The Sexual Double Standard in the Media & Politics

Women often complain about the sexual double standard: If they sleep around, they get called nasty names, whereas if men sleep around, they’re considered alpha males.

There’s another sexual double standard that bothers me more, however. It has to do with the free expression of thought in a culture that values the politically correct over the truth.

Just recently, CNN got into trouble for reporting on a peer-reviewed scientific study that found that women’s political decisions are affected by their hormones.

The results showed that ovulating single women tend to support President Barack Obama because, in the words of lead researcher Kristina Durante, they feel “sexier.”

Heightened sexual feelings, according to Durante, lead women to support politicians who advocate for easy access to birth control and abortion. CNN pointed readers to an article it published about a separate Durante study — which is still available on CNN’s website — that showed women also buy “sexier clothes” when ovulating.

Married or otherwise committed women, by contrast, favored Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

After major backlash from their readers and other news outlets, who ridiculed the idea that a woman’s opinions would be governed by her menstrual cycle, CNN axed the story from its website, claiming that it did not meet its “editorial standards.” The study, by the way, is soon appearing in a leading academic journal of psychology Psychological Science. Peer-reviewed science or not, it was considered sexist and had to go:

“What an insulting question,” wrote one female commenter [on CNN]. “As if my ability to make decisions depends on my cycle!”

“I think I am done with CNN,” agreed another woman.

“Yes. We all know women are irrational creatures, slaves to their hormones, with no agency of their own,” wrote CNN.com reader Joel.

The other day, I came across an article in the Economist that reports on a very similar study that was just published in the same journal, Psychological Science. This study, though, is about men, and how male hormones affect political decisions:

Dr Petersen and Dr Sznycer were investigating the idea that a person’s political opinions might be aligned with his physical characteristics. The opinion in question was whether resources should be redistributed from the rich to the poor. The physical characteristic was strength . . .

Dr Petersen and Dr Sznycer found that, regardless of country of origin or apparent ideology, strong men argued for their self interest: the poor for redistribution, the rich against it. No surprises there. Weaklings, however, were far less inclined to make the case that self-interest suggested they would. Among women, by contrast, strength had no correlation with opinion. Rich women wanted to stay rich; poor women to become so.

Of course, no one is complaining about this article or the study it is based on. No one is saying that the study is sexist, degrading to men, or that it denies men their dignity as rational decision makers. Maybe the study does  all of these things (though no one is making this argument). Or maybe it’s just reporting on a scientific fact (which is the consensus of the press). The point is that reasonable people can civilly discuss whether hormones affect the way men make decisions without the conversation being completely shut down by the custodians of the politically correct.

For women, it’s another story. If academics imply that women’s decisions are subject to biological factors–and if journalists report about it–then they are castigated as sexist, the article is called “craptastically craptastic,” and the study is dismissed as “pseudo-science.” The anti-intellectualism of the media can be truly breathtaking.

  1. Crow

    Emily: you’re entirely correct about the double standard and the knee-jerk way thought-crimes like this are treated in the media and in the academy today.

    Those inclined to take a longer view, however, are not surprised in the slightest by the results of these studies–it turns out that (even lacking a fancy biological or sociological study) the classics were already aware that among human beings and in human things, the passions matter (among both sexes!)

    It’s one of the reasons all of the great treatises on rhetoric–Cicero’s and Aristotle’s come to mind immediately–spend no small portion of their discussion on the ways public speaking can harness (that is to say, both influence and call up, but also tame and educate) emotions.

  2. EJHill

    The dream of the modern feminist is to live the life of the “respectable slut.”

  3. Richard Fulmer

    Here’s a snippet from Thomas Friedman’s Nov. 3 column in the NYT:

    “…G.O.P. governors, mayors and business leaders would see where the country really is and finally do what needs to be done: either crush or separate themselves from a radical base that has forced Republican candidates into a war against math, physics, biology,… “ [emphasis added]

    One of the Left’s conceits is that the Right is anti-science whereas their own ideas are rational and founded in science.  The reality is, of course, much more complicated.  We all have our prejudices that tend to filter the information we accept as fact.  In this case, as in others, the Left has gone beyond cherry-picking facts that fit their world views to actively trying to supress information that contradicts those views. 

  4. DocJay

    Anyone who thinks that women’s decisions aren’t influenced by hormonal cycles needs to come to my house.   I kind of like fluctuations though and just roll with them.  

    People  seem so desperate for a story these days they make stuff up.

  5. Misthiocracy
    EJHill: The dream of the modern feminist is to live the life of the “respectable slut.”

    I would change that to “respected”.

    The word “respectable” implies some level of personal responsibility.

    Actually, I would change that to “exalted”. It’s not about tolerance or respect, it’s about superiority.

  6. Misthiocracy
    Emily Esfahani Smith:

    If they sleep around, they get called nasty names, whereas if men sleep around, they’re considered alpha males.

    I disagree.

    It’s much less about the number of one’s sexual encounters, and much more about how one presents oneself.

    A man who is known to sleep with many prostitutes is not considered an alpha male. A man who is known for picking up drunken co-eds, or using coercion, or taking advantage of his position of power, is only considered an alpha male by the most disreputable of his peers.

    Look at Don Draper. He’s an icon of cool because he can have any woman he wants. But his image is significantly tarnished when he acts on that ability irresponsibly, causing harm to his wife, his children, his female companions, his employees, etc.

    Similarly, IMHO, women do not get called nasty names simply for the number of their sexual partners. If they get called nasty names it’s because of the nature of their sexual conquests, like sleeping with the boss, or sleeping with other women’s boyfriends/husbands, etc.  It’s less about numbers and more about whose toes one steps on.

