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A plea for honesty in discussions of sex and gender

A recent article of mine, called "Political Correctness Is Getting Out of Hand," elicited some angry emails. Not from people who disagreed with the thesis -- it seems that not only conservatives and centrists but even most leftists think political correctness sometimes goes too far -- but from people who objected to this sentence: "Ultimately it isn’t permitted....even to state manifest truths, such as that men on average are taller and physically stronger than women, or that, e.g., women tend to be attracted to male dominance (for instance men taller than they) and the dominant male." The idea that women on average are attracted to male "dominance," as manifested for example in "alpha males," is seen as anathema. As one correspondent wrote, "I was enthusiastic [about the article] until reading your 'manifest truth' remark claiming women like to be dominated by men... [In my marriage,] neither of us dominate the other, as our relationship is more enlightened than that."

Such objections, which typify political correctness, have always puzzled me. So I'd like to clarify a few points here. First of all, to say that someone is attracted to a dominant personality isn't to say he or she likes to be explicitly dominated. That's a quite different thing. So my righteously offended interlocutor misunderstood what I was saying. This, perhaps, is why so many "proper-thinking" people object to what is surely common sense, that there's a pronounced tendency for women, especially young women, to find male dominance attractive. They don't literally (in most cases) want to be dominated in some extreme, humiliating sense, and that's not what is being claimed. The point is more subtle than that.

I would have thought it doesn't require keen psychological insight to observe the phenomenon in daily life. But I suppose it does require an ability to perceive subtle differences in power relations. For example, you have to be aware that such simple things as height, size, and physical strength are relevant to relative "dominance" in a given situation. Other things being equal, a larger and taller man is more dominant than a shorter, smaller one. This relation seems to apply among all kinds of animals, not only humans, and thus isn't only some "socially constructed" fact. It's grounded in nature. Since men, on average, are larger, taller, and physically stronger than women, this fact already provides a basis for the power differential between men and women in all or nearly all societies. (The left-wing anthropologist Maurice Godelier, for example, argued that in even the most egalitarian societies, "in the last analysis" it's likely that men have "occupied the summit of the power hierarchy.")

As for female desire, which is what I touched on in the article, it's significant, as I said, that women generally want a man who's taller than them. I often observe when walking around the city that tall women are with even taller men. And of course women want and expect their man to be stronger, because that's attractive. Just as men typically want their woman to be weaker than them. A woman wants her man to "protect" her, which implies a power relation. Power relations inhere in the act of sex itself. Apparently it's necessary to remind people that the man impregnates the woman: he thrusts inside her rather aggressively (this is why some feminists used to say, or still do, that "penetration is violation"), as she moans and writhes in pleasure. Here, the man is the dominant one. How it's possible to be blind to these facts, I have no idea. "Feminist" refusal to acknowledge them or their implications only shows the power of ideological indoctrination, the power to induce self-deceiving thinking.

I could continue to list such suggestive facts for paragraphs. Women often want to take their husband's last name: in this act is a power relation. When dancing with a man, women are the customary "followers." When walking with a man, a woman will frequently hold his arm: this, too, is a self-subordinating act. Women often want men to "make them laugh" (as they say in their profiles on dating apps, for instance), which again signifies a power relation. Unequal power dynamics are everywhere: they're constitutive of human interaction and can never be wholly eradicated, despite what anarchists or feminists might think.

But here I have to counter some inevitable objections. I'm not saying women must necessarily have less political or economic power than men. This is an institutional fact that can and should be changed through political organizing. Nor am I saying there are never exceptions to any of the points I'm making. Of course there are. But "the exceptions prove the rule." More fundamentally, I have to insist I'm not making value-judgments. By stating obvious truths I'm not saying men are "superior," whatever that means. In any case, value-judgments are always relative to some value: it's only in relation to a particular value that you can judge something superior or inferior. And people are free to adopt whatever values they want: if you value the ability to give birth to a child, women are superior; if you value physical strength, men tend to be superior. When misogynists say simply that "women are inferior" it isn't clear what they mean. It's just an empty, meaningless way of emoting.

The fact is that it's the feminists and misogynists who are investing factual claims with 'evaluative,' normative, emotional content. There can be nothing morally wrong in stating facts; and, to quote the philosopher David Hume, particular facts can't entail particular values. It's unfortunate that most people, evidently, think mainly on the level of values rather than reason. They think in terms of "I like..." and "I don't like...," not "The evidence suggests..." I suppose the reason is that people are (understandably) immersed in their own perspectives, their subjective orientations, their habitual ways of thinking, and have little interest in truth for its own sake. To confront evidence that might challenge ideologies is uncomfortable; therefore, they choose to ignore or explain away facts about the world.

Furthermore, in our atomized, alienated, inhuman society, people are very sensitive to others' judgments. They feel besieged and are incredibly quick to take offense, to the point that they might not even understand what's being said. They think what you're really saying is something like "women [or men, or white people, or whatever the group in question] are pathetic," etc., when all you're doing is making an innocent factual claim.

Another objection to politically correct thinking about sex and gender is that it ignores all scientific research except that which favors its agenda. It has no intellectual integrity. It disregards all studies or anecdotal accounts -- as in the context of hormone therapy, for example -- that suggest biology partially determines gendered behavior, or even that psychological differences between females and males are to some degree preprogrammed. To take a random example, according to research by the scientist Heino Meyer-Bahlburg, women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia “as a group have a lower interest in getting married and performing the traditional childcare/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.” A staggering amount of research, reported in popular science books you can easily find on Amazon, confirms the mind is not a "blank slate," that gender is (at least to some limited degree) programmed into the brain at the earliest stages of life. But somehow, left-wing intellectuals are able to ignore this mass of data and to condemn any mention of it as "sexist" or "misogynistic."

Now, it's true that, in political contexts, publicly insisting on psychological differences between men and women might lend support to the values and policy goals of social conservatives and misogynists. So in such contexts, it makes moral sense to adopt the feminist position that "everything is a social construction." But if your goal is to actually understand the nature of humans, you have to know that that slogan is inaccurate.

It's also true, by the way, that feminist complaints about "mansplaining" and "manspreading" and other forms of obnoxious male behavior are quite justified. Such behavior annoys many men as well. Personally, I find stereotypically "dominant" males to be, in most cases, buffoonish and irritating. And I hate the fact that people take such men seriously -- and also that, more generally, nature has inscribed relative male dominance, on average, into the nature of things (again, excluding political and economic relations, which are another matter). It's similarly absurd that tall people exude more dominance (ceteris paribus) than short people, and that charismatic people are more well-liked than uncharismatic people, etc. Nature isn't exactly moral.

Anyway, despite what many feminists, queer theorists, and their allies might think, the study of sexuality and gender doesn't require great intelligence or intellectual pyrotechnics. It only requires a modicum of honesty and perceptiveness. On this page and this page I go into more depth on matters of sex and feminism than I have here, and those two pages alone have more intellectual content than, say, all of Judith Butler's writings. (Camille Paglia's dismissive attitude towards Judith Butler and poststructuralism in general is exactly right. Most of it is comically pretentious "gobbledygook" that doesn't advance understanding, as science does. It's ideological, not intellectually honest.) I wouldn't say there is no value at all in postmodern writings on gender and sexuality, but, again, I do think they tend towards obscurantism and shallowness.

It's sad (though understandable, in our political culture) that people always think you have an "agenda." That if you say something like 'women are attracted to male dominance,' it's only to further your agenda of denigrating and oppressing women. My only agenda is to understand the world, and I'm willing to state unpopular truths in the attempt.


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