Blog By Barry

January 27, 2009

Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 3: Truths and Lies

In a speech, self-described “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers said:

Let me turn to my second major objection to contemporary feminism: its reckless disregard for the truth. In doing research for my books, I looked carefully at some standard feminist claims about women and violence, depression, eating disorders, pay equity and education. What I found is that most –- not all —- but most of the victim statistics are, at best, misleading –- at worst, completely inaccurate. […]

I partly agree with Sommers: Too many feminists — including those we rely on to get facts right (such as academics and published writers) — have been careless about fact-checking their claims. Critiquing a textbook on domestic violence, Sommers writes:

Zorza also informs readers that “Between 20 and 35 percent of women seeking medical care in emergency room in America are there because of domestic violence.” This claim is ubiquitous in the feminist canon. But is it false. There are two legitimate studies on emergency room admissions: one by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and another by the Centers for Disease Control. The results of both indicate that domestic violence is a serious problem, but that it is far down on the list of reasons women go to emergency rooms. Approximately one half of one percent of women in emergency rooms are there seeking treatment for injuries from domestic violence.

Sommers cites a second recent textbook, The Penguin Atlas Of Women In The World, which repeats the same error. And she’s right — it is an error. (Although, as I’ll show in a future post, Sommers’ counter-claims are just as false.)

I think this is the strongest of Sommers’ claims. Sommers is right to say that “false assertions, hyperbole and crying wolf undermine the credibility and effectiveness of feminism in general.” And many errors could easily be avoided if authors just checked primary sources — something that professional writers and academics should do routinely.

Within feminism, there’s sometimes too little skepticism regarding statistics and news stories which emphasize harms against women. We’ve created a culture which does a rotten job of self-correction.

But although she has a point, Sommers is still substantially wrong, for two reasons. First, Sommers conflates unambiguous errors of fact — which will inevitably happen sometimes, especially in a movement the size of modern-day feminism — with well-reasoned disagreements. And secondly, Sommers’ own work is full of errors, and at times actually deceptive.

In her lecture, Sommers writes:

Some of you are probably thinking –- the literature on feminism is vast and complex –- there are bound to be some mistakes. So what? But I and other investigators have not found “some mistakes.” What we have found is a large body of blatantly false information. The Domestic Violence Law textbook and the Penguin Atlas of Women in the World are not the exception. They are the rule.

So here’s Sommers’ argument:

1) Feminist writers sometimes repeat “blatantly false information.”

2) This errors are the rule, not the exception. This is documented in the works of Christina Hoff Sommers and “other investigators.”

3) Therefore, feminism, as a rule, consists of “a large body of blatantly false information.”

The trick here is in point 2. Sommers wants us to believe that her critiques of feminism, as well as those by “other investigators,” are filled with examples of feminists making unambiguous factual errors. But that’s not true. In Sommer’s book Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers does catch feminists making some unambiguous errors, but most of the book is taken up by subjective political disagreements, not by fact-checking.

In order to accept that Sommers’ work demonstrates that a “reckless disregard for truth” is the “rule,” “not the exception,” we’d have to accept that anytime a feminist disagrees with Christina Hoff Sommers — because such disagreements take up most of Sommers’ work — that is evidence of a reckless disregard for the truth. But of course, it’s no such thing.

So what do I mean when I say that most of work consists of subjective political disagreements? By “subjective political disagreements,” I mean issues that reasonable, honest people, basing their opinion on well-founded evidence, can disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers on.

I will focus on one example: the rape prevalence research of Mary Koss. Koss’ research is probably the single example that “conservative feminists” have used most often to “prove” feminist dishonesty, ((Think I’m exaggerating? Here is an incomplete list of books which rehash the “conservative feminist” arguments against Koss’ research: The Morning After by Katie Roiphe; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex and Feminism by Carrie Lukas; Dead End Feminism by Elisabeth Badinter; Lip Service by Kate Fillion; Tax-funded Politics by James T. Bennett; A Nation of Victims by Charles J. Sykes; Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising by John Feteke; The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order‎ by Rene Denfeld; The Myth of Male Power by Warren Farrell; Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? by Warren Farrell, Steven Svoboda, & James P. Sterba. It’s likely there are additional books I’m unaware of, not to mention dozens of articles and hundreds of website.)) starting in the early 1990s in books like Sommers’ own Who Stole Feminism?, and continuing to this day (Heather MacDonald published an attack on Koss’ research just last year). According to the Independent Woman’s Forum, ((A Sommers-influenced “conservative feminist” think tank.)) Koss’ research is the “number one feminist myth” in America.