  7. EJHill

    Forgive my crassness, but if a third party KNOWS how many people a woman (or for that matter, a man) is sleeping with then they deserve to be called for what they are.

  8. Aaron Miller

    There’s a difference between what one is immediately, instinctively offended by and what one is offended by after a moment or two of deliberation. Women are most immediately offended by being called sluts; for offering themselves too cheaply and failing to moderate men’s ambitions. Men are most immediately offended by being called cowards; for being weak and failing to protect their charges. We may deny our innate roles, but we can never be completely free of them.

  9. Misthiocracy
    Aaron Miller:

    Women are most immediately offended by being called sluts; for offering themselves too cheaply and failing to moderate men’s ambitions. 

    Ah, but that’s not necessarily about numbers. One can rack up impressive numbers without offering oneself too cheaply.

  10. Sabrdance

    I keep hearing that men who get around are thought of as alpha males.  Perhaps I just hang out with the wrong people, but among my circle “manwhore” is not a compliment.

  11. drlorentz
    Sabrdance: I keep hearing that men who get around are thought of as alpha males.  Perhaps I just hang out with the wrong people, but among my circle “manwhore” is not a compliment.

    I learned a new word. Thanks. Not quite sure when I’ll have the chance to use it, though.

  12. Aaron Miller
    Sabrdance: I keep hearing that men who get around are thought of as alpha males.  Perhpas I just hang out with the wrong people, but among my circle “manwhore” is not a compliment. 

    The point, I think, is to be the one in control (rather than “whipped”) and be capable of “conquering” any woman. 

  13. drlorentz

    When I read the Economist article last week, I was struck by this sentence:

    Rich women wanted to stay rich; poor women to become so.

    At first reading, I took it to mean that women are not redistributionist, unlike their male counterparts. They wanted to emulate the rich, i.e., earn lots of money. Alas, the Economist meant exactly the opposite. The meaning of the passage is that they wanted to get rich the socialist way: by taking wealth from others. How does it strike my fellow Ricochetti?

    The Economist proclaims itself to be a classical liberal publication. I think they are confused; they are liberals in the modern sense.

  14. david foster

    I took a quick look at the original study and the effect of time-in-cycle on political opinion looked to be pretty strong. But surely there are a significant % of women—50%+, I would guess—whose support or non-support of Obama is so strong and consistent that you’d get the same response on whichever day you asked the question. If this is true, and study methodology is truly sound, then the effect for the non-politically-committed women must be even stronger than the summary numbers would suggest.

  15. Misthiocracy
    Aaron Miller

    Sabrdance: I keep hearing that men who get around are thought of as alpha males.  Perhpas I just hang out with the wrong people, but among my circle “manwhore” is not a compliment. 

    The point, I think, is to be the one in control (rather than “whipped”) and be capable of “conquering” any woman.

    Ah, but does that not imply that sexual politics is a zero-sum game, and that one partner or the other inherently has more “control” than the other?

    Look at James Bond. Do we look down upon the women he sleeps with? Generally, I don’t believe we do, because they enter into the encounter voluntarily, with their eyes wide open.

    Pussy Galore has just as much “control” over their encounter as does Bond.

    (We may sometimes feel sorry for them, as in the case of Tatiana in From Russia With Love, because she’s been misled into thinking that Bond loves her, but we certainly don’t think she was “asking for it”.)

    Using a term like “conquest” assumes that the encounter is inherently coercive. Only a cad would admire a man who sees sex as a series of “conquests”.

  16. N.M. Wiedemer

    For generations men have been accused of primarily thinking with their genitals, this year has proven feminism has taught many women to do the same-Equality! You’ve come a long way baby.

  17. Fake John Galt

    Are men even allowed to discuss this subject?  Won’t a man end up in jail for hate speech just for commenting on this subject?

  18. david foster

    An interesting recent book on mind-body interactions is The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by trader-turned-neurobiology researcher John Coates.

    He suggests a positive feedback loop between testosterone and risk-taking, where successful risk-taking drives higher testosterone levels drive even higher risk-taking, until….and suggests that male traders (or their management) should monitor their T levels and take a break when they get to some threshold.

    He also addresses the issue of why there aren’t more female traders, and is dismissive of the usual argument that they’re too turned off by male trader sexism and general rowdiness…pointing out that there are lots of female *sales* people in that same rowdy trading-floor environment. Daring feminist fury, he suggests that females aren’t as good at the very fast decision-making required of a trader, but are equally good or perhaps better at the longer-time-constant decision-making required of an investment manager…then goes on to say that the former disadvantage doesn’t matter all that much anyhow since trading will increasingly be done in milliseconds by algorithms.

  19. Misthiocracy
    EJHill: Forgive my crassness, but if a third party KNOWS how many people a woman (or for that matter, a man) is sleeping with then they deserve to be called for what they are.

    Another point: You write, “is sleeping with,” not, “has slept with.” There is a difference.

  20. J. D. Fitzpatrick

    While the responses of these women to science is upsetting, it’s important to remember is that women really have advanced quite a bit since, say, Roman times: 

    But most intolerable of all is the woman who as soon as she has sat down to dinner commends Virgil, pardons the dying Dido, and pits the poets against each other, putting Virgil in the one scale and Homer in the other. The grammarians make way before her; the rhetoricians give in; the whole crowd is silenced: no lawyer, no auctioneer will get a word in, no, nor any other woman; so torrential is her speech that you would think that all the pots and bells were being clashed together. … She lays down definitions, and discourses on morals, like a philosopher; thirsting to be deemed both wise and eloquent …

    –Juvenal, Satire VI