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

The following is a post by Oded Goldreich which I found very interesting. It is based on a brave and important Hebrew post/essay, and I’m grateful to Oded for bringing it to my attention, translating parts of it and allowing me to post it here as well. I think that this is exactly the kind of discussion our community should have about research life, (and I thus liberally tagged it as part of our research-life stories project).


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 away 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 other see, and even understand what others experience.

[Oded Goldreich, April 2013]

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

  1. I don’t know much of “psychological and social modern developmental theories”, but I think that it is more common that the intellectual and the abstract serve as a “corridor” towards the sexual and personal. Then maybe for some it is different 🙂

    1. The post that was translated here was not about theories but rather about realities, it is very personal and very concrete. Indeed, the part that was not translated contained several personal stories. These are not stories of sexual harassment, and there are no villains in those stories. Simply a glimpse into some challenges of being a woman in a male-dominant research area. I think it is worth the attention of those of us that can enjoy good old male camaraderie with our collaborators and that can celebrate an exciting proof with a (metaphorical) chest bump.

  2. Well, John was commenting on text which is mine (i.e., not from the original Hebrew essay). But this text was merely a frame for the main text, which was a translation of a very insightful and brave statement. I prefer we contemplate the main text. Oded

  3. The statement

    “for them this asexual sphere does not exist (i.e., their passion is always understood as sexual)”

    forms the foundation of the rest of the article, which then views the statement through four different lenses. However I can’t spot where the statement itself is proven, backed up or supported in any way. Is the content of this statement assumed knowledge or is it presupposition?

    1. I think that the translation made this statement stronger than in the original text. She was talking about uncertainty in the way women’s passion is understood (rather than certainty that it is sexual). This uncertainty by itself hinders the asexual sphere that much more often exists for men. I disagree that the statement as is in Oded’s post is the foundation the rest of the essay. I think the four aspects could be appreciated directly, simply by the asymmetry between men and women that follows the imbalance in numbers.

  4. This issue arises in other areas where passion is important, such as music and drama. In those areas, the respective communities have dealt with this issue by adopting very sexually open cultures, with affairs and trysts commonplace. This allows the issue to be dealt with in more straightforward and explicit ways: sexual conversion of passion is common and therefore both propositioning and being rejected is normalized as an accepted part of working in these areas. No doubt, this has many major problematic consequences as well.

    The experiences of these other communities suggests that this problem may be too intrinsic to human nature to be fully engineered around. On the other hand, proving theorems is probably a fair bit less emotional and passion-inducing than creating or performing music, so the orgies are unlikely to materialize soon, but the awkwardness of heterosexual men and women working closely together may not be avoidable.

    From a social engineering perspective, we could adopt a well-publicized policy that the minority sex always goes first: that is, if a conversion of passion is desired, the rule is that the member of the minority must always explicitly initiate the conversion. This would not entirely eliminate the problematic cognitive load described the original poster, but it might mitigate it by knowing that any expression of passion on her part would not result in active pursuit by a male colleague without her explicit initiation of that pursuit. On the other hand, it would require women who would like to date within the community to take on the role of pursuer that has traditionally been held by men in Western societies. This would add other cognitive loads to the mix, depending on cultural backgrounds.

    The impact of such a policy could be best addressed by members of the community that have built romantic relationships within the community.

    1. I like the Anonymous comment (of April 25th) and specifically the suggestion made at the 3rd paragraph. I think this is an excellent suggestion. In general, I like policies that do not assume that the desired equality actually exists (and are thus difference-blind), but rather analyze the actual reality and design a policy that compensates for inequalities that exist in the actual reality with the aim of eliminating much of them in the future. Oded

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