WE ARE ALL familiar with the problem. It doesn’t take much of a survey of the relationship between the sexes during the past few thousand years to notice that the most obvious problem has been men’s violence and oppression toward women. Not that men are always awful, at least not most of us. No, most of the time we are just folks doing the best we can. But when push comes to shove, there is this irrational something eating away inside all too many men that is deeply hostile to womankind. We aren’t going to make much progress toward a humane and sustainable future until we deal with this one!
It’s a problem I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years, listening to others and searching for answers. I haven’t been satisfied with most of the analyses I’ve seen. I kept finding myself saying, "Yes, but…" Somehow they just weren’t deep enough or whole enough.
Yet I feel I’m starting to get some clues, and that is what this article is about.
THE NATURE CLUES
The first clues come from the womb, where innate differences create the potential for later problems.
Medical and biological researchers, especially during the last two decades, have uncovered many of the details of prenatal development, including fascinating differences between the sexes. The first general principle is that physical sex-linked differences are almost entirely the result of different proportions of the sex hormones. Apparently the only sex-linked thing that the X and Y sex chromosomes do is to turn the initially unisex gonads into either ovaries or testes. After that, everything else, including turning the initially unisex genitals into either male or female ones, depends solely on the hormone levels.
The second discovery is that these hormones affect the prenatal development of many of the non-reproductive systems, from the skeleton to the brain.
Starting in the 1960s, the discovery that the left and right hemispheres of the brain usually have different functions also led to the discovery that the organization of these functions is consistently different in males and females. The hemispheres of the male brain are more specialized, with language functions located in the left hemisphere and visual-spatial functions in the right. In women, these functions, while still tending toward a left/right division, are better distributed in both hemispheres, and their corpus callosum, that bundle of nerves that joins the two sides of the brain, is wider, allowing for better integration between the two hemispheres. At birth, females have better developed left hemispheres while males have better developed right ones (in direct opposition to the popular idea that females are more "right-brained"). Girls are also four to six weeks ahead of boys in physical maturation as measured by skeletal hardening. In addition, the hypothalamus, the master gland at the base of the brain, is differently structured in the two genders. It all fits very well with animal studies that have found similar gender differences in brain development controlled by the relative level of the sex hormones.
How do these innate differences show up? Females tend to be more sensitive to touch and sounds (allowing them to sing in tune better) while males tend to be more sensitive to light. Males tend to be better at visual-spatial activities while females tend to have better fine motor control. Females tend to be better at picking up multi-sensory peripheral information and they process this information faster. From very early, females tend to be better able to read the emotional content of faces. Intellectually, males tend to be innately more adept at mathematics (which is probably related to their spatial skills) while females have better verbal skills.
I want to emphasize that these are tendencies. If you measure a certain skill and plot the number of people at each skill level for each gender, what you will get is two overlapping curves, like the illustration on the left below.
For many of these traits, the difference within a gender is considerably greater than the difference between the two averages. We need to be on guard with this, because language keeps tricking us into converting tendencies into categories, that is:
These gender differences do not make one sex "better" than the other. Rather, they give each sex slightly different talents, aptitudes, challenges, and vulnerabilities, and we are richer for the diversity. These differences can be related to some common sex stereotypes, but they also violate others, and in any case they allow a much greater individual flexibility than cultural stereotypes normally do. When it comes to non-reproductive gender-based behavior, nature nudges, it does not determine.
Back to the trail of clues: The research has made it clear that the sex hormones work in two different ways, they help to organize and to activate. At critical times before birth and during puberty, they help to organize the growth process in ways that produce permanent body changes, for example, in the brain. They also, throughout life, help to activate certain bodily and behavior processes. For example, in either sex, the rate and amount of facial hair growth and the level of sexual interest goes up and down with the level of the "male" hormone, testosterone. (Actually, both sexes have both "male" and "female" hormones; the proportion is just different.) In general, testosterone seems to intensify. It increases persistence and attention, alleviates fatigue, and is associated with increased assertiveness. Estrogen mellows and increases the effectiveness of the immune system.
The hormonal difference between the sexes seems to play a major role in their different susceptibility to various diseases and disorders. Male babies are generally more likely to have birth defects, including sex differentiation errors. Later in life, males are more prone to heart attacks: testosterone contributes to hardening of the arteries. In addition, males are more susceptible to such things as autism, dyslexia, stuttering, and schizophrenia, all of which are now seen as disorders of the left hemisphere – the weak one for males. Females are more prone to depression and phobias, both linked to the right hemisphere. Overall, females live longer. The only group of males that approach female longevity are those who have been castrated, and the earlier the longer-lived.
