Christina Hoff Sommers: Blatant Science Denialist

So, how’d my predictions of Christina Hoff Sommer’s video pan out?

The standard approach for those challenging rape culture is to either to avoid defining the term “rape culture” at all, or define it as actively encouraging sexual assault instead of passively doing so, setting up a strawperson from the get-go.

Half points for this one. Sommers never defined “rape culture,” but thanks to vague wording made it sound like “rape culture” was synonymous with “beliefs that encourage the sexual assault of women on college campuses:”

[1:12] Now, does that mean that sexual assault’s not a problem on campus? Of course not! Too many women are victimized. But it’s not an epidemic, and it’s not a culture.

Continuing with myself:

Sommers herself is a fan of cherry-picking individual studies or case reports and claiming they’re representative of the whole, and I figure we’ll see a lot of that.

Success kid: NAILED IT

There’s also the clever technique of deliberately missing the point or spinning out half-truths […] I don’t think Sommers will take that approach, preferring to cherry-pick and fiddle with definitions instead, but as a potent tool of denialists it’s worth keeping in mind.

Oooooo, almost. Almost.

While there’s a lot of things I could pick apart about this video, I’d like to focus on the most blatant examples of her denialism, her juggling of sexual assault statistics.

The first study she cites is an infamous one in conservative circles, the Campus Sexual Assault Study of 2007. Ever since Obama made a big deal of it, they’ve cranked up their noise machine and dug in deep to discredit the study. Sommers benefits greatly from that, doing just a quick hit-and-run.

[0:50] The “one in five” claim is based on a 2007 internet study, with vaguely worded questions, a low response rate, and a non-representative sample.

Oh, how many ways is that wrong? Here’s the actual methodology from the paper (pg 3-1 to 3-2):

Two large public universities participated in the CSA Study. Both universities provided us

with data files containing the following information on all undergraduate students who were enrolled in the fall of 2005: full name, gender, race/ethnicity, date of birth, year of study, grade point average, full-time/part-time status, e-mail address, and mailing address. […]

We created four sampling subframes, with cases randomly ordered within each subframe: University 1 women, University 1 men, University 2 women, and University 2 men. […]

Samples were then drawn randomly from each of the four subframes. The sizes of these samples were dictated by response rate projections and sample size targets (4,000 women and 1,000 men, evenly distributed across the universities and years of study) […]

To recruit the students who were sampled to participate in the CSA Study, we relied on both recruitment e-mails and hard copy recruitment letters that were mailed to potential respondents. Sampled students were sent an initial recruitment e-mail that described the study, provided each student with a unique CSA Study ID#, and included a hyperlink to the CSA Study Web site. During each of the following 2 weeks, students who had not completed the survey were sent a follow-up e-mail encouraging them to participate. The third week, nonrespondents were mailed a hard-copy recruitment letter. Two weeks after the hard-copy letters were mailed, nonrespondents were sent a final recruitment e-mail.

Christopher P Krebs, Christine H. Lindquist, Tara D. Warner, Bonnie S. Fisher, and Sandra L. Martin. “Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study, Final Report,” October 2007.

The actual number of responses was 5,446 women and 1,375 men, above expectations. Yes, the authors expected a low response rate with a non-representative sample, and already had methods in place to deal with that; see pages 3-7 to 3-10 of the report for how they compensated, and then verified their methods were valid. Note too that this “internet study” was quite targeted and closed to the public, contrary to what Sommers implies.

As to the “vaguely-worded” questions, that’s because many people won’t say they were raped even if they were penetrated against their will (eg. Koss, Mary P., Thomas E. Dinero, Cynthia A. Seibel, and Susan L. Cox. “Stranger and Acquaintance Rape: Are There Differences in the Victim’s Experience?Psychology of Women Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1988): 1–24). Partly that’s because denial is one way to cope with a traumatic event, and partly because they’ve been told it isn’t a crime by society. So researchers have to tip-toe around “rape culture” just to get an accurate view of sexual assault, yet more evidence that beast exists after all.

Sommers champions another study as more accurate than the CSA, one from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics which comes to the quite-different figure of one in 52. Sommers appears to be getting her data from Figure 2 in that document, and since that’s on page three either she or a research assistant must have read page two.

The NCVS is one of several surveys used to study rape and sexual assault in the general and college-age population. In addition to the NCVS, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) and the Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) are two recent survey efforts used in research on rape and sexual assault. The three surveys differ in important ways in how rape and sexual assault questions are asked and victimization is measured. […]

The NCVS is presented as a survey about crime, while the NISVS and CSA are presented as surveys about public health. The NISVS and CSA collect data on incidents of unwanted sexual contact that may not rise to a level of criminal behavior, and respondents may not report incidents to the NCVS that they do not consider to be criminal. […]

The NCVS, NISVS, and CSA target different types of events. The NCVS definition is shaped from a criminal justice perspective and includes threatened, attempted, and completed rape and sexual assault against males and females […]

Unlike the NCVS, which uses terms like rape and unwanted sexual activity to identify victims of rape and sexual assault, the NISVS and CSA use behaviorally specific questions to ascertain whether the respondent experienced rape or sexual assault. These surveys ask about an exhaustive list of explicit types of unwanted sexual contact a victim may have experienced, such as being made to perform or receive anal or oral sex.

Lynn Langton, Sofi Sinozich. “Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-age Females, 1995-2013” December 11, 2014.

This information repeats in Appendix A, which even includes a handy table summarizing all of the differences. If it’s been shoved into page two as well, that must indicate many people have tried to leverage this study to “discredit” others, without realizing the different methodologies make that impossible. The study authors tried to paint these differences in bright neon, to guard against any stat-mining, but alas Sommers has no qualms about ignoring all that to suit her ends. Even the NCVS authors suggest going with other numbers for prevalence and only using theirs for differences between student and non-student populations:

Despite the differences that exist between the surveys, a strength of the NCVS is its ability to be used to make comparisons over time and between population subgroups. The differences observed between students and nonstudents are reliable to the extent that both groups responded in a similar manner to the NCVS context and questions. Methodological differences that lead to higher estimates of rape and sexual assault in the NISVS and CSA should not affect the NCVS comparisons between groups.

In short, Sommers engaged in more half-truths and misleading statements than I predicted. Dang. But hold onto your butts, because things are about to get worse.

[2:41] The claim that 2% of rape accusations are false? That’s unfounded. It seems to have started with Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 feminist manifesto “Against Our Will.” Other statistics for false accusations range from 8 to 43%.

Hmph, so how did Brownmiller come to her 2% figure for false reports? Let’s check her book:

A decade ago the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports noted that 20 percent of all rapes reported to the police were determined by investigation to be unfounded.’ By 1973 the figure had dropped to 15 percent, while rape remained, in the FBI’s words, the most underreported crime.’ A 15 percent figure for false accusations is undeniably high, yet when New York City instituted a special sex crimes analysis squad and put police women (instead of men) in charge of interviewing complainants, the number of false charges in New York dropped dramatically to 2 percent, a figure that corresponded exactly to the rate of false reports for other crimes. The lesson in the mystery of the vanishing statistic is obvious. Women believe the word of other women. Men do not.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Open Road Media, 2013. pg. 435.

…. waaaitaminute. Brownmiller never actually says the 2% figure is the false reporting rate; at best, she merely argues it’s more accurate than figures of 15-20%. And, in fact, it is!

In contrast, when more methodologically rigorous research has been conducted, estimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.Lonsway, Kimberly A., Joanne Archambault, and David Lisak. “False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault.” (2009).

That’s taken from the third study Sommers cites, or more accurately a summary of other work by Lisak. She quotes two of the three studies in that summary which show rates above 8%. The odd study out gives an even higher false reporting rate than the 8% one Sommers quotes, and should therefore have been better evidence, but look at how Lisak describes it:

A similar study was then again sponsored by the Home Office in 1996 (Harris & Grace, 1999). This time, the case files of 483 rape cases were examined, and supplemented with information from a limited number of interviews with sexual assault victims and criminal justice personnel. However, the determination that a report was false was made solely by the police. It is therefore not surprising that the estimate for false allegations (10.9%) was higher than those in other studies with a methodology designed to systematically evaluate these classifications.

That’s impossible to quote-mine. And while Lisak spends a lot of time discussing Kanin’s study, which is the fifth one Sommers presents, she references it directly instead of pulling from Lisak. A small sample may hint at why he’s been snubbed:

As a result of these and other serious problems with the “research,” Kanin’s (1994) article can be considered “a provocative opinion piece, but it is not a scientific study of the issue of false reporting of rape. It certainly should never be used to assert a scientific foundation for the frequency of false allegations” (Lisak, 2007, p. 1).

Well, at least that fourth study wasn’t quote-mined. Right?

internal rules on false complaints specify that this category should be limited to cases where either there is a clear and credible admission by the complainants, or where there are strong evidential grounds. On this basis, and bearing in mind the data limitations, for the cases where there is information (n=144) the designation of false complaint could be said to be probable (primarily those where the account by the complainant is referred to) in 44 cases, possible (primarily where there is some evidential basis) in a further 33 cases, and uncertain (including where victim characteristics are used to impute that they are inherently less believable) in 77 cases. If the proportion of false complaints on the basis of the probable and possible cases are recalculated, rates of three per cent are obtained, both of all reported cases (n=67 of 2,643), and of those where the outcome is known (n=67 of 2,284). Even if all those designated false by the police were accepted (a figure of approximately ten per cent), this is still much lower than the rate perceived by police officers interviewed in this study.Kelly, Liz., Jo. Lovett, Linda. Regan, Great Britain., Home Office., and Development and Statistics Directorate. Research. A Gap or a Chasm?: Attrition in Reported Rape Cases. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2005.

