Are You Allowed to Compliment a Woman on Her Looks?

This post responds to an article that makes a number of remarkable statements about men and women. As a presentation of views by a future professor, at a ranking university, who considers herself qualified to lecture others on their behavior, the article provides a good opportunity to address some of the seemingly endless attacks that feminists launch upon men.

The article in question is titled “End Sexual Harassment in Academia” (2017) (archive link). Its author, Jessica Cortez, was a doctoral student in immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her comments, excerpted below, fall into the following primary topic areas.

Contents

Cortez’s Complaints
Honking
Objectification
What Does the Compliment Mean?
Intellectual Capability
Injustice of University Procedures
Pervasive Sexual Harassment in Academia
Fighting Injustice

.

Cortez’s Complaints

Cortez offered a number of strange remarks, often mixed in with reasonable observations. These excerpts capture some key examples:

[N]early every woman I know (and some men) have experienced episodes of sexual harassment and assault repeatedly from a young age.

For me this began around the age of 14, when I would walk home from school and men in passing cars would honk or make inappropriate gestures as they drove past.

I have personally experienced and listened to friends share stories of being catcalled, touched inappropriately, and objectified. . . .

Recently, a peer dismissed feelings I expressed regarding an objectifying comment made on social media. The comment was posted on an announcement congratulating two successful female PI’s at UCSF for receiving highly prestigious and competitive grant awards. . . .

I was upset that a comment about their physical appearance was the first response, overshadowing their accomplishment. . . .

I was upset because I have personally encountered comments about my appearance made in negative association with my intellectual capability. . . .

Having my private objection to this minor grievance be diminished by someone I respected only fueled my rage. . . .

Jahren [at the University of Hawaii] suggests that one explanation for the profound “shedding” of women in STEM fields could be the pervasive nature of sexual harassment within academia and the predictable nature of how these incidents are usually handled.

Spoiler alert: they are handled unjustly.

It’s no secret that there is a hierarchy of power that exists within academia that allows harassment to be pervasive. . . .

One study of field researchers conducted in 2014, found that 64% of all respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment (i.e. inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other such jokes) and 21.7% had personally experienced sexual assault (i.e. physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which they could not or did not give consent). . . .

As leaders in science, I believe it’s on us as a community to prompt a positive change in the cultural malfunction that perpetuates this injustice.

The following sections discuss several topics raised in those remarks.

Honking

Being honked at is not necessarily “sexual harassment or assault.” If the (presumably male) person honking is someone who knows you, it may just be a greeting. If it is not someone who knows you, it is probably a sign of interest, probably based on your looks. It does not seem unreasonable to find someone attractive. And since men traditionally and still typically initiate contacts with potential female partners, it would seem sexist to attack men for taking steps by which some apparently do mean to initiate contact, when women do tend to expect men to make the first move. It is not as though the woman has a code printed on her back, to which he can simply send an electronic message.

Not that that is the only purpose of honking. Various discussions suggest that male views of honking at women range from “It’s scumbag behavior” to “I do it to let a woman know that she’s out of my league” (apparently meaning that he thinks she will understand that he is saying he would never have the courage to approach someone with such amazing looks); and female views range from “It makes me think a car is about to hit me from behind” to “I love it” (or “I know women who love it”). In response to those women who objected to it, one commenter retorted, “Aha, the ‘it’s only sexual harassment if I don’t like it’ argument.”

I don’t think I’ve ever honked at a woman I didn’t know, and rarely if ever at women I do know. But if I was feeling great, some sunny day, and was driving at a moderate pace along some street with my windows down, and felt like tapping on the horn as I slowly passed some woman, and if she looked over and waved back, I might feel that honking at a woman can be a great thing. I wouldn’t want it to be prohibited behavior, such that I would feel I shouldn’t try to make contact with the lady, and she would feel that she shouldn’t respond. Like most things, some people are going to abuse it. The discerning response would seemingly be to discourage the bad without condemning the good.

Cortez appears to be speaking, more narrowly, for those women who want to be able to walk down the street without being constantly reminded that some man considers them attractive. That’s reasonable. At the same time, it is best not to assume that every man in such situations is a sexual harasser and every woman is a victim. It might also be appropriate to remind Cortez that honking at women, and other automobile-related behavior, does not necessarily mean the same thing in every culture.

Objectification

In context, Cortez’s complaint about being “objectified” appears to refer to sexual objectification, which Wikipedia describes as “the act of treating a person as a mere object of sexual desire.” The idea appears to be that you should only consider other people sexually desirable within a larger frame of valuing them fully as human beings.

