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.