Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Taking Sex Differences Seriously

One of the big books of the year in the little world of family sociology is Steven Rhoads’ Taking Sex Differences Seriously. Rhoads, a Politics professor at the University of Virginia, has been teaching a course on sex differences and public policy for some time. He has taken a ream of evidence, mostly biological, to support the traditional view that men are more aggressive, competitive, and sex-seeking, while women are more cooperative, nurturing, and child-oriented. The book has been praised by the conservative press, and mostly ignored by the liberal side.

Rhoads is mostly concerned with presenting the evidence. Though he is a policy professor, this book is not much concerned with policy, except in the section criticizing the way Title IX has been transformed into a hammer for social engineering. Rhoads explicitly takes up the big ethical question of sex differences only a few times. The clearest instance is his claim that “In this cold war between the sexes, civilization takes sides.” Civilization, Rhoads argues, is in favor of marriage and monogamy and against promiscuity. This is great good for children, good for women, and even good for men, though they take longer to appreciate it.

I think that Rhoads is essentially right. Men and women, as a group, are different today. This is true whether you think those differences are rooted in biological sex or socially constructed gender. Moreover, in a free society, most men and women would choose to marry and raise their own kids. It does not take much social engineering to get people to want to do that. The strong case that the gender side makes is that no individual man or woman should be forced to do what their gender normally wants to do. But this doesn’t change the fact that what most people want to do is what society needs most people to do.

Civilization takes sides in wanting most kids to be raised by their married parents. Public policy should not create any obstacles to that choice, and create some incentives for it. IF this idea were the core of our public discussion of family life, the things we disagree about could be treated in their proper place – as secondary questions.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but civilization gives many mixed messages. It "takes sides'" in the market place, too, giving greater success and status to men who place work, production, acquisition of wealth, and power in a higher priority than family.
Re the whole nuturing business, I really think that despite any childhood conditioning, men who actually are involved in the care of their children become nurturing in the process. Just as male nurses are as nurturing as female nurses. (It's male doctors who sit on the other side of the desk and pontificate.)
I'm seeing a generation of younger men who are much better fathers than those of my generation, and one reason for that they were actually involved from infancy in the children's care, and are more emotionally bonded.

ancho and lefty said...

For me the issue is not about sex differences as much as it is about what type of family is possible given today's economic and time constraints. I think it makes sense to have one parent at home during early childhood (let's say 0-10 years), but that is only possible within given economic conditions. The only families I know who are pulling it off have one spouse with a high paying job and adequate benefits. For most Americans, those conditions simply don't exist either because they are poor, in debt, divorced, or some combination of all three. So, what I would like to see is more intiative to make day care a last resort (even for middle class and poor families) and recognize the fact that children are better raised by family, friends and neighbors than Kid Production Center, Inc. I am tired of reading stories about single mothers who have to work at McDonalds in order to pay for childcare that they can't afford. It simply does not make sense. There's my two cents.