How much of gender is a social construct?

Check out this National Geographic article “How science is helping us understand gender.” Author Robin Henig outlines different intersex conditions that can be more complicated than the typical XX vs XY binary. But here’s the quote that really caught my eye:

Gender is an amalgamation of several elements: chromosomes (those X’s and Y’s), anatomy (internal sex organs and external genitals), hormones (relative levels of testosterone and estrogen), psychology (self-defined gender identity), and culture (socially defined gender behaviors).

This is a good summary of the factors that could contribute to a person’s understanding of gender, but it also helps demonstrate why conversations about gender get confusing fast. Two thoughts:

1. Intersex =/= Transgender

To my understanding (which I admit is limited), intersex issues are not the same as transgender issues, and in fact people with intersex conditions don’t necessarily appreciate being used as the wedge to push society to accept transgender issues.

Intersexuality is not the same as a transsexuality (gender dysphoria) and is not a transgender state. Neither of the latter terms is one that we recognise as belonging in any general discussion of intersex. We are not happy with the recent tendency of some trans groups/people to promote transgender as an umbrella term to encompass, for example, transsexuality, transvestitism and intersex. We object to other organisations/individuals putting us in categories without consulting us, especially categories that imply that interexed people, of necessity, have gender identity issues.

2. Gender cannot be just a social construct.

If gender were only a social construct, it would be hard to explain why a trans man could not more easily exist simply as a masculine cis woman, i.e. a tomboy or someone similar. If gender is unrelated to sexuality and genitalia, transitioning seems like an unnecessarily difficult undertaking (financially, emotionally, physically, and socially).

That’s not suggest that gender is wholly unrelated to culture. It seems intuitive to me that at least some aspect of gender, especially society’s understanding of gender, is based more on cultural norms than biology. The extreme and perhaps tired example is that girls like pink and boys like blue. Presumably if we birthed children in a society where the opposite was the norm, they’d just go with it. But here and now dressing a baby in pink is a way to signal to others “this baby is a girl,” and while of course you can dress your baby girl in blue, you will probably confuse strangers who think you’re signaling “this baby is a boy” instead of just “I like blue.” Maybe you don’t care about that (I don’t) but that’s the cultural norm and I expect it influences the relative proportion of boys and men willing to wear pink. I digress.

What does it mean, for example, for a person to have all the biological traits (chromosomes, sex organs, genitalia, and hormone levels) of a male but “feel” female? What is the difference between a biological male who identifies as female and a biological male who identifies as a male who is partial to activities and preferences culturally viewed as female? This distinction especially gets confusing when we add in the idea that your sexuality and sexual preferences are not related to your gender. So what drives the difference between a cis straight male who is comfortable with the color pink, being a stay-at-home parent, and [insert female stereotypes here] versus a homosexual trans woman who also likes all of those things?

I ask these questions sincerely. I recognize that people feel very differently about these topics and I don’t begrudge anyone that. And, in terms of policy, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the government to get very strict about what constitutes male and female, not only because intersex conditions complicate matters but also because it’s not hard to imagine situations that would put trans people in danger if they are narrowed to the options of traditional cis sexuality. As the New York Times explains:

Several agencies have withdrawn Obama-era policies that recognized gender identity in schools, prisons and homeless shelters.

I suspect that as we learn more about human physiology and particularly neurology, we’ll gain more insight into the phenomenon of transgenderism. But if that turns out to be the case, to my mind it would be further evidence that gender is biological, as long as we recognize that biology includes more than our genitalia. National Geographic hints at this possibility (same article linked above) when Henig explains:

At least a few brain characteristics, such as density of the gray matter or size of the hypothalamus, do tend to differ between genders. It turns out transgender people’s brains may more closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth. In one study, for example, Swaab and his colleagues found that in one region of the brain, transgender women, like other women, have fewer cells associated with the regulator hormone somatostatin than men. In another study scientists from Spain conducted brain scans on transgender men and found that their white matter was neither typically male nor typically female, but somewhere in between.