Bolding mine. It’s rather convenient that Sommers quoted the police false report rate of 8% (or “approximately ten per cent” here), yet somehow overlooked the later section where the authors explain that the police inflated the false report figure. In the same way they rounded the 8% to ten, Liz Kelly and her co-authors also rounded up the “three per cent” figure; divide 67 by 2,284, and you get within fingertip distance of 2%, a false report rate of 2.5%.

Lisak did not get the low-end of his 2-8% range from Brownmiller; he got it from two large-scale, rigorous studies that concluded a 2% false report rate was reasonable. In his scientific paper, in fact, he explicitly discards Brownmiller’s number:

Another source, cited by Rumney (2006) and widely referenced in the literature on false allegations is a study conducted by the New York City police department and originally referenced by Susan Brownmiller (1975) in her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. According to Brownmiller, the study found a false allegation rate of 2%. However, the only citation for the study is a public remark made by a judge at a bar association meeting, and, therefore, no information is available on the study’s sample or methodology.

Lisak, David, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote. “False Allegations of Sexual Assualt: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1318–34.

That 2% number is actually quite well founded, and Sommers must have known that. Feminists also know of the 2-8% stat, and cite it frequently.

In hindsight, this is a blatant example of the embrace-extend-extinguish pattern of Sommers that I discussed earlier. She took one extreme of the feminist position, then painted it as the typical one while cherry-picking the evidence in her favor. She took the other extreme as her low point, so she had the option of invoking a false concession, and then extended her false report range to encompass the majority of false rape report studies out there, most of which are useless.

very few of these estimates are based on research that could be considered credible. Most are reported without the kind of information that would be needed to evaluate their reliability and validity. A few are little more than published opinions, based either on personal experience or a non-systematic review (e.g., of police files, interviews with police investigators, or other information with unknown reliability and validity).

Lisak (2009), pg. 1

Sommers then claims this “middle ground” as her own, riding the Appeal to Moderation for all it’s worth. This is denialism so blatant that no skeptic should take it seriously.

Alas, quite a few do.

My Little Takedown of Christina Hoff Sommers

[Guest blogger HJ Hornbeck, here! This originally started off as a reply to someones’ comment, but it’s been greatly expanded and stands on its own. A hat tip to Ophelia Benson is in order, too, for providing some of the raw material via her blog, as well as for giving me the platform.]

Who is Christina Hoff Sommers? Let’s start off with one of her former employers, the Independent Women’s Forum, where she once served on the board. Wikipedia offers this summary of them:

The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) is a politically conservative American non-profit organization focused on policy issues of concern to women. The IWF was founded by activist Rosalie Silberman to promote a “conservative alternative to feminist tenets” following the controversial Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1992.

The group advocates “equity feminism,” a term first used by IWF author Christina Hoff Sommers to distinguish “traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism” from “gender feminism”, which she claims opposes gender roles as well as patriarchy. According to Sommers, the gender feminist view is “the prevailing ideology among contemporary feminist philosophers and leaders” and “thrives on the myth that American women are the oppressed ‘second sex.’” Sommers’ equity feminism has been described as anti-feminist by critics.

But if you know Sommers at all, you probably know of her through her connection to the American Enterprise Institute.

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research(AEI) is an extremely influential, pro-business, think tank founded in 1943 by Lewis H. Brown. It promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism and its people have served in influential governmental positions. It is the base for many neo-conservatives. […]

In February 2007, The Guardian (UK) reported that AEI was offering scientists and economists $10,000 each, “to undermine a major climate change report” from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). AEI asked for “articles that emphasise the shortcomings” of the IPCC report, which “is widely regarded as the most comprehensive review yet of climate change science.” AEI visiting scholar Kenneth Green made the $10,000 offer “to scientists in Britain, the US and elsewhere,” in a letter describing the IPCC as “resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent.”

The Guardian reported further that AEI “has received more than $1.6m from ExxonMobil, and more than 20 of its staff have worked as consultants to the Bush administration. Lee Raymond, a former head of ExxonMobil, is the vice-chairman of AEI’s board of trustees,” added The Guardian.

They too are an active opponent of feminism.

According to an April Newsweek profile, much of AEI’s recent influence has to do with Arthur C. Brooks, … who has been its president since 2009. (A $20 million donation from a Roman Catholic founder of the Carlyle Group probably didn’t hurt, either.) “He’s the message man,” Pema Levy wrote of Brooks. “He may not be a pollster, but Republicans say he possesses a gift for making conservative policies sound appealing.” Newsweek focused on the ways Brooks is nudging conservatives toward less flagrantly uncompassionate policies on poverty. But, judging from these op-eds, the AEI is also employing the most sophisticated techniques to date in the much-discussed Republican “war on women.”

