Taking Sex Differences Seriously
by Steven E. Rhoads
Encounter. 362 pp. $17.95
When Steven Rhoads published Taking Sex Differences Seriously last fall, he received considerable praise from the conservative press for his common-sense argument that gender differences are innate, since masculinity and femininity are dictated by nature. But then, as if to prove that every move on one side is matched by a countermove on the other, Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers quickly published Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs—a book, widely praised by the liberal press, which asserted a different piece of common sense: “When we look around, we see clearly that all men are not alike and all women are not alike.” Reading both these volumes together, one is pushed to the inevitable question: Can’t we have a relation of men and women that understands both these truths?
Apparently not. In Taking Sex Differences Seriously, Rhoads marshals evidence from across disciplines to argue that men and women naturally behave quite differently in three different areas: sex, nurturing, and aggression. Men are more competitive, more promiscuous, and less nurturing than women—since their hormones, brains, and evolutionary histories are fundamentally different. He argues that it is “misogynist” to deny these differences in the name of women’s equality and to shape public policy that ignores them. The sexual revolution and feminist movement, which were expected to liberate women at last, in fact created a society in which men can get what they want from women—sex—without responsibility or commitment, while women are increasingly frustrated in their desires for home and children. After all the changes for women in the second half of the twentieth century, the results are in, and women have gotten a raw deal.
Unfortunately, Rhoads’ book is ultimately limited by his choice of language, specifically the choice between “sex” and “gender.” “The term gender difference,” Rhoads warns, “reflects the assumption that any distinctions between the sexes’ traits arise from society’s rigid gender roles, which channel people’s thoughts and actions in stereotypical directions.” In fact, “gender” is an extremely useful word when used not instead of “sex” but along side it. “Sex” refers to one’s biological status as male or female. “Gender” is founded on, and made unavoidable by, sex differences, but it refers to the cultural ways in which that biological status is expressed, the different ideals different societies hold up for men and for women. Gender is the social meaning given to the biological fact of sex difference.
Rhoads’ assertion that there is no gender, only sex, points to the problem he has discerning what we ought to be like. “I certainly have no quarrel with the view that we should not encourage everything we may be inclined by nature to do,” he writes, but he does not provide us with a principled way to distinguish sex differences that should be followed from sex differences that should be resisted. On the one hand, if women deny their nature, it “can bring heartbreaking torment.” On the other hand, civilization requires that men deny their “tendencies toward violence and predatory sex.” Happy women conform to their nature, to femininity; happy men fight their nature, fight masculinity.
One doesn’t have to be a believer in feminist ideology to be a little skeptical of a theory that automatically gives men a certain degree of freedom from nature that women do not have. According to this line of thought, sexual chastity does not come naturally to men, so we shouldn’t be all that surprised when they fail. Women, however, are supposed to have nature on their side; if they still insist on being sexually active, even promiscuous, they must be really awful—much more de praved then their male counterparts who behave the same way.
While lust presents temptations to both men and women, Rhoads makes men’s lust fundamental. “When the beauty is not fully clothed, men may have a harder time keeping actions from following thought.” Of course, women can do something about this—dress modestly. But what about men’s responsibility to fight their nature as if civilization depended on it? Rhoads says not a word about avoiding pornography and strip clubs or cultivating habits of respect for women. If “masculinity” is just a word for how men behave naturally, then the exhortation to “be a man” loses all its power; it doesn’t even make sense. And when he discovers that some women do not fit his category of natural femininity, he is forced to come up with a “natural” explanation: these women are “high-testosterone women,” not normal women at all.
Still, Rhoads is right about at least one thing: Gender is persistent. This is something the authors of Same Difference fail to grasp. Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers are disturbed by what they see as the reemergence of a new set of “gender myths.” In relationships, work, and parenting, they argue, the attribution of certain characteristics to specific genders has hurt men and, especially, women by hiding power structures underneath supposedly innate gender differences. These myths keep men and women in confining categories, denying them the flexibility they need and burdening them with guilt. These myths are “not helping the millions of men and women managing multiple roles at home and in the workforce.”
Barnett and Rivers often seem less concerned about the truth of their argument than about its results (they scold fellow feminists Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan for “delivering a message that women are very different from men, which could easily be twisted to diminish women’s opportunities”). But their book cannot be dismissed entirely as agenda-driven. They remind us that “women and men shift their behavior all the time.” Men do nurture in some circumstances, just as women can be quite aggressive.
The difference, according to Barnett and Rivers, is power. For example, in the chapter that addresses gender myths in communication, they suggest that the “female” speech style, indicating “involvement, connection, and participation,” is really the style used by all who feel less powerful than the person to whom they are speaking, while the “male” speech style, indicating “independence and position in a hierarchy,” is used by anyone who feels in control of a conversation.