That sounds like a nice idea. But Cortez doesn’t advance research suggesting that this is how sexual attraction actually works. Pending more detailed exploration, what appears far more likely is that sexual attraction is a wild animal, apt to surprise you, involving people and situations you might not have anticipated, sometimes provoking people to behave in ways they would not have imagined, for better and for worse.

We can suggest that the wild animal should be tamed. Indeed, some taming appears essential, if we are to have a civil society. But taming sexual desire can be a slippery slope. Staking out a rather extreme position, Jesus condemned the act of even looking at any woman (other than one’s wife, presumably) lustfully (Matthew 5:28). If our society attempted to follow New Testament strictures, it would probably criminalize clothing and behavior intended or likely to provoke lust. From an American perspective, it does not appear that current or historical societies taking that path have produced lifestyles that most American women would prefer.

Aside from women who have no interest in ever attracting male attention, it is a safe bet that most women do want certain men to find them physically attractive, even if that is the only thing those men know or notice about those women initially. Here, again, Cortez appears to claim entitlement to choose who should be turned on and who shouldn’t. Since male interest in the opposite sex seems especially likely to be based on physical appearances, there seems to be an argument that men’s thoughts and feelings are bad merely because they differ from women’s. Of course, such reasoning would also disparage the many women who prioritize physical appearances, or who have had the experience of wanting sex for its own sake.

What Does the Compliment Mean?

As indicated above, Cortez reported an incident in which a male peer apparently complimented female students, both for their physical appearance and for some specific academic achievement, but complimented their looks first. In Cortez’s view, the male thus conveyed the impression that those women’s appearances were most important to him, “overshadowing their accomplishment.”

Cortez felt that their looks were not as important as their career achievement. Then again, Cortez is not a man. Much to the contrary, she seems to say that she is a woman who wants to be appreciated, first for her brains, and only secondly for her looks.

That’s fine for her. But what about the nerdy female classmate, not insecure about her brains, who has never had the experience of being complimented by so many men that, finally, she grows tired of all the attention? Like almost anybody, I have personally known women who get sick of being single, or who have to settle for an unsatisfying relationship, because they just don’t have the looks to attract men. Even at the PhD level, after enough months and years of sitting home on Friday nights and staring at the wall, you might reasonably wish you could cash in one of your academic awards for a nice, steamy fling with some hunk who only wanted you for your body.

So let’s be more specific. Aside from those who don’t like men, the women complaining about men who value their looks over their achievements are, most likely, women who have good looks. The percentage of women fitting that description is not terribly high at any age, and it tapers off as the years go by. Add in the literature about body image, and it appears that only a privileged minority of women enjoy the luxury of wishing that men would stop noticing how attractive they are.

Within Cortez’s own circumstances, we still have the question: should a man place more value on an attractive and intelligent woman’s attractiveness, or on her intelligence? Obviously, if the man wants to please feminists like Cortez, he will know that he should appear to value her intelligence first. This lesson has long since been absorbed by most men in academia. And, in fairness, most male professors surely do value the intellects of their female students. I doubt that will tend to be their ultimate priority, among those relatively few female students who are extremely appealing and/or wind up in bed with them. But let us be clear: overwhelmingly, men in universities find it advisable to downplay and even denigrate attention to female physicality.

But never mind appearances. I think the question was, should a man actually value her intelligence over her attractiveness? That question implies, again, that someone like Cortez has a right to tell others what they should value. Yet why does it all have to be one way? Why can’t some men value the one, while others value the other? That preference for diversity would seem better for purposes of producing a healthy mix: presumably some women would enjoy a man with a more physical orientation, while others would prefer a more cerebral tendency.

So let’s say the question is this: should male graduate students feel that a female student’s academic achievements are more important than her physical appearance? This seems to be at least partly a question of what she means to him. If she’s just a sexless classmate, presumably he won’t pay any more attention to her than he would pay to a male student obtaining the same award.

But she’s not just sexless. Eons of evolution — or, if you prefer, divine design — have made her to be an object of potential desire, at a very basic level.

You can fight against that. Fighting against that might even produce desirable results. That seems to be where we are. Society agrees that sexual attraction needs to be limited; the issue here is that Cortez wants it to be so limited that men are no longer driven by attraction except when women want them to be. In that case, what’s missing is the precise explanation or treatment that could change men to fit Cortez’s imagination. Because without an intervention of demonstrated efficacy, this sort of discussion deteriorates into sermonizing, where men are one way and women like Cortez feel they have a right to lecture them to be something else, when maybe they can’t, or don’t want to, and maybe they really shouldn’t.

So: do we have an answer to the question? Assuming Cortez is correct in treating the man’s order of compliments as indicative of his actual priorities, her interpretation of his response seems to be something like this: “Yes, that is a female earning an award. She looks fantastic. I would like to have sex with her. Of course, I can see that the academic award is a great one, and I am happy for her on that level.”

Yet there is a different way of seeing the situation. Cortez, like most women, probably is at least subconsciously aware that the woman is attractive. That is, Cortez would surely notice if the woman looked like she lived in a dumpster. In fact, women may be even more discriminating than men. Many of their efforts to look good may be intended primarily to satisfy the sharper eye of female critics, rather than the relatively simple priorities of most men.

For some reason, be it cultural or religious or feminist, Cortez apparently thinks a man should share female preoccupations with relatively trivial details of the woman’s couture, rather than being focused on the more fundamental, life-based question of whether she is someone with whom he would want to have sex repeatedly, at least through the moment of conception, and possibly for the rest of his life. It is not clear that women should be the only ones whose procreative roles and urges are sanctified.

From this perspective, Cortez’s error is to assume that differentness means inferiority. Men are not like women; ergo men are to be lectured. But a fairer way of characterizing the guy’s reaction might go like this: “Yeah, she’s a looker. Nothing I can do about it, but a guy can be honest about his feelings. Anyway, lots of people get academic awards. I don’t really pay much attention. I only noticed this one because I saw her photo.” Not that the first interpretation (above) was wrong, exactly; it just left out some important realities.

Intellectual Capability

I was mildly puzzled by Cortez’s statement, “I have personally encountered comments about my appearance made in negative association with my intellectual capability.” It was not clear in which sense she perceived a “negative association.” She may have meant that some people think a beautiful girl can’t be brilliant. As with automobiles and honking, that may be an issue of culture rather than gender. In my experience, that is not a common stereotype among Jews, for instance, and I think it may also not be a common stereotype among Chinese people. It definitely is not a common stereotype at the doctoral level, in the academic environment that Cortez is supposedly writing about.

A different possibility, which Cortez evidently didn’t consider, is that maybe people complimented her on her looks, rather than her intelligence, just because she doesn’t seem very smart. For instance, I am smart, in the university sense of the word, but I didn’t seem smart to some people at Columbia, when I transferred there. In my accent and attitudes, they saw “Midwestern hick.” So, depending on many things, including behavioral quirks of which Cortez herself may be unaware, it is possible that some people interpret her, overall, as being less intelligent than she actually is. They may be complimenting her looks because, in their impression, that’s her strong point.

A related possibility is that Cortez is actually not all that smart. Here, too, it depends on what the words mean. Within the university, an ability to think critically has traditionally been considered an important dimension of brilliance. You have to be able to question yourself, to ask why your first hunch might be mistaken, to look for alternate explanations. In that regard, Cortez’s article is pretty lame. It is not the kind of work that one would expect of a graduate student. She cites very little research to support her claims. She doesn’t seem to recognize that her studies in immunology did not train her to critically consume and work with research in the social sciences. As demonstrated at length in this post, there are many possibilities of which she seems completely unaware. She doesn’t display the least impulse to gather data on, or even to summarize and respond to, countervailing viewpoints. Much to the contrary, she speaks of her “rage,” as if she wanted to make sure that everyone sees her as being hotheaded and incapable of reasoned discussion on her pet issues.

Traditionally, of course, one would accept Cortez’s enrollment in a doctoral program as a demonstration of her intellect, at least within her own field. Regrettably, that tradition is no longer reliable. As I have personally witnessed on multiple occasions, American universities (and also many corporations) in recent decades have been increasingly eager to embrace and promote people of remarkably inferior ability and training, merely because they were not white (or Asian) and/or not male. Certainly I share the hope that such measures will at least lay the groundwork for a more genuinely intellectual next generation of minority scholars. In these days of resurgent extremism on the right, however, I fear that indiscriminate promotion of obviously incompetent minority students — making them the professors who will teach future generations — may simultaneously encourage students (of whatever race, ethnicity, or sex) to construe white males and Asians as the only ones who have really had to make it by hard work and ability.

Again, obviously, I understand that most who survive in academia and the media would be aghast that I would dare to say such things. I also understand, however, that Donald Trump won the 2016 election — that, as with Nixon’s Silent Majority, political power in this country still rests with people who are often not up-to-date on, or in agreement with, what elites think they should know and believe. In other words, telling people what they are permitted to say and think can be unproductive. I see a fair question here; it seems most truthful to call it as I see it; and I think efforts to be truthful are valuable.