For starters, they’ve put a female face on it. AEI scholar and The War Against Boys author Christina Hoff Sommers has a new “vlog” series, “The Factual Feminist” (as opposed to us fantasy feminists), in which she seeks to invalidate feminist discourse. […]

there is something especially insidious about a woman and self-described feminist like Sommers providing anti-feminist talking points. Her claim that “feminist activists have convinced many young women that a foolish, drunken hookup was actually rape” sounds a lot more credible than, say, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” distinction, despite meaning essentially the same thing: What women call rape isn’t really that big a deal.

So far, all we see are anti-feminist far-right think tanks. Here’s one exception, though, Prager University:

Dennis Prager is a neoconservative radio host, professional tone troll, and conspiracy theorist who believes that the United States is a Christian nation, and that it’s under attack from “secular leftists” who control the media, universities, public education system, and other institutions. Despite being a fairly extreme conservative, to the point of being a weekly WND columnist, he does moderate on certain issues such as abortion and, to his credit, he does seem to know quite a bit about religion and aspects of United States history. […]

He has also started his own non-profit online program called Prager University which, keeping up with his paranoia around universities turning students into secular bisexual leftists, has the totally not bizarre motto “Undoing the damage of the University… five minutes at a time.” It actually presents history and politics from a hard-right point of view, which includes rampant New Deal denialism, promotion of the Laffer curve, Europhobia, and an off the walls weird interpretation of liberalism.

Her contributions have consisted of a series of videos openly hostile to feminism, such as:

Women in America are the freest in the world, yet many feminists tell us women are oppressed. They advocate this falsehood through victim mentality propaganda and misleading statistics, such as the gender wage gap myth. In five minutes, American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers tells you the truth about feminism.

So who is Christina Hoff Sommers? While she may bill herself as the “Factual Feminist”, her history suggests she’s a right-wing shill who uses her platform to spread misinformation about feminism, in the hope of opposing social change. I think she’s taking something of an embrace, extend, and extinguish approach: pretend to join up with what you oppose, but alter it to be superficially similar yet quite different and use a mix of money and rhetoric to bury the original version.

Yeah, the above’s a bit of an ad hominem, but I can fix that easily enough by looking at Sommer’s actual arguments. Take her recent video defending GamerGate.

You read that correctly, she’s defending GamerGate:

Well, take it from “Based Mom:” GamerGate overall is a voice for moderation in today’s fevered debates over sex and gender.

“Based Mom” is the nickname GamerGaters have bestowed on Sommers, incidentally. She shows up frequently as a target of affection, earning a place in their fan art, and is considered a leader. But what exactly is GamerGate? Sommers offers this summary:

#GamerGate is a Twitter hashtag, and it attracts gamers from all over the world, males and females, liberals, conservatives, black, white, straight, gay, trans… Some gamers identify with the hashtag because they believe there is too much corruption in gaming. Others are weary of cultural critics who evaluate video games through the prism of gender politics.

That narrative leaves out critical details, though. We have chat logs that show it’s also a coordinated movement plotting to spread hate and lies about women who talk about gender issues in games, with the help of an ex-boyfriend of one of their targets. In one such log, for instance, one member discusses driving Zoe Quinn to suicide, to general agreement, while another frets about keeping up the facade:

Opfag: I’m debating whether or not we should just attack zoe
Opfag: turn her into a victim
Opfag: let her cry and take it further
NASA_Agent: she’s already a victim
OtherGentleman: She’s a professional victim
NASA_Agent: it was real in her mind
ebola-chan: She’s victimizing herself.
Opfag: push her… push her further….. further, until eventually she an heroes
Silver|2: She’s a professional victim. She doesn’t do it for free
OtherGentleman: She can’t even into depression. What makes you think she has the balls to kill herself?
Opfag: I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably horrible
Opfag: At this point.
rd0951: ^^
rd0951: like i siad
NASA_Agent: but what if she suicides
Opfag: Good.
Opfag: Then we get to troll #Rememberzoe
NASA_Agent: #disarmcyberbullies2014
Opfag: And milk the lulcow corpse
OtherGentleman: The more you try to attack her directly, the more she gets to play the victim card and make a bunch of friends who will support her because, since she has a vagina, any attack is misgony
rd0951: ./v should be in charge of the gaming journalism aspect of it. /pol should be in charge of the feminism aspect, and /b should be in charge of harassing her into killing herself
Opfag: I agree.
BurntKimchi: #banassultburgersandfries
NASA_Agent: you don’t see this kind of unity often
Opfag: You don’t
Opfag: We really must be at war
Silver|2: It’s happening

We also have the posts where they come up with journalistic integrity as a cover for their bigotry:

This is a fun interesting story. I’ve been keeping track since the beginning but I think the lot of us are too scattered about what this should really be about. It shouldn’t be about a psycho slut who fucked 5 guys and hurt some betas feelings. I think the focus should be more on that this chick is using sex to climb her way through the ranks of the gaming industry, all while spewing an ideology that she does not believe nor follow.

We need to focus on the fact that she:
>Fucked journalists/game reviewers in order to give the game she designed, positive feedback.
>She fucked her current boss who is married. This is obviously bad, neither her or her boss should be allowed to keep their current job.
>She is a hypocrite that claims a very specific “feminist gamer” ideology and then 180s and has sex with everyone to get what she wants.

We need to expose her as a hypocrite and a liar. The cheating part is just a bonus, yes she’s a slut but there are tons of sluts out there. There is actually proof that she is getting leverage in her career by using sex and that is a travesty and a corruption.

Dude exactly yes.Thus far all that’s happening EVERYWHERE is we’re getting our threads deleted-from giantbomb, from reddit, and from 4chan itself.

What we need to do is bring a true discussion to the table. We need to ignore the dirty laundry between the beta and his slut girlfriend and bring to the table the discussion of “how close is too close when dealing with gaming press and game developers relationships as well as the relationships female game devs have with their superiors”.

Further proof comes from examining what happens on the #Gamergate hashtag, where the majority of discussion is not about ethics at all. We even have archives of where GamerGaters invented a hashtag as a false front, hoping to enlist innocent but gullible people to divide and conquer feminists:

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:56:48 No.261346918
WHO /MINORITY/ HERE? I’m like 2/3 of the things these faggots say they are fighting for, and when I engage them on Twitter (WITH MY FUCKING PERSONAL ACCOUNT) they ignore me. Jesus Christ this is getting frustrating, I might as well be a white male for these faggots.

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:57:44 No.261347051
You fuckers need to organize with your own hashtag and take a stand

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 03:59:14 No.261347271

>>261347051
>>261346918
Something like
>#NotYourShield
And demand the SJWs stop using you as a shield to deflect genuine criticism

Anonymous Wed 03 Sep 2014 04:31:01 No.261349447
>>261346918
>>261347271
#GamerGate + #NotYourShield is an excellent combination. Use it for talking about how you’re for GamerGate but nobody will admit you’re not white, cis and straight.

SPREAD IT

anonDorf: #notyourshield backup squad reporting in
Albel: mah nigga
Albel: retweet the hell out of that shit
Guest55872: I am non-cis, non-white, non-male
AnimeJustice: Can I use #notyourshield regardless?
Guest55872: Albel, you need my selfie?
Albel: Nah, I’m good bud.
Guest55872: Albel, asking, ’cause I do not tweet
foTTS: Use #gamergate and #notyourshield at the same time, pls Albel anonDorf AnimeJustice
Guest55872: anonDorf, want mines?
Albel: FoTTS: Sadly, I don’t fall under any of the #notyourshield categories but I’ll put it in there where I can
foTTS: spread the word about notyourshield Albel
anonDorf: Yeah why not
Guest55872: NICe

codeswish: yea, femfreq is easy PR, you forget that sending her a nice tweet gets them lots of retweets from her followers
Albel: codeswish: That’s fine. You know, maybe part of #gamergate is that we should not demonize femfreq
Albel: “Hey, I don’t necessarily with @femfreq but we here in #gamergate don’t condone the harassment.”
codeswish: The Sarkeesian Effect will handle it for us
W334800: Anita and Zoe are passive aggressive competing or victim-queen
AAAAaaaaAAAA: someone needs to set those 2 attention whores against each other
randompleb: that’s a brilliant idea
Guest55872: ^^
randompleb: two black holes eating each other
AAAAaaaaAAAA: find a way to make the ZQ followers hostile towards the AS followers

This coordinated assault has had real consequences:

The next day, my Twitter mentions were full of death threats so severe I had to flee my home. They have targeted the financial assets of my company by hacking. They have tried to impersonate me on Twitter. Even as we speak, they are spreading lies to journalists via burner e-mail accounts in an attempt to destroy me professionally.

We’ve lost too many women to this lunatic mob. Good women the industry was lucky to have, such as Jenn Frank, Mattie Bryce and my friend Samantha Allen, one of the most insightful critics in games media. They decided the personal cost was too high, and I don’t know who could blame them.

Every woman I know in the industry is terrified she will be next.

GamerGate, in short, is a hate group. While there may be positive elements to it, we have good reason to expect they will or are being exploited by the negative ones.

Which returns us to Christina Hoff Sommers:

Now, I discovered GamerGate when I was working on my recent video about sexism in games. Now in that video, I pointed out that the evidence does not support the claim that video games cause violence or misogyny. I mean gaming has surged since the early 1990’s, but youth crime has plummeted. And Millennials who were born and raised in “video game nation,” they are far less sexist, homophobic, bigoted than older generations.

Note the bait and switch? Sommers swiftly transitions from discussing sexism, to discussing violence, racism, and homophobia. She jumps from talking about video games to talking about youth crime, as if the greatest predictor of the latter was the former. It’s not.[1] If her case was solidly in line with the facts, she would never have to engage in such verbal slight-of-hand; Sommers would just duly report the facts, pointing on existing body of research that demonstrates an accurate, balanced portrayal of women in video games.

She doesn’t, because she can’t. In 2007, a group of researchers looked at video game cover art.[2] Why not the games themselves? Because different people have different skill levels, for different genres, and it’s difficult to capture the entire range in a statistical sample. Plus,

the covers are available for anyone to see, whether they are experienced or not; the covers are easily viewed by those not even interested in playing. For example, video games are usually just one aisle away from the movies in a rental store. Games are not organized by rating so the games rated for mature audiences are often display together with games meant for younger children. There is nothing keeping young children from being exposed to the images on the M-rated games even if they are only seeking an E-rated game. Lastly, for many people the decision to purchase, play, or allow a child to play a game maybe based largely on the material portrayed on the cover.

They found that men were portrayed three times as often, and that while men appear on 9 of 10 game covers, women only appeared on 4 of 10. Men were five times more likely than women to have a primary role on the cover, and four times more likely to have a secondary role. That’s not a typo; since there were four times many men on the covers, they dominated almost every stat. The main exception was objectification: 2 in 10 woman in a primary role were sexually objectified, while not a single man was, for instance. I recommend reading the full study, as I’ve just skimmed off a fraction of the details.

This isn’t an isolated finding, either,[3] [4] [5] [6] yet Sommers is completely ignorant of the research around gaming. She’s also outright lying:

in the earlier video I pointed out that gamers were being blamed for issuing death threats, even though no-one knows who sent them

This is not true.

[Brianna] Wu, who has written about the harassment against women in gaming, has long been critical of the recently-formed Gamergate movement and what she and others have seen as the targeting of women in the industry. Earlier this week she caught the attention of users of the pro-Gamergate message board 8chan after Tweeting snark about the movement, only to then see users of that board mock her, post details about her husband and ultimately publish her personal information (a screencap of a post with redacted info remained on the thread on Saturday).

“I was literally watching 8chan go after me in their specific chatroom for Gamergate,” she told Kotaku today. “They posted my address, and within moments I got that death threat.”

The only people circulating the home addresses of Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, or Zoe Quinn are from GamerGate. Whoever used the home address of those women to drive them out must have been, at minimum, assisted by GamerGate, which itself is a crime. Nor is Brianna Wu an exception, as Anita Sarkeesian demonstrates:

Multiple specific threats made stating intent to kill me & feminists at USU. For the record one threat did claim affiliation with #gamergate

Note too that Sommers thinks it’s unlikely that someone from a movement known for spreading lies and vicious rhetoric about Sarkeesian could have issued a death threat. She must think a death threat is equally as likely to come from the florist down the street, blissfully unaware of video games, or a supreme court judge, or a five old who can’t pick up a controller. To think that everyone’s equally likely to issue a death threat is a remarkably pessimistic view of humanity. But back to Sommers:

Colin Campbell, the senior reporter at Polygon for example, called me a “reactionary” and he suggested that my indifference to sexism in videos was a “irresponsible abrogation of our shared humanity.” I don’t doubt Mr. Campbell’s sincerity: many games do depict horrific violence, and mistreatment of women.

It’s fascinating how she reduces Campbell to a string of insults. His critique had far more substance than that:

Everything Sommers says comes from the assumption, asserted early in her video, that hardcore games are consumed by men because they are made for men, as if they were in the same category as aftershave and Men’s Health magazine.

But although male domination has been the status quo for many years, the influx of women playing games is a sign that women like to play games. “Hardcore games,” of the kind that women don’t play so much as casual games, are not marketed to address a particularly male need any more than blockbuster movies are; they are male-centric because their makers have failed to figure out how to make them more interesting to women.

All entertainment features subsets of products that are clearly aimed at men or women. Just take a look at the bookshelf in your local supermarket. But games have fallen into this male-centric locus because their makers have not been smart enough to reach outside their historic core target.

But given the choice, Sommers would rather focus on surface gloss instead of substance. This should be a red-flag to skeptics that her arguments are weaker than they first appear. Speaking of which:

But remember, there is vastly more violence and mistreatment of men!

This is misleading. It’s true that the cannon fodder tends to be male. But what’s under discussion isn’t raw body counts, it’s representation and erasure. Yes, men are frequently used for target practice, but it’s also true that men take the leading role, get long-running character arcs that fully flesh them out as human beings. Consider Nathan Drake of Uncharted, Marcus Fenix of Gears of War, Sora of Kingdom Hearts, or William Joseph Blaskowicz of Wolfenstein 3D. Women very rarely get starring roles, or for that matter show up at all. If all you had of the human race was our video games, you’d never guess that half our species was female.

So when women do show up, they’re the exotic “other.” They’re special, and rarely given time to develop their characters beyond the first dimension. Hence, even if women are more likely to be brutalized than men, in terms of raw numbers they’re a very small share of the body count. Sommers is ignoring one form of sexism in order to refute another!

the feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian disagrees. She has called the game “pernicious” and she faults its “shameless sexism,” and the use of the “male gaze.” “Everything about Bayonetta’s design,” says Sarkeesian, “is created specifically for the sexual pleasure of straight male gamers.” Those were her words. Now her critique relies on a 1975 feminist theory about the “male gaze” and how it objectifies and demeans women. But “gaze” theory has evolved since 1975! It turns out that spectators might be able to gaze at a women’s beauty and also identify with her at a human level.

It’s a stretch to call the “Male Gaze” a theory, as Laura Mulvey’s essay was intended to be more polemical than intellectually rigorous (and she invokes quite a bit of Freud).[7] Nonetheless, others realized she was on to something. Heterosexual men are sexually attracted to women, and tend to view men as rivals for that attraction. This translates into a distinctive “gaze” or viewpoint to narratives. The classic example of this is the introduction of Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder in “Dr. No.” She emerges from the ocean partially clothed, as James Bond peeps from the bushes. The camera is reflecting a heterosexual male point of view, and catering to their preferences. There is such a thing as a “female gaze;” compare that scene to one in Casino Royale, where James Bond (Daniel Craig) emerges shirtless from the surf. For that moment, he is being sexualized. You can argue for other, non-heteronormative gazes, and some researchers have,[8] but those two types are the most common.

There’s nothing bad about a male or female gaze, per-se, the problem comes when one becomes dominant. Both men and women see movies, after all, so to appeal to everyone you’d expect movies to be primarily neutral but with moments of male- or female-gaze taking the fore about equally. Instead, the male gaze tends to dominate. This torques women’s view of themselves; a recent study[9] found that college women experienced more body shame and anxiety about their appearance when they were told they’d be interacting with a man, as opposed to interacting with a woman or no-one at all. Effect sizes were moderate, with one of the greatest having Cohen’s d = 0.59.

Objectification isn’t the same, but it’s frequently confused for it. James Bond is a subject; he can choose whether or not to act, and those choices affect the world around him. James Bond’s watch is an object; it does not act by itself, but subjects like James Bond can use it to perform actions. Honey Ryder is more object than subject: she’s there to help Bond defeat Dr. No, where “help” means both literally and metaphorically being pulled around by the arm, spouting worthless exposition, sitting out the final battle until Bond rescues her, then having hot sex with this near-stranger. By the next movie, she’s forgotten and replaced with a prettier model: Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi, who would be the second in a long line of interchangeable “Bond Girls.”

The confusion between the Male Gaze and objectification stems from the frequent collusion of the two. If men are rivals under the male gaze, then they tend to be involved in a struggle for power and control. This bleeds over into sexuality, resulting in women being reduced to conquests, trophies, and symbols of virility. Objectification is a natural consequence of the Male Gaze, but only because of the assumptions we absorb from our culture.

Summing up, Sommers is close enough to correct when she says “gaze theory” has evolved since the 1970’s, but her claim that women can be objects and subjects is at odds with the evidence. In the extreme, it’s logically impossible; how can you simultaneously have agency and lack it? That’s an embarrassing oversight for a philosopher.

But what about Sarkeesian’s claim that Bayonetta is designed to appeal to the straight male? Let’s consult a neutral source on the matter.

Bayonetta is portrayed as a tall, beautiful, young woman with a slender but curvy figure much like the other Umbra Witches in her clan. She has black hair wrapped into a beehive-like hairdo and gray eyes with a mole located at bottom of her left cheek close to her lips. Her main attire is composed of a skin-tight suit made out of her hair that has a rose design on the abdomen with long white gloves, black and gray heels, thin gold chains, three small belts strapped on each arm, and a pair of gold, cat-shaped earrings. […]

Because of her hair based fighting techniques, Bayonetta’s outfit becomes more revealing when she uses Wicked Weave techniques. Her suit’s inner section remains running up the middle and back of her body and her hair drapes over her chest to cover it, but the rest of the suit and the sleeves of hair vanish and trail outwards from her head in a spiral of hair and gold chain used to summon the demonic limbs. When summoning full demons, the entire suit disappears and leaves behind her gloves, shoes and watch.

Video game players are rewarded for successfully completing complex attacks with a strip tease by an attractive woman. It’s no surprise Sommers ignored Sarkeesian’s argument, because otherwise she would have been forced to agree.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably seen alarming stories about an army of angry and vicious video gamers, marching under a banner called “GamerGate.” Well, according to these reports, this mob will stop at nothing to defend its “heteronormative privilege.”

Sommers says “heteronormative privilege” as if she’s quoting someone, and by connecting it to the news she makes sound like a common claim. But a simple news search reveals nothing. Expanding things to a normal web search, I can find a blog post by Cathy Smith, but she doesn’t apply the label to GamerGate at all.

It’s not surprising that many of the people who believe in GamerGate see cliques in game development and press. It’s possible these people have dealt with cliques in school, and I do believe that many of the people involved in this are still in school and feel like they’re at the bottom of the rung. Hell, I had no conception of sexism in middle school, and I had internalized a lot of misogyny that I hadn’t realized was a part of me until late high school. It’s hard to understand the concept of male privilege or white privilege or heteronormative privilege when you have to get permission to go to the damn bathroom.

I can find a Tumblr post about gay erasure in gaming, but it dates from before the name “GamerGate” was even coined.

And that’s it.

Where are these claims of “heteronormative privilege?” Sommers must have thought they were so prevalent that she didn’t need to cite them, yet that’s clearly not the case.

Today, at least in certain feminist circles, it’s open season on the sexual preferences of straight males.

It’s curious that someone who dubs themselves the “Factual Feminist” would make claims about feminism without evidence. This should have been a trivially easy citation for Sommers, yet she doesn’t bother. If history is any guide, that’s probably because she has none.

They need to show, not dogmatically assume, that video games make people sexist. The burden of proof rests with them.

By my count, I’ve provided at least five citations demonstrating that video games are sexist, and at least three show it has real-world consequences. Sommers, in contrast, has failed to provide a single one to support her view.

So, who is Christina Hoff Sommers? Possibly someone who quote-mines heated rhetoric from summaries and ignores substantive critique. Certainly, Sommers is a spokesperson for bigots, who’s made a career out of white-washing anti-feminist hate with a superficial gloss of pseudo-intellectualism. Her legacy will be one of promoting the suffering and misery of all genders in the world, presumably just to line her pockets with cold-hard cash.

Illuminati Lich (10:07 AM – 4 Nov 2014):
[JT Eberhard,] A video by Sommers?

JT Eberhard (10:07 AM – 4 Nov 2014):
[Illuminati Lich,] Yeah. I agree with most of what she said.

D.J. Grothe (2:31 PM – 1 Sep 2014):
[Sommers,] You’re a mythbuster in the grand tradition of those who debunk harmful nonsense, speaking truth to power in the public interest.

Richard Dawkins (12:27 AM – 17 Sep 2014):
The “Big Sister is Watching You” Thought Police hate [Sommers]’ Factual Feminism, and you can see why.

Fortunately, good skeptics are capable of looking past the false front and know not to take her claims seriously. I’m not the only one to spot this, by any means:

Laura Flanders. “The ‘Stolen Feminism’ Hoax”. Extra!, Sept. 1st, 1994.

Sharon Presley “Freedom Feminism Still Isn’t Either.” Reason.com. January 30, 2014

Malmsheimer, Taylor. “Conservatives Are Obsessed With Debunking the 1-in-5 Rape Statistic. They’re Wrong, Too.” The New Republic, June 27, 2014.

Ampersand. “Fact-Checking the Anti-Feminists; like Following around an Elephant with a Bucket, No Matter How Much Crap You Clean up They Keep Producing More.” Alas, a Blog. Accessed December 7, 2014.

Johnston, Angus. “Yes, Christina Hoff Sommers Is a Rape Denialist.” Accessed December 10, 2014.

Citations:

[1] Baron, Stephen W. “General Strain, Street Youth and Crime: A Test of Agnew’s Revised Theory.” Criminology 42, no. 2 (May 1, 2004): 457–84. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00526.x.

[2] Burgess, Melinda CR, Steven Paul Stermer, and Stephen R. Burgess. “Sex, lies, and video games: The portrayal of male and female characters on video game covers.” Sex Roles 57.5-6 (2007): 419-433.

[3] Dill, Karen E., and Kathryn P. Thill. “Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: Young people’s perceptions mirror sexist media depictions.” Sex roles 57.11-12 (2007): 851-864.

[4] Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth, and Dana Mastro. “The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept.” Sex roles 61.11-12 (2009): 808-823.

[5] Dietz, Tracy L. “An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior.” Sex roles 38.5-6 (1998): 425-442.

[6] Dill, Karen E., Brian P. Brown, and Michael A. Collins. “Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44.5 (2008): 1402-1408.

[7] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

[8] Wood, Mitchell J. “The Gay Male Gaze.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 17, no. 2 (December 2, 2004): 43–62. doi:10.1300/J041v17n02_03.

[9] Calogero, Rachel M. “A Test Of Objectification Theory: The Effect Of The Male Gaze On Appearance Concerns In College Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28, no. 1 (March 2004): 16–21. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00118.x.

HJH @ 2014/12/10: Added another link to someone critiquing Hoff Sommers.
HJH @ 2015/02/04: It’s “embrace, extend, extinguish.” Stupid dyslexia.