Thursday, March 20, 2014

How men and women are different: wrong answers

I find dealing with the question of how men and women are different rather exhausting.  Everyone has an opinion, but no one can possibly be an expert.  How could they, when no one has ever truly been both?

The first question is, Are men and women different?  But that's not really controversial.  We all know they are, statistically.  If you run a survey about almost anything, there will be differences between the average answers that men and women give.

So the real question is, Are men and women different by nature, or is it a matter of culture?  It's really impossible to have a conclusive answer about this, because culture is a part of who we are, and every single person was raised with biases stemming from culture.  And even if it is largely a matter of culture, does it matter?  I am the totality of who I am, not just my genes alone, but also my upbringing.

Perhaps we should focus on the question, Should men and women be different?  If we think they shouldn't, we should make a conscious effort to raise boys and girls the same, and as adults we should try to overcome our differences to be more similar.  If we think they should, we will be very defensive of our cultural standards for boys' toys and girls' toys, boys' activities and girls' activities, and we will defend our own gender identity and be careful not to transgress cultural norms.

I believe there are some differences that are purely natural.  You can't expect one brain that is under the influence of testosterone and another that is under the influence of a changing cocktail of other hormones to develop entirely the same.  And as we grow, it makes a difference pyschologically to be a teenager who suddenly grows muscles or a teenager who suddenly gets sick once a month.  It affects us.

And yet, I get thrown by the conclusive way in which people toss around their opinions about men and women.  I consider the difference between men and women to be one of the great mysteries of life, one which you can spend your whole life trying to wrap your head around, and which you may never have the words to adequately explain.  It seems the height of arrogance for some pastor  or philosopher to announce conclusively, "Men are like this, women are like that."  And it usually comes with a therefore: "Men should do this, women should do that."

One pet peeve is when, instead of saying "This is how men and women are different," we talk about "what women are like," meanwhile taking men as the standard from which women deviate.  This is a flaw of modern medicine, which trains doctors to consider the adult male body as the standard and women and children's medicine as deviations.  As a result, there's not nearly enough study done about how women's changing hormones affect other systems of the body -- only your ob/gyn knows anything about "women stuff" -- you can't expect your gastroenterologist to know anything about it.  And yet a woman's body is a lot more than a man's body with a uterus stuck inside.

Much as I like some of what John Paul II has written about women -- he described himself, after all, as a "feminist Pope" -- his analysis of the "feminine genius" has this flaw.  He was a man, so he had no idea what it's like to be a woman.  And yet he felt quite comfortable telling everyone what women are like.  I would have been happier if he'd tried telling us what men are like, without assuming as theologians in the past did that men are the norm.  I haven't understood enough of what he wrote to say if I think he's right or wrong, if he describes my experience or not, but the nature of who he was and the approach he took means that he couldn't talk about it the way I would like.

Maybe I'm thinking about it wrong, though.  Asking a woman what women are like is like asking a fish to describe water.  Maybe a man is the right person to tell us what women are like -- but if so, men also could stand to be described by women.  It is much easier for me to ask myself "What do men usually do that seems odd to me?" than to try to pick out what parts of my nature are "feminine" and which are specific to me as an individual.

In any event, I feel I get closest to the understanding of gender differences when discussing them in a mixed-gender group.  Just talking things over with my husband, I feel I can check my work a little more -- I can verify his impressions of women, and he can verify my impressions of men.

Another frustration of mine is when gender differences are taken as completely universal.  There is a huge difference between saying that men and women are different on average, and saying every man and every woman can be described in certain terms.  It's all very well to say "men, on average, are better at reading maps," but what if I am good at reading maps?  At worst, these people like say that even if your experience feels counter to their description, those descriptions are true of you regardless.  You're a man and say you are not all that visual in your attractions?  Well, you secretly are.  You're a woman and don't feel very intuitive?  You just need to get in touch with your intuition, because it's there whether you detect it or not.  That's incredibly frustrating, because it's an "expert" (which, as I said, it's not possible to be) who doesn't know you claiming to know more about your personality than you do.

The worst part of the gender-differences discussion is when people move from the descriptive to the prescriptive.  That is, they say something which is generally true (men are physically stronger, for instance) and move to something which they feel should happen as a result (men should be the provider in the family).  It ignores so much, like those men or women who don't fit into the appropriate boxes (what if you are an incredibly fit woman? what if you are a physically disabled man?) and the ways in which we can transcend the obvious differences (of course one does not need big muscles to make an income).  It also treats as a universal standard something which is not universal -- in this example, "making an income" is only a thing in a cash-based economy, which is a relative newcomer in world history.

I hear often that men are protectors and providers, while women are nurturers.  And that's fine if you want to be descriptive.  On the whole, men do most of the fighting and earn a lot of the income.  Women do most of the childcare around the world.  But how can you be prescriptive about this?  On what grounds do you give a statistical reality the force of a commandment?  Should I be the primary nurturer simply on the strength of peer pressure, or should I also consider my own talents and preferences?

You can bring the Bible into it, but I don't think it works.  Deborah, Judith, and Jael all protected the people of Israel.  The Proverbs 31 woman brought in an income.  Jesus was surrounded by children.  If God had a problem with people occasionally going outside the statistical norm, you'd think he would have mentioned it at some point.

It all comes down to one basic question: is there one sort of virtue for men, and another for women?  Should men try to cultivate especially those virtues which come most easily to them, and women do the same?  Or do we start out in different places, whether from gender, upbringing or temperament, and strive for the same virtues?

Overall, I come down on the side of virtue being virtue.  If I am not physically courageous because I am female, I shouldn't encourage that by shrieking when I see a spider -- I should learn to be braver and kill my own spiders.  If my husband feels awkward holding a newborn, he should hold that baby till he gets used to it.  Jesus displays a lot of manly virtues, but when you examine what he said and did, it isn't all manly stuff.  He was okay with hugging his beloved disciple, crying in public, and both preaching and practicing nonviolence.  If you're addicted to manliness, Christianity appears a "womanish religion."  But it isn't that exactly -- it's that it demands straight-up virtue, both those that are easy for men and those that come more naturally to women.

That said, there's such a thing as playing to your strengths.  I am a very nurturing person, and I don't have to fight that.  I am lucky to have that virtue come naturally to me, so I should use it.  It just doesn't excuse me from learning other virtues too, like courage or industriousness.  I also tend to be rather passive.  This is a trait often characterized as feminine, and it's a virtue in many instances.  It is a virtue when Marko is melting down screaming .... it feels right to me to wait and let him come to me when he is ready, instead of leaping in to try to fix him.  On the other hand, there are times when it is emphatically not a virtue -- say, when Michael is clubbing Marko over the head with a stick -- and that's a moment when I have to tap into something a little bit less natural and take action.

Women who are less nurturing, or less passive, might struggle with some things.  Being pregnant feels like a terribly passive activity, and a lot of women have trouble making peace with it.  Breastfeeding demands a level of nurturing that isn't easy for everyone.  Those women, if they become mothers, will have to struggle sometimes against their temperament to do what is necessary for the good of everyone.  At other times, though -- say, when shepherding a crowd of kids through the children's museum -- they shine.  They are not worse mothers or worse women because they didn't come out of the womb with every "'feminine virtue" fully developed.  Even virtues labeled "masculine" can make you a good mother.

The same goes for men.  Throughout our lives, we meet situations that are easy for our temperaments and ones that are hard.  There's no free ride out of the tough ones on account of gender.  If a virtue is demanded of you, you learn it.

But celebrating the ones you already have, being proud of them, and putting yourself in an environment where you can use them?  Nothing wrong with that.  That's why I am a stay-at-home mother -- because it suits me, as a woman and as an individual.  My husband makes an excellent librarian because of many things intrinsic to him: his love of order, his love of quiet, and his love of hard work.  Our jobs aren't easy for us, but they are made easier by the fact that they are well-suited to our temperaments.

As to what the differences actually are -- well, I'm still hashing those out.  But this post about what they are not can serve as a start.

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