A Classic Text on Gender–And It’s All Wrong


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.


15 thoughts on “A Classic Text on Gender–And It’s All Wrong

  1. It’s not a “silly study about youth’s attitudes” if 33,000 people believe it. It’s the same belief system which does not simply acknowledge which gender is more at risk from domestic violence… it maliciously pushes the notion that male victims of DV do not exist, and that female perpetrators of DV do not exist. This is this belief system pushed by Kimmel in his book, and that which this article is criticizing.

  2. Gender studies is a very warped and unprofessional discipline. Agreed.
    However, Ms. Young commits the same error she is criticizing in Michael Kimmel’s book when she makes a leap from dissecting a silly study about youths’ attitudes towards “waking up different” to musing about intimate partner homicide and gender.
    Homicide statistics are uniquely accurate, for obvious reasons. And the trend over the last 25 years has been — unambiguously — far higher percentages of male homicides of female intimate partners than the reverse. Furthermore, since the 1970’s, the rate of male-female IP murder has risen significantly as the rate of female-male IP murder has fallen.
    According to the DOJ: “The total estimated number of intimate partner homicide victims in 2007 was 2,340, including 1,640 females and 700 males . . . Females made up 70% of victims killed by an intimate partner in 2007, a proportion that has changed very little since 1993.”
    This trend is the one really accurate measure we have of domestic violence statistics in a field that has been politicized, first by the feminists and more recently by a wing of the anti-feminist movement which has its own standing in academia and quite obviously its own axe to grind, anecdotes about Phil Hartmann notwithstanding.
    The way to fight the blight of gender studies is, first, not to emulate it.

  3. This is nonsense. Just because don’t want to be a woman, doesn’t mean that I don’t respect, admire and love them.

  4. If you ask junior high school boys what they think of the idea of being a girl their answers will not reflect how well or poorly they think of girls, but of how well or poorly they think of having a sex change operation forced upon them. It is asking them about their commitment to their own sexuality. In effect you are asking them: “how would you like to kiss boys rather than girls?” Or: “how would you like to be homosexual?”
    Good for that boy who said he’d rather be dead. It means he’s NORMAL, and not afraid to say it. He is heterosexual and he wants to be heterosexual, which for a boy means NOT wanting to play the female sexual role.
    Truly amazing that anyone can pretend that this is not a question about sexuality but a question about how awful boys think girls are. For a normal boy, the idea of playing the female sexual role is awful precisely because they think girls are wonderful. They want to love girls, not boys. Ask them how they would like to love boys instead of girls and they will say thinks like: “If I have to kill you to stop that, you are dead.”
    So the boy in the survey was a timid sort who suggested killing himself instead of the person suggesting the sex change. If the question was “would you rather kill the mad scientist who wants to turn you into a girl or let him turn you into a girl,” 100% would say “kill the mad scientist” (minus maybe a few homosexuals crosswired individuals who actually want to have a sex change).
    The misrepresentation of one response the majority response is one problem with this citation, but just as grotesque is the absolute inversion of what the responses means. If boys want to be boys, it means they like girls, not that they hate girls. So what kind of boy hating man would say the opposite? I guess he already had his sex-change operation.
    The feminists who accept the same slanderous interpretation are just as evil. They really hate little boys so much that they will condemn them for wanting to remain boys? That is some truly sick stuff.

  5. We need more women who really believe in fairness and equality for BOTH genders and not just their own. Cathy Young gives me hope.

  6. I’ve long been suspicious of Michael Kimmel. His use of “Tavris and Wade” is a tip off for fraudulent feminism.
    Feminists have been busted so many times for making fraudulent claims that no knowledgeable person accepts any feminist claim without first personally checking it out, including making a personal examination of any cited works and checking the raw data of any of their so-called research.

  7. Terrific and enlightening analysis. Good to read a Cathy Young article again, I am glad it was linked to on reddit.

  8. Why would one have to contact the author of a text book to get a citation? it should be in the chapter notes!

  9. I write about cars and I do a better job of nailing down accurate facts about cars made 50 years ago than Kimmel does about gender. I suspect the same is true of many other academic leftists. One of the things I’ve learned is that a lot of what you see online, and good deal of what’s written in books is either completely false or just one participant’s perspective of an event. That one perspective often becomes the historical record. We’ve seen this with other feminist misinformation like the Super Bowl wife beating myth.
    Kimmel doesn’t just seem to be choosing sources to meet his agenda, he’s not even citing them accurately.

  10. Can any reasonable person give any credibility to anything published about “gender”? It’s all lies and distortions in service of a political agenda. Our universities have been seized as a political asset by leftists supporting the reordering of society into a utopian vision that is fundamentally totalitarian in its outlook, and in its impact on the law.

  11. I’ll have to ask my daughter if she saw this text book in her studies. She is a recent graduate, although not in gender studies.” I did notice that her freshman survey courses contained many errors, heavily weighted to the left view of society. One example was in a course on History of the US since 1877. The “Silent Majority” of the 1960s was described as “Whites who refused to accept the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” No mention of the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon. That was from a study guide for her final exam.

  12. This happens with race as well. No doubt that there is racism in this world, but there is a whole industry devoted to exaggerating it and celebrating victimhood. My suggestion of this would even be horribly offensive to some.
    It’s almost as if someone wants to stoke the embers of racism and turn it into a bigger problem than it is.

  13. When feminists tout a “fact” that “proves” the violent domination of women by men is reall and staggeringly pronounced, always always assume that it’s nothing but a lot of hot air. Has been so far.
    Feminists are compulsive harrassers who dearly need to be told to shut up and be quiet until such time as they can present a set of facts supporting their claim that actually stands up to critical scrutiny.
    We’ll all be safely returned to the Great Big Nothing before that happens.

  14. This…doesn’t actually say anything at all about academic texts versus misogyny. Even your own “fact-finding” mission showed that boys would value themselves less if they were suddenly a woman.
    The textbooks “misquotes”…but it does not actually seem to be saying something that’s untrue – which is what you’re accusing it of.
    Regarding the wage gap as well, check out the recent Walmart suit. Women workers were shown to have BETTER performance evaluation and FEWER absences than their male coworkers, but still got paid and promoted less. That right there blows your “it’s all in women’s heads!” argument out of the water.
    And even if it WERE down to raising a family, that needs to go. People whine about how women are waiting longer to have kids, or women aren’t having as many kids, all while threatening them with reduced pay if they dare to have kids. If you pay a woman less than a man, ANTICIPATING she’ll go on leave to raise kids, when the time comes to raise the kids, the only logical choice will be for the woman to do it, because the man gets a bigger paycheck. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s just…. I don’t even have polite words for how wrong it is to put this down on women’s shoulders.

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