Maybe all of this musing is getting to a broader question: can psychology exist independent from biology? If someone is psychologically male can we assume, by definition, that some part of that person’s brain structures, neural connectivity, whatever, will look more similar to cis male brains? I’m interested to see what we learn as time goes on.

Why Trump Won, A Reminder

So we’ve got a lot of people acting as though the election of Donald J. Trump represents a seismic shift in the American electorate and–just maybe!–a prelude to the Fourth Reich. This is just a reminder that the data don’t bear that out.

It’s not exactly news–Slate Star Codex carried it right after the election–but it bears repeating. So here’s the update from Matt Bruenig: The Boring Story of the 2016 Election.

Donald Trump did not win because of a surge of white support. Indeed he got less white support than Romney got in 2012. Nor did Trump win because he got a surge from other race+gender groups. The exit polls show him doing slightly better with black men, black women, and latino women than Romney did, but basically he just hovered around Romney’s numbers with every race+gender group, doing slightly worse than Romney overall.

However, support for Hillary was way below Obama’s 2012 levels, with defectors turning to a third party. Clinton did worse with every single race+gender combo except white women, where she improved Obama’s outcome by a single point. Clinton did not lose all this support to Donald. She lost it into the abyss. Voters didn’t like her but they weren’t wooed by Trump.

Bruenig goes on to explain why this narrative is so underplayed. Which is: nobody likes it. I’ll let you read Bruenig’s analysis on this point (I basically agree with it), but here’s the point: any discussion of what’s happening in American politics should adhere to the basic facts. Trump did a little worse than Romney. Clinton did a lot worse than Obama. Ergo the defining factor was Clinton’s deep unpopularity.

Last thought: she’s been in the press a lot since the end of the election. It even sounds like she wants to try again. Will she try? Will she succeed (in getting on the ballot)? What will that look like?

How Atypical Was This Election?

Image result for donald trump speech

Donald J. Trump is President Elect of the United States of America.

The predictions were off. Way off (The polls themselves may not have been.)*****

Numerous commentators–from the professional to the everyday Facebook warrior–have put forth various explanations based on the exit polls, including change-seeking voters, gender gaps in the voting blocs, the white working class, wealthy whites, anti-Clinton voters, anti-PC voters, sexist voters, racist voters, etc.

There’s probably a grain of truth in all of these explanations (some more than others). But if we just look at the general numbers, what can we say for sure? Despite early claims of high voter turnout, that just wasn’t the case.**

2016 Election
Trump Clinton Total Turnout
59,698,506 59,926,386 119,624,892
2012 Election
Romney Obama
60,933,504 65,915,795 126,849,299
2008 Election
McCain Obama
59,948,323 69,498,516 129,446,839
2004 Election
Bush Kerry
62,040,610 59,028,444 121,069,054

Not only was voter turnout low in general, but even Republican turnout was slightly lower* than in past years. It was significantly lower for Democrats.

Given the racially-charged rhetoric and sexual misconduct this election season, how did Trump do among minorities compared to other Republican presidential candidates?

% Trump Romney McCain Bush 04 Bush 00 Average
Whites 58 59 55 58 55 57
Blacks 8 6 4 11 9 7.6
Hispanics 29 27 31 44 35 33.2
Asians 29 26 35 43 41 34.8
Other 37 38 31 40  No data 36.5
Women 42 44 43 48 44 44.2

A few things that jump out at me:

  • Trump had higher support among Hispanics than Romney, though both fell woefully short of McCain and Bush. Nonetheless, the bump in Hispanic support is surprising.
  • Trump had higher support among blacks than both Romney and McCain and ended up above average for the last 5 elections.
  • Trump had higher support among Asians than Romney, though still short of McCain and especially Bush.
  • Trump had the lowest support of women of the last five elections (can’t imagine why…). Nonetheless, it’s not drastically lower than most of the other candidates, which may astonish some.
  • Trump actually had lower support among whites than Romney and ended up only slightly above average when considering the last 5 elections. In other words, the white support for Republicans has been pretty consistent.