So what was Koss’ rape research? In the 1980s, Koss pioneered a new approach to surveying populations about their past experiences with rape. Where previous surveys measured rape prevalence by asking respondents a single, sometimes hilariously vague question (“Has anybody ever attacked you in any other way?”), Koss asked a series of comparatively specific questions (“Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man threatened or used some degree of a physical force (twisting your arm, holding you down, etc.) to make you?”) about respondents’ experiences.

Koss’ study of “hidden rape” proved three important facts, which feminists and criminologists had long suspected: that rape happened much more frequently than official numbers indicated; that most rapes aren’t committed by strangers; and that most rapes are never reported to police or other authorities.

Koss’ study, in the decades since, has led two parallel lives. In one life — a life lived in books funded by right-wing foundations, anti-feminist websites, and the like — Koss’ work is an enduring symbol of feminist dishonesty and deception, and is considered a discredited joke, trotted out for rehashed debunkings every couple of years.

In another life, however — a life lived among academic experts — Koss’ work has been amazingly successful. Decades later, her work is respectfully cited in peer-reviewed studies — a few years ago I found that just two of Koss’ articles had been cited over six hundred times. ((In Who Stole Feminism, Sommers claims that Koss’s work is frequently cited by activists but “not so much by established scholars in the field of rape research.” It would in fact be hard to name a scholar of rape prevalence who has been cited more often in the professional literature.))

Although subsequent research has arguably improved on Koss’ 1980s work, her insight — that rape victims are more likely to recount their experiences in response to a series of behaviorally-specific questions — is accepted by virtually all published rape prevalence researchers. And Koss’ central findings (described above) have been replicated in study after study, including two major studies conducted by the Federal government.

By ordinary academic standards, a frequently-cited study which has been replicated multiple times is solid work. That’s not to say that Koss’ study was perfect — no study ever is — but citations plus replication is the gold standard.

Of course, reasonable people can sometimes disagree with professional researchers, and Sommers and other “investigators” are entitled to their opinions. ((To delve into the details of the debate, including detailed responses to the arguments most often brought up by Sommers and other “investigators,” see my past posts about the Koss controversy.)) But Sommers’ position on Koss’ research isn’t that reasonable people can disagree. Instead, she and other “investigators” have repeatedly used Koss’ research as their major example of feminist lying, even though Koss’ results are widely accepted by experts and have been replicated over and over.

This is the central dishonesty of Sommers’ thesis: She claims her work shows that feminists “as a rule” have “reckless disregard for the truth,” but most of her book concerns matters that an honest person could easily disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers about. ((It’s not just rape prevalence research; I could make similar arguments for how Who Stole Feminism? treats topics like domestic violence, education, the wage gap, etc….))

Sommers has to frame all her disagreements with mainstream feminism as feminist lying, because that is the basis of her case against feminism. If she admits that reasonable, honest feminists can disagree with Christina Hoff Sommers, she loses her claim that modern feminism consists of “a large body of blatantly false information… at best, misleading –- at worst, completely inaccurate.”

* * *

Earlier this post, I said that “Sommers’ own work is full of errors, and at times actually deceptive.” In my next post in this series, I’ll back that statement up, using her discussion of emergency room admissions as my example.

This post appears both at “Alas, a Blog” and at “Blog By Barry.” To facilitate intra-feminist dialog, the comments at “Alas” are only open to feminists, while the comments at “Blog By Barry” are open to all.

January 21, 2009

Cathy Young responds to me regarding feminist hatred of men

Filed under: Christina Hoff Sommers — Ampersand @ 10:57 pm

I was thrown off my horse by strep throat, but I am planning to continue my series responding to Christina Hoff Sommers.

First, however: Over at The Y Files, columnist Cathy Young responds to part two of my series.

Cathy begins, I think, by misunderstanding what I meant when I said “If man-hating is so pervasive in contemporary feminism, why don’t men in feminism encounter it more?” Cathy responds:

Barry says he hasn’t seen any male-hating attitudes from feminists except for a few people on the Ms. boards way, way back. I’m guessing the late Andrea Dworkin, famous for such aperçus as, “Under patriarchy, every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman,” or “Male sexuality, drunk on its intrinsic contempt for all life, but especially for women’s lives…”, does not qualify?

