Taking Sex Differences Seriously
Research Backs Up a Vatican Document
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ROME, AUG. 21, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The recent letter on the role of men and women issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met with derision from many feminist groups who denounced what they consider to be the Church's outdated vision of the sexes.
One of the concepts the Vatican letter criticizes is the idea that "In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning" (No. 2). The Church, notes the letter, prefers to propose an "active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman" (No. 4).
Support for the proposition that there are substantial differences between men and women is found in a recently published book by Steven Rhoads, "Taking Sex Differences Seriously."
The notion that it is families and culture that determine masculinity and femininity is commonplace these days, observes Rhoads. This belief has been facilitated by the growing equality of women in fields such as higher education and employment, and by the promotion by feminist groups of the idea that gender roles are socially constructed. The social construction thesis is common to many schools of feminist thought, Rhoads explains.
Feminist thought cannot deny the distinct reproductive functions of men and women, notes Rhoads. Yet, these differences are held to be few and of relatively little importance, while the learned gender differences are both numerous and powerful. And if the gender roles are learned, say the feminists, they can be "deconstructed," thus creating a more just society.
Different from Day 1
Nevertheless, Rhoads argues that "Men and women still have different natures and, generally speaking, different preferences, talents and interests." In support of this affirmation he cites research from a number of sources demonstrating that the behavioral and psychological differences between men and women are in fact real, and not due to social conditioning.
Some sex-difference research has identified the hormonal environment of fetuses in mothers' wombs as a factor explaining differences between male and female behavior. And neuroscientists have found that men have fewer connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, with men's brains in general being more compartmentalized than women's.
Male-female divergences are evident from the earliest age, notes Rhoads. Even 1-day-old infants show behavioral differences, with females responding more strongly to the sound of crying. Three-day-old girls maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys. And 4-month-old girls can distinguish photographs of those they know from other people, something boys are generally not capable of doing. Boys, on the other hand, by the age of 5 months are more interested than girls in three-dimensional geometric forms and blinking lights.
Once infants are a year old they can rapidly distinguish between the sexes of their playmates, preferring to associate with those of their own sex. Tests have shown this to be the case even when the newly arrived infants are dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex. Thus, baby girls quickly identify as female another baby, even if it is dressed in masculine clothes.
At 2 years of age, boys are more physically active and much more interested in vehicles, research shows. In nursery school, boys are interested in new toys, while girls show more curiosity in meeting new children.
Rhoads even notes that parenthood has led some feminist theorists of gender to change their minds when faced with how their young children develop. He recounted the experience of a liberal Berkeley academic who tried to raise her son in a violence- and gun-free environment. Yet, from an early age the son was fascinated with toy guns.
Other feminist academics have been disappointed that their daughters insisted on wearing dresses, in spite of attempts to persuade them to the contrary. In general, attempts to bring up children in a unisex environment, such as the Israeli kibbutzim and some U.S. communes, have also failed.
The hormonal factor
Male and female differences are present all through school life. Rhoads explains that a large body of research shows that from second through 12th grades boys have more favorable attitudes toward competition, and girls toward cooperation.
This is clearly revealed in the sports favored at school by boys and girls, with males preferring more competitive games with clear winners and losers, while girls opt for activities with less direct competition. This is true even in pre-puberty children, when girls are just as physically strong as boys.
Behavioral differences are no less notable in adult life, explains Rhoads. Both in the past and in the present, and across all societies, men are more aggressive than women. In the United States, for example, females account for only 10% of homicide arrests. Males also make up the overwhelming majority of those who participate in sports that demand high levels of physical exertion or danger. And men are three times more likely than women to die from accidental injury.
Some feminists, he notes, attempt to explain these differences due to socialization, insisting that women can be just as aggressive as men. But this argument, maintains Rhoads, ignores the hormonal factor -- with higher levels of testosterone in men -- and also evidence showing differences in men's brains. And, at a physical level, tests have demonstrated that when men and women receive the same type of weight training, men's strength increases far more than for women.
Moreover, if aggression were due to the social environment then with the diminishing differences between the sexes in recent years women should be starting to match men in aggression. Rhoads, citing crime statistics, argues that there has not been any significant closing in the levels of aggression between men and women.
More evidence of differences between the sexes comes from the importance of bringing up children in a family with both a female and male presence, explains Rhoads. The dramatic increase in fatherless families in recent times has led to a multitude of problems. Daughters, and even more so sons, are at risk when the father figure is absent. Problems range from an increase in criminal behavior to substance abuse and psychological problems.
For women, marriage and bearing children is also vitally important, Rhoads contends. He cited testimony from some women who achieved success in professional life, but who expressed their bitterness at not having children. By contrast, childlessness did not have the same negative effect on high-achieving men.
Caring for young children, especially if it is combined with an outside job, is a very demanding and tiring task for women. Yet, Rhoads cites a number of studies showing that motherhood and nurturing are a great source of happiness for women. By contrast, men are much less interested in caring for children. Attempts in Sweden, for example, to get men to make use of their legally entitled paternity leave have met with very limited success.
"From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are distinct, and will remain so for all eternity," notes the Vatican letter (No. 12). This difference, stresses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, needs to be "placed within Christ's Paschal mystery." In this way, "they no longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference."