On intellectual passion and its unfortunate confusion with sexual passion (and how it may relate to issues of gender)

[an anonymous via Oded Goldreich, April 2013]

The following text is based on a post, in Hebrew, that I saw in an Internet forum on gender relations in Israeli academia. The general context of the original text, which deserves to be called an essay, is that of the underrepresentation of females in academia, especially in certain disciplines. The specific text (hereafter the essay) referred to a mostly unnoticed aspect of this underrepresentation.

The author, an anonymous female graduate student in Humanities, starts her essay with four short anecdotes that illustrate the analysis presented later. She then recalled the two standard arguments made in favor of affirmative action: (1) compensating the candidates themselves for the social problems that hindered their earlier development, and (2) serving the next generation by providing adequate role models. At this point, she offered a wise and courageous insight, which has escaped me before (although I thought of these issues a lot). She suggested "Another reason, a fairly complex one, which hinders the participation of females in academia." Following is her analysis (slightly revised and freely translated by me):

For a person seeking wisdom (and indeed loving it), the discovery and study of ideas are strong emotional experiences: They reveal a strong passion, an intellectual passion. This passion is characteristic of great researchers, those deeply devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. A strong emotional tie is created among those who share the pursuit, among those who share the intellectual passion for similar questions. This passion is present in their interactions, in which progress is achieved by sharing and confronting ideas. But this intellectual passion presupposed an asexual sphere, where people can be passionate in their interactions, and be understood as intellectually rather than sexually passionate.

An academic world consisting mainly of males is a world in which this intellectual passion is not as freely experienced by females (to say the least), because for them this asexual sphere does not exist (i.e., their passion is always understood as sexual). Thus, intellectual passion is always problematic for females, whereas it is hardly so for males. For females but not for males, a big question always exists (i.e., questioning the nature of their passion, asking whether it is intellectual or sexual). Consequently, the intellectual passion of females is restrained, which results in pushing them to more secure confines, which are more mediocre. The process works at several levels.

  1. The social level ("what will they say?"): Whenever I express passion or excitement in an intellectual interaction, external parties are likely to think that my passion/excitement is sexual. I am interested in the intellectual aspect, but when they see a male at the target of my intellectual passion, they use the social equation female+male+passion = sexual situation. Even when the passion/excitement is linked to an intellectual contents, it stands the danger of being interpreted as a disguise for the sexual. This social prejudice is applied to all females (regardless of whether they are straight, bisexual or lesbian), but it is never applied to males (regardless of whether they are straight, bisexual or gay).
  2. The first bilateral level ("what will he think?"): I do not want our relationship to become sexual, I want to keep it intellectual because this is what I'm interested in. But what will he think of my behavior? If I show excitement or passion, will he not misinterpret them as sexual? Therefore, if I want to keep it intellectual, I better restrain myself, be less passionate. I will lose in the intensity of our interaction, but I may keep away from the danger of losing it all due to misinterpretation. This danger of misinterpretation is relevant to all females (except maybe proclaimed lesbians), and is irrelevant to males (except maybe proclaimed gays).
  3. The second bilateral level ("what will he think that I may think?"): But he is also aware of all of this. So he may also be threatened if I am too passionate, because he may feel that responding positively may be misinterpreted by me as a demonstration of sexual interest. So he thinks that he better not be intellectually passionate with me, and so I lose again (since this means a less intense interaction). He loses less since there are many alternative (males) around, with whom he can feel "safe". For me there are few "safe" alternative (i.e., less females).
  4. The personal level ("what do I actually think?"): The above refers to cases where there is absolutely no sexual interest on my side, and I only fear of being perceived as having such an interest. But what if things are less clear? What if I am really sexually attracted to him? Or what if I am just confused about it, which is possible in light of the confusion between the intellectual and sexual passion? Either way this would be very confusing for me, and this confusion will have a cost (i.e., hinder my intellectual performance).
In principle (or "in theory"), all these problems may arise also for males, but in the reality of an academic world that consists mainly of males, these problems occur much more often and much more intensively for females. So an academic world with a less disproportional gender representation will be less problematic for females, but indeed more problematic for males. Needless to say, the latter "sacrifice" (as giving away any other privileges) is fair to ask for and to expect.

Of course, an ideal solution would be a radical revolution in society; getting rid of the prejudices of gender roles, stopping to label situations as sexual or not according to the gender of the participants.

My reproductions of parts of the essay comes to an end here. Originally I thought of stopping just here, because I found the argument clear and requiring no interpretations. Surely, any interested reader will have her/his own thoughts, and will draw his/her own conclusions. But a friend of mine thought that it will be nice if I end with some of my own thoughts.

I was aware of the emotional dimension of intellectual activities (and in particular, of the passions involved in it) ever since I can remember. It was also clear to me that a "resource sharing" is taking place here, sharing emotional resources between the intellectual and the personal/sexual. I was also aware of the classical Greek philosophical traditions and the psychological and social modern developmental theories that view the sexual and personal as a "corridor" towards the intellectual and the abstract. What I failed to see, until I read the foregoing essay, is that this "resource sharing" phenomenon may also cause problems in some social realities (i.e., ours).

I guess my blindness toward these problems is related to my experiences as a male in our social setting (at large), which offers different experiences to males and females. One advantage of the human society is that one can learn also from what others see, and even understand what others experience.

[Oded Goldreich, April 2013]

This is an English version of my Hebrew posting on the same topic. The Hebrew version is (naturally) more faithful to the text of the original anonymous essay (and also contains a link to the original essay).

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