There is much more that could and should be considered when parsing the numbers. Groups aren’t monolithic and factors like income, education, etc. are necessary in order to paint a more accurate picture. However, pundits pointing out that, say, white people–rich/poor, urban/rural, college/no college, whatever–supported the Republican nominee is hardly a shocker. As conservative writer David French put it, “White voters responded mainly by voting in the same or lesser numbers as the last three presidential elections. That’s not a “whitelash,” it’s consistency.”**** It increasingly looks like what some outlets have been saying is correct: Democrats stayed home.*** While further analysis may tell a different story, a lot of this looks like pretty normal partisanship. One party just didn’t show up.**

*Update (11/14): Trump currently sits at 60,265,858, while Clinton is still ahead with 60,839,922. This puts Trump’s turnout slightly above McCain’s numbers, while Clinton falls woefully short of Obama. Some are projecting that overall turnout may actually surpass 2012, though others are claiming a 20-year low. We won’t know for several more weeks. Check out Monica’s post today on the popular vote.

**Update (11/15): From The Washington Post: “It’s a very odd result. Turnout up slightly in terms of raw numbers, but down as a percentage of those eligible. A likely drop in votes for the Democrat and a spike in votes for third party candidates, with the Republican holding steady. More votes for the Democrat, but the Republican becoming president.” Looks like my claims about low voter turnout were incorrect, but my main point about low turnout among Democrats seems to be holding up.

***Update (11/18): Looks like the case for low Democrat turnout is getting stronger and stronger.

****Update (12/02): Trump didn’t flip the Rust Belt. Democrats lost it.

*****Update (12/21): Vox has an excellent write-up now that the votes have been counted: “Voter turnout in 2016 was actually closer to 58.9 percent, slightly higher than 2012, according to data from the US Elections Project. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes — more than Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Richard Nixon in 1968. She lost the election by 107,000 votes in three states…Clinton, the “unpopular” candidate, was able to turn out voters — just not where it mattered. Democrats lost the presidential election in three states; Clinton lost in Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes and in Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. Votes afforded to Green Party candidate Jill Stein in either state were more than Trump’s margin of victory. Trump won Pennsylvania by a slightly bigger margin, surpassing Clinton by a bit more than 44,000 votes…Clinton’s ability to mobilize voters was in already-blue states — states like California and New York.”

Update (1/9): The title of this new FiveThirtyEight post–“Registered Voters Who Stayed Home Probably Cost Clinton the Election“–says it all.

T&S Post: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.”

861 - The Suicide of Edouard Manet LARGE

In keeping with my renewed every-other-week schedule at T&S, I posted some speculations about theology and gender at Times and Seasons yesterday: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.” The article is about as popular as you’d expect, which is to say: not very.

I am reasonably certain that the rise of gender and sexuality politics in our culture is an opportunity for theological and cultural growth, but also that neither of the prevailing political attitudes are capable of revealing the lessons that are there to be learned. Social liberals are too committed to a view of human nature that is too shallow and superficial to do anyone any good. (In this, I’m basically echoing Pinker’s critique in The Blank Slate.) Social conservatives, I think, are doing a good job of holding onto important traditions that are necessary for a healthy society, but are also too willing to veer towards fearfulness that leads to bigotry on the one hand and prevents consideration of new explanations for why these traditions are important on the other.

This article is just another example of me trying to extricate myself a bit from this morass–without abandoning positions I think are important–and reach for new understandings of old truths.

Paglia Weighs In On Campus Sex Crimes


I like Camille Paglia a lot in no small part because the world clearly has no idea what to do with her. I mean, just look at the intro she gets to this piece for Time: Paglia is the author of Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars. I mean, that’s true, she did write that book, but it has nothing to do with who she is, what she thinks, or why so many people find her fascinating (or infuriating). Anyway, here’s her take on sex crimes on collage campuses: “Young women today do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.”

She calls the warning cries about levels of sexual violence on college campuses “wildly overblown” and–in direct contradiction of conventional wisdom from all the experts–declares that it really is forcible rape by strangers that should be every woman’s concern. She writes:

Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.

