The Modern Survival Guide #117
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And as an elder millennial, cis-gender male who grew up in the American south, for much of my life I held the view that there are two genders — male and female — and that the genders naturally do different things. That worldview is very common in the US, and it’s important for our survival in the modern world to realize that it is incorrect.
So let’s take a moment to unpack what happened to lead us down this cultural path, how it affects us, and why it’s wrong. Because as we will see, this isn’t a simple issue and it goes counter to a few thousand years’ worth of cultural baggage.
Old Concepts of Gender
Let’s start with a point that seems obvious now, but lots and lots of people will fight tooth and nail to deny — gender is a complicated subject and it’s not as simple as a male/female dichotomy.
Is that to say that I, your humble and scientifically minded author, am denying that people exhibit male and female sex characteristics? Of course not. I am familiar with the concept that some people have a penis and others have a vagina. But this is a part of the issue — we are encouraged to think that these anatomical features will dictate other facets of a person’s personality and interests, and that is a problem, because it starts creating false choices and false problems.¹
These might include some of the following gender tropes, things like:
- Men shouldn’t cry
- Women should stay home and keep the house
- Men should be the primary breadwinners
- Women should raise the children
- Girls are bad at math
- Women are more emotional
- Men should like sports
- Only men should be soldiers
- It’s only “natural” for men to be sexually attracted to women and women to be attracted to men
- Gay men are all effeminate
- Gay women are all butch
And I’m sure a thousand others that will pop into your mind as you read this. We are surrounded by the detritus of centuries of poor assumptions and bad arguments, and gender tropes are pretty far up there on the list of these toxic relics.
So what is the truth about all this? Well, science and actual empirical evidence have some things to say about this subject.
The Realities of Gender
So let’s break this down into a couple of categories. First let’s talk about the realities of gender from a scientific perspective. Then let’s talk about what that means for gender capabilities, and how that impacts our assumptions.
Scientifically speaking, sex differences break down into the obvious physical differences and more complex hormonal differences, all stemming from the differences between XX and XY chromosome combinations. There are also some diseases more common among women or among men (e.g. breast cancer, prostate cancer). There are also minor differences in ability to gain weight or muscle mass between men and women. There is no significant evidence to show any major differences in IQ or brain capability, and no significant evidence to show differences in emotional capacity.
Nonetheless, our society persists in perpetuating notions that draw clear lines of differentiation between the genders in all sorts of ways that are not supported by science.
There’s a reason for this, by the way: society has got two terms, sex and gender, conflated. A person’s sex refers to their biological features. But gender refers more specifically to cultural differences expected of males and females — how they look, how they dress, how they act, what they do, etc. And that, friends, is an entirely different kettle of fish, because a person’s cultural expectations arguably weigh on them just as much, or even more, than their biological predispositions.
Now, none of this is to say that there are no natural differences between men and women. There absolutely are. It would be miracle of evolution if the sexes were perfectly androgynous in their emotional and physiological expression. No, the point is that most of what we think we know about gender is bad science, and we’re only now starting to get a handle on the “real” differences between men and women, from a biological capability and psychology perspective.
What we’re learning at the same time is that, and this is a shocker I know, people are strongly influenced by their culture. Which is to say, a lot of what we think are “male” or “female” qualities are simply things that are expected of us in the current culture.
This bring us to the cultural assumptions about men and women. For example, it’s a common trope that women are better at multitasking than men, but modern research has largely debunked this idea (it turns out that everyone is bad at multitasking). Similarly, the idea that women are more emotional than men is, at best, inaccurate. We are surrounded by bad data, worse assumptions, and logical fallacies concerning what people are “naturally” inclined to do, and the research on what people are culturally inclined to do is still working up.
For another example, the whole “real men don’t cry” thing is both an incredibly modern idea and an incredibly ancient one, depending on how you look at things. Vast ranges of emotional response have been acknowledged as “acceptable” to men over the years. Just in Western culture, the ancient Romans cried all the time, whereas the Spartans were famously stoic. The difference? Culture.