There is one more important prenatal difference: the path to boyhood is riskier. Nature compensates by starting with more males. The Y-type sperm, perhaps because they are lighter, inseminate more eggs. At conception, genetic males out-number females by about 140 to 100. But from there on, survival is harder for males. By birth, the ratio is down to 105 to 100.
A major reason for this is that there is a lot of redundancy built into the process of becoming female. Not only does the female embryo have two X chromosomes, either one of which can take over if the other is defective, but the embryo swims in a sea of female hormones provided by the mother.
For a male, on the other hand, the one Y chromosome stands alone. It must get the message through that turns the embryonic gonads into testes, and these in turn must produce enough male hormones to counteract the effect of the mother’s hormones. Any missteps along the way and the embryo automatically veers in a feminine direction. Thus, much more than his sisters, the embryonic boy must struggle biochemically to differentiate himself from his mother.
From an evolutionary point of view, nature tends to be more conservative with human females and more experimental with males. Since each female can produce only a relatively small number of offspring, nature needs all the females it can get. Males, however, are more expendable and so there is less risk to the species by experimenting with them. Nature does this experimenting in utero by combining two unmatched chromosomes (thereby forcing any mutation into expression), subjecting the embryo to greater biochemical demands, and permitting a relatively high nonsurvival rate.
What clues do these differences between the sexes provide? There are many, but for now I would just like to point out the following:
- Overall, there are enough subtle differences in brain structure to provide a basis for misunderstandings.
- More specifically, the brain structure differences are probably responsible for the male tendency (noticeable in infants) to attempt to solve problems or vent frustration through physical action rather than vocalization, a strategy that works much better with outer problems than with inner ones. The separation of the hemispheres heightens this tendency by making it harder for males to verbally access right-brain emotional processes.
- In addition, I can’t help thinking that, somewhere in the male psyche, there is an awareness of his greater biological vulnerability, starting from conception, and even, as crazy as it sounds, a dim awareness of a very deep need to differentiate from mother.
THE NURTURE CLUE
The next clue comes from the first few years of childhood. Infants do a lot of their early learning through copying the behavior of those around them. If, as has been usual for millions of years, their primary care-giver is female, they will model her behaviors. This presents no systematic problem for the girls, but it does for the boys.
The problem has to do with what is known as gender identity, your sense of who you are as either a male or a female. It is a cornerstone of your whole personal sense of self, and it gets started before the age of three. As a boy begins to develop it, the primary message he gets is that he is not like his mother (his model) and is like his father (whom he often hardly knows). In other words, he is not who he has become and must become who he isn’t. The young boy, equipped at this age with fairly crude intellectual and emotional skills, naturally finds this all rather confusing and distressing.
It would be all right if this got straightened out as he grew older, but what usually happens (with considerable encouragement and support from the culture) is that he learns to "resolve" it by suppressing the conflict. He may make an exaggerated show of his "masculinity" or he may simply carefully avoid anything deemed feminine, but in either case, his behavior betrays both his and his culture’s anxiety over his ability to be maintain a masculine identity.
The cycle further perpetuates itself as these boys become men, still anxious about keeping their internal feminine under control. They then project this conflict out onto the women around them, seeking to exclude women from "male" activities and in turn trying to avoid "feminine" activities. Notable among these is child care, so one result is that the next generation of boys are delivered into the same pattern of conflict.
Mothers do their share as well. They usually pass on the culture’s expectations about the importance of being "a little man," yet at the same time, they often build intense emotional bonds with their sons, thereby heightening the conflict the boys feel.
We usually fail to appreciate the full implication of this pattern because it is so common, and therefore "normal." It rarely leads to personal maladjustment within the terms of our culture. Yet this blinds us to the way that it is instead leading to cultural maladjustment within the larger terms of life.
THE CULTURE CLUES
The final clues come out of cultural history, out of looking at how we got into this mess in the first place. We need to revisit "The Human Story" (IN CONTEXT #12, p. 18), but this time from a gender perspective.
The problem has roots that go all the way back to the earliest hunting and gathering cultures. We do not know what they thought about men and women, but the art they left suggests two strong themes: the power to give birth was considered a great magic and success in the hunt was a frequent concern.