But — like David Cohen, who I quoted — I was talking about the feminists I’ve directly interacted with. (Was this really so unclear in context, Cathy?) Alas, I never met Andrea Dworkin.

To be sure, there are some stunning anti-male quotes from Dworkin and a few others — quotes I’ve often seen recycled by critics of feminism. (Some of these quotes are out of context or fabricated, but some are real.) Are they representative of day-to-day feminism, of most feminists, or of current feminism? Not in my experience.

But this brings up something I’ve wondered about for quite a while. When I read MRAs, as well as “conservative feminists” like Christina Hoff Sommers, a narrative history of feminism tends to emerge, which goes something like this: Once upon a time there were the suffragettes, who were libertarian or conservative and they were Good. Then came the second wave feminists in the 60s and 70s, who fought for equal pay and the like, and they were Good. But in the 1980s came the Evil “gender feminists” or “victim feminists,” who turned feminism into man-hating victimology, and feminism has been Bad ever since.

But curiously enough, when reading Sommers and others, it quickly becomes apparent that most of their examples are from 60s and 70s feminism. And so Sommers makes a big deal of the word “ovulars,” a term from the 1960s that no one but Sommers herself uses nowadays. Dworkin, Young’s example, peaked in influence and prominence in the 70s, became a hugely controversial figure within feminism in the 80s, and pretty much faded from prominence after that. Most of the feminists I see quoted as proof of how awful and man-hating feminists are (Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer , Marilyn French, etc) came into prominence in the 60s and 70s.

60s and 70s feminism was, frankly, a lot wilder, and a lot more unrestrained. This has its good side (I’m a fan of some of Firestone’s wilder digressions), but also a negative side, in the unrestrained anti-male sexism of some feminist leaders. But it’s interesting that the peak of anti-male sexism in feminism — which I’d say was when Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol — happened before many of today’s feminists had even been born. Yet according to the conservative feminist narrative, feminism now is much worse than feminism then.

It’s a new century, but conservative feminists and MRAs are still nattering on about what Robin Morgan said in the 70s, or about the super bowl Sunday controversy from over a quarter century ago. Let me ask you this, Cathy: take stock of what feminists have been doing and saying this century. Do you really think that Andrea Dworkin saying “Male sexuality, drunk on its intrinsic contempt for all life” is typical of current-day feminism?

* * *

Cathy also defends the relevance of The Vagina Monologues, which, I’ll remind readers, was the one and only example Sommers gave in her lecture to support her argument that feminist believe that “men are beasts.” I don’t find anything Cathy comes up with persuasive. Yes, The Vagina Monlogues are very popular, but it’s still fiction, and it’s still just one example. No honest person can claim with a straight face that a single work of fiction proves anything about feminism in general.

Analyzing pop culture is valuable; but to discuss a general trend in pop culture, one must analyze multiple works, and show that a pattern actually exists. Otherwise, all you have is cherry-picking — Sommers’ stock in trade.

So what is feminist pop culture? It’s Vagina Monologues, sure (and nothing wrong with that; not the greatest work of literature, but it’s funny and sexy and it’s raised tons of money for good causes); but it’s also Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the songs of Ani Defranco and the comedy of Wanda Sykes and a dozen other things. I think looking at all these things would produce a more complex, but more honest, picture of feminism than Sommers’.

When I suggested Sommers should be able to provide a couple of quotes from current, prominent feminists saying “men are beasts,” Cathy says I set the bar too high. Maybe, although I’d accept quotes that amount to the same thing (such as the Dworkin quotes Cathy recycled). But if I raise the bar too high, Cathy digs a trench and drops the bar in.

Here’s where I’d set the bar: Current feminists, please. Multiple quotes from this century. Quotes from actually published, known feminists, not students quoted in some student paper or something said in the comments section of a blog. And if you’re going to claim that these quotes represent current feminism, then the quotes should be from a representative variety of current feminism: not only white feminists, and not only radical feminists, and not only academic feminists. (Or, if the only quotes you can find are from a particular sub-group of feminists, say so, rather than falsely claiming that this represents all of current feminism.)

Is that a high bar? I’d say it’s a reasonable bar, given the extreme and far-reaching claims made by Sommers. If Sommers can’t provide reasonable evidence for her claims, then it’s up to her to moderate her claims, not up to me to lower the bar.

