The Problem with Most Conversations on Feminism

Most of us are aware of the latest explosive topic of discussion in the skeptic community, namely Rebecca Watson and feminism. In her blog entry entitled The Privilege Delusion, Watson criticizes Dawkins for belittling the objectification of women, as Watson has received multiple threats of rape from making videos on Youtube. The Elevator incident occurred when a guy asked her, a single female alone in a foreign country and in an elevator at 4 a. m, if “would you like to come up to my hotel room for some coffee” (probably insinuating sex). Watson thought this was entirely creepy and felt very uncomfortable, especially since Watson just had a talk about feminism and sexism in the skeptic community earlier that evening.

This has been discussed already by PZ Myers, Greg Laden, Phil Plait and others and I do not pretend to have anything unique or inventive to add to that conversation. Instead, I would like to discuss the problem with most discussions of feminism and perhaps suggest a partial reason for why the Elevator Incident has been so controversial. I am not expert on feminism, as a male I am probably just as indoctrinated into male privilege as anyone, and I doubt that I am going to have something insightful to say, but perhaps it is can give an interesting perspective.

In my opinion, the problem with most conversations on feminism is the negative effects of perceptual sets aggravated by stereotypes, confirmation bias and unclear definitions. It don’t think that this applies to Watson herself, but perhaps for many of her critics. Instead, I would like to put forward the idea that this might be a general problem (that is not limited to feminism). A perceptual set is “a readiness to perceive stimuli in a particular way” (Passer et. al 2009). This no doubt have its usefulness in that it allows use to make quick decisions on matters of importance, but it also comes with a price. Perhaps an analogy could be useful here. Imagine that you tell an average creationist that you accept evolution as an evidence-based explanation for the diversification of life. It is unlikely that this creationist will go “oh so this person clearly has a good knowledge of the life sciences!”, but may associate this with what he perceives as what someone who accepts evolution is like. Perhaps the creationist believes that people who accept evolution are godless racists who hates god and just want to sin. This prior belief may influence how he sees his opponent and make him make assumptions and stereotypes and have a readiness to perceive arguments for evolution in this particular way.

How does this tie in to feminism? The central flaw in that question is that it assumes that feminism is a coherent whole or a monolithic belief system. This is not the case. There are a huge diversity of thoughts, opinions and arguments within feminism and there are many, genuine controversies within feminism, such as the nature and effects of erotic material (e. g. anti-pornography feminists vs. sex-positive feminists), politics (e. g. liberal feminists vs. libertarian feminists vs. Marxist feminists), the nature of the male (e. g. separatist feminists v.s postmodern feminists) etc.

This opens up for a lot of misunderstandings. Certain people may see the misandry of the radical and separatist feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto, as the archetypical feminist, and then judge arguments about feminism through the lens that feminism is a form of misandry. Make no mistake, Solanas disliked men a lot. “SCUM” in the title stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”. She writes that:

Although completely physical, the male is unfit even for stud service. Even assuming mechanical proficiency, which few men have, he is, first of all, incapable of zestfully, lustfully, tearing off a piece, but instead is eaten up with guilt, shame, fear and insecurity, feelings rooted in male nature, which the most enlightened training can only minimize; second, the physical feeling he attains is next to nothing; and third, he is not empathizing with his partner, but is obsessed with how he’s doing, turning in an A performance, doing a good plumbing job. To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo. It’s often said that men use women. Use them for what? Surely not pleasure.


Incapable of a positive state of happiness, which is the only thing that can justify one’s existence, the male is, at best, relaxed, comfortable, neutral, and this condition is extremely short-lived, as boredom, a negative state, soon sets in; he is, therefore, doomed to an existence of suffering relieved only by occasional, fleeting stretches of restfulness, which state he can only achieve at the expense of some female. The male is, by his very nature, a leech, an emotional parasite and, therefore, not ethically entitled to live, as no one as the right to life at someone else’s expense.

This is an extreme case and I could wager that most sane feminists would disagree with a lot of the things Solanas has to say. However, imagine that a man who had a readiness to interpret the things that sane feminists say as being a form of misandry? If this in turn makes sane feminists more ready to interpret men as misogynists, this may works as a vicious circle, moving the discussion more and more away from being sane and rational.

To be sure, there are many deep problems with both misogyny (Walters, 2006) and certain kinds of extreme feminism (Hoff Sommers, 1995), but I think that it would be very helpful to be clear about what type of feminism one is talking about specifically, and to treat each debater (feminist or otherwise) and as individuals with his or her own views and opinions (instead of being part of a supposedly cohesive “patriarchy” or “feminist conspiracy” or whatever), because there may be a larger overlap of beliefs than at first sight.

References and Further Reading:

Hoff-Sommers, Christina. (1995). Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon & Schuster

Passer, M., Smith, R., Holt, N., Bremner, A., Sutherland, E., & Vliek, M. (2009). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Walters, Margaret. (2006). Feminism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solanas, Valerie. (2004). SCUM Manifesto. New York: Verso.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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