Barnett and Rivers are right to call our attention to instances where we confuse biology and culture, and there is much in Same Difference to sharpen understandings of gender—as, for example, their warning that we create suspicion rather than trust “by teaching men to view women as being interested only in men’s paychecks and women to believe that men are biologically programmed to have sex and run off.”
But by using this equation of gender and power as their only interpretative framework, they wind up denying the existence of sex in the same way that Rhoads denies the existence of gender. They claim their book “acknowledges the existence of gender differences”—but apparently gender differences are so unimportant that one paragraph is sufficient exploration of them. The disclaimer is meant mainly to preempt the accusation that Barnett and Rivers are saying men and women are exactly the same; apparently they are afraid that any further discussion of difference would contribute to the backlash against women.
What ultimately makes Same Difference so unsatisfying is the authors’ refusal to question their own premises. Rivers and Barnett carefully draw the boundaries of what are acceptable conclusions at the outset of their argument. “Nowadays most women, including mothers of young children, are part of the paid labor force from their twenties until retirement,” they write. “This revolution in women’s lives, and in the life of the family, is taken for granted today.” It’s clear that this revolution will also be taken for granted throughout their book. Their first concern is women’s status in the workplace; almost every issue they discuss, from parenting to communication to aggression, is seen from the perspective of working women. They go to great lengths to reassure working mothers, and they can be pretty harsh on women who still feel the pull of home: “Perhaps for mothers, the idea of being the primary nurturer is akin to a security blanket, something to hang onto in a time of great change. . . . Maybe ‘mommy’ should face the fact that she won’t always be number one in her child’s eyes.”
It seems there’s no problem a woman can’t solve by getting a job; Barnett and Rivers ask us to “imagine the different ending Death of a Salesman might have had if Willy Loman’s wife had held a good job.” Similarly, no social institution is sacred when it comes to achieving gender equality in the workplace; anything and everything may be reorganized to facilitate its achievement, including courtship, marriage, and the family.
Ultimately, both Taking Sex Differences Seriously and Same Difference suffer from a kind of literal-mindedness. Rhoads treats sex as a law of nature, one that he embraces, while Rivers and Barnett argue against gender as an arbitrary law to be delegitimized. Rhoads looks back nostalgically to a past when men were men and women were women, while Rivers and Barnett look back apprehensively to a past when men were patriarchs and women were oppressed. Their reliance on evolutionary psychology and primatology as ways of getting at what is real and supposedly constant about men and women lead them to coarse simplification: There was gender “then” and gender “now,” and we have only to determine, with surveys and studies, which version is most true. After reading both these books, I still don’t know whether the scientific evidence says that women are naturally more nurturing than men, or that men are naturally more aggressive than women.
But if we look at gender not just as nature’s law but also as social meaning, then the false dichotomy dissolves: gender becomes both inescapable and beautifully flexible. While Rivers and Barnett warn that “yesterday’s formulas—no matter how invitingly packaged—are unreliable road maps to a future filled with change and uncertainty,” a turn to history and the humanities may actually be exactly what we need to move beyond our current debates over gender. In the past and in literature, we can find an abundance of real-life examples of how men and women have understood themselves. Studying gender in this way would show that, however much we may condemn specific expressions of it, we cannot avoid gender altogether, and so to interpret gender relations merely as power relations is to suggest that there is something natural and unavoidable about women’s powerlessness. But if we allow ourselves to consider the possibility that gender differences are not always a disguise for power differences, this trap disappears. At the same time, such a study would also show that, in fact, while we cannot change who has the babies, we bear a great deal of responsibility for what men and women look like as social creatures, and we cannot get out of that responsibility, or shift it to others, by an appeal to our “natures.”
Because gender is fundamentally a way in which we make sense of ourselves as embodied creatures, no investigation of gender can allow itself to be carried too far off from the body. Gender reminds us that our bodies are not merely tools that we use to various ends. Our bodies are ourselves; their gender has a meaning and a value that is not merely instrumental. This is an important truth that Pope John
Paul II emphasized in his theology of the body, defining masculinity and femininity as “two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body.”
Another advantage of a body-focused understanding of gender is that it will help us to stay balanced in our assessment of our sameness and difference. Perhaps men and women are most different during procreation, when each of them perform functions the other is biologically unable to do. The farther from procreation we get—into the home, the workplace, the social sphere, the political sphere—the more careful we should be in our proclamations of what is naturally male and female. A discussion of gender that stays focused on our gendered bodies will help keep us from overemphasizing either sameness or difference, because, when we look at the human body, we see both.
Sara Butler is a research associate at the Institute for American Values.