Home > musing, news > Sunday morning musing: is sexism an addiction?

Sunday morning musing: is sexism an addiction?

September 8, 2013

I’ve been reading articles about cultures of sexism at Harvard Business School and in philosophy, both articles published in the New York Times this past week. The two of them have gotten me to speculate about the different ways that men and women experience sexist behavior.

Namely, very differently. Women, being the targets of sexist remarks and behavior, are sensitive to its barbaric nature and status-oriented putdowns – they are aware of it because it so obviously stings. Men – some men, not all – consistently seem baffled by all the fuss, and if they acknowledge the behavior, it is, in their opinion, more like having fun than being mean.

“Why would people want me to stop having fun?” they ask.

It makes me wonder if sexism is addictive. Let me explain my Sunday morning theory.

Assume that, when men perform an act of sexism, they get rewarded in their pleasure center similar to when someone takes a street drug or has sex.

So for example, say some male Harvard Business School (HBS) student encounters a female HBS colleague who is a potential competitor. To establish his dominance, he puts her down publicly on the basis of her looks. As mentioned in the article, the HBS population is obsessed with status, and this is a standard way of keeping her status low and simultaneously making her anxious and distracted.

My question is, what happens inside that man’s brain when he does that? For that matter, what happens to the brains of the other men in that group who witness that? My theory is that they all experience a kind of pleasure center stimulation, whereby their entire group is nudged up in rank over some “other,” which happens to be that woman. In some sense it’s kind of irrelevant who they put down in order to be rewarded, though, which is why they don’t think of what they did as a bad thing, just something that they vaguely enjoyed.

Go back to how differently the men and women describe their experiences after the fact of sexist environments. Men consistently don’t remember it as a negative event. From the article about sexism in philosophy:

I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

I don’t think men are lying. I think they actually experience sexist events as positive and benign.

It also makes sense how men react when sexism is addressed by the higher authorities in the form of sensitivity training. When men are forced into a room to talk about sexism and norms of appropriate behavior, they’re super uncomfortable and don’t seem to know why they’re there (again, not all men). They for whatever reason don’t think discussions about sexism apply to them, like it’s a women’s issue.

On the other hand, as we saw in the HBS article, forcing men to talk about it at length does seem to actually help, in spite of their protests. The article focuses on women’s behavior, I think overly much, but it’s just as much about men as it is about women. True, women undermine themselves by competing with each other to be perfect and sexy and brilliant (but not too brilliant), etc., but really it’s about getting them men to stop with their nonsense, right?

And what might be happening is that, along with the positive feedback which stimulates the pleasure center, through this training they might also be developing a second, negative feedback around sexist comments, which would mean that eventually, if that second feedback grew strong enough, it would no longer feel so good to be sexist.

I mean, how do you break someone of their addictive habits? I guess you could destroy the pleasure center altogether, but that seems extreme except for the really most annoying HBS folks. Probably what you’d want to do is counteract the effect with an opposing effect. Thus sensitivity training.

Of course, this theory applies equally well to other forms of discrimination. And it’s not obvious how to address it even if it’s true. But at least, if we thought about it this way, it would throw light on the baffling disconnect whereby such problems are glaringly obvious to some while remaining utterly invisible to others.

Categories: musing, news
  1. tdhawkes
    September 8, 2013 at 9:41 am

    I think you are onto something. 1) Just yesterday I had a discussion about Robin Thicke’s song, Blurred Lines (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/robinthicke/blurredlines.html) with a male acquaintance. In the song, Thicke (as in not too bright?) celebrates hitting and pulling the hair of a woman he refers to consistently as bitch. I said this is part of rape culture. The male acquaintance said I was taking all the joy out of life overthinking things, and that I just didn’t understand. 2) Males consistently haze each other. They never stop with the frat boy and locker room put downs verbally and physically. They like it. They may all be addicted to constant verbal and physical hazing, but women aren’t.


    • MCS
      September 8, 2013 at 10:14 am

      “Blurred Lines” is definitely a problematic song but not for the reasons you said (the biggest flag is the line “I know you want it”). Slapping a girl’s ass or pulling a girl’s hair isn’t celebrating rape culture. Of the women I’ve been sexually involved with, all of them WANTED me to slap their ass or pull their hair. It becomes a problem when a) you do it to a woman you aren’t sexually involved with b) you do it to a woman without her consent.

      As for your second point, it really depends on the situation. There are guys who constantly put down others in order to boost their status and that’s really shitty of them. But in my experience, “shit-talking,” be it between guys and guys, or guys and girls, is only enjoyable when there’s a mutual understanding that it’s all in good fun. That way, both parties benefit from shit-talking. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. In my mind, it all comes down to respecting someone else’s preferences. If that person isn’t comfortable with shit-talking, don’t do that to them. If they are, have fun.