Injustice of University Procedures

Like many other women, Cortez complains that universities handle gender issues “unjustly.” What Cortez evidently remains ignorant of, due to her failure to investigate the matters of which she speaks, is that this is not a gender issue. Universities handle a variety of issues unjustly. Generally, they have no commitment to integrity. For examples, she could look at how universities treat their neighbors (e.g., Columbia); she could look at university financial abuses (e.g., excessive salaries; student loans); she could open her eyes and speak truthfully on corrupt promotion and graduation practices within her own university and perhaps even her own department. I know something about this because I have personally experienced and explored injustice in university procedures at multiple universities, and I have paid a price for it.

In a style that speaks poorly of her graduate education, Cortez is content to rely on a vague claim that STEM fields lose females due to “the pervasive nature of sexual harassment within academia” and the unjust handling of such incidents. She does not cite data to support her claim of “pervasive” sexual harassment. But, as an example of how a more qualified PhD might want to approach the matter, in a separate post I do look at relevant research. That research indicates that Cortez is simply wrong. The situation of women in STEM fields is very different from — it is much better than — the situation she depicts.

Granted, anyone who writes much will sometimes write on things on which s/he is not especially knowledgeable. But it is one thing to suggest a flawed way to grow a tomato. It is an entirely different matter to consider oneself privileged to attack other people. It probably does need to be done sometimes. And everyone knows that feeling of righteous rage. I don’t want to make the mistake of going too far with my own righteous indignation against people like Cortez. But there is a pretty sharp difference between doing (or at least reading) relevant research and relying merely on word of mouth and convenient assumptions. As I have documented elsewhere, Cortez is not the first feminist to assume that she speaks the truth merely because she heard it from some other aggrieved female.

What really needs to be done in this area is to relinquish the feminist agenda, the constant effort to see everything as an attack on women. The more accurate understanding, in this area and others, is that people in positions of power, female or (more commonly) male, tend to become corrupted by their power, and thus tend to favor injustice when it suits their interests (see e.g., Pyke, 2018). The fight against injustice is not a fight of women against men. It is a fight for justice, regardless of gender. Recognizing that does offer the advantage of being able to team up with men, instead of fighting them, when they try to join you in opposing corrupt power.

Pervasive Sexual Harassment in Academia

Cortez alluded to “a hierarchy of power that exists within academia that allows harassment to be pervasive.” But a claim of pervasive sexual harassment is not supported by the evidence. For instance, a study by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and Westat (2015) found that 44.1% of female graduate students reported being sexually harassed at their universities (p. 29), and 22.4% of those female graduate students indicated that the offender was a faculty member, most commonly a teacher or advisor (p. 31). In other words, only 9.9% (i.e., 22.4% of 44.1%) of female graduate students reported being sexually harassed by faculty. This statistic does not support the view that a “hierarchy of power . . . allows harassment to be pervasive.”

Indeed, even that 9.9% figure probably erred on the high side. For one thing, self-report tends to be unreliable: people don’t even necessarily have accurate recall of what actually happened, much less accurate knowledge of what others intended. In addition, the AAU survey defined sexual harassment very broadly (p. 29), with wording that students could interpret as including non-sexual jokes, inappropriate nonsexual comments about someone’s appearance, and repeated but unoffensive invitations to attend some event. Cantalupo and Kidder (2018) agreed that the AAU survey results “may be somewhat high . . . for technical reasons connected to survey design.”

In one of her few citations of actual research, Cortez referred to a study of graduate students (Clancy et al., 2014) reporting on work done outside of the university, in anthropological field (e.g., jungle) research settings, where faculty and students might be working close together all day and sleeping rather near to each other, away from home, for days, weeks, or even months at a time. It was obviously disingenuous for Cortez to cite this unusual environment as an illustration of typical sex-related behavior within universities.

Discussing that study by Clancy et al. (2014), Cortez essentially endorsed the AAU’s sweeping concept of sexual harassment. Clancy’s study defined sexual harassment as including

inappropriate or sexual remarks [emphasis added], comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at a field site . . . . [as well as] unwanted sexual contact . . . .

