Three Feminist Myths

[CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of Sexual Assault]

Why don’t you read The Blank Slate, Ranum said. It’ll be fun, he said. Wanna know how many sentences I had to read before I spotted a false claim?


Feminism is often derided because of the arguments of its lunatic fringe – for example, that all intercourse is rape, that all women should be lesbians, or that only 10 percent of the population should be allowed to be male. [pg. 341]

As I’ve learned, anti-feminists love misrepresenting or outright lying about what feminists have to say. I knew off the top of my head that one of those was straight-up false, but the other two were new. So let’s delve into these three and see how they stack up.

All Intercourse is Rape

The “intercourse is rape” line is so popular it has its own Snopes entry for the wrong person. The most common attribution is to Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine Mackinnon, who also never said it. Dworkin’s own views are worth quoting in full.

Michael Moorcock: After “Right-Wing Women” and “Ice and Fire” you wrote “Intercourse“. Another book which helped me clarify confusions about my own sexual relationships. You argue that attitudes to conventional sexual intercourse enshrine and perpetuate sexual inequality. Several reviewers accused you of saying that all intercourse was rape. I haven’t found a hint of that anywhere in the book. Is that what you are saying?

Andrea Dworkin: No, I wasn’t saying that and I didn’t say that, then or ever. There is a long section in Right-Wing Women on intercourse in marriage. My point was that as long as the law allows statutory exemption for a husband from rape charges, no married woman has legal protection from rape. I also argued, based on a reading of our laws, that marriage mandated intercourse–it was compulsory, part of the marriage contract. Under the circumstances, I said, it was impossible to view sexual intercourse in marriage as the free act of a free woman. I said that when we look at sexual liberation and the law, we need to look not only at which sexual acts are forbidden, but which are compelled.

The whole issue of intercourse as this culture’s penultimate expression of male dominance became more and more interesting to me. In Intercourse I decided to approach the subject as a social practice, material reality. This may be my history, but I think the social explanation of the “all sex is rape” slander is different and probably simple. Most men and a good number of women experience sexual pleasure in inequality. Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don’t think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.

It’s important to say, too, that the pornographers, especially Playboy, have published the “all sex is rape” slander repeatedly over the years, and it’s been taken up by others like Time who, when challenged, cannot cite a source in my work.

Dworkin’s actual views here are quite reasonable. In Australia, you could divorce your partner for refusing to have sex with you until 1975. In Canada, it’s still grounds for an annulment! Sexual violence and domestic abuse are quite common, and there’s no shortage of people who view sex as a conquest.

All Women Should Be Lesbians

I’d heard of political lesbians before, so on the surface this one looked legit. When I dug a bit deeper, however, I found it too was false. Let’s look at an essay advocating for political lesbianism.

We do think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.

Right off the bat, this person is only saying feminists should be lesbians, not all women. Secondly, this version of “lesbianism” doesn’t have to involve sexuality. Want to guess the primary reason given for refusing to have sex with men?

Attached to all forms of sexual behavior are meanings of dominance and submission, power and powerlessness, conquest and humiliation. There is a very special importance attached to sexuality under male supremacy when every sexual reference, every sexual joke, every sexual image serves to remind a woman of her invaded centre and a man of his power. Why all this fuss in our culture about sex? Because it is specifically through sexuality that the fundamental oppression, of men over women, is maintained.

Again, this is more reasonable than it first appears. In a world where sexual assault is common and trivialized, where women are harassed for merely existing, men become a source of anxiety and fear. Disassociating from them and creating women-only communities is an easy way to reduce that tension. The essay goes off the rails a bit when it obsesses about penetrative sex as a form of submission, going so far as to say “every act of penetration for a woman is an invasion which undermines her confidence and saps her strength.” Sex and penetration aren’t synonyms, even in heterosexual spheres, and some women rather enjoy penetration.

And did you catch that transphobic dogwhistle? Political lesbianism flies under the same flag as TERFs and womyn’s spaces. While “men are the source of all violence” is a good approximation in our society, it is not an absolute. Pinker is guilty of another falsehood, however he could have fixed things by merely substituting “feminists” for “women.”

Only 10 Percent of the Population Should be Male

Are you sitting down? Based on my research, this one is legit!

Some have asked, given the overwhelming association of men with violence, why the reduction to ten percent only? Why have any men at all? I take that question quite seriously. First, I have no desire (and I know few women who do) to do away with men as a group …

Gearhart, Sally Miller. “The future—if there is one—is female.” Reweaving the web of life: Feminism and nonviolence (1982): 266-284.

