation. Surely advocates and scientists can encompass the possibility that sometimes rape is about power, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes, it is both (p. 125). Don’t be too sure. There is a deep lesson about human nature here. Constant dialogue is needed to keep people in rational communication without distortion and manipulation. The desire to be righteous and justified is pervasive and extends across all political spectrums. The ability to listen has rarely been in such short supply.
Another case. Napoleon Chagnon writes an innovative and disruptive work of anthropology (Yanomamö: The Fierce People). He argues that Margaret Mead’s vision of a peaceful coming of age in Samoa in a sexually liberated version of a hippie-like commune may not be the only paradigm of the life of native indigenous peoples. (Mead herself was subjected to a debunking, the factual basis of which turned out to be, shall we say, less than rock solid.) The Yanomamö in South America are more like warring bands of Hobbes’ “war of all against all” or the tribes of the Peloponnesian peninsula, with Achilles throwing a narcissistic fit – “I stole her fair and square” – because Agamemnon took his plundered woman.
Chagnon is a virtual Dreyfus Affair in the American Association of Anthropologists. Alfred Dreyfus (you may recall) was stripped of his epaulets, his campaign badges ripped off his chest, and he was banished to Devil’s Island (my metaphor, not Dreger’s). Years later, Chagnon is vindicated (as was Dreyfus) and “rehabilitated.” But only after years of upset, suffering, and the monumental expense of mounting a defense against false accusations as recounted in his My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. The bottom line? According to Dreger, in addition to the political infighting, wicked and mischievous gossip, and an alleged series of narcissistic injuries unintentionally committed by Chagnon against colleagues, it was politically inexpedient to represent indigenous peoples as warlike.
Dreger documents in detail the appalling political intrigues, plots misfired and rebounding onto the heads of the perpetrators, and the narrow mindedness of academics who ought to have adhered to scientific standards rather than tit-for-tat gamesmanship. Dreger’s work is definitely a page turner, reading like a spy novel or an account out of Kafka’s The Trial. Speaking personally, it made me paranoid at points. I felt discouraged at the alternating narcissistic rage and petty retaliation enacted for real or imagined slights to which both scientists and advocates for social justice seem all-too-prone.
The drama goes on. It escalates. Maria New, MD, is a celebrity woman’s doctor of long service and, at least initially, significant distinction. Dr New advocates that early stage pregnant women take dexamethasone (off-label, though FDA approved to prevent miscarriage) when the parental profile shows a one in eight chance that the female fetus may have congenital adrenal hyperplasic (CAH)). Basically CAH means that the baby might be a “boyish girl” if left untreated. Heavens to mergatroid – a lesbian? But since there were never any controlled studies of the consequences of taking dexamethasone (dex), it is not clear if the cognitive impairment, the deformed genitals, other anomalies, were due to the action of the drug or whether the drug was simply ineffective for its off-label use.
Dreger believes she has an “open and shut” case of an ethical violation that research subjects were not informed that they were participating in what amounts to a experiment, a far cry from a “safe and effective” treatment. The FDA oversight representative embedded in the research teams raises a number of red flags. Her career is ended on a pretext, and Dr New transitions to a different university without so much as a warning in any file.
One thing is for sure. Taking the case to the FDA and the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) reveals a level of indifference, human clumsiness, and subtle, unexamined conflicts of interest and self-dealing that again approach’s Kafka’s The Trial. Appalling. By the way, if ones want to receive this treatment during early stage pregnancy with the hope of dialing down the masculinization of the fetus, it is still legally available from Dr New and her associates, though Dreger has made it her project to dominate the Google listings with warnings about the risks of the treatment.
