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‘The Conceptual Penis’: Academic Hoax Exposes Absurdity Of Gender Studies

For those who think conservatives’ critiques of modern feminism and the Gender Studies curriculum are overly harsh hyperbole, a new academic hoax by a philosopher and his writing partner has exposed just how extreme, and even outright preposterous, the Gender Studies field has become and how illegitimate its peer-review process can be.

Philosopher Peter Boghossian and his collaborator James Lindsay decided to see if they could pull off a hoax paper in the mode of Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which facetiously claimed that quantum gravity is a “social construct” yet still managed to get published in the cultural studies journal Social Text in 1996.

Writing as “Peter Boyle” and “Jamie Lindsay,” the authors submitted an absurd-on-its-face, 3,000-word paper titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” to a peer-reviewed journal, Cogent Social Sciences. Despite packing it full of what they described afterward as “utter nonsense,” the journal published the paper in its May edition. Here’s a screengrab:

The two authors revealed the hoax in an article published this week in Skeptic Magazine, “‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’: A Sokal-style Hoax on Gender Studies,” which begins with the following forward note from the editor:

Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed article today. It’s ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help reign in extremism in this and related areas.
—Michael Shermer

Boghossian and Lindsay then describe in detail their hoax paper and discuss the significance of such a “preposterous” piece of writing being published by a peer-reviewed journal that presents itself as a legitimate source of academic inquiry. Here’s how the authors begin the exposure of their own hoax:

“The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.”

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)

They go on to explain that they submitted the “absurd paper” under pen names and the completely fictional “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” and wrote it in “the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory,” a theoretical mode they never bothered to even try to research. They assumed, correctly, that regardless of completely lacking any facts or legitimate references to any experts in the field, if they just made the general point that “maleness is intrinsically bad,” it would get published:

The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

This already damning characterization of our hoax understates our paper’s lack of fitness for academic publication by orders of magnitude. We didn’t try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like “discursive” and “isomorphism”), nonsense (like arguing that hypermasculine men are both inside and outside of certain discourses at the same time), red-flag phrases (like “pre-post-patriarchal society”), lewd references to slang terms for the penis, insulting phrasing regarding men (including referring to some men who choose not to have children as being “unable to coerce a mate”), and allusions to rape (we stated that “manspreading,” a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide, is “akin to raping the empty space around him”). After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.

The authors provide some excerpts of their bogus paper as examples of just how ridiculous the now officially-published piece truly is, including the conclusion, which they said “was held in high regard by both reviewers”:

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

The authors’ note that, yes, they did in fact argue that the “conceptual penis” causes climate change. Here’s an excerpt from their section on the climate, which they, of course, blame on the “hypermasculine machismo braggadocio isomorphic identification with the conceptual penis”:

Nowhere are the consequences of hypermasculine machismo braggadocio isomorphic identification with the conceptual penis more problematic than concerning the issue of climate change. Climate change is driven by nothing more than it is by certain damaging themes in hypermasculinity that can be best understood via the dominant rapacious approach to climate ecology identifiable with the conceptual penis. Our planet is rapidly approaching the much-warned-about 2°C climate change threshold, and due to patriarchal power dynamics that maintain present capitalist structures, especially with regard to the fossil fuel industry, the connection between hypermasculine dominance of scientific, political, and economic discourses and the irreparable damage to our ecosystem is made clear.

Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset. This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology. When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear. At best, climate change is genuinely an example of hyper-patriarchal society metaphorically manspreading into the global ecosystem.

Here’s another section the authors highlight that underscores the utter nonsense of their argumentation and prose, complete with fake references to real academic figures:

Inasmuch as masculinity is essentially performative, so too is the conceptual penis. The penis, in the words of Judith Butler, “can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility” (Butler, 1993). The penis should not be understood as an honest expression of the performer’s intent should it be presented in a performance of masculinity or hypermasculinity. Thus, the isomorphism between the conceptual penis and what’s referred to throughout discursive feminist literature as “toxic hypermasculinity,” is one defined upon a vector of male cultural machismo braggadocio, with the conceptual penis playing the roles of subject, object, and verb of action. The result of this trichotomy of roles is to place hypermasculine men both within and outside of competing discourses whose dynamics, as seen via post-structuralist discourse analysis, enact a systematic interplay of power in which hypermasculine men use the conceptual penis to move themselves from powerless subject positions to powerful ones (confer: Foucault, 1972).

For anyone who has suffered through a Gender Studies class, that this absurd hoax could make it through peer review (and with “very high marks,” no less) and into a legitimate journal is, sadly, unsurprising. The authors conclude their discussion by calling for the restoration of the reliability of the peer-review process in the field:

The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” should not have been published on its merits because it was actively written to avoid having any merits whatsoever. The paper is academically worthless nonsense. The question that now needs to be answered is, “How can we restore the reliability of the peer-review process?

Read Boghossian and Lindsay’s fascinating/hilarious/depressing analysis here.

This article has been revised for clarity.

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