  2. MCS
    September 8, 2013 at 10:02 am

    I don’t think that “addictive” is the right word to use here for a number of reasons. The most pressing being that “addictive” implies that men, particularly older men, have a greater amount of initial control over their sexist tendencies than they do in reality (this doesn’t mean that they don’t have accountability). Sexism is learned, and in a patriarchal society, it’s very easy for men to pick up sexism and misogyny from an early age. On playgrounds, assertive girls are thought to be “bossy”; I don’t think boys would call them that without having been taught that girls must be “nice.”

    So, yes, sexism is a habit, and it’s hard to break (as a male, I was guilty of it, and to a certain extent, I still am) but it’s not as isolated of a habit as an addiction is. It’s reinforced by cultural norms; in my mind that is the harder challenge.


    • September 8, 2013 at 10:06 am

      I certainly don’t mean to imply a lack of accountability. I just want to somehow understand the disconnect between experiences.

      And agreed that it is monumentally cultural, but that doesn’t mean it’s not controllable.


  3. mathematrucker
    September 8, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Interesting take on the subject. I suspect that sexism is mainly rooted in the culture one happens to be born into, and more specifically, the dominant religious culture.

    I was in a math Ph.D. program when the Anita Hill story broke 22 years ago. The subject of sexual harassment took center stage nationwide. One of my officemates and I strongly disagreed over whether there was anything wrong with saying to a female colleague as she bent down to collect a piece of paper off the floor at the copy machine, “The view’s great from up here!”

    Looking back now I wish I’d said, “Geez would you want any of your colleagues commenting on your ass at work?!?” (All I did say at the time was “Wow! That’s bad!”)

    The officemate was raised Catholic. Have no idea if that played any role, but it may have.


  4. September 8, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Yep. Another sound argument for speaking up. Though in a culture that generally punishes the whistle-blower, that can be tough. In corporate and even in the startup world, dealing with VC’s who thought that my pitching to them meant they could ‘cash in’ in other ways, I picked my battles. Spoke up when I felt I absolutely needed to, but kept quiet a lot. Lamentable but true, and I’m hardly a wallflower.


  5. pjm
    September 8, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Yeah, most maladaptive, dysfuntional behavior has its roots in the brain chemistry of compulsion. Unfortunately, the behavior is not even a dysfunctional as we would all like in the sense that the aforementioned cultures don’t disincentivize sexist behavior enough.

    But your point gets to the heart of that fact that arousal (sexual) and the habit of mind in which ones inappropriately sexualizes their social context is in part (maybe the biggest part) about pleasure or the displacement of negative feelings (anxiety being high on the list).

    The role of how power and culture functions I think is on a separate level (though obviously not unrelated).

    I think there is evidence that racial hatred can function psychologically as a means of anxiety displacement, when its not simply an expression of sadism.


  6. John
    September 8, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I think addiction might explain *some* sexist behavior… but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet.
    Not everything can be pathologized… sometimes people are just assholes.

    I had a long career at a major telecommunications company and saw attitudes there change from very few “girls doing engineering” to the other extreme, with people walking on eggshells. The corporate-sponsored awareness training was really only intended to make the company less a target of lawsuits than to really bring about change.

    I have three daughters and three stepdaughters… no sons.
    I think the most eye-opening thing for me was to imagine one of them on the receiving end of some questionable behavior.


  7. David18
    September 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    From the article:
    ‘But she wanted to meet someone soon, maybe at Harvard, which she and other students feared could be their “last chance among cream-of-the-crop-type people,” as she put it. Like other students, she had quickly discerned that her classmates tended to look at their social lives in market terms, implicitly ranking one another. And like others, she slipped into economic jargon to describe their status.’

    The article leaves one with the impression that women are going to HBS for their M.R.S. degree. Anyone who puts someone down in public is a jerk and should be shunned by other women but instead he feels comfortable doing so because the women see his status in his money and not in his personality.

    HBS could fix many of their problems by recruiting women as students who have strong mathematics backgrounds (degrees in Engineering, Math, Physics and other quantitative fields). The math in MBA Finance courses is trivial compared with engineering math. If HBS actively recruited these sorts of women then they’d find that they would not be intimated by math and men who use math to intimidate and at the same time they’d have more women going into Finance (instead of softer fields of Marketing as the article suggests). They could then use this field of graduates to recruit faculty who would not be “intimidated” by male students in their classes who ask math questions.


    • September 8, 2013 at 2:04 pm

      Two things.

