The Magazine

Love in the Ruins

Men, women, and the way we live now.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.