If You Got It, Think Hard About Flaunting It

I’ve attended the Gay Pride Parade in New York on more than one occasion. The event itself holds a special significance for many people who have been close to me and I’m always happy to see them happy, even if parades normally aren’t my cup of tea. That said, I have found certain aspects of the event a little peculiar, at least with regard to its execution. I had this to say about it some years ago:

One could be left wondering what a straight pride parade would even look like anyway, and admittedly, I have no idea. Of course, if I didn’t already know what gay pride parades do look like, I don’t know why I would assume they would be populated with mostly naked men and rainbows, especially if the goal is fostering acceptance and rejection of bigotry. The two don’t seem to have any real connection, as evidenced by black civil rights activists not marching mostly naked for the rights afforded to whites, and suffragettes not holding any marches while clad in assless leather chaps.

Colorful exaggerations aside, there’s something very noteworthy to think about here. While it might seem normal for gay pride events to be rather flamboyant affairs, there need not be any displays of promiscuous sexuality inherent to the event. That is, if people were celebrating a straight, monogamous relationship style with a parade, I don’t think we’d see many people dressing down or, in some cases, going without clothing at all. I imagine the event would be substantially more modest as, well, most other parts of life tend to be.

“From: Straight Pride Boat Ride, 2016″

The relevance of this point comes when one begins to consider what types of people in the world are most opposed to homosexual lifestyles and, accordingly, pose the largest obstacles to things like marriage and adoption rights for the gay community. When considering who those people are, the most common idea that will no doubt spring to many minds are the conservative, religious type (likely because that would be the correct answer). But why are such people most likely to condemn homosexuality on a moral level? A tempting answer would be to make reference to some religious texts condemning homosexuality, but that’s a rather circular explanation: religious people condemn homosexuality because they believe in a doctrine that condemns homosexuality. It’s also not entirely complete, as many parts of the doctrine are only selectively followed in other contexts. We’re also left wondering why those doctrines condemned homosexuality in the first place, placing us back at square one.

A more detailed picture begins to emerge when you consider what predicts religiosity in the first place; what type of person is most drawn to such groups. As it turns out, one of the better predictors of who ends up associating themselves with religious groups and who does not is sexual strategy. Those who are more inclined to monogamy (or, more precisely, opposed to promiscuity) tend to be more religious, and this holds across cultures and religions. By contrast, religiosity is not well predicted by general cooperative morals or behavior. It would be remarkable if religions from all parts of the world ended up stumbling upon a common distaste for promiscuity if it was not inherently tied to religious belief. Something about sexual behavior is uniquely predictive of religiosity, which ought to be strange when you consider that one’s sexual behavior should have little bearing on whether a deity (or several deities) exist. It has even been proposed that religious groups themselves function to support particular kinds of relatively monogamous mating arrangements. In that light, religious groups can be viewed as a support structure for monogamous couples who plan on having many children.

With that perspective in mind, the religious opposition to promiscuity becomes substantially clearer: promiscuity makes monogamous arrangements more difficult to sustain, and vice versa. If you plan on having a lot of children, men face risks of cuckoldry (raising a child that was unknowingly sired by another man) while women face risks of abandonment (if their husband runs off with another woman, leaving her to care for the children alone). As such, having lots of promiscuous men and women around who might lure your partner away or stop them from investing in you in the first place does the monogamous type no favors. In order to support their more monogamous lifestyle, then, these people begin to punish those who engage in promiscuous behaviors to make such strategies more costly to engage in and, accordingly, more rare.

The first punishment for promiscuity – spankings – didn’t have the intended effect

While homosexual individuals themselves don’t exactly pose direct risks to heterosexual, long-term mating couples, they may nevertheless be condemned to the extent that the gay community is viewed as promiscuous. There are a few possible reasons for that outcome to obtain. Perhaps homosexuals are viewed as supporting and encouraging promiscuity, and to let that go unpunished would start other people down a path towards promiscuity (similar to how recreational drug use is also condemned by the long-term maters). Perhaps all sorts of non-traditional sexual behavior is condemned by the conservative groups and homosexuality just ends up condemned as a byproduct. Whatever the explanation for this condemnation, however, a key prediction falls out of this framework: moral condemnation of homosexuality ought to increase to the extent they are viewed as promiscuous and decrease to the extent they are viewed as monogamous. As homosexual groups (particularly men) are viewed as more promiscuous than their heterosexual counterparts (because they are, from every data set I’ve seen), this might help explain the condemnation and, in turn, do something about it.