And continuing the Spartan theme, should only men be soldiers? The Spartans certainly thought so. But there have been many cultures over the years which prized female soldiers, either traditionally or out of desperation. The most recent examples might be Russian women in World War II and Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the recent wars against ISIL in the Middle East.
And how about pink vs. blue, the male vs. female color scheme? Well, it turns out that was just marketing. Recent marketing too — that advertising decision was made in the 1940s. It’s strange to think that in the last 80 years something so central to the current culture was established, but there you go.
The bottom line is that culture seems to determine most of our gender-based assumptions, and our assumptions have a tendency to cross over into what should be more rigorously logical ideas. So, let’s try to look at gender differences as both less important from a biological perspective and more important from a cultural perspective.
Biologically, there are differences between the sexes not related to reproduction, but we’re still figuring out what they are. It’s an interesting field and deserves good science, but it’s not something we should be hanging our hat on yet from the perspective of expectations of behavior.
Culturally, the differences can be vast; human beings are dominated by culture and in few places is that more evident than in gender expectations. The point is to remember that most of what we see as gender differences are cultural and therefore are subject to discussion, disagreement, and change.
Appropriate Gender Expectations
So what does this mean in terms of our actual life and survival? Well, mostly, it means that we should be taking the whole gender stereotypes thing a lot less seriously, and taking the promotion of gender equality a lot more seriously. I’ve broken this down into a handful of helpful categories, and I think they fall into the traditional lines of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”
Just for fun, let’s start with the “shalt not” statements:
- Stop assuming capabilities. We need to stop assuming that men are good at x and women are good at y, and the reverse, that men are bad at y and women are bad at x. There is no valid argument that gender imparts bonuses or penalties on skill sets. There are only cultural expectations.
- Stop skewing pay. The idea that men should automatically be paid more because they are primary breadwinners is outdated and no longer accurate. Everyone’s involved in the workplace now, and everyone should be paid according to their contributions on an equal field.
- Stop assuming sexual attitudes. It is simply not accurate that all men are horndogs, and it is just as inaccurate that women aren’t interested in sex, and that’s just for starters. Assuming anything about someone else’s sexual preferences is a universally bad idea.
- Stop assuming that there are only two acceptable gender alignments. This is a big one — not all men are going to conform to the dominant “masculine” stereotype, whatever that is, and not all women are going to conform to the dominant “feminine” stereotype, whatever that is, and that’s just fine. Because, and this is very important to recognize, those are literally things that your society just made up, and that is the limit of their importance.
- Stop assuming that gay people will conform to an “opposite” stereotype. Gay men are not required to act “feminine” and gay women are not required to act “masculine.” These labels don’t mean much anyway, and a person’s sexuality has little actual impact on their personality or presentation in the absence of a cultural push.²
And then there are the “shalt” statements:
- We should assume that a qualified person is qualified. If someone holds a certification, degree, or sufficient work experience, their gender shouldn’t really matter when it comes to expectations of their work.
- We should assume that household chores are everyone’s problem. It’s 2020. Everyone is involved in the workplace. Everyone should be involved in the home life. If your masculinity is preventing you from doing dishes, it’s time to grow up. If your femininity is preventing you from mowing the lawn, it’s time to get real. Just admit you don’t like doing these things and come to an arrangement with your partner.
- We should assume that sexual orientation is a spectrum. It is god-dang 2020, people. If you haven’t figured out that what people like in bed exists as a range of options, preferences, and natural inclinations, it’s time to make that realization. Being male or female makes it more likely that a person will have a particular orientation, but that’s about it.
- We should assume that sexual abuse happens and is bad. It is our responsibility as moral persons to ensure that our neighbors are not suffering, and that extends to protecting them from sexual abuse. Go forth with the attitude that sexual abuse is not good, and prepare for some of your friends, family, and colleagues to disappoint you. Defend the victim, not the perpetrator, while keeping in mind that people are innocent until proven guilty. And yes, men can be sexually abused too.
