Casual Sexism and Hedgefundguy

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 by knightofsummer

Today, I came across a clear example of casual sexism and why it matters. Too often people either say, “causal sexism doesn’t exist” or if it is documented, “why are you paying that much attention to something someone said in passing?” Here I will attempt to deconstruct a brief, casual comment and demonstrate how it limits the population who can comfortably participate in online discourse.

I encountered these comments on the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. Someone pointed out that in February employment increased for all men except those ages 20-24, while decreasing for women ages 20-54 [N.B. which is easily explained when you consider that most of the layoffs were government employees, and the areas of government that are male-dominated, like police and firefighters, are less likely to be cut than those that are female-dominated, like teaching and administrative work. Androcentricism definitely plays a part in this, and our economy is suffering the consequences of the education cuts in the 70’s, but that is a topic for another post.] Anyway, these were the comments that followed:

Doug Pascover wrote:
Hedgie, having been a man aged 20-24 at one point, I’m pretty sure we’re better off without them.

hedgefundguy wrote:
I’m with you.
That leaves more 20-24 women for us old guys who have jobs and can afford to be a sugar-daddie.

The first comment is incredibly age-ist. That is, it assumes that it is totally okay for young men to suffer because he isn’t proud of who he was when he was 20. Does he remember how hard it was to live in a world where no one took you seriously, where other people treated him the way he now treats young people who are struggling, out of work, betrayed by a society that taught them entitlement instead of marketable skills? Apparently not. He is also being a terrible economist here; facing bad job prospects at the start of their career will hurt these people’s economic productivity for the rest of their life and create a drag on the economy for years to come. The comment is casually sexist, in that it implies the problem is specific to young men and that they deserve it in part because of their gender. He is speaking from personal experience it is less clearly sexist than it would otherwise be. However, it does play in to the social construction of young men as not being responsible for their actions because they are controlled by some form of biological imperatives, so in that way it clearly relies on sexism in order to be interpreted as a joke and not a call for mass imprisonment or genocide. It completely ignores the existence of women, or the fact that the losses among women over-all were much larger than men; is there something about those women that justifies that as well?

Hedgefundguy, on the other hand, takes this casual sexism to an explicit, misogynistic and threatening place. I am sure he thought he was just making a joke. I am also sure he will be incredibly offended that any woman would interpret the comment the way I am about to interpret it. That just means that he would be offended if his audience isn’t made up of people who support older men’s “rights” to feel entitled to the bodies of women as objects of sexual satisfaction, which means that he is actually going to be offended that women read his comments at all.
[N.B. Not that he’d put it that way. Women, I am sure, are welcome to read his comments as long as they aren’t any different from men and he isn’t asked to keep them in mind as members of his potential audience. Assimilation into masculinity or gender equality as long as it doesn’t ask anything of men seems to be the current accepted norm.] If he didn’t assume the things I am about to suggest he assumes, the joke wouldn’t be funny, it would be nonsensical. It would definitely not be an aside between two men that strengthened their social bonds of camaraderie at young women’s expense.

Now that I’ve gotten the preemptive defense to “how dare you be offended!?!” out of the way, I will explain why this casual “joke” is really a social cue that I am a rape-able, dehumanized object who should not be considered a valid member of the discussion.

The idea of “sugar-daddy” is simple: it is long-term sex work whereby a woman sleeps with an economically-privileged man in exchange for payment, normally in the form of direct support (which leaves him with control over her life; it is closer to indentured servitude than fair employment.) There is nothing wrong with sex work; we are economists after all and if men value sex more than women a capitalist market-clearing solution will probably involve money. However, clearly in a fully market-clearing situation some men would also be paid, there would be no assumptions as to whether this job was preferential to others and it definitely wouldn’t involve coercive economic structures like the “sugar-daddy” role. So essentially he is claiming that the role to which all 20-24 year old women aspire is sexual indenturature.

Second, by placing 20-24 year old men in competition with older men for women, he is reproducing the on-going chauvinistic trope of women as objects to be won or acquired, rather than independent humans who fulfill their own needs through relationships with fellow humans, just like men do. He has erased not only their humanity, but also anything other than their sexuality. He doesn’t comment on how more of them now have jobs and such could, and are, supporting men they have relationships with. He ignores that more of them are remaining single, finishing school and embarking on productive careers or driving increases in productivity and innovation, and how many are remaining single because the marginal cost of a relationship, including having people assume you are an indentured sexual servant, does not exceed the marginal benefit. A majority of high-tech start-ups are now founded by women (though only X% of those that get outside funding, because sexism still exists even when women take Say’s advice and going around established economic institutions when the structural barriers lead to inefficiency.) But the important thing isn’t any of that, it’s how many young women will have sex with hedgefundguy in exchange for money.

In fact, if he wanted to increase the number of young women who were willing to have sex with him, he would have better luck addressing the social stigma of relationships between younger women and older men, by, for example, socially censuring older men who engage in “sugar-daddy” relationships for their exploitation. If nothing else, the objectification and stigma thus acquired undoubtedly raises the price of such relationships, as well as crowding out relationships that wouldn’t require economic payment.

