The Magazine

Love in the Ruins

Men, women, and the way we live now.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Editor's Note: Harvey Mansfield, one of America's leading political scientists and a widely published author, will deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. We have reposted these Mansfield classics from THE WEEKLY STANDARD archive in honor of that event.

Taking Sex Differences Seriously

by Steven E. Rhoads

Encounter, 362 pp., $27.95

"I DON'T PAY THEM to come over. . . . I pay them to leave." So says a handsome actor regarding the prostitutes he patronizes. It's a statement that reveals a great deal about sex differences, one is tempted to say: Women want to stay and have to be paid to leave; men want to leave and have to be induced to stay. Which means, we suppose, that women are serious about sex and men are not. Things look different to men, of course, before having sex. But any man is likely to have a sneaking admiration for the handsome actor who has so much choice in his life that his main problem is disposing of what for the time being he no longer wants.

One of the many virtues of Steven Rhoads's new book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, is that it makes you think about what it means to take something seriously. Rhoads argues that sex differences are "large, deeply rooted, and consequential." Taking them seriously requires dismissing the contention made by feminists and their allies that they are "socially constructed." They must be traced back to nature, to what is unchangeable.

But it is not as easy as one might think to find unchangeable nature. Relations between the sexes have changed enormously over the last fifty years, in response to a wave of opinion that denies any need to take sex differences seriously. And does not the very fact of this change validate the feminist claim that sex differences are socially constructed? Isn't it possible to minimize them, since that is what we have done?

Rhoads shows that men are still today more promiscuous than women, despite the official denial by our gender-neutral society that this is so. Men are more promiscuous by inclination, as well: They think about sex more often, and what they think about is not marital bliss but "an active sex life." When men do think about marital bliss, it centers on lots of sex rather than mere kissing and hugging as women tend to prefer. And despite official disapproval of unequal treatment of the sexes, it is still considered better to be a stud, like the actor, than a slut, like the women he sleeps with. Though weakened and now often confined to fantasies in which men can dream of their exploits with impunity and unfailing success, the double standard in sexual morality still exists.

Such differences, according to Rhoads, represent natural inclinations that can be dismissed or repressed--but not entirely and not without paying a price. The inclinations cannot be removed, but the delusion that they can be removed changes our behavior. And the burden of that delusion falls harder on women. Believing that the sexes are identical, women fail to understand their own greater desire for marriage and avoid it until the opportunity passes or comes too late for having children. Men, delighted with the idea of uncommitted sex, have a ball because the new conventions favor their inclinations toward an active sex life. They fail to see that marriage is for their happiness even if--which is not the case--all they want is more sex. Men fail to honor women's inclinations toward modesty and marriage because women themselves do not care to admit they have such inclinations. Each sex believes it has entered into a paradise, a new Garden of Eden in which both sexes fall in with unbridled male fantasies.

The studies Rhoads summarizes show how far our official doctrine of gender neutrality is from the truth. Most were made by social psychologists attracted to feminism, such as Alice Eagly, Diane Halpern, and Eleanor Maccoby, who expected to discover that sex differences were little or nothing. They found otherwise, and they had the courage to say so. Rhoads himself conducted a study of married female assistant professors--surely, next to unmarried female assistant professors, the second most progressive group in the American population. Although they said that husbands and wives should share equally around the home, in fact they did many more of the tasks, and what's more, enjoyed doing them. (Even changing diapers.) Rhoads concludes that despite the women's movement there has been no decline in sex stereotyping by people generally, who see men as more ambitious and competitive than women. And the sexes still use traditional stereotypes to describe themselves, men seeing themselves as more assertive, women as more tender-minded.

Rhoads quotes F. Carolyn Graglia's description of a mother's job as "cheerful responsiveness to constant interruptions." Of course if you are serious about a career, you have to gain control of your schedule and secure yourself against the relentless, unapologetic claims your children make on your time. But if you are serious about being a mother, you have to be receptive to your children and not look outside your family for your happiness. Women are more likely to want to nurture, as is shown in the facts (confirmed by social science studies) that girls like dolls and boys like cars and guns, and that boys play rough and girls do not.

Nonetheless, some women desire careers and thrive in them; others prefer the traditional roles--an opposition that Graglia calls a war. Each party hurts the other: the traditional women by doing more than half the housework, which makes it harder for the careerist women to teach their husbands equality; and the careerist women by disdaining men's fidelity and refusing their courtesies, which are vital to traditional women. To explain the difference, Rhoads proposes that there are really two kinds of women differing in the amount of testosterone they carry. If so, it would seem difficult to satisfy both kinds at once. Are there also two kinds of men--since manly men look down on effeminate men?

A third theme of sex differences is that women are the weaker sex. To be sure, most men are weaker than the strongest men, but in the case of women, weakness pertains to the sex as a whole. A woman seeks in a man "someone to look up to," of greater height and strength than herself, while a man wants just the opposite--someone shorter, smaller, younger, and less intelligent than he, whom he can protect: in sum, a quite irrational choice from a woman's viewpoint. Women like men with status; and well-off women like Lady Macbeth--who, you would think, have enough status--want more of it in their husbands than do other women.

Women can be as aggressive as men, but the aggression is "relational." So, too, women's anger is more bitter, as it is more likely to be frustrated than men's. They rage at men in a way that men do not rage at women. "Starting in 1970," says Rhoads, "women have been more depressed and unhappy than they used to be."

THIS SEEMS the price of going against nature--although Rhoads does not quite say so. Taking sex differences seriously means attributing them to something permanent in us rather than to social construction. But we no longer have a way of understanding the permanent structure of things as nature. At this point in the argument, both sides in these debates typically appeal to evolutionary theory, but quite what "evolutionary psychology" tells us remains hotly debated.

Evolution suggests that nothing is permanent and everything is constructed over time, only very gradually and in a sense not by human choice. Applied to human psychology, we seem to be left with men who are supposed to seek many mates, and women one or few. This is not really a choice: It was a "selection" determined slowly over eons. Therefore men living now have a "nature" that in theory must change but in practice cannot be changed because it would take too long. Evolution makes us better by validating every change that occurs, since we are made to select whatever change enables us to survive better. So we are progressive beings full of hope for a better future but fitted out with conservative natures made long ago that constitute a heavy drag on our hopes.

What evolutionists think is the closest we usually get to the notion of nature these days. But it is not close enough. For evolution sees everything as organized for survival and cannot recognize our better, higher nature. Thus it sees no difference in rank between the male desire for an active sex life and the male interest in being married, or between the promptings of desire and the instruction of reason. What kind of seriousness is this?

No doubt with a view to these problems, Rhoads does not declare evolutionary psychology to be true. He merely refers to what "evolutionists think" as a useful authority, perhaps with which to defend common sense. He also does not accept the injunction of social science against judgments of value. He has no hesitation in stating, as the result of his research, that "women would be wise to realize" they have a sexual makeup that differs from men's. All women who doubt this finding would be wise to read Rhoads's fine book.

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard University.