Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Male and Female: Different despite denials

I'm a bit agog right now, after reading an article in the April 21 New York Times' Sunday Review called "The Tangle of the Sexes." In it two researchers report their analysis of 13 psychological studies done by others--where they conclude that men and women don't form two different categories.

Their assertion that males and females should be judged on the same continua, as individuals, is certainly laudable; nobody wants old-time prejudice that would box women into restrictive careers or make assumptions about feelings.

But just because men and women share an emotional and even an interest spectrum doesn't mean they're not discrete in major ways. In fact, the genders differ in such basic, fundamental aspects as to render early Gloria Steinem feminism yawningly passe.

How could these researchers bash the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" logic that sold John Gray millions of books (which they explicitly do in their study, in February's "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology")? How can they deny that so many physical and brain differences shape behavior?

Beats me. In fact, the two researchers, Bobbi Carothers, who completed the analysis for her doctoral thesis, now senior data analyst at Washington University in St. Louis, and Harry Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, admit that indeed the genders do exhibit some unbridgeable differences. Their penultimate paragraph in The Times describes their confirming their findings by checking typical, vastly disparate results: "Just to be safe, we repeated our analysis on several dimensions where we did expect categorical differences: physical size, athletic ability and sex-stereotyped hobbies like playing video games and scrapbooking. On these we did find evidence for categories based on sex."

Indeed. I chuckled when I looked over their journal article. The studies they chose to analyze were mainly the typical university studies using college students as subjects. I remember earning my degree at UCLA; it was required that we "volunteer" for several studies every year. How do you tease out the self-selection involved in data on those who not only made it to research-oriented universities but offer themselves up as subjects?

But, you might answer if you happened to take the time to read the journal article, Carothers and Reis just tried a new statistical approach on data that originally showed the sexes as psychologically polar. They found a way to say men and women aren't so different after all.

Beyond the fact they ignore using homogeneous populations, their study, which is
covered as a big deal, comes to a "duh" conclusion: Even though men score differently from women in most traditionally-recognized gender markers, there are plenty of men and women who respond in one or more psychological and social ways more like the other gender. The wife who takes charge of finances, the husband who enjoys childcare may be mighty feminine or masculine in the majority of their other interests and behaviors.

I reflect that showing men and women as interchangeable is essential to the ongoing effort to legalize same-sex marriage. The crux of the issue is whether men and women are uniquely joined, a "marriage of opposites," as I often call it, when they wed, or whether the institution has morphed into simply a declaration of commitment that any two people can make. If it's something special--bringing together two categories, male and female, that are compatible yet essentially different, it's worth preserving as it has always been. By shifting the definition to the joining of two-of-any-kind, America is bereft of any relationship that recognizes the reality of these basic differences.

And inherent differences between the genders are indeed reality. Ann Moir and David Jessel were the first to shock readers in 1989 with their description of brain research, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women. That was followed in 1997 with Deborah Blum's Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women. As the field of neuropsychology lept forward, Melissa Hines chronicled it in Brain Gender (2004), and a new stir erupted when neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine published The Female Brain (2006). Those are just the books I happen to have on my shelf; I'm sure you can buy many others that confirm the inescapable truth that men and women are hardwired differently, and that these differences profoundly affect attitudes, communication styles and behavior.

Of course men and women aren't all clump-able into two isolated camps, different on every measure. Of course plenty of men embrace stereotypically female interests, and ditto in reverse for women. But what's the gain in denying the plethora--the overwhelming landslide--of data that illuminate chasms that, by being recognized, allow for greater understanding and harmony?  You can reorganize studies to your heart's content to show that individuals are just that, but despite society's eagerness to say homosexuality is the same as heterosexuality, and men and women are interchangeable, certain essential differences cannot be erased, and gender is discernible in every cell of each human on the planet.

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