But if you have a sharp eye, you’ll spot something’s amiss. The subtitle of the book this appeared in is “Feminism and Nonviolence.” There’s a strong link between the two.[1] Suffragettes became famous for sensational public protests and a willingness to accept state violence, and even trained each other on what to expect when jailed. Hunger strikes were common, and these groups were so disciplined some of them would hand out military medals to celebrate their extreme fasting. Their efforts would inspire Gandhi to use the same tactics, and Gandhi would inspire Martin Luther King Junior. In other words, it’s almost certain the “reduction” is nonviolent.

I got another surprise when I couldn’t track down a copy of Reweaving the Web of Life. That in itself says something: I have full academic access and a university library at my fingertips, and yet this book is so obscure that even academics can’t be bothered to stash a copy. Gearhart really is the fringe of the fringe! I eventually did find a source, however as of this writing I still haven’t escaped the waiting list.

What I do have access to are book reviews, both public and academic. The public ones say nothing about Gearhart’s essay, but do suggest the written anthology is the nonviolent text it claims to be. The absence is notable too, as an extreme position should provoke an extreme reaction or at least be memorable; Gearhart’s proposal is likely more reasoned that the soundbite makes it seem.

The academic book reviews clinch it, however. Here’s Pam McAllister, the editor of Reweaving the Web of Life, in a contemporary interview.

There’s something else I want to say about our fear of dialogue. I tried to be true to the spirit of dialogue while structuring this anthology, consequently there’s a very wide spectrum in Reweaving, from Barb Reynolds who more or less concludes that she should have stayed in the kitchen and kept her family together* to Sally Gearhart who proposes that, for the sake of the world’s survival, men should agree to nonviolently reduce themselves to ten percent of the population.[2]

And here’s a snippet of “carol anne douglas”‘s review of the anthology, published in the same ‘zine.

Although [Gearhart] does not say that men are inherently more violent than women, she does say they have acted more violently. Gearhart says the world must be run not only by women but by non-male-identified women. …

She maintains that … men might be able to learn the positive qualities that have been defined as female (e.g. nurturance), even if biology disposes them differently with respect to these qualities. […]

When Gearhart advocates reducing the ratio of men to women, she says she does not wish to use violence. She suggests that ovular mating (the mating of two eggs) can be developed soon, would catch quickly, and would produce only females. “A 75% female to 25% male ratio could be achieved in one generation if one-half of a population reproduced heterosexually and one-half by ovular merging.” I think it might take quite a while for half of the population of any country’s women to decide to reproduce by ovular merging, even if they were allowed access to technology. …

Many people will be critical of Gearhart’s positions; it is to McAllister’s credit that she includes such controversial material.[3]

“carol anne douglas” is typical of every review I’ve read that mentions Gearhart’s proposal: I cannot find a single other person, not even Pam McAllister, who agrees with it. Calling this a fringe feminist view is misleading, as our default assumption of a fringe view is that more than one feminist agrees with it.

On top of all that, the logic is straightforward and clear. Men are inherently more likely to be violent than women; it is in our best interest to reduce violence; ergo women should reduce the number of men they give birth to. While it would be nice, men are not expected to change their behavior. Men are not being slaughtered or coerced in any way. If you accept the premises as true (I don’t), and ignore that “ovular mating” still doesn’t exist, it’s a pretty elegant solution.

… Waiiiiitaminute

All three of these myths, in fact, share the same logic behind them: men are inherently more violent to be violent than women, and it is in our best interest to reduce violence. Steven Pinker endorses both premises! He agrees with the moonball fringe of feminism! His true disagreement is with mainstream feminism and most social science research.

I believe that the rape-in-not-about-sex doctrine will go down in history as an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowd. It is preposterous on the face of it, does not deserve its sanctity, is contradicted by a mass of evidence, and is getting in the way of the only morally relevant goal surrounding rape, the effort to stamp it out. [pg. 362]

Yeah, wow, decades of scientific research are mass delusion, according to Steven Pinker. Since writing that book, the “our culture socializes men to rape” theory has only grown stronger, with ever more evidence to back it up.[4][5] Brace yourself though, Pinker’s about to drop some Truth Bombs on us to refute all that science.

Think about it. First obvious fact: men often want to have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them. They use every tactic that one human being uses to affect the behavior of another: wooing, seducing, flattering, deceiving, sulking, and paying. Second obvious fact: Some men use violence to get what they want, indifferent to the suffering they cause. … It would be an extraordinary fact, contradicting everything else we know about people, if some men didn’t use violence to get sex.