What we know from more recent hunting and gathering cultures fits with this and sheds additional light. Coming-of-age initiation rites are common among such cultures. When there are rites for girls, they focus on teaching and public affirmation of the girls’ new status. The rites for boys, which are more universal, add, indeed often center on, various trials and tests. The message is clear. Girls move into womanhood naturally, proving it through processes over which they have no conscious control (menstruation and childbirth). Their "magic" is inborn and very powerful. Boys in contrast must prove their manhood through action and conscious self-control. They must show that they have separated themselves from childhood, from mother. Their "magic," if they have any, is precariously based on their performance.
In this we can see the signs and roots of gender identity conflict on the part of males. But mostly these cultures seemed to hold this problem in check and establish a good balance between the genders. The open intimacy of hunting and gathering life provided young children with lots of exposure to adult males, and women frequently filled honored and powerful roles in the society.
The next big cultural step was the development of agriculture, starting about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East. Life became settled in villages, populations increased, and huntable game dwindled. The focus of religion was on fertility and death. The main (and frequently the only) deity was a goddess, portrayed in her three forms as maiden, mother (frequently pregnant or giving birth) and old woman. A male deity, when he was present, was subsidiary, and often simply represented by a bull or ram. Symbols of death mixed with those of life, as in breasts that open to reveal the skull of a fox, weasel or vulture. We can get some flavor of that side of the Great Goddess through the Hindu goddess Kali.
The impact of this on the relationship between the sexes was complex. Women gained a more secure environment for childraising, as the dramatic increase in population attests. The central role of the goddess likewise indicates that women occupied an important place within the society. On the other hand, settled life in buildings made family life more private, gradually separating it from the increased social life beyond the household that trading and crafts brought.
Males gained new, and probably more reliable, occupations in not only farming and herding, but also crafts and trading. However, none of these had the mystique that hunting had, and it is interesting that in at least one well preserved neolithic village, Çatal Hüyük in southern Turkey, representations of the male deity decline over time in parallel with the decline in evidence of hunting.
Looking back, it is tempting to speculate that, while life was becoming physically more secure, something in the male psyche was growing restless. All of these changes would tend to increase the gender identity conflict experienced by boys. In any case, what we do know is that the next stage in this historical drama involved a great outburst of male revolt and male self-assertion. This revolt depended only partially on brute force. As important were the wide range of innovations – from new social structures to vast irrigation projects to writing — that developed the opportunities created by agriculture to a level undreamed of before.
It began in the first cities, in Mesopotamia, where the new rulers declared themselves to be god-kings. Their theology was built around sky-gods who had done battle with and defeated the earth-goddess. They were quite explicit about struggling against an older female supremacy, and frequently anxious to guard against its return. It is not clear how much this was a response to actual social conditions and how much it reflected inner conflicts, but it is likely that "the goddess" had become associated in people’s minds with the stagnant, conservative, unending cycle of birth and death that was life in a neolithic village. It is also not clear how much it reflected a general male malaise or just the outburst of a few.
The result, however, is clear. This "way of the warlord" quickly established itself in all the first civilizations and spread to non-urban societies like the Indo-European "cow, plow & sword" people, some of whom invaded India to become the ancient Hindus while others became the ancient Greeks. Indeed, militarism and explicit male dominance are two of the central characteristics of all the civilizations of the past 6,000 years, the age of empire. The problem had emerged full blast.
Combining all these clues suggests to me that male oppressiveness towards womankind had its beginnings in a misplaced attempt to resolve certain deep anxieties within the male psyche. These anxieties were caused by biological and emotional vulnerabilities, by gender identity conflicts, by the age old tradition that women were more naturally blessed, more magically powerful, and by a psychological vacuum that was created as the image of maleness grew faint and confused during the neolithic era.
Once started, male dominance perpetuated itself through two major self-reinforcing cultural patterns. We have already discussed one of these patterns – the way that gender anxiety in fathers leads to the same anxiety in sons. The other pattern has to do with the cultural impact of what people see as the major threats to their survival. Seeing these threats as biological (starvation and disease) has historically favored fertility religions, magic and a higher status for women. Seeing them as social (war and oppression) has favored power or justice religions, practical innovation and technology, and a higher status for men. During the age of empire, those with a thirst for dominance have been very effective at making sure that the primary threat has remained social!