January 11, 2009

Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 1: Ovulars instead of Seminars?

Filed under: Christina Hoff Sommers — Tags: — Ampersand @ 11:45 pm

Christina Hoff Sommers criticizes feminist professors for using the made-up word “ovulars” — but in the last quarter-century, practically the only person who’s used the word is… Christina Hoff Sommers.

Feminist Law Professors has posted the text of a lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, entitled “What’s Wrong and What’s Right with Contemporary Feminism?” (There’s also a video, here. I’ll mostly be critiquing the text version, which is much easier to quote.) Despite the title — which is, Sommers notes, a softening from her previous title, “Reject Contemporary Feminism” — Sommers has almost nothing positive to say about contemporary feminism. The lecture (which can be read here, in pdf format) is 23 pages long, of which a page and a half is what’s “right with” feminism; the rest is what’s wrong. (In Sommers’ opinion, anyway.)

This is the first of a planned series of blog posts responding to Sommers’ lecture. In some posts I’ll be directly criticizing her arguments; in other cases, I’ll use her arguments as a springboard for thoughts of my own. I actually agree with a couple of her criticisms of contemporary feminism, and I’ll note those areas of agreement as I go along. By and large, however, Sommers’ arguments fall apart under examination.

Sommers opens with a funny anecdote about her dad, which I won’t discuss here, but David reprints it on his blog.

I think Sommers — who quit academia years ago to work for a right-wing think tank — may suffer from spending too much time talking to people who agree with her. (This is a very common flaw among both feminists and non-feminists). This lecture was originally written for the Federalist society; I doubt that they blinked at all upon being told that it is her “bias toward logic, reason, and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment.” Nor would they have been bothered by her expression of pity for boys with feminist mothers. But if she’s sincere about wanting to have respectful dialog with mainstream feminists, snarky comments like that are counterproductive.

On to the critique.

* * *

Sommers uses the timeworn technique of quoting something silly-sounding an academic once said, and using this to generalize about the whole of “contemporary feminism.” For instance, to show that “feminism was being hijacked by gender war eccentrics in the universities,” Sommers writes:

To give one quick example, one of my colleagues in feminist philosophy referred to her seminars as “ovulars.” She rejected the masculinist “seminar” because the root of that word is associated with, well, the very essence of male power. It is actually very funny when you think about it. But this woman was not kidding.

That does sound eccentric. But is this a substantive critique of feminism, or just a cheap shot? If you flip to Sommers’ endnotes, you’ll find a citation to a use of “ovulars” by Professor Joyce Trebilcot 25 years ago. Googling shows that the word has hardly spread to common usage — Google knows of only 300 times the word has been used on English language webpages.

But isn’t 300 a lot? No, not really. For comparison, “heterocentric,” a feminist neologism feminist academics actually use, is found 14,000 times. And 130 of the 300 usages of the word “ovular” are times when Christina Hoff Sommers used the term. If any contemporary feminist is using the term, it’s not the feminists Sommers criticizes; it’s Sommers herself.

(Most of the other usages are irrelevant to this discussion: references to a radical lesbian photography collective from 1979, right-wingers making fun of feminism, medical discussions, a women’s center newsletter from 1974 (pdf link). I found only one instance of the word being used by feminist academics to refer to classes taught: an experimental UK program called “Ovular” which existed for a couple of years and offered “seminars”.)

“Ovulars” is a term that was used by a handful of feminists in the 1970s, and by a single feminist professor in the 1980s. I’m not aware of a single relevant use of the term that’s less than 20 years old. So it’s obviously unfair and illogical to use “ovular” is an “example” of what’s wrong with “contemporary feminism.” ((To be sure, Sommers did say this was just “one quick example.” But I assume that she wouldn’t have chosen such a lousy example, if her other examples are all much better.))

This dispute is not, in and of itself, an important question. But I’ve spent this post discussing it because “ovulars” is an excellent illustration of three consistent flaws in Sommers’ criticism:

1) Cherry-picking wildly unrepresentative examples.

2) No acknowledgment of differences between 1970s/1980s feminism and contemporary feminism.

3) Important context (in this case, that her example is a quarter-century old) is either omitted or buried in endnotes.

These flaws came up again and again in Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism, and they are unfortunately present in this lecture, as well.

(Hmmn. Over 700 words, and I’m only as far as page 2 of her lecture. I’ll try to pick up the pace.)

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