      First, I agree that it’s not a wonderful thing to hear her say, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s as egregious as what her male counterparts are saying and doing – remember HBS is not just about academic learning, it’s also about future opportunities in all sorts of way, and it’s highly rank-oriented. Also, they didn’t specifically interview men about how they viewed the women, so we don’t have a comparison set.

      Second, although I agree that it’s harder to dismiss women in the field of mathematics or anything strictly fact- or proof-based, that doesn’t mean only math women should be treated respectfully. We should be able to figure out a way to combat sexism even in non-nerdy realms.


      • David18
        September 9, 2013 at 12:13 pm

        People who put others down in public are bullies and should be treated that way by others, both men and women but especially women when women are being put down, but they aren’t.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that only women with math backgrounds should be treated respectfully, but there does need to be some sort of “critical mass” to change the perception. I’ll bet women with the quant backgrounds I suggested are an under-represented minority and should be actively recruited with generous scholarships by HBS to ensure that the proportion of women with the degrees I mentioned are a similar to the proportion of men with those degrees.

        I also believe that female faculty at Harvard in these fields should be actively involved in the worldwide recruitment process.

        In the article is was noted that the only woman out of about 40 applicants for “search fund” was an engineer by training.


  8. Dave Baum
    September 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I think your quote from “Academia’s Fog of Male Anxiety” is more due to how this sort of training is conducted. Frequently the training is designed to make two points:

    1) Some actions that you thought were benign aren’t.
    2) Take this stuff seriously.

    They present some of the most mild incidents to make point #1 and then the consequences of the most gross incidents to make point #2. Forwarding an off-color joke to your coworker’s email could be sexual harassment. Engaging in sexual harassment could cost you your job and a lot of money. The juxtaposition of these two causes some to react by either dismissing the entire thing as ridiculous or being terrified about never knowing what is acceptable. Neither of these outcomes is beneficial.

    Good training goes further. It explains some of the context and nuance for these situations. How one stray comment or joke isn’t going to end a career, that there is an escalation process, and that the goal is a comfortable workplace for everyone. Respect and communication go a long way here.

    In one particular session, the attorney presented details of some of the more egregious cases he’s seen. This was an eye-opener for me because after hearing what some of these people had done I was amazed that anyone could have ever thought such behavior was acceptable. “All the fuss” isn’t aimed at minor one-time misunderstandings. It’s because there are individuals, and sometimes entire subcultures, where the harassment compass is completely broken.


    • DS
      September 12, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      This comment is spot on.

      I just took an online training course for teachers on appropriate behavior with children and sexual abuse. There is indeed a jarring juxtaposition between the first part (not OK to friend a student on facebook), and the second part (if anything happens, report to District Attorney, do not delay because the child may already be suffering). And all with no examples, leaving me to guess how sexual predators start with facebook and end with the child suffering, and making me suspicious of everyone.


  9. September 8, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    If you are an alien trying to understand why humans have sex then: (a) If you figure out that it is addictive and stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain then you haven’t discovered anything; (b) If you discover that it is the way to make babies then you have discovered something of what it is all about.

    If you want to understand human behaviour then start with the observation that “humans are funny animals”. We have very complex motivation, but anything that occurs everywhere to some extent (like homosexuality for example) is there for a reason. Sexism is related to bullying. Bullying is something we see in other intelligent social animals. It is about sorting out status relations between family groups in a village, so there isn’t a physical fight every time there is conflict over resources. There are lots of aspects of human behaviour that are very deranged in cities.

    I’m not suggesting that because something is natural it is ok. On the contrary that is a religious idea (God made us perfect and good, so bad behaviour must be malfunction and not natural). Human badness needs to be addressed by human means, including anger and punishment and annoying educational programs. Badness that is a medical malfunction of the brain can be addressed by medical mechanisms or by controlling people in a lunatic asylum. I don’t like to hear jokes about medical approaches to human behaviour. That is a Soviet idea, not to mention “Brave New World”.

    Learning about human behaviour is fun. Start with the books of Frans de Waal. There are plenty of others, many female, like Sarah Hrdy. You need to use your brain, because all of these authors make mistakes (according to me).


  10. Abe Kohen
    September 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    The NYT HBS article was quite interesting. It raised two important issues, one about women not participating in class and the other about female junior faculty being intimidated by math.

    Recently I audited a Psychology of Women class at Hunter and noticed that even in a class predominantly female and taught by a female instructor the women participated much less than the men. When the women did participate their comments were mostly spot on and insightful, while some of the men spewed forth nonsense – but with great confidence.

    As for junior faculty intimidated by math, I’ve found that senior male professors deal with their lack of math knowledge differently.