FINDING OUR WAY FORWARD
What can we do to break out of these patterns? The key, it seems to me, is to deal directly with the male anxieties that started it all. The crux of the challenge at both a cultural and personal level is the creation and maintenance of secure and genuine identities in males. Doing this requires many things:
Understanding. Both as individuals and as a culture, we need a fresh understanding of what it means to be male, and especially of the particular challenges males face. Old ideas, such as that "men are strong," need to be replaced by more refined understandings, such as that, yes, men tend to have larger bodies and stronger muscle systems, but among other things their immune systems are weaker. In general, the whole image of maleness that we have inherited from the past 6000 years of the age of empire needs to be reviewed and massively reworked.
Modeling. Children of both sexes, but especially boys, need quality exposure to good adult male role models, beginning in infancy.
Training. The recent brain research suggests that males need special help in developing skills that are not part of our conventional education. For example, we need to expand our ability to express (not only verbally, but through imagery, movement, sound, etc.) right-brain based feelings. Likewise, we could well increase our skills in recognizing and resolving inner problems.
Males could also use training in both self care and care of others – from cooking to health care – especially when these skills are modeled by other males. Besides the obvious practical benefits for everyone, males need to break out of the patterns of dependency that seek to secure themselves through control and domination.
Affirmation. The most pathetic part of this whole story is that men have been trying to compensate for "lacks" that never existed in the first place. It begins with the ancient idea that women, because of their birthing power, are more naturally magical, more naturally blessed. Looking back, it is easy to imagine how this got started, but we today don’t need to buy into it. I don’t know about you, but it is my experience that each person and each gender is an equally mysterious and wonderful gift of Life. So the first affirmation we need is that Life loves and cherishes (equally) both maleness and femaleness.
The second affirmation is more personal. Males need to know that not only is maleness in its essence a good thing, but their own connection to maleness is not precarious. It is not something that needs to be achieved or proven, or that can be easily lost, for it is built into one’s very body and brain. We are maleness. We are free to simply be who we are, and each will define what his unique expression of maleness is.
The third affirmation doesn’t have so much to do with maleness as with the particular male need to know that he has successfully differentiated himself from "mother." Even in a society that did not expect men to "prove themselves," males might well still want to reassure themselves that they had achieved this independence. It is here that modern rites of passage, like those described in this issue by Steven Foster [see Passage Into Manhood], can be a great help. But however he does it, each male needs to eventually affirm that the struggle begun in the womb is now over. He can relax and enjoy the inalienable beingness that is his birthright.
Transcendence. It would be a mistake, however, to see the goal as simply independence. Rather, what we all need to do (males and females) is to expand our sense of "parent" from our biological parents to the "cosmic parents" we all share. It is through this transcendent connection that we can maintain our connectedness to the larger family of Life and rediscover that Life, while it may at times be demanding, is not as deeply hostile and threatening as the age of empire would have us believe.
All of these changes can begin at a personal level, but if they are to be fully realized sooner or later they must be reflected in changed institutions. For example, how can we expect young parents of both sexes to give adequate time to their children when our society makes young adulthood the most economically demanding time of life? And what male, secure in his own beingness, would tolerate the continuation of the institutions of war in today’s world? Indeed, wherever you look, from the nation-state to the economy to the world’s religions, all of our major institutions have their roots in the age of empire, express its assumptions, and reinforce its values. Were we to make these changes in our approach to maleness, there is hardly a single aspect of culture that would not be profoundly affected.
I’m optimistic. Nothing in these clues suggests that male oppressiveness is an unchangeable behavior. Rather, it is a reaction to and compensation for unacknowledged (and culturally exploited) inner conflicts and insecurities. There are vulnerabilities that can lead to it, but they certainly don’t have to. It is not anybody’s "fault" in a personalistic moral sense, and yet it is something we all unwittingly conspire to maintain. It is a culturally dependent historical phase – and we can bring it to an end.
Durden-Smith, Jo & deSimone, Diane, Sex And The Brain (New York: Warner Books, 1983).
Goy, Robert & McEwen Bruce, eds., Sexual Differentiation Of The Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980).
Mellaart, James, Earliest Civilizations Of The Near East (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).
Money, John & Tucker, Patricia, Sexual Signatures: On Being A Man Or A Woman (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1975).
Nicholson, John, Men And Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
Ortner, Sherry & Whitehead, Harriet, eds., Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction Of Gender And Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Parsons, Jacquelynne, ed., The Psychobiology of Sex Differences and Sex Roles (New York: McCrawHill, 1980).
Schlegel, Alice, ed., Sexual Stratificahon: A Cross Cultural View (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
Williams, Juanita, Psychology of Women: Behavior in a Biosocial Context (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1977).2