Dreger’s point is that the use of dex to influence the process of masculization of the fetus is experimental as used off label (the “on label” use is not to treat CAH, but to prevent miscarriage, for which it seems to be effective). The women to whom it was given to treat CAH were never told and never signed an informed consent form to participate in what was basically an experimental use of the drug. “Safe and effective” remains unproven for CAH, and evidence to the contrary is emerging. However, what really put the kabash on the treatment with dex is that it has been branded an anti-Lesbian drug. More good news. It is not as bad as thalidomide; but possibly another DES fiasco in the making.
In conclusion, Dreger offers reflections inspired by the Founding Fathers of the early days of the United States and such politician-statesmen as Benjamin Franklin. No stranger to risk, Franklin was both flying a kite in a thunderstorm and building a structure of government capable of correcting its own errors (not on the same day). Thanks to such men, we are all better off than Galileo when speaking truth to power. Free scientific inquiry needs a free social and fair political space to flourish. Justice requires access to accurate facts and a way of testing evidence that distinguishes fact from fiction The truth is vulnerable to the influences and distortions of the social organization of power.
Granted that a scientist has not been burned at the stake for over 500 years, that is no reason for complacency. I could not help but think that Professor Dreger was well on the way to being a candidate, though admittedly the burning was “in effigy.” Bad enough! There have been many ruined careers and damaged lives due to bullying and political abuses. Dreger bemoans the “push down” of the press and investigative journalism – in short, the decline of the press beneath the pressures of a publishing market in distress, the Google-ad-industrial-complex, and on the Internet no one knows you are a dog. While the Internet is a multi-edged sword and sends fear into the hearts of tyrants everywhere, it is easy to abuse. It is a dubious format for rational discourse and evidence-based anything. That should not stop one from posting her or his peer-reviewed research (this is not an example of that) but it means one must also mount the soap-box on a regular basis and speak truth to power.
Alice Dreger. (2015). Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Biology is not destiny. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex, woman is not a mere womb. Likewise, I note: man is not mere testosterone. [Note: This post is an excerpt from the final section of Chapter Seven on my book: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy, available here: click here to examine complete book.]
Biology is important, but biology is not destiny. That was one of the key points of the feminist revolution. Raising children is a job – a big job; and so is being the CEO of IBM as was Virginia Rometty until earlier this year.
The matter is delicate. These human beings – we human beings – are an aggressive species. It is usually the men that are doing the aggressing. That is indeed a function of testosterone – as well as upbringing [child rearing practices], enculturation, and the evaluation of the species.
Common sense suggests that woman is the more nurturing gender, given her role in giving birth and keeping the home fires burning in agricultural, hunting, and traditional indigenous cultures. Women are keeping the home fires burning, so what are the men doing? Men are out systematically doing battle with saber-toothed tigers and hostile neighbors. If this seems like an over-simplification, it is. Yet it is a compelling one, given the evolution and history of the species.
This issue of empathy and gender becomes controversial. Claims have been made that a man’s brain is different than a woman’s. In particular, men are “wired” for systematizing; and women are “wired” for empathy – for relating, especially relating to children and other human beings in general. This research – usually credited to neuropsychologist Simon Baron Cohen but also to Frans de Waal – has for sometime now been debunked – shown to be limited, distorted, and flat out wrong.
When one looks at the methods and the data in detail, no consistent gender difference in empathy have been observed – read on!
I provide the reference point upfront. As noted, the research by Simon Baron Cohen that men’s brains are “wired” for systematizing and women’s for relating and relationships are questioned and indeed debunked in Robyn Blum’s article in Heidi L. Maibom, ed. (2017). (For Bluhm’s original article see The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy. London/New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 396 pp. )
Robyn Bluhm’s article probes the research on the evidential basis of this nurturing role and inquires: does it extend to empathy and how far?
Early gender-empathy studies were vulnerable to self-report biases and gender stereotyping that pervasively depicted females in a biased way as the more empathic gender. According to Bluhm, these early studies simply do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Case closed on them. Dismissed. Enter Simon Baron-Cohen and his innovative research, renewing the debate and shifting it in the direction of neural science as opposed to social roles and their self-fulfilling stereotypes.
Bluhm points out in detail that as Baron-Cohen’s work gained exposure and traction in the academic market place of ideas subtle shifts occurred in his presentation of the results. At first Baron-Cohen highlighted measures that were supposed to assess both cognitive and affective empathy, but later the affective dimension fell out of the equation (and the research) and only cognitive empathy was the target of inquiry and was engaged (p. 381).
Though Baron-Cohen’s initial research described the “male brain” as having “spatial skills,” his later publications, once he became a celebrity academic (once again, my term, not Bluhm’s), redescribe the male brain as “hardwired for systematizing”; likewise, the “female-type” brain, initially credited with being better at “linguistic skills,” was redescribed as “hardwired for empathy.” The language shifts from being about “social skills.” Baron-Cohen speaks of “empathy” rather than “social skills,” so that the two distinctions are virtually synonymous (p. 384).
As the honest broker, Bluhm notes that, as with the earlier research in gender differences, Baron-Cohen’s research has been influential but controversial. Men and women have different routes to accessing and activating their empathy; they respond to different pressures to conform to (or rebel against) what the community defines as gender-appropriate behavior; and men and women even have different incentives for empathic performance.
For example, “…[M]en’s scores on an empathy task equaled women’s when a monetary reward for good performance was offered” (p. 384). Monetary rewards up; empathy up? Though Bluhm does not say so, I came away with the distinct impression of a much needed debunking of the neurohype—what we would now call “fake news”—a job well done.
Bluhm’s work is especially pertinent in constraining celebrity, executive consultants (once again, my term), running with the neuro-spin, and publishing in the Harvard Business Review, who assert that brain science shows we need more women executives on corporate boards to expand empathy.
I hasten to add that we do indeed need more women executives, but that is not something demonstrated by brain science, at least as of this date (Q2 2020). We need more women executives because it is demonstrated by statistics (just one of many sources of reasons other than brain science) that to devalue the contributions to innovation, service, and productivity of slightly more than half the population is bad business practice—foolish, inefficient, and wasteful. The challenge is that the practices that make one good at business—beating the competition, engaging technology problems, solving legal disputes—do not necessarily expand one’s empathy, regardless of gender.
[In a separate, informal email conversation (dated July 2, 2018), Bluhm calls out Cordelia Fine’s fine takedown of “The Myth of the Lehman Sisters” in the last chapter of Fine’s book (not otherwise a part of Bluhm’s review): Cordelia Fine, (2017), Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society. New York: W. W. Norton. It is a bold statement of the obvious – that the part of basic anatomy that differs between men and women is definitely NOT the brain. But that is missed due to lack of empathy which is committed to responding to the whole person – not just the brain or the sex organs.]
In an expression of insightful and thunderous understatement, Bluhm concludes: “With the exception of studies that rely on participants’ self-reports or on other’s reports of their behavior [which are invalid for other reasons], no consistent gender differences in empathy have been observed. This raises the possibility that gender differences in empathy are in the eye of the beholder, and that the beholder is influenced by gender stereotypes…” (p. 386). Just so.
Okay, having debunked the myth that men’s brains are different – and in particular less empathic – what to do about the situation that many men (and women?) struggle to expand their empathy? The recommendation is not to treat empathy and an on-off switch. Empathy is rather a dial – to be tuned up or down based on the situation. That takes practice.
Some men – many men – may start out with an empathic disadvantage in experiencing their feelings after having been taught such stuff as “big boys don’t cry.” But if people, including men, practice getting in touch with their experience, then they get better at it – experiencing their experience. Likewise, with empathy. If you practice, you get better at it. For those interested in practicing, but not working too hard, may I recommend: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide: click here to examine (and buy!) the book.
Ickes, William & Gesn, Paul & GRAHAM, TIFFANY. (2000). Gender differences in empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation?. Personal Relationships. 7. 95 – 109. 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2000.tb00006.x.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project