Let’s also apply common sense to the doctrine that men rape to further the interests of their gender. A rapist always risks injury at the hands of the woman defending herself. In a traditional society, he risks torture, mutilation, and death at the hands of her relatives. In modern society, he risks a long prison term. Are rapists really assuming these risks as an altruistic sacrifice to benefit the billions of strangers that make up the male gender? The idea becomes even less credible when we remember that rapists tend to be losers and nobodies, while presumably the main beneficiaries of the patriarchy are the rich and powerful. … The idea that all men are engaged in brutal warfare against all women clashes with the elementary fact that men have mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, whom they care for more than they care for other men. …

… If [consciously encouraging rape was] men’s tactic, why would they have made rape a crime in the first place? [pg. 362-363]

I can see a religious preacher dishing out that amount of bullshit reasoning, historical revisionism, and science denialism, but to read it from Steven Pinker is impressive in all the wrong ways. To go through all that scientific training and become a significant scholar, yet shit all over science and reason when it goes against your worldview, is an epic fail of the intellect. So you’d expect Pinker’s talk about solutions would be equally eye-popping.

Alas, Pinker is almost too smart for that. Most of what he dishes out is stock denialism: the decades of research already done are a “popular delusion,” Pinker claims to have a superior understanding of human behavior than the researchers behind that, yet his primary conclusion is that more research should be done. Still, he does touch on some policy suggestions.

Thornhill and Palmer suggested that teenage boys be forced to take a rape-prevention course as a condition for obtaining a driver’s license, and that women should be reminded that dressing in a sexually attractive way may increase their risk of being raped. These untested prescriptions are an excellent illustration of why scientists should stay out of the policy business, but they don’t deserve the outrage that followed. …

Of course women have a right to dress in any way they please, but the issue is not what women have the right to do in a perfect world but how they can maximize their safety in this world. The suggestion that women in dangerous situations be mindful of reactions they may be eliciting or signals they may be inadvertently be sending is just common sense, and it’s hard to believe any grownup would think otherwise… [pg. 369]

I hate to break it to Pinker, but suggesting women dress less provocatively has been tried. A lot. It doesn’t work. Rape-prevention courses are little different. Any better ideas?

Chemical castration can cut recidivism rates dramatically – in one study, from 46 percent to 3 percent. Use of the drug certainly raises serious constitutional issues about privacy and punishment, which biology alone cannot decide. But the issues become cloudier, not clearer, when commentators declare a priori that “castration will not work because rape is not a crime about sex, but rather a crime about power and violence.”

[Owen] Jones is not advocating for chemical castration (and neither am I). He is asking people to look at all the options for reducing rape and to evaluate them carefully and with an open mind. … If a policy is rejected out of hand that can reduce rape by a factor of fifteen, then many women will be raped who otherwise might not have been. People may have to decide which they value more, an ideology that claims to advance the interests of the the female gender or what actually happens in the world to real women. [pg. 371]

Wow. Not only does Steven Pinker agree with the extreme fringe of feminism about male violence, his proposed solutions are more impractical and inhumane than theirs! None of those feminists authors put castration on the table, even as a possibility. All had enough sense of history to recognize that modest dress wouldn’t work. But Pinker is convinced that “common sense” is sufficient to overrule decades of research and researchers, and thousands of years of experience.

In hindsight, I went too easy on him a year ago. Pinker was Jordan Peterson before Jordan Peterson was cool.

[1] Costain, Anne N. “Women’s Movements and Nonviolence.PS: Political Science and Politics 33, no. 2 (2000): 175–80.

[2] McAllister, Pam; Halper, Leah (1983). “interview: reweaving the web of life: feminism and nonviolence”. Off Our Backs. 13 (1): 20–21.

[3] douglas, carol anne; McAllister, Pam (1983). “Review of reweaving the web of life: feminism & nonviolence”. Off Our Backs. 13 (1): 22–23.

[4] Emma Fulu, Xian Warner, Stephanie Miedem, Rachel Jewkes, Tim Roselli, and James Lang. “WHY DO SOME MEN USE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND HOW CAN WE PREVENT IT?: Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.” Partners for Prevention, 2013.

[5] Gerger, H., Kley, H., Bohner, G., & Siebler, F. (2007). “The Acceptance of Modern Myths About Sexual Aggression (AMMSA) Scale: Development and validation in German and English.” Aggressive Behavior, 33, 422-440. doi: 10.1002/ab.20195 (c) 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.