Research Challenges Assumptions about Gender and Sex

I grew up believing that men and women are different. I’m not talking just physically different, or just culturally different because they are socialized differently. I’m talking different. I was taught that men are designed to protect and provide, and women to care for children and nurture. I was taught that men wanted sex, and that women, being less sexual, were the gatekeepers. I was taught that men were just better at things like science and math while women were better at things like English and art.

As I left the conservative evangelicalism of my youth, I learned that many of these ideas were present in mainstream society, too. Something had changed, though. Rather than being rooted in religion, they were rooted in science. Men had evolved to be aggressive while women had evolved to nurture; men had evolved to be problem solvers while women had evolved to be communicators; and men had evolved to want sex more while women had evolved to want it less.

Anyway, in light of all of this I found a recent article in the New York Times really fascinating. In a nutshell, new data is leading scientists to question the common assumptions “[that] men are less selective about whom they’ll sleep with; [that] men like casual sex more than women; and [that] men have more sexual partners over a lifetime.” Here is an excerpt:

A COUPLE of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” Upon hearing of the project, one colleague, dubious that a modern scholar could hope to know anything about that period, asked them, “So what do you do, close your eyes and dream?”

Actually, it’s a little more involved. Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.

Lately, however, a new cohort of scientists have been challenging the very existence of the gender differences in sexual behavior that Darwinians have spent the past 40 years trying to explain and justify on evolutionary grounds.

Of course, no fossilized record can really tell us how people behaved or thought back then, much less why they behaved or thought as they did. Nonetheless, something funny happens when social scientists claim that a behavior is rooted in our evolutionary past. Assumptions about that behavior take on the immutability of a physical trait — they come to seem as biologically rooted as opposable thumbs or ejaculation.

The fact that some gender differences can be manipulated, if not eliminated, by controlling for cultural norms suggests that the explanatory power of evolution can’t sustain itself when applied to mating behavior. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve pushed these theories too far. How many stereotypical racial and ethnic differences, once declared evolutionarily determined under the banner of science, have been revealed instead as vestiges of power dynamics from earlier societies?

read the whole thing

This article made me think about something I learned in an undergraduate history class: namely, that during the middle ages and early modern period, women, not men, were considered to be the ones with uncontrollable sex drives. I learned in another class about how much of a sexual departure the Victorian era was, with its assumption that women were practically asexual and that men were the ones with sex drives that needed controlling. Since those classes, I’ve never been able to give much merit to attempts to explain why men “naturally” have higher sex drives than women. We are, I think, more shaped by our culture than we realize.

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