I’d be inclined to write her off as being a bit over-confident in her own anecdotal experiences over hard facts if it were for the fact that I also recently read an NRO piece on the same topic: The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction:

Much of the scholarly literature estimates that the actual rate is more like a tenth of that one-in-five rate, 2.16 percent, or 21.6 per 1,000 to use the conventional formulation. But that number is problematic, too, as are most of the numbers related to sexual assault, as the National Institute of Justice, the DoJ’s research arm, documents. For example, two surveys conducted practically in tandem produced victimization rates of 0.16 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively – i.e., the latter estimate was eleven times the former. The NIJ blames defective wording on survey questions.

So the numbers are really in dispute after all, and Paglia may have some legitimate backup. Setting that contention aside for a moment, however, I think there’s no real arguing with these paragraphs from her piece:

Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Too many young middleclass women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness. The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.

And that dark vision of human nature and the reality we inhabit really explains Paglia’s appeal to conservatives despite her radical left-wing politics. I can’t resist quoting just a bit more:

Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.

The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

You should just read the whole post. It is, like so much of what she writes, well worth the time.

The Myth that Rape is About Power

Myth: Rape is caused by lust or uncontrollable sexual urges and the need for sexual gratification.
Fact: Rape is an act of physical violence and domination that is not motivated by sexual gratification.
(Counseling Center at Roger Williams University)

The idea that rape is about power, and not about sex, is one of those facts that everyone knows. Sort of like everyone knows that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. In other words: it’s totally and completely wrong but people keep saying it anyway.

The urban legend about folks using only 10% of their brain may be annoying, but as a general rule it doesn’t get anyone hurt. Misdiagnosing the cause of rape can lead to bad policies, confusion, and more rape, however. It’s not just an annoyance. It’s serious and worth getting right. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, politics gets in the way.

The original source of the idea that sexual assault is about violence and power instead of sex or lust doesn’t come from a scientist or an academic study. It comes from a feminist writer named Susan Brownmiller who invented the theory pretty much from scratch for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.

According to Brownmiller, rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” There is some validity to the idea that the consequence of widespread rape and sexual assault is a ubiquitous power imbalance between men and women in society, and that in that sense even men who never sexually assault women might be said to benefit from rape, but the contention that men consciously engage in rape for the purpose of control (to the exclusion of sexual gratification) never made much sense at all.

In a sane world, Brownmiller’s theory would have been very short lived. This is because an actual scientist stepped in with a direct rebuttal just four years later, in 1979. The book was called The Evolution of Human Sexuality and it was written by the anthropologist Donald Symons. It is no coincidence that Symons wrote from a scientific rather than a political perspective, and his book was widely heralded by some of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, including Richard Posner, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Steven Pinker.Symons’ thesis was very simple and aligned with common sense: he saw rape as being primarily about the satisfaction of sexual lust. In particular, he used evidence to document that:

Victims, as a class, were most likely to be young physically attractive women (as opposed to older, more successful career women). On the other hand, convicted rapists were disproportionately young disadvantaged men whose low social status made them undesirable as dating partners, or husbands. (Summary from Psychology Today)

The nature of sex and sexual violence in society has changed significantly since the 1970s, but continuing research cements Symons’ central claim that rape is a way for men to get access to sex that they can’t get in other ways.

For example, I recently came across another stark confirmation of this in the paper Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health. In it, researchers Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah found a simple and direct correlation between legalized prostitution and rape in Rhode Island. The state unintentionally legalized prostitution in 2003 an then recriminalized it in 2009. After prostitution was legalized, the sex market increased in size and rape (overall, across the entire state) declined by 31%. When prostitution was criminalized again in 2009, the incidence of rape went back up. As Jason Kerwin summarizes:

Cunningham and Shah are very careful to say that they cannot conclude exactly why decriminalizing prostitution reduces cases of rape. They consider a number of potential mechanisms, and conclude that the most likely one is that, for some men, rape and prostitution are substitutes. That is, men commit rape in part due to sexual desire, which can be satisfied in other ways.