    The approach taken by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes upon trying to solve the “Black-Scholes” equation was to confer and consult with engineering faculty who pointed out that there’s was the well-known heat-conduction equation and hence could be solved analytically. In case anyone doesn’t know, Scholes was awarded the Nobel Prize. (Black passed away and hence was ineligible.) And before Cathy pounces on it, Scholes was partially responsible for the meltdown of Long Term Capital (LTCM).

    The other approach taken by the late Professor (and I use the term loosely) of Nuclear Engineering, Lawrence Ruby of Cal-Berkeley, was to ignore solutions involving math which he did not understand. Since he did not know what a Green’s function was, he decided that a solution using a Green’s function was just wrong. (Yes, it still bothers me after more than 3 decades.)

    Here’s hoping that women do not emulate Lawrence Ruby, but instead recognize that it is not a sign of failure or lack of intelligence for a B-school professor to not be a math wizard (and except for one, none of my other B-school profs at Cal were), and these situations are great opportunities for collaboration with other faculty members.


  11. Savanarola
    September 8, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    I think that those environments are saturated with power and degradation. Those men are trying to keep their spot on the pecking order, which is brutal and leaves them feeling on the constant receiving end of abuse. What they are doing is giving them pleasure, alright, because they are passive aggressively being evil while keeping the ability to deny that was their goal. “What!? I was just being funny” is the tell that you’ve just seen something passive/aggressive go down. It is and always will be a power play meant to put the receiver in her place and move the sexist up the chain.


  12. Abe Kohen
    September 8, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Did my comment get censored?


    • Abe Kohen
      September 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      OK. I see it now.


  13. Abe Kohen
    September 8, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    faculty who pointed out that there’s was the well-known heat-conduction

    Should read:
    faculty who pointed out that theirs was the well-known heat-conduction


  14. September 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    I agree with several comments that see sexism as one tool available to alphas or others seeking dominance. If addiction plays a role, it’s to being dominant rather than being sexist. While dominance can be established by building others up, if the alpha is insecure he or she may resort to tearing others down – bullying. The bully is an expert at perceiving weaknesses/fears and exploiting them. The fears may be related to gender, looks, morality, strength,….. Whatever they are, the bully will find the fears and make the target feel inadequate or worse.

    The sexism tool only works if the target legitimately harbors these fears. If the bully doesn’t perceive sexism fears, they’ll find another one better suited to establishing dominance.


  15. Filbert Gork
    September 9, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I don’t think sexism resembles addiction at all. Mostly people don’t really think about it when they make sexist comments. Usually they have a good laugh and move on. Addiction involves an intense craving and dependence on something. If you’re addicted to something, you definitely know what all the fuss is about and you can’t get enough.


    • September 10, 2013 at 6:03 am

      Not so sure I agree. If all you need to do to satisfy your craving is think a certain way, you might never get to the desperation stage.


      • Filbert Gork
        September 10, 2013 at 8:38 am

        Well let’s put it this way then. If a sexist person is highly busy for a few days and doesn’t have the chance to have sexist thoughts, I don’t think he will have a craving or urge to make them at all costs. People enjoy all sorts of behaviors and most of them aren’t addictions. Addictions are unusual and involve dependence, psychological or otherwise. I really don’t think Larry Summers will go through withdrawal if he doesn’t have the chance to think sexist thoughts for a while.


  16. September 10, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Cathy O’Neil, mathbabe said; “I mean, how do you break someone of their addictive habits? I guess you could destroy the pleasure center altogether, but that seems extreme except for the really most annoying HBS folks. Probably what you’d want to do is counteract the effect with an opposing effect. Thus sensitivity training.”

    You take the reward out of it — the feeling of superiority one gets when bullying (yes it is a form of bullying). Why do people bully then becomes the base question. Which then causes you to ask, who creates the “us” vs “them” divisiveness in the culture and for what reason? The pleasure center can be stimulated for social good or social evil.
    Aspiring to Harvard, with its elite ‘connected’ reward system of excessive piggish wealth, is in part a form of bullying.

    Yes the entire culture needs sensitivity training but it won’t happen until the people rise up and contain the Xtrevilism that creates the problems in the first place and at the same time prevents their mitigation.

    Woman Is the Nigger of the World / John Lennon

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.


  17. Josh
    September 10, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Decades out of school, I still sometimes have that dream of waking up for a final exam for a class I haven’t been attending. Having read that article, maybe it will get worse and change to a nightmare that I’m an HBS student. Whatever the changes are with respect to gender sensitivity, it doesn’t seem to address the core issues that make it an environment I would find unpleasant. And I’m saying that from the perspective of a quantitatively capable finance boy, so I guess it must be worse for members of other groups.


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: