by Brian Tomasik
First written: 10 Jul. 2016; last update: 31 Aug. 2017


It's obvious that women's rights are important, but it's less clear how far to take the more controversial strands of feminist social commentary. While I'm far from an expert on this topic, I suspect that these debates can be made more productive by remembering the wide variation in human psychology, by taking the other person's perspective, by looking at humans as animals, and by using evidence to help resolve disagreements.


Most educated people in the Western world who aren't religious fundamentalists are at least moderate feminists, even if they don't identify as such. Most people agree with the victories for women's political and social rights during the 20th century and hope to see these same rights extended to oppressed women in other countries. Of course, as with anything else, there are plenty of violations of women's rights in rich countries. Still, it seems likely to me that most feminists should generally focus on female empowerment in developing countries, where oppression of women is much worse and where improvements to quality of life are much cheaper.

While debates about feminism in rich countries are typically less urgent, they may unleash more passions on both sides. Much of the controversy that feminism evokes has to do with its more radical strands, including views expressed by some young people on social media.

Human psychological diversity

Generalizations about groups are invidious. Critics of feminism claim that it overgeneralizes about men (e.g.: "Every man in this society benefits from the fact that women are prostituted whether or not every man uses a woman in prostitution."a). And many feminists feel that the anti-feminists are misapplying the most extreme feminist views to feminism as a whole.

I think a decent part of the debate over feminism is just arguing about which kind of feminism is at issue:

Anti-feminist: "How can you say that all men are oppressors? I'm an anti-feminist."
Feminist: "So you don't think women should be able to open a bank account or participate in science?"

One of the most helpful, though obvious, points to keep in mind is that everyone is different, and everyone can have different views on different issues. Campaigns like "Women Against Feminism" help to remind us that any given movement doesn't represent all people that the movement is about. In fact:

Even though many women value the achievements the women's movement has made, most are reluctant to call themselves a feminist outright. Just a quarter of women say they consider themselves a feminist; 70 percent do not.

And of course, there are many debates within feminism as well.

I suspect that some of the animosity on both sides results from insufficient appreciation of psychological diversity. For instance, some feminists oppose pornography because they see it as inherently oppressive, while other feminists contend that pornography can be empowering. I think both of these can be true, depending on the person. Unless all women are unconsciously oppressed by pornography without knowing about it (but is unconscious oppression actually oppression?)b, it seems clear that some women don't find pornography oppressive or degrading, in which case that's what's true for them.

Similarly, some anti-feminists claim that they personally don't mind being objectified or shamed about body image, so women should stop complaining and not worry what others think about them. But people differ on how much they care about the judgment of others, and not everyone can just "get over it" so easily. The psychological impact of social body-image pressure can be as little as zero for people who don't care at all what others think or so strong that it leads to suicide. Extending your own feelings about the issue to everyone fails to account for how minds are different.


As another example of variation among women, consider prostitution. According to Andrea Dworkin:

Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. [...] In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women's bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It's impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after.

But other women disagree with this, and a few women are happy with jobs as prostitutes. Though Dworkin is clearly coming from a place of compassion for female victims, she also seems to be legislating her personal feelings on the issue, rather than accepting other women's choices about their own lives.

Of course, it's true that many women only resort to prostitution out of economic desperation, which is tragic. This page says "A large percentage of prostitutes polled in one study of 475 people involved in prostitution reported that they were in a difficult period of their lives and most wanted to leave the occupation." But working long hours at two full-time minimum-wage fast-food jobs is also unpleasant. Certainly many women would rather work two full-time jobs than sell sex, but women are different, and some women prefer prostitution over the alternatives. While it's important to lift people out of poverty so that they aren't forced into prostitution, it's wrong-headed to forbid people from choosing prostitution over something else that they personally judge to be worse, or to tell them that they will not "stay whole" if they choose prostitution.c

That said, one could make a reasonable counterargument that if prostitution can be safely reduced -- which is a big if -- then buyers will spend their money on other products, and some of that spending will provide jobs to other desperate people, without the high emotional toll that prostitution takes on some women. There are also complications with sex trafficking that make this, like most political issues, a very complex question not reducible to simple reasoning on either side.