Kerwin goes on to point out that:

While Cunningham and Shah’s paper cannot demonstrate this for sure, their finding is consistent with other research by Todd Kendall that finds that the rollout of the internet, and the attendant increase in the accessibility or pornography, appears to have driven a decrease in cases of rape.

I’m well aware of the difference between causation and correlation, but taken together the research of Symons, Cunningham & Shah, and Kendall paint a stark picture in which men—driven by a more powerful sex drive—see rape as one among a series of competing sources of sexual gratification, the others being consensual sex, pornography, and prostitution.

Women have always born more of the risks and costs of sexual activity because it is women who get pregnant. In the 1960s and 1970s, this created incentives for women to wait until marriage to have sex or, more realistically, to at least keep sex within the confines of social courtship rituals. Men with high social capital, because they made good potential mates, therefore had reasonably high access to sex both through marriage and through the courtship that led to marriage. Men with low social capital who had much worse prospects in courtship committed the majority of rapes for that reason: they had less access to sex through courtship and marriage.

Since that time, society has changed dramatically, and the costs of sex—in terms of risks of unwanted children or sexually transmitted infections—have gone down dramatically. However, this has primarily benefitted men rather than women. This is because the prevalence of elective abortion has changed societal attitudes about pregnancy to make it basically a woman’s problem. Since a woman can get an abortion, if she does not society is more likely to see it as her choice alone. This diminishes the social responsibility men feel towards their own offspring and means that women are guaranteed to bear the costs of unplanned pregnancy—whether it’s the aftermath of an abortion or single parenthood—alone. So the costs of sex outside of marriage or courtship rituals have gone down, but the inequality between men and women has actually increased.

For men with low social capital this means that the need to rely on rape may be somewhat diminished because casual sex might be more accessible to them then expensive courtship rituals. The old idea that a man had to have a stable job and be ready to provide for a family before marrying and having sex is dead. It’s possible that men with low social capital are still seen as less desirable mates, but even in that case the ready availability of cheap and abundant porn is a safer outlet (from their perspective) than violent rape.

Men with high social capital have the same considerations, but more so. The kind of man with high social capital is likely to be the kind of man who goes to college. Not only does this create a ready abundance of opportunities for casual sex and porn consumption, but the hookup culture also creates the perfect opportunity for date rape. Date rape is much, much lower risk (for men) than violent rape because there is often no physical evidence and so it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said that our justice system cannot hope to successfully prosecute as a general rule.

Because the political theory that rape is a systematic form of oppression completely misapprehends the actual motivating factors behind rape, it cannot offer reliable policy guidance to address rape. It persists only because the alternative, seeing rape as a about sexual gratification, requires a politically unpalatable recognition of fundamental differences between the sexes. Denial of these unpalatable realities blinds us to the reality that sexual liberalization is virtually always beneficial for men at the expense of women and children.

Another big blind spot that comes from the theory of rape-as-power is the tendency to underestimate the connection between rape, pornography (which often includes depictions of violence, and so is basically simulated rape) and prostitution (which often involves sex slavery and coercion of minors, and so is basically outsourced rape). Consequently, the idea that prostitution and pornography can ease sexual violence in society has merit only to the extent that we recognize we’re regulating sexual violence as opposed to avoiding it. Since it’s difficult to see formalized, lethal dueling being proposed as an answer to murder, it’s hard for me to see pornography and prostitution as solutions to sexual violence against women

Acknowledging the real nature of rape does not lead directly to any silver bullets that will eliminate sexual violence from our world. It is a deep and disastrous dysfunction, much like murder, that will never be entirely eliminated from society. There is hope, however, that correctly recognizing the causes can lead to better policies to make sexual violence less prevalent.

UPDATE: I knew this would be a controversial post, but some of the push back was more than I expected. This is an important issue, both to me personally and also for society at large, and so I want to say thank to the folks who contributed and brought in new perspectives and resources, especially Cynthia L. and Kevin L. I’ll be giving the issue more thought–and more research–and will probably return to it again with a follow-up post.