This is exactly what a new paper by Pinsof & Haselton (2017) sought to test. The pair recruited approximately 1,000 participants from online. The participants read either an article that reported gay men had more partners than straight ones, or an article that reported gay men and straight had the same number of partners. Participants were also asked about their own perceptions of how promiscuous gay men are, their stance on gay rights, and on their own mating orientation (whether they thought short-term sexual encounters were acceptable or not).

As expected, there was an appreciable relationship between one’s mating orientation and one’s support of gay rights: the more long-term their mating strategy, the less supportive of gay rights they were (r = -0.4). That said, despite men being more accepting of promiscuity than women, there was no relationship between gender and support for gay rights. Crucially, an interaction was observed between experimental condition and mating orientation when it came to predicting support for gay rights: Those who were particularly accepting of short-term mating arrangements opposed gay rights very little regardless of which article they had read regarding gay men’s sexual behavior (Ms = approximately 2.25 in both groups, on a scale from 1-7). However, among those who were relatively less accepting of short-term mating, there was a significant difference between the two conditions: when reading an article about how gay men were more promiscuous, opposition to gay rights was higher (M = 4.25) than it was in the condition where they read about how gay men were equally promiscuous (M = 3.5).


By manipulating perceptions of whether gay men were promiscuous, the researchers were also able to manipulate opposition to gay rights. So, if one is interested in achieving greater support for the homosexual community, that’s important information to bear in mind. It also brings me back to the initial point I mentioned about the Gay Pride events I have attended. While I was there, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the atmosphere of sexual promiscuity surrounding the parade would be off-putting to a substantial percentage of the population (even within the gay community), and it seems that intuition was borne out by the present data. The Gay Pride events go beyond a simple celebration and acceptance of homosexuality at points, as it is frequently coupled with sexual promiscuity. It seems that many people might have less of a problem with the former issue if the latter one wasn’t tagging along.

Then again, perhaps promiscuity will be a bit more closely linked with the homosexual community in general, given that children do not result from such unions (making them less costly to engage in) and because heterosexual men are usually only as promiscuous as women allow them to be. If women were just as interested in casual sex as men, there would likely be a lot more casual sex going on. When men are attracted to other men, however, the barriers that usually holds promiscuity in check (children and women’s desires) are much weaker. That does raise the interesting question of whether a different pattern holds for lesbian relationships (which are less promiscuous than gay ones), and it’s certainly one worth pursuing.

References: Pinsof, D. & Haselton, M. (2017). The effect of the promiscuity stereotype on opposition to gay rights. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0178534. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178534

Not-So-Leaky Pipelines

There’s an interesting perspective many people take when trying to understand the distribution of jobs in the world, specifically with respect to men and women: they look at the percentage of men and women in a population (usually in terms of country-wide percentages, but sometimes more localized), make note of any deviations from those percentages in terms of representation in a job, and then use those deviations to suggest that certain desirable fields (but not usually undesirable ones) are biased against women. So, for instance, if women make up 50% of the population but only represent 30% of lawyers, there are some who would conclude this means the profession (and associated organizations) is likely biased against women, usually because of some implicit sexism (as evidence of explicit and systematic sexism in training or hiring practices is exceptionally hard to come by). Similar methods have been used when substituting race for gender as well.

Just another gap, no doubt caused by sexism

Most of the ostensible demonstrations of this sexism issue are wanting, and I’ve covered a number of these examples before (see here, here, here, and here). Simply put, there are a lot of factors in the world that determine where people ultimately end up working (or whether they’re working at all). Finding a consistent gap between groups tells you something is different, just not what. As such, you don’t just get to assume that the cause of the difference is sexism and call it a day. My go-to example in that regard has long been plumbing. As a profession, it is almost entirely male dominated: something like 99% of the plumbers in the US are men. That’s as large of a gender gap as you could ask for, yet I have never once seen a campaign to get more women into plumbing or complaints about sexism in the profession keeping otherwise-interested women out. Similarly, men make up about 96% of the people shot by police, but the focus on police violence has never been on getting officers to shoot fewer men per se. In those cases, most people seem to recognize that factors other than sex are the primary determinants of the observed sex differences. Correlation isn’t causation, and maybe women aren’t as interested in digging around through human waste or committing violent felonies as men are. Not to say that many men are interested, just that more of those who are end up being men.

