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Getting the Sexes Back on Track

It may be permissible to take sex differences seriously again.

By 6.16.04

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Taking Sex Differences Seriously
by Steven E. Rhoads
(Encounter Books, 374 pages, $27.95)

IN AN EXPERIMENT DONE in the mid-1990s, a researcher asked fifty sexually active college students to react to the statement: "Even if I think I don't want to be emotionally involved with a person, if I have sex with her/him a few times, I begin to feel vulnerable and would at least like to know she/he cares about me." Fifty percent of the males disagreed with that, but only 4 percent of the females did.

Asked whether such a result -- obtained, to repeat, not in the 1950s but in the 1990s -- reflects an innate difference between males and females, many feminists will deny it and say social conditioning creates the difference. Such feminists adhere to what Steven Rhoads calls the "androgynous world" ideology -- a highly influential ideology claiming that males and females are innately exactly the same, and the best and truest world will be one in which their personalities and roles are identical.

Well, how about this: a study of fourth and sixth graders found that during playtime boys competed with each other 50 percent of the time, while girls competed with each other 1 percent of the time. Or, studies done from the 1920s to the 1990s found that preschool girls are more interested in dance, preschool boys more interested in balls and rough-and-tumble play.

Nope, feminists will say. Those grade-school kids, those preschool kids, have had plenty of time to be molded by a patriarchal order that teaches males to be strong and assertive, females to be weak and docile.

O.K., how about this:

"[An] experiment exposed day-old infants to a battery of sounds including wild animal calls, computer-generated language and the unhappy cries of other infants. All the babies cried the most when they heard the sounds of other crying infants, but the female babies cried longer."

That's the nitty-gritty-sex differences at one day old, when even the grimmest feminists can't claim the patriarchy has had a hand in it --and there's a lot more nitty-gritty in this outstanding book. (Another example: three-day-old girls will maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys will.) Rhoads, who teaches public policy at the University of Virginia, worked on the book for ten years while reviewing hundreds of studies. He summarizes the evolutionary and biological literature in a way that overwhelmingly establishes the case for nature -- that is, for natural sex differences.

SOME OF THE MOST striking findings involve females with high levels of testosterone, the "male" hormone (actually, both sexes have testosterone, but men typically have ten times more of it). Such females have been extensively researched, and it's been found that, as girls, they tend to prefer boys' toys, to like rough-and-tumble play, to be more competitive than other girls; as women, to be more career-oriented, more ambivalent about having children, more interested in casual sex -- and the list goes on. Not surprisingly, low-testosterone women show opposite, more "traditionally" feminine tendencies.

Back in the sixties, though, when less was known scientifically about sex differences -- though it's doubtful such knowledge would have helped -- the sexual revolution "liberated" both sexes to enjoy recreational sex apart from marriage and children. The closely related ideology of feminism proclaimed that women were the same as men and should have the same goals and values. By 1999, 29 percent of American women aged 35-44 were unmarried (in 1960, it was 13 percent). Since 1970, women have been twice as likely as men to be depressed. Indeed, many women blame men for their plight; studies report sharply higher levels of resentment and even rage against men for not taking relationships seriously. Other women direct the blame elsewhere; a childless Australian newswoman reaching her forties writes that she's "angry that I was foolish enough to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfillment came with a leather briefcase."

As Rhoads sums it up: "Since the 1970s … women have made dramatic strides in their access to and advancement in well-paid and traditionally male occupations. But in their intimate world, their desire for sex with emotional involvement and leading to permanence is much more difficult to achieve than it used to be."

He then has the courage to say: "It is unclear that the career gains have compensated for the losses in intimacy and emotional security." In my experience, even a tentative statement like that one is socially risky.

WOMEN, OF COURSE, ARE NOT the only ones to suffer losses under the new androgyny. Although many men find the sexual freedom much more to their liking, studies find that men, too, benefit from marriage and are much more prone to depression, addiction, crime, and many other ills in the unmarried state. But perhaps the biggest losers are children. If born at all, since the 1970s their chances of being raised by both biological parents have declined greatly -- in America and throughout the Western world. On the other hand, their chances of spending much of their early lives in daycare or with other nonmaternal care are much higher. The problem is that all those things -- nonintact families, daycare, nonmaternal care -- correlate highly with physical and mental liabilities.

Yet society continues as if the androgynous-world ideology is a religion etched in stone. A study of social science textbooks found that they never portray motherhood "as a rich and meaningful way of life" and never show "any woman or girl with a positive relationship to a baby or young child" (!). In 1975, the California Department of Education rejected all reading textbooks "with any portrayal of women in a household role." And Rhoads devotes an incisive chapter to Title IX, a law that was intended to get more girls and women involved in sports but has ended up dismantling popular men's teams in colleges while inducing women to do sports like crew just to meet numerical quotas.

Can we get out of the mess that decades of "revolution" have left? Rhoads makes few policy prescriptions, and is not so simplistic as to claim that women would or should want to give up the broader opportunities they've gained. But he reiterates at several points that taking sex differences seriously, instead of dismissing them as an illusion or a tool of male oppression, is the key. That would mean, for instance, recognizing that men and women need each other, but in different ways; and that children need mothers and fathers, but need different things from them. It would mean regaining the ability to talk intelligently about what girls and boys, men and women, are like and what they seek in life. This book is a major contribution toward enabling us to do that.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.