Gender and Brainwashing

One of the most common and confusing exchanges I hear when discussing issues of gender and feminism goes something like this:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Those preferences are socially conditioned. Women grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to strict feminine gender roles and the associated preferences.

You’ll note that the above isn’t really an argument but more of an argument-fragment, as it depends pretty heavily on the context of what point A is trying to defend. I note this in particular because the two claims are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and reasonable to believe that both are true, for many values of X.

The problems happen because the context of the argument usually indicates some subtextual moral claims going on which can get rather confused. For example, my previous post on The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic got several responses from people who objected along these lines to my claim that many people prefer traditional, gendered relationships. In order to respond properly, I’m going to unpack some of this subtext.

The underlying ethical argument is usually around the question of whether or not it’s right for preferences to be the result of social conditioning. Can a preference be considered legitimate, if the only reason it’s present is because societal context has hammered it home at every opportunity? This is the point I think B is raising; if the preferences are somehow illegitimate, then the fact they exist at all (which is usually harder to dispute) is less relevant.

It’s a fairly intuitive and defensible argument. The wording calls to mind Pavlovian experiments and the destruction of our free will, both with negative associations. It’s also well-supported in the way people talk about other issues: Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of a case where people’s real, expressed preferences are widely considered illegitimate due to the nature of the situation. Nobody wants to be brain-washed.

This discussion lets us rephrase B’s objection in significantly stronger, clearer terms, hopefully without changing the nature of the argument:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Women are brainwashed by cultural gender roles which include those preferences. Therefore those preferences are illegitimate. Also, we should probably stop brainwashing women.

I consider this re-phrasing helpful, because it offers up a bullet I intend to bite: I agree that women (and everyone else too) are brainwashed by cultural gender roles. What I disagree with are the subsequent claims that those preferences are therefore illegitimate, and that we should necessarily stop.

One way to see this is to substitute any other culturally-shared value in place of “gender roles”. Women are brainwashed by our shared values against murder, therefore that preference is illegitimate? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Perhaps more tellingly, consider how we raise our children.

Children learn from their parents, both explicitly by using language to convey facts and opinions, and implicitly via observation and mimicry. This process of growth and learning indelibly shapes who the child will become and what preferences they will have. It is a natural part of childhood that your parents and your society impart their values and preferences to you, teaching you right from wrong and good from bad. Without this process, you don’t end up with some sort of tabula rasa child capable of pure and perfect free expression of their own preferences. You end up with the kids from Lord of the Flies.

There has been a recent trend of parents eschewing traditional gender roles for their kids. I have nothing against this practice. What I disagree with are the claims that it is imperative to give children “the freedom to develop their full potential without preconceptions about what girls or boys should do or how they should behave”. Children need to be taught, and whether you impart the values of traditional gender roles or the values of social-constructionist feminism, you are still teaching. You can argue that we should be teaching different preferences and values, but it is absurd to claim that we shouldn’t be teaching any at all.

In the end, I suppose what I’m arguing against is the idea that gender roles and gendered preferences are prima facie to be avoided just because they permeate our culture. I am open to arguments that we should replace them with a different set of values, and I grant that this is the argument a number of academic feminists are actually making. But as is usual, something has gotten lost in translation between academia and the Daily Mail.

The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic

Three Dead Roses
Photo © CC BY-SA 2.0, Todd Dailey

Much ink has been spilled on how what people actually seem to want out of their relationships doesn’t necessarily match what society tells them is right. For better or worse, many people are happiest in a traditional, heavily-gendered romantic relationship, despite the ongoing revolution in women’s rights. It’s true in the porn industry as well, even if you’re not convinced by normal scientific studies. There’s just something about traditional gender roles that men and women find attractive.

Modern feminism is an extraordinarily complicated thing, with a number of subtly different interpretations. For all that, it’s easy to see how the things it says about gender roles, power dynamics, and ethics could be at odds with this desire for a traditional relationship. To take just one example, is it possible for a relationship to be balanced or fair when one partner is wholly responsible for the finances? Money is a tangible form of power, so any relationship with unequal financial control is fundamentally one with unequal power. Is that ethical?

The typical response to this problem is to point out that feminism is really about freedom of choice and consent, and doesn’t actually prescribe a particular lifestyle or relationship format. You can do what you want, in this version, as long as it’s actually what you want. Do you enjoy bondage or dominance play? Go for it, as long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual. If you want something more traditional, that’s fine too. There’s no right answer, as long as everybody involved actually wants to be there.

I call bullshit.