So, this comment is creepy and sexist and lacks both empathy and insight with half of humanity, but how does it make my blood run cold?
First, because I am a participant in The Economist’s comment section, but this commenter has just indicated to me that he doesn’t think I have anything of value to offer unless I was collocated with him and willing to engage in sexual acts. It tells me that my clearly-female user name will probably lead him to ignore my comments, which frustrates me because he is very active and I frequently find his grasp of fundamental economic assumptions to be lacking. [N.B. That sort of entitled disregard for other perspectives could be why his grasp of fundamental economic assumptions are lacking, of course. Privileged wrongness is self-perpetuating.] It tells me that if he knew I was a 24-year-old women, he would value me only for the potential for me to sexually satisfy straight men and not my other contributions to the economy, society or academic thought.
To make the second point, I will use that word that everyone, especially Penny Arcade, hates: rape culture. The dehumanization involved in objectifying women is what makes rape possible, the same way the dehumanization of enemy populations in times of war makes war crimes possible (See for an explanations of the dynamics at work.) I am not for one minute calling hedgefundguy a rapist, nor am I equating sex work to rape (we are economists; we should know the difference between the exploitation of labor made possible by a lack of economic freedom and slavery by force and violence.) You do not have to support rape in order to create a climate that emboldens rapists and allows them to escape punishment on a regular basis (studies show between 6% and 13% of men are unconvicted rapists.) Simply supporting the objectification and dehumanization of women is sufficient to encourage violence against them (as well as violence against any men who are perceived to be insufficiently manly.)
When I am in a space, including a comments section, and someone says something, anything, that implies women are only valuable based on their ability to sexually satisfy straight men and no one else contradicts them, I know I am in a place where if a man raped a woman, the satisfaction he got from sexually-exploitative domination would possibly be considered more valuable than her freedom, her safety, her emotional health, her rights or even her economic contributions (PTSD interferes with employment, and is a drag on GDP.) When women are considered to be primarily valuable for pleasing straight men, they are expected to tolerate terrible treatment from men, especially men who feel entitled to their bodies because they have “paid” for them. This spectrum starts with “boys will be boys” sentements and refusing to hold men responsible for their actions because their behavior is clearly biologically determined, as Doug did, and extends to women who are harassed, or even raped, by powerful men being expected to be grateful for their attentions.
[N.B. I would expect libertarians to care more about the impositions straight men’s sexuality makes on women, since just being wolf-whistled at is a non-consensual interaction that infringes on a woman’s freedom, but since most libertarians are straight men it doesn’t seem to occur to them how hypocritical it is to place the obligation for their sexual satisfaction on other people.]

So, when these specific comments went up on an economics blog and no one objected, suddenly that blog became a place where I know that rape is likely to be given tacit approval. When I read that comment, my blood chilled and I am no longer thinking about supply and demand and declining marginal value and comparative advantage; I am thinking about my personal safety. I am terrified, because he just dehumanized me in a society where dehumanization of people like me frequently does result in violence.
I do not expect anyone who has not had older men feel entitled to their body to have that same reaction to the comment, and I am sure some people who have still see the comment as a reflection of an acceptable status quo and thus funny. I don’t know if men who have had older men feel entitled to their bodies would react to this specific comment, but they might. Men might also react who had watched women they cared about face older men who felt entitled to their bodies, whether it was their mother, sister, partners, daughters or friends. In general, I would expect it alienates anyone who empathizes with women instead of dehumanizing them and recognize this comment as a real thing that happens regularly and routinely. Because of this, if comments like this are entertained the population of participating members will eventually consist only of people who consider women to be sexual objects and fail to empathize with them.
This comment was one guy saying to another guy, “it’s a good thing we’re the people who matter, isn’t it? Not like all those other people.” I hope he is simply willfully ignoring the fact that those other people read the blog too (and some might even usually agree with him). The alternative is that he is intentionally attempting to alienate them and convince them to leave, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just expressing over-privileged status based on the domination and humiliation of his fellow human beings.

I could add my personal experiences with older men with money feeling entitled to my body or the various ways they have attempted to, and succeeded in gaining access to it, but it is not necessary to make the point because it’s not just about me. It fact, my objections are perhaps least about me, because I’m unlikely to stop reading this blog of a paper I’ve read for 11 years just because it tolerated some threatening misogyny. It is about all the other women, and all the other young men who read Dave’s comment, and then leave instead of staying around to comment. Personally, I am far more interested in what they have to say than what Hedgefundguy and Dave have to say. They are the people who are likely to produce the next wave of innovation in the field (I am assuming that Dave and Hedgefundguy are over 35). These young men and women will further not just the profession, but the economy itself (though possibly not until they wrestle it from the cold, dead hands of prior generations.) They may read this comment, have the same reaction I had and never come back. We will neither get their insight, nor will they have the opportunity to learn from the knowledge of those prior generations. That is why what Hedgefundguy said is unacceptable and should not be countenanced by a community that claims to value people for their intellectual contributions. We should not be basing whether or not someone belongs in this community on the basis of whether or not they desire to hire a young woman to sexually satisfy them (though that also wouldn’t exclude all women ages 20-24), or whether they are willing to tolerate old men using their economic and socially-granted power to manipulate young women into bed with them. We should be basing membership on the quality of economic theory and analysis commenters bring to the table.

I know that many people will believe these 2000+ words are excessive time and attention to spend on one comment. My response is two-fold:
First, these comments is reflective of assumptions that hedgefundguy and Doug make about the world, which I believe to not only be wrong but actively harmful. I am not commenting on those three sentences; I am commenting on the world view that causes them to be funny. If you can admit I have a point, but are unwilling to accept that these three sentences matter that much, please just keep this in mind going forward and when you next hear a gender-based joke, think back to this post. I promise you, this won’t be the last one you encounter if your selective attention is looking for them.
Second, if I didn’t consider the potential marginal benefit (an eventual shift away from tolerating sexism in the comment sections of economics blogs) worth the time I’ve spent on this, axiomatically I wouldn’t have written this post.


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