- We should assume that work culture ought to accommodate both sexes. We should push for things like equal paid maternity and paternity leave, pumping rooms, flex hours, and affordable childcare services.
- We should assume that positive attributes are positive, irrespective of gender. If a dominant attribute is a good thing for a particular role, then it’s a good thing no matter who holds that position. If a passive attribute is a good thing for a particular role, then it’s a good thing no matter who holds that position, and so on, and so forth. Let’s stop being trapped by the bold vs. bossy problem.³
Are there more points? Of course there are. For something like this, something this broad and complex, I’m absolutely certain I left something out. But these are certainly some good starting points.
At this point, I’ve spent a lot of time breaking down what gender is and pointing out how I think we ought to be looking at it in particular areas. So how do we sum all this up? What is an appropriate role for gender in a modern, educated, enlightened society? Or is there one at all?
I think this a very interesting question, and my opinion is that there is a role for the concept of “gender” in any society — it’s just that it’s not useful as a binary label. The idea of gender, like a lot of other stereotype-based concepts, is to give people a general idea of expectations. In a binary-gender traditional American culture, if someone is male you assume that they are the primary breadwinner for the household, that they conform to the “masculine” stereotype, that they are heterosexual, etc. That’s useful information… if it’s accurate. But it’s not.
We no longer live in a binary-gender traditional culture, and it was never an accurate view of the world anyway. So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us in the position of needing to create a new set of gender labels that takes into account more of the variety of human experience. Instead of male vs. female, we need a whole slew of new labels to describe things. The modern “woke” culture labeling of cis-het-male is something of a starting point, but frankly we probably need a few more descriptors.
But WHY BOTHER, I hear you all say. Why label anything at all? Why can’t we just be people with no expectations and treat everyone as unique and precious individuals? Well, I agree that we should. But that’s not how people work. We assign labels, we use stereotypes, we make snap judgments. That’s human nature. Arranging a more equitable society isn’t something you can do while ignoring human nature, you have to work with it and around it.
So — a system of new, more comprehensive labels is probably the best way forward, to my way of thinking. Expand the concept of gender to incorporate more of the variety of human orientations and preferences. Instead of two genders, maybe there is simply a mishmash of combinations of other traits. That can get to be a huge range fairly quickly (we’re talking factorial math at this point), but maybe that’s a good thing. We need to start treating gender identity as something more akin to a personality test (e.g., a designation like INTJ) as opposed to something determined by sex characteristics.
This isn’t a conversation that will be over today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. This is an ongoing discussion, an emerging point of difference between our modern society and those who have gone before, and that’s a very good thing indeed. Forward progress always entails breaks with the past. Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable for some people, awkward for others, confusing for a few. But this act of moving past the old ideas of gender is necessary for us to get away from the fetters of bad assumptions, and move us towards a more equitable and productive future.
¹A false choice is an artificially restricted or falsified restriction on options. A false problem is an issue that is presented as a problem but doesn’t actually explain why it should be a problem. For example, a false choice is the statement that “Stacey spoke out against workplace safety violations, therefore she must be communist,” and a false problem is “Because it is Thursday you can’t ride your bicycle.” Attempting to solve workplace problems doesn’t make one a radical leftist, and there’s no particular reason given why bicycles shouldn’t be ridden on Thursdays.
²There is some fascinating investigation currently being done on the origin of the “gay lisp,” for example. The general consensus is that linguistics people still haven’t quite figured out where it came from, and it certainly wasn’t around any more than about sixty years ago, but it does seem to correspond to the rise of “uptalk” on the west coast. The point is that there’s no particular biological reason why some gay men adopt this accent, but it is quite clear that it is a recent phenomenon, and that probably points to a cultural influence.
³The common perception that a dominant man is “bold,” whereas a dominant woman is “bossy.”