It does sound nice, in theory. Everybody gets what they want, nobody gets hurt (unless that’s what they want!), and the ethical problems vanish in a puff of libertarian smoke. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the real world isn’t quite so tidy. The complexities of interpersonal power dynamics don’t just disappear because you waved a magic wand labelled “consent”; the act of consent is itself intimately tied up in the ways in which we use power with and on one another. To make matters worse, nobody really believes in this focus on consent in the first place. Lots of people say they believe, and that may actually be true of certain academics, but most people don’t behave as if consent were all that matters. Traditional romantic relationships are fundamentally incompatible with feminist ethics, and people treat them as such even when they’re not willing to admit it.

Welcome to Consentinople

Imagine a feminist city, fantastic as it may sound, in which everyone was honestly and completely committed to the idea of human rights, equal treatment, and freedom within the bounds of consent. I call this city Consentinople. In Consentinople, everyone lives life as a perfect feminist every day, able to follow their own sexual and other preferences. Even those whose sexual preferences include non-consent find willing partners with whom to act out their fantasies in a safe setting.

What would Consentinople actually look like? Since we’ve already seen that a surprising number of people prefer traditional, gendered romantic relationships, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Consentinople has lots of them. Many women work for a while, then step back from the workforce at least temporarily to raise their children. Some women don’t, of course, and they’re free not to, but many do (we’re also imagining that this is a realistic decision; Consentinople has a thriving economy in which one income can support a family).

Consentinople sounds great, a utopia where everyone has the freedom to express and live who they are without punishment, no matter their sexuality. Unfortunately, the city also resembles a modern real-world patriarchy. Its city councillors are mostly men, as were seven of its last ten mayors. Men own the majority of its businesses, and handle a disproportionate percentage of the money in its economy. Consentinople even has a wage gap: the average working women earns 90 cents to her male colleague’s dollar when controlling for industry and education.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Consentinople has given people the freedom to express their preferences and women have, on the whole, expressed a greater preference than men for childcare. This means that on average they will exit the workforce sooner than men. If they don’t exit the workforce, they may still spend more time with their children compared to a male colleague, who probably spends that time working. Neither preference is wrong, and no-one in Consentinople places any moral judgement on people for making these decisions. It is simply a fact that, in aggregate, two populations expressing different preferences will end up with different outcomes.

The good news is that in theory, if you control for all of these extra variables (children, length of time worked, etc.) then the wage gap in Consentinople disappears. A woman with no kids who has worked her entire life will do just as well, earn just as much, and get the same promotions as a similar man. The average outcome may be different, but the average opportunity is the same.

The Stereotype and the Individual

It is not sexist to believe that women are, on average, shorter than men. Neither is it sexist (or “heightist”, I suppose) to bar people under a certain height from riding carnival rides. However, it would be sexist to bar all women from riding carnival rides. This is obvious, because height is an easily observable value: for basically no cost we can get much more accurate information about a person’s height than we would be able to infer from their gender alone.

Things are a bit more ambiguous when the value we care about is not as easy to observe, and we have a beautiful natural experiment in this regard. I’ll let Scott Alexander explain:

It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.

The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”

Because the relevant value (criminal history) became harder to observe, employers were forced to fall back on the information they did have: race. As an imperfect proxy, this invariably led to some mistakes: black men being denied jobs for no good reason. However, from the employer’s perspective it was the best they could do to filter criminals out of their job pool. And lest we simply decide to ban any check like this with false positives, we should remember that the value these employers actually care about is future criminal behaviour, and even past criminal behaviour is not a perfect predictor of that.

Sexism, racism, and all of the other -isms are built around the concept of stereotyping. We have a belief about a group, and we allow that belief to influence how we treat the individuals within the group. When the original belief is false then this is clearly a problem. When the belief is true, we must morally fall back on treating individuals as individuals and not members of the group: we look at each person’s height individually instead of banning all women from carnival rides. Letting the stereotype trump the individual is where overt, first-class racism, sexism, etc. all come from. Fortunately, most people don’t behave like that.

Stereotypes are just a form of categorization, a layer of abstraction we build on top of the world. They are not intrinsically evil, nor are they merely a useful mental tool. Categorization is how our brains make sense of the world with the limited power at our disposal. Calling that process immoral would be absurd. Yet it’s difficult to shake the feeling that those employers who rejected black applicants for fear of criminality must have been racist somehow.

Employment Opportunities in Consentinople

In Consentinpole, we built a city where consent and freedom reigned. Outcomes by gender showed a difference which might have been concerning, but we decided that that was OK as long as opportunity by gender was equal. Unfortunately, the effects of stereotyping mean that opportunity is no longer equal there either. Employers are naturally concerned by women’s aggregate preference for child-rearing, and the related opportunity costs for the business around parental leave.

