A few weeks ago, I wrote about my quest to track down a shocking “fact” from an acclaimed gender-studies textbook, The Gendered Society by Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel–that American teenage boys typically say they’d rather kill themselves than be a girl–and my discovery that not only was this claim based on a misreading of a thirty-year-old survey, but the book abounded in other factual inaccuracies and tendentious interpretations. A few days later, on May 20, Stony Brook announced the launch of a new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, funded with a $300,000 start-up grant from the MacArthur Foundation–headed by none other than Kimmel, whom the press release lauded as “one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today.”
The Center, which will open this fall and will host regular seminars and forums as well as an international conference in 2015, is clearly meant to play a major role in the emerging field of “masculinity studies.” With this in mind, another look at Kimmel’s work and outlook is in order.
Like most academic work on gender, Kimmel’s writings are based on the premise that all traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity are socialized and oppressive. While this is a debatable perspective that has an unfortunate tendency to turn into gender-studies dogma, it need not be anti-male; authors such as Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power (1993), argue that gender-role pressures and stereotypes limit and harm both women and men. Ostensibly, Kimmel agrees (though for him, such pressures on men come only from other males and patriarchal structures); at times, as I noted in my analysis of The Gendered Society, he also stresses similarities between men and women to counter notions of a fundamental Mars-Venus gap. Yet his work is pervaded by sweeping assumptions of male power that easily translates into knee-jerk male-blaming. When Kimmel talks about men and boys–at least ones unreconstructed by feminism–it is often in a tone that ranges from ironic condescension to scolding rebuke and outright antipathy.
Porn Is a ‘White-Guy Thing’
A case in point: Kimmel’s best-known non-academic book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Guys Become Men (2008), which focuses on the American male in transition from boyhood to manhood. Kimmel, who draws on interviews with nearly 400 “guys” in their late teens and early twenties, professes sympathetic concern for the young men he sees as both victims and enforcers of destructive codes of masculine conduct. Yet the book offers such a relentless catalogue of male deficiencies and iniquities, such a parade of misogynistic, entitled, videogame- and porn-obsessed jerks that the concern eventually looks a lot like defamation. (The main targets of this friendly fire are white men, since Kimmel argues that the dynamics of “Guyland” are rooted in white-male privilege and anger at its erosion; misconduct by minority males is relegated to the passing admission that “white guys do not have a monopoly on appalling behavior.”) Occasional disclaimers that not all young men inhabit “Guyland” and few conform to all of its norms hardly change the overall effect. When Kimmel acknowledges that “most guys are not predators, nor criminals,” it is only to add that the sadistic bullies, rapists, and school shooters are “the farthest extremes on a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that stretches back to embrace so many young men.”
The quality of the social science behind Guyland can be gauged from one example: Kimmel’s claim that pornography is not just a guy thing but a white guy thing, with far less appeal to other ethnic groups. His evidence consists of comments from two Asian-American men, two African-Americans (an Emory University graduate and a graduate student) and a survey from the early 1990s indicating that black men report less frequent masturbation than white men. Yet a study of actual pornography consumption by teens, published three years before Guyland, found roughly equal rates of porn use for white and black boys and higher rates for Hispanics. (A more recent report based on 1973-2010 General Social Survey data concludes that nonwhite males are somewhat more likely to use pornography and that this gap widened in the 2000s.)
His Evidence Is Underwhelming
Elsewhere in the book, Kimmel makes a related claim promptly contradicted by his own research: that the college “hook-up culture” of casual sexual encounters is a “white guy thing” (emphasis in the original). He quotes a couple of black students who assert that “hooking up” is viewed as “acting white.” But non-anecdotal evidence from the Online College Social Life Survey, a collaborative project on which Kimmel works, turns out to be underwhelming: “[B]lacks and Latinos are somewhat less likely to engage in hooking up, and Asian students are far less likely to do so.”
As in The Gendered Society, Kimmel obliviously makes contradictory claims: for instance, that the sexual terrain of “Guyland” is male-dominated, with women playing by men’s rules, and that “guys” seek porn as a refuge from real-life sex which they see as female-controlled. Concerns about overbroad redefinitions of sexual assault that include gray-area situations and misunderstandings are dismissed as backlash from victim-blaming “anti-feminists” (myself included); yet an account by one of Kimmel’s own interviewees starkly illustrates the validity of such concerns. “Alex,” a college senior, found himself battling attempted rape charges after a drunken make-out session at an off-campus party–even though he stopped and apologized the moment the girl told him to stop.
While Kimmel admits that Alex is “a decent guy” and that similar cases “occur with alarming frequency,” he shows little actual alarm over the scary implications for young men. Instead, he waxes enthusiastic about “rape awareness” measures that treat all men as potential rapists–such as “splash guards” on a college’s public urinals with the slogan, “You hold the power to stop rape in your hand.” Tackiness aside, such a stunt directed at any other group would be readily seen as “hate” (imagine proposing that “You are looking at someone who can stop terrorism” be inscribed on bathroom mirrors at a campus Islamic center).
Misusing Data to Promote Ideology
Also worth noting is Kimmel’s active campaign against equal recognition for male victims of domestic abuse (an ironic crusade for someone dedicated to shattering male/female stereotypes). While men’s rights activists do tend to exaggerate “gender symmetry” in partner violence (most notably by downplaying women’s higher risk of injury), Kimmel’s anti-gender symmetry polemic, published in the journal Violence Against Women in 2002, is at least as skewed. In a 2006 analysis on the politics of domestic violence scholarship, psychologists Donald Dutton of the University of British Columbia and Kenneth Corvo of Syracuse University bluntly accuse him of misusing data “in a direction favoring activist ideology” and trying to “manufacture” desired conclusions.
Thus, in critiquing studies based on the “Conflict Tactics Scale” questionnaire, which usually find similar rates of family violence by women and men, Kimmel invokes the 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey in which both women and men were asked about experiences of victimization: “The NVAW found that in 1998, men physically assaulted their partners at three times the rate at which women assaulted their partners.” But that disparity was for reports of lifetime assault; for the past year, men reported such assaults at about two-thirds the rate of women. (Men may be more likely to forget them over time for various reasons–including, perhaps, lack of cultural support in the victim role.)
Kimmel also cites leading family violence researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Straus as saying that “nearly three-fourths of the violence committed by women is done in self-defense.” But he omits the crucial fact that Straus later repudiated this claim as based on his own mistaken assumption that mutual violence was always male-initiated.
Near the end of his article, Kimmel offers an obligatory disclaimer: male victims do exist and deserve assistance and compassion. Yet in The Gendered Society, a text widely read by college students, he discusses the abuse of men in a snidely dismissive tone, with sarcastic asides about O.J. Simpson’s claim to be “an abused husband” and a battered men’s shelter in Canada which quickly closed “because no one came to it” (the source for this factoid is unclear). Confusing and contradictory statistics are trotted out with no apparent purpose but to minimize the issue (at one point Kimmel cites old Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers showing that about 8 percent of partner assaults are on men, then adds that “perhaps it’s a bit higher” so that “as much as 3-4 percent of all spousal violence is committed by women”). The late sociologist Susan Steinmetz, who pioneered the concept of “battered husband syndrome,” is ridiculed as a crank who supposedly twisted a small study of couples with no husbands reporting abuse into “bogus data” of 250,000 husbands battered every year. (In fact, Steinmetz’s estimates were based on several sources including a major national survey on domestic violence.)
A Men’s Auxiliary of Women’s Studies
“The study of men and masculinities” as conceptualized by Kimmel and his like-minded colleagues is, at bottom, an academic vehicle for a political attack on “white male privilege” (and, in practice, often on white males themselves), with little interest in either positive views of maleness or an understanding of male-specific problems that cannot be blamed on patriarchy or males themselves. This is undoubtedly the brand of “men’s studies” that Stony Brook’s new Center will promote. The makeup of the Center’s advisory board confirms as much: according to the press release, it features an array of Very Important Feminists including Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame), Jane Fonda, and psychologist Carol Gilligan, along with a few honorary males. It hardly comes as a surprise that, according to Kimmel, one of the Center’s primary functions will be dialogue between academics and “activists.”
One could make a good case for serious scholarship on the male side of gender issues. The last thing the academy needs, however, is a men’s auxiliary of women’s studies. Under Kimmel’s tutelage, that’s exactly what Stony Brook is going to get.
(Photo: Michael Kimmel. Credit: Creative Promotions Agency.)