Family Instability and Wages

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has an interesting piece in The New York Times on rising family instability. Commenting on male and female wages, she states,

Today, job prospects for young men are far less favorable. Real wages for men under age 35 have fallen almost continuously since the late 1970s, and those with only a high school diploma have experienced the sharpest losses. Between 1979 and 2007, young male high school graduates saw a 29 percent decline in real annual earnings — an even steeper decline than the 18 percent drop for men with no high school diploma…Women’s wages, by contrast, have risen significantly since the 1970s, except for those on the very bottom…Meanwhile, women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

She concludes,

If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families — at almost all income levels — than turning back the gender revolution.

This piece goes nicely with a recent review in The Wall Street Journal by sociologist and National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox, in which he points out,

Although the authors put too much stress on economic explanations-their approach cannot explain, for instance, why the economic dislocation of the Depression did not result in high levels of family breakdown in the 1930s-the story told by “Marriage Markets” is worth heeding, whatever one’s political affiliations. Conservatives need to take note of the growing family divide in part because fragile families require more public aid, from Medicaid to food stamps: As marriage goes, so goes the tradition of limited government. Progressives, for their part, might well worry that the family divide begets not only economic disparity but also gender inequality. After all, communities where fathers are largely absent from their children’s day-to-day lives do not come close to approximating the egalitarian ideal championed by today’s left-of-center thinkers and activists.

…What, then, is to be done? Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn offer a number of good suggestions, such as job-relocation grants for laid-off workers (to help them move away from high-unemployment regions to those with jobs) and portable health plans that allow workers to seek out the best job opportunities instead of clinging to bad, low-paying jobs for the sake of their benefits.

But the authors also think that the way forward requires strategies designed to “enhanc[e] women’s power”-such as “improved access to contraception.” …Perhaps. But a stronger case could be made that the bigger challenge facing working-class and poor families is not a lack of female empowerment but rather that contemporary masculinity has been decoupled from work, fatherhood and marriage-and for reasons that are not entirely economic.

Good stuff. Check them out.


VR is Sexist

Games Game Developers Conference

It’s always interesting to check the correspondence between the headline of an article and it’s URL. In this case, the headline reads: “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” and the URL includes: “is-the-oculus-rift-designed-to-be-sexist/.” That nuance, that it is designed to be sexist, is going to be important as we delve into this story and ask ourselves this simple question: where do we reach the point where silliness outweighs legitimacy in the discrimination olympics?

So here’s the first fact: virtual reality (like the Occulus Rift) tends to make some people hurl. In fact, a major design point for the upcoming Occulus Rift has been to figure out how to alleviate headaches and nausea that can arise with use. And here’s the second: women tend to react much more to VR then men. But does it really make sense to fling around the term “sexist”? Danah Boyd, who wrote the piece for Quartz, clearly thinks so:

That’s when a friend of mine stumbled over a footnote in an esoteric army report about simulator sickness in virtual environments. Sure enough, military researchers had noticed that women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men. While they seemed to be able to eventually adjust to the simulator, they would then get sick again when switching back into reality. Being an activist and a troublemaker, I walked straight into the office of the head CAVE researcher and declared the CAVE sexist.

So, to be clear, we’re now declaring inanimate objects to be sexist.

But wait, is this just short-hand for calling the designers sexist? If someone makes a technology that is designed to make women spew chunks, but not men, that would indeed register as “sexist” in my book. But what’s actually going on?

Based on some interesting research, Boyd concludes that men and women process two different cues for depth perception differently. Men rely on motion-parallax, which basically means that closer things move more than things that are far away. Look at the way the clouds in this video (the most distant) move the slowest vs. the tubes (the closest) which move the fastest. That’s parallax.

Women, by contrast, tend to rely more on “shape-from-shading,” which Boyd describes as “a bit trickier.” She goes on to describe it:

If you stare at a point on an object in front of you and then move your head around, you’ll notice that the shading of that point changes ever so slightly depending on the lighting around you. The funny thing is that your eyes actually flicker constantly, recalculating the tiny differences in shading, and your brain uses that information to judge how far away the object is.