Now, lest you think the people of Consentinople are secretly sexist after all, they are quite aware of the risks of stereotyping and imperfect information. As such, the citizens of Consentinople agreed that employers will ask all potential employees (regardless of gender) about their future plans for children. This almost works; men and women who have no such plans are treated equally, and men who plan to take on child-rearing duties are penalized the same as similar women. However, it isn’t enough. Since women on aggregate express that preference more than men, it still ends up statistically hurting their employment opportunities.

A related issue in Consentinople is that people tend to weakly gender-segregate their social lives; men have a slight preference for hanging out with men, and women with women. In any given individual this is a perfectly legitimate preference that Consentinople respects, but in aggregate it gives success a kind of gendered momentum. The majority of hiring managers were already men in Consentinople even when opportunity was equalized, and when they look to fill a position they naturally look to their own social network first. Even though they give equal consideration to all candidates regardless of gender, the result is still a slight edge in the employment rate for working men.

The final outcome is that Consentinople isn’t really a whole lot better than our real world. Even when every individual follows their legitimate preferences and everyone has perfect information, we still end up with a society where women do not have the same employment opportunities as men. The silent majority of women, quietly expressing their individual preferences for child-rearing and traditional gender roles, still end up harming those whose preferences are different. By any feminist definition, this is ethically untenable.

Feminism in the Real World

The ethical problems with this vision of individual choice make it a questionable justification for any relationship. Perhaps fortunately, it hardly matters because it’s so controversial in the real world. Consider recently the blow-up around Emma Watson’s photo shoot, or the whole thing about the new Wonder Woman movie. Go back a little further and you’ll find feminists complaining about Beyoncé, or basically anybody else you can think of. If people actually believed in individual freedom, in choice and consent, then these would be non-issues. The whole premise of that position was that if somebody wants to shave or not-shave their armpit hair, it doesn’t matter. They should be free to do so.

Instead, modern society shames people for being insufficiently feminist. The world immediately piles on when somebody does so much as express a preference about the meaning of a word. Word definitions are something for which there really is no right answer, and is still completely unrelated to actually supporting the principles in question. Whereas a hundred years ago women were shamed for being too modern, now women are shamed for not being modern enough. We do not live in Consentinople.

Through an academic lens, feminism looks like a cultural norm against cultural norms: a global preference for individual preferences. In the real world, feminism looks like any other specific set of norms. Where before it was a positive norm to shave your pits, now it’s a negative. While historically there were norms against women managing money, now there are norms against women letting men take care of their finances. We can argue all we want about whether the new norms are better than the old, but that’s not the point. The point is that no matter what norms you choose, this looks nothing like the academic, consent-driven feminist doctrine that everybody preaches; in that world, there are no norms to begin with.

It isn’t really surprising, either. A “cultural norm against cultural norms” is at the very least confusing, and definitely leaves room to be interpreted as self-contradictory. It’s also just plain impractical. Everyone admits that cultural norms shift over time, but they do not simply disappear. People expressing preferences in aggregate are what build our cultural norms in the first place, and even Consentinople has that. Even if we wanted to remake the world in Consentinople’s image, human beings are not wired to live in a norm-free society.


As I implied in the title, modern romantics are in a hopeless bind. Our feminist ethics are fundamentally incompatible with our desire for a traditional relationship. The philosophical escape-hatch provided by freedom-of-choice academic feminism doesn’t actually resolve the ethical issues, and certainly doesn’t resolve the practical ones. We are stuck with two paths, neither of which are appealing.

In the first path, we decide that feminism as an ethical philosophy must naturally trump any simple personal preference. This leaves us with a further decision to make: should we simply declare celibacy, or try and make do with a relationship that is unfulfilling but at least potentially ethical? In the second path, we decide that our preferences are key, which again presents a follow-up choice. Do we ditch feminism as a philosophy, claiming it is impractical, or do we try and live with the shame and constant cognitive dissonance of being in a relationship we don’t really believe in?

At the end of the day, practicality prunes some of the choices for us. Abandoning feminism would be social suicide, however philosophically appealing it might be. Living with the cognitive dissonance is possible for some, but it takes a special mindset to be able to ignore that nagging feeling once you’re aware of it. This leaves us with celibacy and making do, and of the two, making do definitely feels less insane.

And still we wonder why people are so unhappy.


Other Opinions #43 – The Ethical Prude

This one is long and quite academically written, but well worth spending the time to read. It also deals directly and unflinchingly with some heavy and complicated topics, so I feel a general maybe-not-suitable-for-work warning is needed. The essay itself includes trigger and content warnings already which I will not reproduce here.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Other Opinions #25: Duke University’s Freshman Porn Star

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Additional clarification: this is a relevant news article, (probably) safe for work unless your particular workplace is over-the-top in its restrictions.