If that was the case and these sex differences aren’t caused by sexism, any efforts that sought to “fix” the gap by focusing on sexism would ultimately be unsuccessful. At the risk of saying something too obvious, you change outcomes by changing their causes; not unrelated issues. If we have the wrong idea as to what is causing an outcome, we end up wasting time and money (which often does not belong to us) trying to change it and accomplishing very little in the process (outside of getting people annoyed at us for wasting their time and money).

Today I wanted to add to that pile of questionable claims of sexism concerning an academic neighbor to psychology: philosophy. Though I was unaware of this debate, there is apparently some contention within the field concerning the perceived under-representation of women. As is typical, the apparent under-representation of women in this field has been chalked up to sexist biases keeping women discouraged and out of a job. To be clear about things, some people are looking at the percentage of men and women in the field of philosophy, noting that it differs from their expectations (whatever those are and however they were derived), calling it under-representation because of those expectations, and then further assuming a culprit in the form of sexism. As it turns out, the data has something to say about that.

It also has some great jokes about Polish people if you’re a racist.

The data in question come from a paper by Allen-Hermanson (2017), which examined sex differences in tenure-track hiring and academic publishing in philosophy departments. The reasoning behind this line of research was that if insidious forces are at work against women in philosophy departments, we ought to expect something of a leaky pipeline: women should not be as successful as men at landing desirable, tenure-track jobs, relative to the rates at which each sex earn philosophy degrees. So, if women earned, say, 40% of the philosophy PhDs during the last year, we might expect that they get 40% of the tenure-track jobs in the next, all else being equal. Across the 10 year period examined (2005-2014), there were three years in which women were hired very slightly below their relative percentage into the tenure-track jobs (and by “very slightly” I’m talking in range of about 1-2%), one year in which it was dead even, and during the remaining six years women were hired at above the rate which would be expected by much more substantial margins (in the range of 5-10%).

Putting some rough numbers to that, women earned about 28% of the PhDs and received about 36% of the jobs in the most recent hiring seasons. It seems, then, women tended to be over-represented in those positions, on average. Other data discussed in the paper corresponds to those findings, again suggesting that women had about a 25% advantage over men in finding desirable positions (in terms of less desirable positions, men and women were hired in about equal numbers).

This finding is made all the stranger by Allen-Hermanson (2017) noting that male and female degree holders differed with respect to how often they published. On average, the new tenure-track female candidates who had never held such a position before had 0.77 publications. The comparable male number was 1.37. Of those who secured a job in 2012-2013, men averaged 2.4 publications to women’s 1.17. Not only are the men publishing about twice as much, then, but they’re also modestly less successful at landing a job (and this effect did not appear to be driven by particularly prolific publishers). While one could possibly make the case that maybe female publications are in some sense higher qualitythat remains to be seen. One could more easily make the case that female candidates were held to lower standards than male ones.

As the data currently stand, I can’t imagine many people will be making a fuss about them and crying sexism. Perhaps the men with the degrees went out to seek work elsewhere and that explains why women are over-represented. Perhaps there are other causes. The world is a complicated place, after all. The point here is that there won’t be talk about how philosophy departments are biased against men, just like there wasn’t much talk I saw last time research found a much larger academic bias in favor of women, holding candidate quality constant. I think that is largely because the data apparently favor women with respect to hiring. If the results had run in the opposite direction, I can imagine that a lot more noise would have been made about them and many people would be getting scolded right now about their tolerance of sexism. But that’s just an intuition.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find bias against my group somewhere else”

When asking a question of under-representation, the most pressing matter should always be, “under-represented with respect to what expectation?” In order to say that a group is under-represented, you need to make it clear what the expected degree of representation is as well as why. We shouldn’t expect that men and women be killed by police in equal numbers unless we also expect that both groups behave more-or-less identically. We similarly shouldn’t expect that men and women enter into certain fields in the same proportion unless they have identical sets of interests. On the other hand, if the two groups are different with respect to some key factor that determines an outcome, such as interests, using sex itself is just a poor variable choice. Compared to interest in fixing toilets (and other such relevant factors), I imagine sex itself uniquely predicts very little about who ultimately ends up becoming a plumber. If we can use those better, more directly-relevant factors, we should. You don’t build your predictive model with irrelevant factors; not if accuracy is your goal, in any case.

References: Allen-Hermanson S. (2017). Leaking pipeline myths: In search of gender effects on the job market and early career publishing in philosophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00953