Taking Sex Differences Seriously

The experience I remember best from teaching nine courses at the university level was the occasion when a class discussed a chapter out of a textbook concerning the variations in development between men and women. I found that most of the class believed that "differences" should be placed in scare quotes as they regarded any distinctions as being the result of societal pressure as opposed to the influence of our internal makeups. From there they progressed to some quasi-male bashing which quite often seems to be the case nowadays if one attempts to publicly compare males to females.

I interrupted their discussion to argue that there should be some respect for male diversity. I used as my example the area of sexual attraction and informed them that a man's fixation with his mate's physical appearance and age was highly adaptive and not shallow in the least because there is a chronological zero point for female reproduction. I pointed out that had our male ancestors given more weight to a woman's status or wealth as opposed to their youth and beauty, there would not have be any of us living at that moment. Homo Sapiens would never have reached the age of papyrus let alone to forge academic treatises about fictional patriarchies. My opinion was met with emphatic disapproval even by the male students who, under no circumstances, would admit that they agreed with me. It seems that nowadays it is more heretical to tolerate a man's reproductive strategies than to deny the existence of God.

Luckily, on the occasions when we find ourselves under fire for our own personal choices or the choices of our ancestors, blasphemers like myself can find sanctuary in Steven E. Rhoads’s delightful new book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously. Upon finishing Rhoads's work, many readers will discover that they have renewed respect for the nature of women, and, perhaps, unexpected esteem for the nature of men.

The passage that follows is exactly the type of support that all men need when navigating through the weeds of our affirmative action society:

"Telling men not to become aroused by signs of beauty, youth and health is, as David Buss has noted, like u2018telling them not to experience sugar as sweet.' Using MRIs to examine young men's brains as they look at beautiful women, researchers found that feminine beauty affects a man's brain at a primal level–similar to what a hungry man gets from a meal or an addict from a fix."

Junkies unite! Yet, through our success as a species, it is quite evident that we already have. I should warn that Taking Sex Differences Seriously is not a chatty, self-help book. It is a highly erudite work in which the author examines study after study and author after author, yet, at the same time, it is very accessible (just as was the case with Why Men Don't Iron). It was written with the average person in mind even though it voluminously surveys contemporary scholarship. There is less focus here on statistics and experimental procedure than there is in works like The New Science of Intimate Relationships, The Mating Mind, or The Red Queen.

The study of sex difference can be quite precarious for the academic, and it is with some relief that I noted that Rhoads already has put in thirty years of service at the University of Virginia. For those without tenure, such a book could spell unemployment. The author cites the opinions of heavyweights like Gloria Steinem and Gloria Allred on the topic of sex research. They believe that making inquiries into the discrepancies between men and women is downright dangerous to all women and anti-American in spirit [!]. Yet, one could make a strong case that unearthing what others purposefully ignore is intrinsic to what it means to be an American.

The real question that most people have is not that differences are present but for what purpose do these variations exist? Central to Rhoads's work, and central to evolutionary psychology in general, is the fact that the biological drives of humans were formed long ago in a time known as the "environment of evolutionary adaptation." This period embodied "99 percent of hominid existence." Back then there were no hotels, no indoor plumbing, no antibiotics, no birth control pills or abortions, and certainly no cushy jobs which involved clacking away at keyboards. Survival was precarious and most of our current preferences evolved from our ancestors adapting to life in a brutal and unsavory setting.

Only in today's world have we reached the levels of luxury and comfort where we can mistakenly assert that men and women want identical outcomes from love, sex, and life. This false assumption is a cause for considerable unhappiness in our interpersonal relations. Yet, as Rhoads notes, such misinterpretations actively poison our interactions with one another, as is the case with women (the supposed victors of the sexual revolution) and the acceptability of casual sex:

"Stefan Bechtel, coauthor of a book on men and sex, collected data from over two thousand women before writing on women and sex. When asked what surprised him most in his research, Bechtel answered, u2018Rage.' u2018Lots of women feel rage toward men. It was a revelation to me that you may the nicest guy in the world and the women you encounter may have had bad experiences with men, and that will affect their dealings with you.' In his earlier research on men, Bechtel had found u2018virtually no rage in the men's responses.'"

Of course, Taking Sex Differences Seriously is not confined to the topic of mating. It analyzes all discernible disparities between men and women. Rhoads's focus includes day care, nurturing the young, and the effects on our society of so many missing fathers. When "The Today Show" featured Rhoads in one of their segments, it was not to assault him for confirming the existence of intractable difference but to ask him for parenting advice.

Overall, I heartily recommend this book, although I am aware that there has been some criticism of it. Cathy Young, writing in this month's Reason, had reservations about the way in which Rhoads made generalizations about the sexes. It should be noted here that when we speak of men or women being superior to one another in particular areas we must carefully note that we are referring to sample means rather than entire samples.

Conclusions are all about broad tendencies and not the actions of particular individuals. There will always be outliers and sometimes, as in the case of mathematic or verbal ability, the outliers can be an incredibly large segments of our population. Even though few people would deny the statement, "men are more promiscuous and obsessed with sex than are women," it would not take very long for a researcher to discover numerous women who disprove this statement and whose lasciviousness outstrips that of the average man.

Where Rhoads succeeds is through his presentation of all views and his relentless attempts to explain human behavior. He ignores nothing and shares with the reader many a citation which does not support his case. One would be wise to remember that the goal of evolutionary psychology is to illuminate the basis for human behavior and not to excuse or condone such behaviors. To describe is not to advocate. We embrace fantasy over fact if we deny that gender exerts an influence on the way we act, but, unfortunately, that is exactly what many universities around the country have done through their creation of women's studies programs and their never-ending fetish for describing the world as they want it to be rather than how it actually is.

July 23, 2004