Within that definition, a male professor could be reported as committing sexual harassment if a student participating in this research felt that it was “inappropriate” for the professor to describe some man as “fat”; if he told a gender-neutral joke about lawyers; if the survey participant misconstrued the balding professor’s envious remark about her full head of hair; or if she interpreted “unwanted sexual contact” as including any unwanted contact between the sexes (e.g., the professor’s leg touched hers while he attempted to help her pick up a heavy object, which irritated her because she wanted to prove that she could do it by herself). That last item, according to Cortez, would count as “sexual assault.” Small wonder, then, that the Clancy study found that 64% of survey participants reported experiencing “sexual harassment” and over 20% reported that they had experienced “sexual assault.”

To underscore the seriousness of those findings, Cortez pointed to a follow-up report by the Clancy team (Nelson et al., 2017). In that follow-up study, Cortez said, 26 people were interviewed and, of those, “eight said that their careers stalled because of their negative experiences, four changed their research plans and five left their careers in science behind.” The lay reader, seeing (for example) the ratio of five to 26, might infer that nearly one-fifth of female field research students abandon their science careers because of sexual harassment. Cortez failed to inform her readers that, actually, there were 666 people in the original study (i.e., that those five amounted to less than 1% of the total), or that these 26 interviewees were specially selected by Clancy’s all-female research team: 23 of the 26 were female, and 76% of the field contexts studied in those interviews were dysfunctional, in the sense that either there were no clear rules governing behavior or the rules were not enforced (p. 714).

In short, Cortez relied on potentially biased research conducted outside the university, misled readers on key facts about that research, favored absurdly broad definitions, and ignored more relevant research, in order to support a false claim of pervasive sexual harassment in academia. This may be typical behavior for a lawyer, paid to distort the truth in service of a preexisting agenda. It is not the behavior of an ethical researcher. Such behavior, on the part of Cortez, suggests desperation in the face of reality. I mean, if there were better research making a more solid case in support of her personal beliefs, presumably she would have used it.

Fighting Injustice

As noted above, Cortez concluded with the statement that, “As leaders in science, I believe it’s on us as a community to prompt a positive change in the cultural malfunction that perpetuates this injustice.” The question at hand is whether Cortez is truly committed to a change in cultural malfunction and elimination of injustice in academia. Because if she is, she may have to adjust her perspective.

For one thing, Cortez needs to recognize how privileged she is, as a minority female in academia. Certainly there are many places, in America, where women have it worse than men, and where Hispanics have it worse than whites. But that is not the university. In STEM fields like hers, at highly ranked universities like hers, they most commonly bend over backwards to favor females and minorities. For instance, even without the advantage of minority status, Williams and Ceci (2015) found that female applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships in STEM fields were twice as likely to be hired as equally qualified males. The situation appears similar at other STEM workplaces. For instance, at this writing, at least two lawsuits allege similar if not worse prejudice at Google.

Academia can’t be too terribly hostile to women, when women form large and growing majorities of university students. For many years, women have been able to ride on the general assumption, starting in elementary school, that females deserved greater behavioral tolerancefavoritism in grading, preferential language, and other accepted forms of discrimination. Consider, for instance, that, for generations, boys have been trying to tell their teachers what Gallup (Busteed, 2018) now suggests:

Sir Ken Robinson, who delivered perhaps the most famous TED Talk in history, argues that schools often kill creativity. Not only that, but schools overly focused on standardized tests (and on teaching to those tests) actually kill dreams and independence — they’re no fun, they’re deflating and they zap kids’ energy.

Where the odds are stacked against males, and where that reality is reflected in declining male enrollment, and especially where the female complaining about such odds is particularly privileged due to her minority status, some readers may derive an impression of a rather extreme sense of personal entitlement. It would take a respectable quantum of ethicality to recognize this, and to come down on the side of fairness and equality rather than choosing whatever advances one’s personal benefit.

Cortez’s article does not suggest that sort of ethicality. If that is the case, it would not be surprising. Academia is, too often, a haven for self-serving climbers on the backs of others. But at least one might hope that Cortez would find it personally advantageous to develop her critical thinking — to display an improved responsiveness to multiple perspectives on an issue. Possibly her educators have not conveyed an awareness that a writer tends to be more persuasive if s/he seems to understand and think about what different kinds of individuals experience, as distinct from merely lecturing and posing.

As discussed at greater length in another post, graduate school typically provides years of indoctrination in feminist ideology and in university concepts of promotion and success, both of which may contribute to blaming others, and especially men, when sometimes the real problem has more to do with one’s own attitudes, abilities, and/or priorities. Yet, even if that does describe the situation underlying Cortez’s article, that would be merely a starting point. The real question confronting Cortez — confronting us all — is, where do we go from there?

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