The Conceptual Penis Embarrassment

How an Idiotic Hoax Gave Skeptics A Bad Name and Reinforced A Dubious Discipline

Skeptic magazine recently published a piece describing a hoax article submitted to a gender studies journal (and published by one journal) in an attempt to debunk gender studies as deeply intellectually flawed. I’m not going to wade through the resulting controversy but suffice it to say that skeptic magazine didn’t put in sufficient due diligence to verify the results obtained really backed up the conclusions about both the field of gender studies, the status of academic publishing or pay to publish academic journal. I was embarrassed that a publication so associated with the skeptic community didn’t notice multiple major unjustified assumptions required to reach anything more interesting than a mild finger-wagging at the publisher and/or editor of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies for passing along (what they claim was an automated message sent mistakenly) suggesting republication in what Cogent Social Sciences along with their rejection. Worse, this failed attempt to discredit gender studies functions to further the narrative that it is a cogent academic discipline engaged in a search for the truth.

Indeed, if the hoaxers really believed that gender studies had gone off the railings they should have known no hoax would work. The discipline of gender studies must continue to hire and fire professors, determine which papers to publish in top journals and generally make determinations of status and it’s not plausible that this is all accomplished by the toss of a coin. Rather, you would expect to see the same kinds of cultural signifiers of status you see in subgroups like hipsters of goths. Certain kind of language, references etc.. etc.. would all collude to let members of that subculture recognize each other and notice an interlooper immediately. This is even more true regarding choice of ideology. Just because Christian beliefs about Jesus have almost no basis in fact and to the non-believer sound like “Blah Blah Jesus nice…miracle…salvation…soul blah” doesn’t mean an unfamiliar non-believer can just toss something together that sounds similar to them and pass as a Catholic theologian. When ideology because the driving force rather than fact people don’t shrug and say ‘close enough’ they start killing each other over minor differences (at least Tuvel only had her paper withdrawn).

In other words the hoax was surely doomed to fail because, in a large part, gender studies is deeply flawed in something like the way they fear. But simple reflection should have made it clear this would mean they would have far more means of detecting belonging/status than a discipline with clear objective standards like mathematics.

Discrediting Gender Studies and Feminist Philosophy Myself

Rather than following the hoax strategy there is a much easier way to debunk gender studies (and it’s relative feminist philosophy). Simply take a look at what they themselves write. For example, to quote from a paper I found by browsing Hypatia (a top tier journal) to get a taste of their articles (no, not cheery picked)

When it comes to relations among specific human beings, I understand sexual agency as the ability to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the sexual interaction in question. To have sexual agency is to be recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction; it is, in an Irigarayan sense, to be recognized as sexually distinct from the other, such that the interaction is marked by that difference.

If you read that quote without contrarian fussiness it feels like something meaningful was said but try and actually identify what it was and it fades away. For starters, what is the effect of qualifying this passage to `specific human beings’? Are there non-specific human beings? While mere unreasonable verboseness isn’t a mortal sin it is qualifiers like this which simultaneously create the sense that something deep and non-trivial is being said while leaving open the option to use ‘sexual agency’ in some completely different sense by setting up a metaphorical sense in which it is no longer about ‘relations among specific human beings.’ Coming to the definition of agency one finds oneself totally unenlightened. My grip on ‘sexual agency’ was stronger than my understanding of what is meant here by ‘contribute’, ‘meaningfully’ and ‘quality.’ For instance, does meaningfully operate as a synonym of significantly, indicate the phenomenological feeling of purpose/understanding or simply serve as a weasel word so that any time sexual agency needs to be denied one can simply say it isn’t meaningful?

Then we come to what appears to be a further elaboration of that definition but now we are told that it is “recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction.” But this seems to be a completely different criteria than the one it elaborates. If your partner has a fetish for having sex with robots genuinely tricking them into believing you were a robot using your mad acting skills in a way you both find super hot should be off the charts on the first definition yet as you are literally not recognized nor is the interaction intersubjective the second definition says something completely different. Maybe the author is sneakily reading this sense of intersubjective recognition into the idea of quality which does violence to the plain meaning but that just highlights the tension between the robot example and our intuitive sense of sexual agency.

Note that none of these definitions makes any sense of the claim that in cases of where a woman’s partner only seeks their ‘consent’ and wouldn’t take any other reaction at face value their sexual agency is limited. Notice how the inattentive reader who is inclined to assume a cogent argument is being made is pulled along. It certainly feels like there is something limiting about having only one ‘real’ choice but even that is the result of a sleight of hand. Presumably there is nothing less real (only less desirable) about choices that require one to have unpleasant interactions. If we understood agency to diminish as the unpleasantness of the outcomes increases then we would have to say a disabled individual whose conditions imposes massive untreatable pain has much less agency because the outcomes of all his choices are deeply painful. Moreover, yet again the definitions above seem to give all the wrong answers and the situation continues downhill when we are later told that in an act of sexual violence the victims agency is ‘negated’ (whatever the hell that means) because what happens and how is unaffected by her desires, interests, etc.. etc… But surely some rapists are motivated by an active desire for cruelty and deliberately perform whatever acts they intuit their victim would most dislike so are we to conclude that in those cases the victims agency isn’t ‘negated’? Moreover, if agency is understood as the ability to contribute meaningfully then a victim whose rapist would deeply enjoy her consent (and if necessary suppose it would change the nature of the experience for her) is overflowing with sexual agency despite, intuitively, the fact that her agency is being denied by overriding her choice.

Note that I’m not engaging in unrepresentative cheery picking. The entire content of the paper (as well as the other papers I pulled) has this form. Worse, the author is not only apparently willing to let her concerns about what is desirable function as reasons for believing or rejecting specific claims she actually sees this as a huge positive.

What I aim to emphasize is that the very act of categorization needs to be recognized as a social and world-constituting act, one that ought not to be understood as an objective practice that either succeeds (by correctly aligning an experience with a definition) or fails (by mismatching an experience with a definition). To identify a particular experience as an instantiation of sexual violence (or not) doesn’t just reflect the world as it is (or reflect it inaccurately); it creates new possibilities, and forecloses others.

This passage pushes the paper into the realm of the openly absurd. There is no sense in which all the fancy words in the article are actually an attempt to describe the world. Of course, those inclined to defend postmodernism will offer long erudite sounding defenses of this sort of thing but as the above exploration showed the kind of explanations they will provide shouldn’t be assumed to have any factual content just because they sound smart. They will also surely explain that I simply don’t understand what is being said here and it is only in relation to (big name drops) that I can appreciate this but at some point when a subject simply continues not to make sense as you dig down layer after layer you’ve simply got to shrug and say you don’t believe there is anything there.