What Does it Mean?
If you want to say it with political correctness, here it is: Nature is a sexist pig. There are quite a few people, as you may have noticed, who are afraid of that fact. They don’t want you or me to know about this research, and for a very good reason. This information can be used — in fact, has been used — to justify unkind, unfair, or intolerant treatment of one sex or the other (usually women, since men have been using the information more aggressively).
But that’s not a good reason to ignore a fact. Perfectly valid and potentially useful facts are misused all the time: It isn’t a comment on the danger of the facts, it’s a comment on the danger of a closed mind. A closed mind is only seeking to reinforce an already existing bias. And biases exist in the absence of facts just as readily (and maybe even more readily) than they do in the presence of facts.
Also, to say we are influenced by our biology is to imply we have less free will than we’d like to think. It may threaten women’s suffrage. It might erode our concept of personal responsibility (“I couldn’t help it! I was pumped up on my own testosterone at the time.”). These are some of the reasons people don’t want the research on the biological differences between the sexes to be well known.
A group of anthropologists met to discuss this issue. Some of them were intrigued by these findings, and some were against them for political and social reasons (as well as, I’m sure, the fact that these findings put the “socialization theory” in question, and many liberal scholars hold that theory very dear). One of the scholars said into the microphone that these findings and the new theories coming out of them are “an attempt to justify genetically the sexist, racist, and elitist status quo in human society!” He said it will “ruin our children. It is a deterministic scam, a political plot, a vicious, pernicious disease!”
“Facts,” said Aldous Huxley, “do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Just because something is ugly and has horrible implications doesn’t make it untrue. You can make whatever you want out of a fact, useful or unuseful, but it doesn’t change the fact.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss what “society” ought to do about these facts. I’m concerned with you and your relationship with your significant other, and I can tell you that an ignorance of these facts — whether deliberate or not — will make it more difficult to be happy in your relationship.
I don’t believe these facts should be used to force someone into a limitation. Women may be better communicators, but some men are pretty good, and I don’t think we should prevent a man from getting a job as a negotiator if he can do it well enough. Being a cop may require a certain amount of strength and aggression, but when a woman can do the job, obviously she should be hired and paid the same as a man for the same position. That’s only fair, as any rational person can see.
No pursuits ought to be denied to someone who wants to pursue it and is capable of pursuing it, for sexual, religious, race, or any other dumb reasons. Recognizing differences is not the same as defining differences and forcing everyone to confine themselves to the defined roles. The amount of male and female hormones in each of us varies quite a bit, so we will each have strengths and weaknesses, superiorities and inferiorities, interests and lack of interests in different things — between sexes and within each sex.
Our biology may determine how we feel and what we want, but we determine what we do. And if someone can do a job, she or he should be free to do it. And also, we are each responsible for what we do, regardless or how we feel or what sex we are. I may be more likely than a woman to feel like hitting someone, but if either of us actually hit someone, we should be punished just the same.
What’s In a Gene?
Genes don’t influence our behavior directly. They act through the medium of our feelings — what we like and what we don’t like; what we’re drawn to and what we have no interest in; what’s comfortable and what’s not. Little boys fidget because it’s uncomfortable not to. It was probably adaptive at some time. Maybe it builds coordination faster to keep boys constantly moving.
Genes code for hormones and brain proteins and levels of neurotransmitters. They code for structure rather than specific behaviors. Most behaviors are learned in humans. In other words, genes don’t program very much specific behavior in humans. They program feelings, urges, drives, likings, interest — what we will and will not enjoy. Our genes don’t give us thoughts like “I should help my relatives,” they give us feelings: “I want to help my relatives.”
Some of our “masculine” or “feminine” behaviors are open to learning. But desires and preferences may not be as changeable. “Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer.” You can’t convince someone to like something she or he doesn’t like.
One or more of the differences I’ve described in this article may not fit your particular relationship. If one doesn’t, I recommend you pay more attention to the reality in front of you than to something you read.
If, however, this information hits home with you and your mate, and if you've found a trait you have resisted, fought against, or tried to make your mate get over, that’s where this information becomes useful. If you knew it wasn’t your mate’s fault, and the trait isn’t causing you harm — it’s just different and you “can’t understand” it — then there is a possibility of reconciling yourselves to each other in a new, more intimate way. This information gives you a way of understanding things that seemed incomprehensible before.
I remember years ago Klassy and I got into an argument because she criticized me. At least in my mind, that’s what started it. In her mind, it was probably because I did something stupid and she criticized me justifiably.
But after a lot of (sometimes heated) discussion, I realized that I was assuming she is like me. I assumed that she was feeling like I would have to feel (intense anger) before I would approach her with a criticism.
But the fact is, she lives in a different world, hormonally speaking. That’s incontrovertible. When researchers hook up men and women in an argument to biomeasuring machines, they find that during conflict, men are experiencing more stress than the women are. And there is plenty of evidence to suspect that this difference is a biologically-based difference, rather than a result of socialization.
So if I assume Klassy is experiencing things the way I am, my assumption will miss the mark — it will be false — and when I take action on a false assumption, my actions are liable to be inappropriate. In this case, inappropriate actions on my part were then misunderstood by Klassy: She thought I was overreacting or I misunderstood her or something. It became confusing. We then tried to clear up the confusion, but no matter how much we restated our positions and tried to understand each other, it remained confusing because you have to back up all the way to the beginning assumption (that we are experiencing this event similarly because we are the same) in order to clear things up.
Later, when the fight was over, I just wanted to say, “Oh well, let’s be friends and forget about it,” and go on about our day. She doesn’t let go of things so easily. This also seems to be a genetically-caused difference. Chimpanzees, who share 99.6% of our active DNA, show the same pattern: Males make up after a conflict fairly quickly. A female can hold a grudge against another for years.
Males doing battle with other males, defending territory and hunting cooperatively (as chimpanzees do) can’t afford to hold grudges, so somewhere along the line, the tendency to try to reconcile conflict quickly was developed.
Nowadays, it may be useful or not, I don’t know. But what I do know is this: It is a lot easier to deal with Klassy when I assume she is different than when I assume she is like me. Much less of her behavior frustrates or confuses me.
Let’s get off each others’ backs about our differences. Let’s quit trying to make each marriage partner do an equal amount of everything. “Whoever thinks marriage is a 50-50 proposition,” said Franklin P. Jones, “doesn’t know the half of it.” Let yourselves specialize into different divisions of labor if that’s what seems natural and easy and pleasant. If you have one person who really cares about having a clean house, and whose standards are high, and the other partner doesn’t care about having a clean house and whose standards are low anyway...guess who’s going to end up doing more housework? If a woman was willing to let the house get as dirty as he’s willing, then there wouldn’t be a conflict, would there? If he likes fixing the car and she likes doing the housework, and he likes working more hours at his job and she likes spending more time with the kids, what’s wrong with that?
It’s a difference in interest. Why are some people interested in computers and some people interested in astronomy? Who knows? But one thing is for sure: They will be happiest pursuing their interest and not trying to force themselves down a path that doesn’t give them enjoyment.
Does this mean we’re at the mercy of our biology? No. What biology is doing is affecting our feelings. But you can do something even when you don’t feel like it, and you can feel like doing something and yet refrain from doing it. It’s called self-discipline. It’s obviously a genetic compulsion to eat when we’re hungry, yet people have been known to deliberately refuse to eat until they died of starvation.
But some genetic impulses are not worth resisting. And what we like to do most is one of those. Yes you can go without food, but you still feel hungry. You can behave as if you like things or are interested in things you aren’t, but pretending is an unpleasant experience. Not only that, in a relationship, it causes confusion and resentment. And besides, it’s dishonest.
I’m taking it for granted you wouldn’t do something that harmed another person. But given that qualification, why should you do something you don’t like to do and keep yourself from doing something you like, when it doesn’t harm anyone? That’s not a prescription for happiness.
Maybe the differences between the sexes could be a strength. Maybe it’s not a bad thing at all. Maybe it’s a blessing.
It’s true that men could act more like women and women could act more like men. But what kind of an empty life would that be? I don’t like being something I’m not. I don’t like acting or pretending. It is an unsatisfying way to live. Not only that, but behaving incongruently with the way you really feel is a formula for a superficial relationship: Just be phony and act the way your lover wants you to, pretend you like things you don’t, and you are sure to have a shallow, unsatisfying relationship.
But we don’t have to be the same to be intimate.
Where We Go From Here
Socialization is something you’ve learned, and it can be changed by learning something new. Genetics is not learned, it’s built in, and you have to work around it. Our species has a genetic predisposition to male dominance of females, for example. We work around it with laws and social attitudes. Birth control is another example. The desire to mate can’t be changed. It’s genetic and unchangeable. But we have worked around it with contraception: The purpose of sex (from a genetic standpoint) has been circumvented.
If your partner seems unable to change some particular characteristic, it is possible, especially if it fits a sex-role stereotype, that it’s genetic and unchangeable. So what are you supposed to do?
First Take the Blame Out
Men and women are not to blame for their differences. Do you blame men for being hairy? Do you blame women for being short? If you had two people, one of whom was color-blind and one who had a good sense of color, who would you ask to decorate your house? Would anyone be blamed? Mocked? Bashed? Would anyone be pushed to change?
If there are things you would like your mate to change (and there are), and you come to him or her in an attitude of blame, you create resistance, not cooperation. If what you want your mate to change is unchangeable, the resistance turns into resentment and frustration. But the information in this article can help you take the blame out of your request, and together you can find ways of working around those characteristics if they can’t be changed. No one is at fault. It’s just life. It’s just what survived the billions of years of evolution. No one is to blame.
I don’t verbalize my feelings very easily. Given that I’m a male, the evidence suggests that this is probably because male hormones compartmentalize my brain and gave me a smaller corpus callosum and made me less sensitive in the womb. Klassy used to get annoyed with me (and frankly I was annoyed at myself) and she would say, “Why didn’t you just tell me you felt that way?”
Well, I didn’t really “know” I felt that way. Or, I “sort of” knew. I knew how I felt nonverbally. But it wasn’t there as something I could say. It’s hard to put something in words that doesn’t seem to be available in words.
I now compensate for this by taking the time to concentrate and ask myself what I feel and try to articulate it. And as long as I’ve been doing this, I’m not much better at it.
Klassy has a genetic strength where I have a weakness and she no longer gets annoyed with me. She helps me instead.
I don’t get annoyed at her for being unable to reach the top shelf. I help her instead.
Let’s not only give up blame, but venture far beyond it. Let’s see what kind of relationships we can develop given our realities rather than our culture’s myths and fantasies. Every step you take in that direction will make you more satisfied with each other, more comfortable and relaxed around each other, and less phony. And you’ll have less futile conflict.
Klassy helps me build business relationships and relationships with my family. I help her accomplish her goals. She helps me think things through. I help her stay on track. Not only have we finally stopped fighting against our differences, we’re learning to use each other’s strengths.
Men and women work well as a unit, like a pilot and navigator. When flying a plane, pilot and navigator don’t try to be fair. The pilot doesn’t make the navigator do his “fair share” of the piloting. It’s inefficient. It wouldn’t work as well. Instead, they each do what they do best because when they do, each is better off as part of the team than either would be alone. They fly the plane better than if they were each trying to do their fair share of each task.
Researchers at Stanford University found women and men have different responses to depression and that these differences may help explain why the rate of depression among women is twice that of men (and, by the way, why alcoholism in men is twice that of women).
Men try to distract themselves from their bad feelings; women tend to ponder their bad feelings. The researchers found that men’s diversionary tactics made their depression disappear faster.
When a woman is depressed, she will tend to focus her thoughts on what is causing the depression and think about possible consequences. Men tend to use an activity that requires their attention to help them avoid thinking about the problem (or use alcohol to reduce their ability to think about anything).
You can see that neither option is the best one for everything. If the problem is small and/or can’t be changed, it is better to distract yourself with a challenging or engaging, and maybe even productive task. But if the problem is big and/or can be changed, it is better to think it through and make some decisions.
We have a lot we can learn from each other. We can lean on each other and find strength.
There are genetically determined differences between all of us, even between people of the same sex. Let’s develop a little more tolerance for each other. Let’s learn to resist the urge to fight against those differences or try to make everyone the same and instead, let’s try to discover the advantages of our differences, and in this way, help to realize and enjoy the full benefits of being human.
This article was excerpted from the book, What Difference Does it Make? How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It?
You can listen to the audio version of this book here: The Differences Between the Sexes Have Real Consequences.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.