Friday, September 09, 2005

Sex vs. Gender

Men and women are different in deep biological ways which endure.
Male and Female are sexes.


Men and women are different in shallow cultural ways which change readily.
Masculine and Feminine are genders.

“Sex vs. gender” is a good shorthand for this deep debate.

Most people through most cultures and eras thought and still think men and women are different sexes.

A small but strategic minority in developed societies in the past generation thought and still think that men and women are different genders.

The gender view has been dominant among the educated elite in developed societies for a generation. The gender view dominated in part because it had superior arguments and evidence, and in part because the people who promoted the gender view had enough political power to bring grief to those who argued against it. The gender view was, for a time and in a class, politically correct.

A new generation of thinkers is rising to challenge the gender view and promote the sex view. The arguments and research of the sex view have been good and getting better. The arguments and research of the gender view are more tired and strained than they used to be.

Where does this leave the gruntled center? Whichever view you think is ultimately true, we can agree that men and women, as a group, tend to think, value, and act in somewhat different ways in our society.

Beyond this center lie two unacceptable extremes.

There are some people who argue that men and women are so deeply and permanently different that they are practically different species. This idea contradicts the theory that most people have that human beings have essentially the same kind of human nature.

There are some people who argue that men and women are really the same now in the way they think, talk, value social relations, value competition, approach marriage, go about raising children, and in every other way. They argue that the differences that we think we see are really due to a sexist ideology in our heads. This idea contradicts the experience that most people have, especially the experience of married parents.

So, for the foreseeable future, men and women – and boys and girls – are and will be different. Our everyday interactions and our public policy should accept this as a fact and work with it, not deny it or try to socially engineer it away.

Try it again, simpler

An astute reader – my daughter Molly – commented that I was writing over her head. Molly is a very smart girl and a good test of whether I was writing clearly enough for a blog. I think she was right: I did not write clearly enough for a blog.

SO, I will try it again, simpler. The first entry holds up ok. We will let two, three, and four stand as an historical resource and a standing reminder.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Same Difference

Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, is the Great Liberal Hope against the rising contender, the wave of “essentialist” writings about sex and gender – that it, those which take sex differences seriously. But Same Difference’s punches are weak and wide of the mark. In the end, it is the aging egalitarian argument, grown soft after three decades of hard fights and rigged victories, that looks tired.
Barnett and Rivers, Boston-area feminist professors since the height of the second wave, argue that men and women are basically the same. The differences that now exist are because men have more power or because boys are girls are socialized in different, patriarchal ways. When women are in power they will act the way men do, and vice-versa. Men and women (or even boys and girls) say they want different things because society trains them to limit the aspirations of girls and the emotions of boys. This has been the standard feminist strong program for three decades. What Barnett and Rivers think is new, as their subtitle suggests, is that the current wave of scholarly research and popular bestsellers which does take sex differences seriously is a major cause of the gender differences we see now.
Barnett and Rivers have fun with a few popular soft targets, notably John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, and Women Are from Venus and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. They also offer fair questions about the small or unusual samples on which some influential studies rest, most especially Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice and Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering. They are most perplexed, I think, by much-honored feminists, like Ms. Woman of the Year Gilligan, Chodorow, Eleanor Maccoby, and Felice Schwartz, who think men and women are actually different in some important ways. To Barnett and Rivers this is a sellout of the progress that women have made in achieving public success like men.
Their greatest scorn, though, is for those they call Ultra Darwinists. By this they mean both actual sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, like David Buss and Steven Pinker, and a whole range of brain researchers and hormone experts who have been impressed with the enduring effects of biological sex differences. Here Barnett and Rivers' analysis is marred again and again by logical errors and distortions. The repeated logical error is confusing the sensible claim that men and women as a group tend to behave in particular ways, with the clearly false idea that each and every man and woman behaves in those gender-specific ways. This is what I think of the basic problem in teaching sociology: a true generalization about a group does not necessarily apply to each individual in the group. All serious researchers acknowledge that there are many individual men and women who are exceptions to their sex's norm, and that the overlap between the two curves is great. Barnett and Rivers, though, rarely give their opponents credit for this nuance, nor do they always clearly show that they understand the distinction between group and individual themselves.
The distortion that Barnett and Rivers engage in, though, is so egregious and frequent that I think it goes beyond error to deliberate bad faith. When “Ultra-Darwinists” note that men and women as a group have a biological propensity to do X instead of Y, Barnett and Rivers turn this into a claim that their opponents are saying men and women must do X and are incapable of doing Y. The well-established finding, for example, that at the highest levels of math ability there are more men than women is distorted into a claim that women are incapable of doing high level math. And the dozen or so places in which Barnett and Rivers do acknowledge differences in behavior between the sexes, they simply assert must be due to different (partriachal) socialization.

Errors and distortions help no one. The legitimate arguments that Barnett and Rivers offer amount to no more than caveats and calls for nuance. They do not touch the basic thesis that there really are enduring and consequential differences between the sexes. They do not, therefore, even attempt to engage the more interesting argument, as I see it, that these differences are complementary and mutually beneficial.
The most puzzling failing of Same Difference, though, is their almost total disregard of sex differences in giving birth and in raising infants. This has long been a weakness of the kind of egalitarian feminism that Barnett and Rivers represent, which is primarily concerned with the public life of high-achieving (and often childless) adult women. Still, much of the interest in the new study of sex differences comes from women who are feeling the conflict between absorbing public careers and motherhood, a conflict that their husbands do not seem to feel in the same way. As I read the research, sex differences in adults are at their greatest when a couple is trying to raise an infant – differences which are not as strong earlier and later in the life cycle. Sylvia Ann Hewlett shows in the poignant Creating a Life that the main reason women do not hold half of the very top jobs is mostly due to a conflict between totally absorbing careers and motherhood. Yet Barnett and Rivers, in the chapter devoted to this subject, transform their opponent's discussion of work vs. motherhood into a question of workplace inflexibility which forces women to work “insanely long hours.”

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.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Toward an Old Paradigm for the Study of Family Life

There is an exciting new thing happening in educated conversation about family life: the traditional wisdom is making a comeback. Men and women are different and complement one another well to raise children and to help one another flourish.

If you have been following this conversation – for example in the debate about Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s lightning rod essay, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” or Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s excellent The Case for Marriage, or the wave of sociobiological studies of mate selection and marriage, such as David Buss’ The Evolution of Desire – the building empirical case for traditional family ideas will be familiar. The National Marriage Project, the National Fatherhood Initiative, Smartmarriages, the Religion, Culture, and Family Project have all moved to the mainstream in the past decade or so, and indeed are coming to define the public discussion of marriage and family life.

All of these projects acknowledge that the reigning paradigm among family researchers and ideologues holds that the differences between men and women are socially constructed and foster a gender inequality which should be abolished. Each of the empirical studies mentioned above, and many more working the same vein, makes a ritual protestation that they are not sexist and do not think women should be excluded from public life. They rehearse the basic starting point of sociology – that what is true of groups is not necessarily true of each individual in the group. To say that men and women are different is not to say that women are inferior. This protest is a ritual – any reader of one or two of these works could write the obligatory paragraphs for all the others. Perhaps David Popenoe has a macro on his computer called NOT SEXIST that he hits to insert the necessary litany in each new essay.

I believe that we are on the verge of an important turning point in the life of this new/old paradigm: we can now dispense with the ritual protest.

In the spirit of advancing the sensible, empirical discussion of family life, therefore, I propose that we take as given the following claim: Taking sex differences seriously is not sexist.

Aging baby boomers who still hold on to this hoary taboo should be treated politely, but should not be allowed to hold up the progress of actual science.