Himpathy, Sympathy, and Misogyny too: Sexist Sympathy likely Favors Women.

The philosopher Kate Manne forwarded the concept “himpathy,” or the “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.” In this short essay, I wish to examine this concept critically, unsympathetically, but fair-mindedly.

There are two variants of the notion of “himpathy,” one (the strong version) which I think is demonstrably false, and the other (the weaker version) which I think is partially correct but poorly named and quite misleading. The strong version (call it himpathy SV), which I don’t think Manne would necessarily endorse, is that people generally sympathize more with men than with women (hence the name). The weak version (himpathy WV) is that people generally sympathize with powerful men more than low status women (or their women accusers in general).

Himpathy SV is one that many people in ordinary discourse often forward and is almost certainly false, so let’s address that first, before moving to himpathy WV.

Himpathy SV contradicts everyday experience. Women, especially young women, much more than men are depicted and used as victims precisely because we sympathize with them more than with men. Harm to a woman is viewed as more tragic than harm to a man. This is why, for example, women are often the key characters in horror films. It’s more grotesque and disconcerting to see a killer terrorize women.

Also, we have sayings such as “women and children first” that explicitly make this a part of social norms. It’s true that people often forget these norms when their lives are actually imperiled, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care more about the average woman; it just means that we are selfish. Similarly, we are reluctant to allow women into dangerous jobs such as the military and view those who want to force women into the draft as somewhat uncouth, at best.

This concords with evolutionary logic, which suggest that society should sympathize more with female victims than male victims (of equal status). Females have the more valuable sex cell. The bigger sex cell. The rarer sex cell. In humans, this disparity is quite large. And it has important consequences. Consider an extreme case. If there were a group of 100 women and 25 men, then the men could get all the women pregnant. However, if the reverse were the case, then that would create a severe reproductive problem for the social group and a likely lead to collapse. The average woman is more valuable to a society than the average man.

Men’s sex cells are cheap; therefore, men are largely disposable, especially low status men. This is why men have almost always been forced to die in war, in dangerous jobs, from starvation, et cetera, more often than women. Congruently, research suggests that people want to punish male perpetrators more harshly than female perpetrators, that they believe women victims will experience more pain, and that they support policies that help only women more than those that help only men.

To my knowledge, Manne’s only response to this to research on sympathy toward women is to point to studies that show that people believe men (boys) experience more pain than women. But there is a quite plausible alternative explanation. People believe that boys/men are more tolerant of pain and are more likely to suppress expressions of it. Therefore, when people see a boy and a girl expressing a similar amount of pain, they believe that the boy must be experiencing more of it. Consider an analogy that illustrates how plausible this is. If shown a film of an adult and a child getting pricked and displaying the same expression, I suspect most viewers would believe that the adult is actually experiencing more pain. Why? Because adults generally react more stoically to pain. And, indeed, in the study cited above, the effect disappeared once researchers controlled for perceptions of stoicism.

Himpathy SV, therefore, seems completely untenable to me. In fact, observation, theory, and evidence all suggest that it is the opposite of the truth; and likely most scholars and journalists would ignore it if it weren’t ideologically useful.

Himpathy WV, however, is a bit more plausible, especially if stripped of its sex-based formulation, so that it reads “People value high status people more that low status people; and they sometimes let high status people get away with heinous crimes, especially if their victims were low status people.” Of course, this ruins himpathy and makes the sympathy not a manifestation of pervasive misogyny, but rather of a natural propensity to favor high status people over others. In fact, the degree of this favorability is almost certainly stronger if the victims are men, not women. That is, a high status man who exploited another man would almost certainly be treated better than one who exploited a woman.

In an interview with Vox, Manne forwarded two examples that support the notion that society is “pathologically” sympathetic to powerful men: The Kavanaugh hearings and Brock Turner. Manne argued that Trump’s casual dismissals of Ford’s testimony about Kavanaugh were evidence of himpathy. Ford was “totally erased from the discourse.” Trump, in general, is quite callous and transactional, so, despite that Manne claimed that he showed real sympathy toward Kavanaugh, we shouldn’t be surprised by Trump’s response. (Although, it is worth noting that he did, at one point, call her a “very credible witness.”)

So let’s set Trump aside. It’s worth noting that (1) Ford testified despite having no corroborating evidence to a very old accusation (thus, she was certainly not erased); and (2) attitudes about Kavanaugh were largely partisan, so this example is not useful. (In her New York Times opinion piece, Manne chides Trump and Kavanaugh for being against abortion, which, she claims, further illustrates an incapability of sympathizing with women. But this is also a partisan issue, one which divides both men and women, so is a tendentious point.)

The Brock Turner example was quite shocking to me, since he is nearly universally reviled. Here is what Manne said in the interview with Vox, “And what we saw, from his father and his friends, was this wave of sympathy over what the whole ordeal was costing him.” This is called tribalism, not himpathy. Of course his friends sympathized with him. And they would have if he were a woman as well. And is it really plausible that they, his family and friends, would not have sympathized with Brock if his victim had been a man? What’s more informative is the response of the rest of society.

So far as I can tell, very few people sympathized with him. He is widely depicted as a spoiled, privileged deviant who got a lucky break from a derelict judge. Many people, in fact, were absolutely outraged by his lenient sentence. And the judge became the first California jurist to be recalled from the bench in 86 years! It’s worth asking what would happen to a conservative who forwarded such a preposterous example to support a prima facie implausible theory. I’m quite certain that they would not be lionized by the media.

As I noted before, it is likely true that high status people in general do receive preferential treatment. In many ancient law codes, including Anglo-Saxon and Roman among others, high status people were explicitly treated differently from low status people. And although our laws codes explicitly discarded this preference, it stems from a natural propensity to admire and defer to high status people.

So, in this very circumscribed sense, Manne’s hypothesis is probably 50% true. But it’s not about sex. It’s about status. It’s not himpathy; it’s hierarchy. And, in fact, to the extent that sex is important here, it probably works in exactly the opposite direction. Women victims in almost all cases probably elicit more sympathy and concern than male victims.

It’s a depressing fact that bad ideas that are ideologically convenient will often survive better than good ideas that are not. But we should, nevertheless, subject them to fair-minded scrutiny, if only for our own limited edification. When exposed to such scrutiny, himpathy’s flaws are undeniable. Even the weak version is unsupported and unsustainable. In fact, the opposite is more likely true. But I don’t expect that much more plausible idea to spread widely among today’s intelligentsia.

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store