A Martian perspective

It can be helpful to look at these debates from the outside. Imagine that you're a Martian watching Earth, seeing various primates taking various sides on 21st-century feminism. You would see a diversity of creatures, both within and between the group with XX chromosomes and the group with XY chromosomes. Gender might be one helpful predictor variable for your ethological models, but it wouldn't be a sharp dividing line.

Looking at people as we would look at other animals can be instructive. For instance, we can see how evolution wires animals to prefer and avoid different things. A dung beetle is rewarded by consuming dung. An earthworm tries to escape sunlight. And so too, different people enjoy and are traumatized by different things.

While evolutionary psychology (EP) can be misused, I think EP can actually support feminists. For instance:

  • EP helps explain why rape feels so bad for many women, which is something that I and probably many other males don't intuitively understand.
  • A similar point can help men understand why catcalling and other "creepy" behavior may make women anxious and upset, while such things are often perceived as compliments when done to men. Creepy behavior signals an increased risk of sexual assault, which greatly reduced a woman's evolutionary fitness in the ancestral environment (and might also cause ordinary physical injury).
  • EP speculatively offers some insight into why body image might be a more traumatic topic for some women than it is for most men, since physical attractiveness is more important to a woman's evolutionary fitness than to a man's.d Hence, men who say "Who cares about what magazines tell you to look like?" may not be having the same feelings as many women who see similar things. Once again, these are generalizations on average, with lots of variation within all genders.
  • Insofar as EP finds biological gender differences (on average, a proviso that must be said on every occasion to avoid provoking outrage, as well as to avoid causing misunderstanding), these can sometimes be taken as arguments to affirm feminist complaints about patriarchy (which is a biological trend in many species and in most historical human societies) and highlight the need for social efforts to fight nature.
  • In general, the better you understand a problem, the better equipped you are to address it. And "evolutionary psychology does not view human behavior as impervious to change. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have cogently argued that knowledge of the informational inputs to evolved psychological mechanisms is a crucial first step toward changing the behavioral output of these mechanisms (Buss, 1996; Buss, 2012; Confer et al., 2010; DeKay & Buss, 1992; Geher, 2006)." For instance, rape is common among several non-human species, including our primate relatives, and it would be surprising if human rape was purely socially constructed. Better information about the causes of rape might inform more effective responses to it. For example, a somewhat more biological approach to rape might slightly increase the appeal of chemical castration, although this would only be a hypothesis and would need to be verified.e

In general, empirical evidence can help resolve some disputes that typically devolve into shouting matches. For example, how do movies and television, female stereotypes in video games, and standards of beauty affect male attitudes toward women, rates of sexual violence, etc.? Do feminist memes make women and men happier and healthier? Of course, such studies are difficult, and I'm usually skeptical of multiple-regression analysis.

As the EP discussion illustrates, men may not intuitively understand that certain behaviors are distressing to women. This suggests value in educating men about how women (on average) have different neural wiring (due to both biology and culture) and thus perceive things differently. In this way, highlighting gender differences may assist with gender equality (in the utilitarian sense of "equal consideration of interests", not in the Harrison Bergeron sense).

The SNL segment "Weekend Update: Leslie Jones on Vacation" depicts as humorous a woman making sexual comments to a man and touching him without consent. If the gender roles were reversed, there would be an outcry about sexual harassment. Is this a double standard? Those who believe people of different genders should be treated exactly the same would say "yes" and should presumably condemn the SNL segment. However, if we recognize that men and women (on average!) have different reactions to unsolicited sexual advances, then the behavior shown on SNL is less deserving of condemnation. And the lack of public outcry about the SNL segment suggests to me that most people recognize this, at least implicitly if not in their public creeds. (Of course, there are some men for whom sexual advances of the type shown in the SNL segment would be traumatic.)

Gender construction

Biology can also help show the absurdity of an extreme "gender constructivism" view. Read about the ethology of practically any non-human species, and you'll see that males and females have (quite) different behaviors, especially when it comes to mating. In most species, as we would expect based on differences in parental investment, females are choosy about mates, and males have to demonstrate their fitness before females will accept them. There are too many examples of this point to mention, but here's one:

When it comes to mating, male fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) put on quite the display. Coming across a likely female, a male will follow her around, exude pheromones, play a song on one wing and lick and tap at her genitalia. The female fly will then decide whether to mate. [...]

When faced with a suitor, the female fly must first assess whether the male is a good bet for a mate. But her considerations do not end there. Many other factors affect whether a female fly will be receptive to a male’s entreaties. “She needs to look at her internal state, whether she’s a virgin or not, whether she has mated recently, is she sleepy, hungry and so forth,” Baker says. (Virgins are more likely to mate.)

A female fly integrates all these cues when a male comes a’courting. If receptive, she will slow down and wait, opening her vaginal plates to allow the male to copulate. If she is not receptive, Baker says, a female fly gets violent. She might fly or run away, kick and even thrust her ovipositor (the organ used to lay eggs) in a hapless suitor’s face, “which discourages him substantially.”

Here's one more example, this one about female rabbits:

scanning for present males and gathering information about their movements might also be relevant: especially younger males are sometimes harassing females outside their oestrus by showing courtship behaviour (pers. obs.), and females are usually terminating these apparently unwanted approaches by chasing the young males away.

Of course, many parts of our concepts of gender are socially constructed and vary from culture to culture. As with most other nature/nurture questions, the truth is that gender is a complex product of both nature and nurture acting in concert. Picking out exactly how much of which behavior is due to genes vs. idiosyncrasies of culture vs. interactions of biology with culture is a messy empirical project that needn't be controversial in principle.

The reason essentialism vs. constructivism issues are often controversial is because empirical facts can be misapplied to support certain social attitudes, such as the idea that because females in most animal species are less aggressive, female humans should be less competitive in realms like business and politics. This is just bad moral philosophy, but because it's a common way of thinking, feminists may sometimes try to patch the problem by emphasizing gender construction. I'm not a purist, and if hiding real biological gender differences can help to take the edge off of appeal-to-nature gender shoehorning in society at large, then maybe it's not so bad.

Biologists who are annoyed by the anti-scientific attitude of extreme "men and women are mentally identical" proponents might consider a strategy of focusing on ways in which women seem to outperform men for potentially biological reasons, since such hypotheses highlight the possibility of biological sex differences without provoking as much backlash. For example, such biologists might point to findings that girls are better at language than boys (although proving that such differences are at least partly genetic rather than purely environmental is tricky).

A utilitarian perspective

One thing we can learn from the strength of modern-feminist statements and the backlash that some of them receive is that many people have intense emotions on these matters. While we might not want to implement all Tumblr-feminist statements into law, all such statements tell us something important: namely, that this particular person feels strongly about this particular topic, even if you yourself can't internalize why that person would care about it. These sentiments on both sides can then be aggregated into a more comprehensive utilitarian analysis. (One of the virtues of utilitarianism is that it forces you to take the other person's perspective when analyzing an issue, rather than apotheosizing your own personal feelings about an activity into a deontological command. Of course, utilitarianism has plenty of wiggle room for arbitrariness in its own ways, such as when doing interpersonal comparisons of utility.)

In general, most of the policy and strategic questions that modern feminism faces are complex. For instance, what are the social ripple effects of talking about patriarchy and oppression? Do these memes empower women or make them feel worse about their lots in life? Do extreme views turn people away from feminism and thereby hurt the women who benefit from moderate feminism that's focused on the most serious injustices? How do these ideas affect our children's memetic landscape and Earth's far future? As is the case with most other political topics, these are complicated issues with non-obvious answers. Passions play a role, by informing what kinds of outcomes we want, but passions alone won't tell us which kinds of rhetoric and social movements will have the best long-run effects.

There's also a difference between what's ideal and what's feasible. For instance, I personally suspect that the world would be better off if makeup use was rare, since makeup wastes time and money and can sometimes contain harmful chemicals. And I suspect that makeup doesn't even make men any happier in the long run, in light of the hedonic treadmill and such. But makeup is a tragedy of the commons in which there's incentive for individuals to use it to gain an advantage (both in mate competition and for general halo effect). So we probably can't achieve a makeup-free society, although we can aim for smaller moves in that direction. Also, it's possible that desire for makeup is sometimes due to more than just social pressure, since some women seem to really enjoy makeup.

As another example, I would prefer a society in which no one publicly shamed another person, no one made insulting jokes intended to hurt someone's feelings, and so on. This is not necessarily a feminism thing but a broader wish that people shouldn't be jerks.f But this isn't going to happen, and the hard question is how far to take social censure of those who do make insults or uncouth comments. There are costs to too much political correctness, in terms of shutting down honest exploration. Despite being associated with social liberals, political correctness is in some sense an authoritarian project aiming for greater conformity. Of course, there can be benefits as well, if preventing speech that some perceive as hateful reduces rates of low self-esteem and depression. It's very non-obvious where to strike the balance.


  1. Blanket statements about "all men" seem to be a form of reverse sexism. It's plausible that some radical feminists fall into the same kinds of us-vs.-them and scapegoating cognitive patterns as racists do.  (back)
  2. Alternatively, feminists might claim that even when porn production doesn't harm the female actors, it harms society as a whole. For instance: "Radical feminists charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment. MacKinnon argued that pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths." These hypotheses are largely testable, and various studies of the issue have found conflicting results.

    Of course, it also matters what kind of porn is under discussion: "Rubin writes that anti-pornography feminists exaggerate the dangers of pornography by showing the most shocking pornographic images (such as those associated with sadomasochism) out of context, in a way that implies that the women depicted are actually being raped, rather than emphasizing that these scenes depict fantasies and use actors who have consented to being shown in such a way (Rubin, 1984)."  (back)

  3. Here's one woman's perspective:

    I was in my second year of college and struggling to make ends meet. [...]

    I figured I could try being an escort. It turned out to be pretty easy work for me, and I only needed to see clients one or two days a week to cover my expenses.

    [...] Sometimes I received lectures about how I was enabling the patriarchy by choosing to be a sex worker. I was derided and called selfish for choosing a line of work that encourages sexism against women, and I was accused of being a traitor to the feminist cause. [...]

    One friend – or someone I thought was a friend, at the time – told everyone in my social circle that there must be something psychologically wrong with me, because nobody in her right mind would ever choose to be a prostitute. She said she’d read that people in the sex industry are only there because they’ve been forced into it, or because they were sexually abused as children and then make warped decisions about their sexuality as adults. Soon the rumour in my extended group of friends was that I had been sexually abused as a child and that I was mentally unstable. People pitied me. I was humiliated.

    [...] I am bombarded with negative images about sex work in the media, and that only makes me feel worse. [...]

    I think I’ve internalized the societal hatred of sex workers. I am embarrassed to be a sex worker, even though I like my job, I’m good at it, and I’ve made exceptional progress in my career over the past few years. [...]

    Sometimes I think the only way out of this mess it to stop working as an escort and leave the sex industry behind. It would be hard to quit, though, because the work is relatively easy, my schedule is flexible, and I make twice as much money doing sex work as I could doing any other job I’m qualified for.

    [...] I wish I’d known what I was getting myself into before I jumped into this line of work. But most of all, I wish I’d never become a prostitute in the first place.


  4. This paper says:

    we now know that body image is a stronger concern for women (cf. Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Singh, 1993), and is linked to women’s self-esteem, and self-perceived physical and sexual attractiveness (cf. Cash, Winstead, & Janda, 1986; Davies & Furnham, 1986; Jackson, 1992; Koff, Rierdan, & Stubbs, 1990; Lerner, Karabenick, & Stuart, 1973; Secord & Jourard, 1953; Thomas & Freeman, 1990; Wade, submitted). The heightened importance of body image for and among women and the aforementioned body image relationships can be explained in many ways. One such way is in terms of evolutionary psychology and reproductive concerns (cf. Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Henss, 1995; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh & Luis, 1995; Townsend, 1989, cited in Singh, 1993; Wade, submitted).


  5. This study reports:

    Chemical castration via administration of CPA and MPA has been found effective in reducing recidivism in sexual offenders with paraphilias in some small-scale, controlled studies (e.g., Fedoroff et al. 1992; Maletzky, Tolan, and McFarland 2006; Meyer et al. 1992). However, other studies found no significant effect (e.g., Hucker, Langevin, and Bain 1988; Maletzky 1991).


  6. In general, we should treat people as individuals and try to avoid harming them. Lumping people together into groups (men vs. women, black vs. white, etc.) doesn't necessarily help here, except insofar as demographic traits are useful predictor variables or are otherwise relevant to historical and social context. There are plenty of men, often of low socioeconomic status, who are more oppressed than most women are (where I'm measuring "oppression" by how much suffering that person endures).  (back)