It’s not just trickier to describe, however. It’s also much trickier to implement. This is obvious to anyone who knows even a little bit about computer graphics (lighting is hard!) and Boyd agrees:

It’s super easy—if you determine the focal point and do your linear matrix transformations accurately, which for a computer is a piece of cake—to render motion parallax properly. Shape-from-shading is a different beast. Although techniques for shading 3D models have greatly improved over the last two decades—a computer can now render an object as if it were lit by a complex collection of light sources of all shapes and colors—what they they can’t do is simulate how that tiny, constant flickering of your eyes affects the shading you perceive. As a result, 3D graphics does a terrible job of truly emulating shape-from-shading.

So that’s my problem with calling VR “sexist”. The problem isn’t, or at least isn’t primarily, that you’ve got a bunch of dudes who don’t care what women need and/or enjoy excluding women. The problem is that the kind of technology that men react to is computationally easier than the kind that women react to. I’m all for recognizing that fact and working to mitigate it. Now that Facebook owns Occulus I think there’s no doubt that they are going to work hard to get to the bottom of that because you don’t want to alienate half your market. (When Occulus was a hardcore gaming device there may have been a perception that this wasn’t as important. Not anymore.)

I don’t mean to chalk this up to Boyd’s hyperventilating victim-complex. I know that editors choose headlines, and her concluding paragraphs are quite reasonable. But calling the technology itself sexist? Alleging, as the URL does, that it was designed that way? Come on, people. It’s getting silly.

Gender Occupational Fatality Gap

Economist Mark Perry has a rather different take on the gender wage gap:

Economic theory tells us that the “gender occupational fatality gap” explains part of the “gender pay gap” because a disproportionate number of men work in higher-risk, but higher-paid occupations like coal mining (almost 100 % male), fire fighters (96.6% male), police officers (84.8% male), correctional officers (72% male), farming, fishing, and forestry (77.3% male), roofers (98.5% male) and construction (97.5% male); BLS data here. On the other hand, a disproportionate number of women work in relatively low-risk industries, often with lower pay to partially compensate for the safer, more comfortable indoor office environments in occupations like office and administrative support (73.3% female), education, training, and library occupations (73.6% female), and healthcare (75% female). The higher concentrations of men in riskier occupations with greater occurrences of workplace injuries and fatalities suggest that more men than women are willing to expose themselves to work-related injury or death in exchange for higher wages. In contrast, women more than men prefer lower risk occupations with greater workplace safety, and are frequently willing to accept lower wages for the reduced probability of work-related injury or death.

In a recent debate, feminist Camille Paglia made a similar point:

Indeed, men are absolutely indispensable right now, invisible as it is to most feminists, who seem blind to the infrastructure that makes their own work lives possible. It is overwhelmingly men who do the dirty, dangerous work of building roads, pouring concrete, laying bricks, tarring roofs, hanging electric wires, excavating natural gas and sewage lines, cutting and clearing trees, and bulldozing the landscape for housing developments.  It is men who heft and weld the giant steel beams that frame our office buildings, and it is men who do the hair-raising work of insetting and sealing the finely tempered plate-glass windows of skyscrapers 50 stories tall.  Every day along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, one can watch the passage of vast oil tankers and towering cargo ships arriving from all over the world.  These stately colossi are loaded, steered, and off-loaded by men. The modern economy, with its vast production and distribution network, is a male epic, in which women have found a productive role–but women were not its author.

I’ve adjusted for hours worked (full-time vs. part-time), education choices, job choices, time off, etc. when analyzing the gender wage gap. Can’t say I’ve ever taken fatalities into consideration.

How Women Perceive Men With Beards

In the interests of science, researchers asked this question. Then wrote a paper in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior. But you don’t need to read the paper because, thanks to the Visual Communication Guy, the results have been distilled into this handy-dandy infographic.

2014-03-12 Beard Inforgraphic

As a man with heavy stubble (based on these classifications), these results do not look too bad. Still, I wish I could grow mine out just a bit fuller…