by Allen Childs
When it comes to the hot button issue of sex differences, the two opposing extreme views hold such irresistible appeal that nuance is hard to come by. The more traditional of these polarized mindsets is that men and women are inherently and essentially different, almost as different as two separate species. The title of the once ubiquitous 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus cartoonishly illustrates this stance and describes a massive gulf between the sexes with regards to communication and understanding in romantic relationships. On this view, men and women have largely divergent strengths and weaknesses and, some would say, separate purposes in life. Men and women should strive toward distinct ideals, toward two distinct collections of virtues that have only the most basic qualities of moral goodness in common, and if a person of one sex exemplifies the wrong virtues, even though those same qualities are seen as paragons of excellence in the opposite sex, he or she is a failure.
Let us note that it is possible to hold the view that men and women are essentially (or, at least, significantly) different without being sexist if sexism is defined not as believing that men and women are different but as believing that one of the sexes is inherently superior to the other. By this definition, the non-sexist version of such a belief is known in some circles as complementarianism, a term often used in religious contexts where practitioners hold to a traditional/religiously informed belief that men and women are meant for separate roles but that neither role is better than the other. Complementarianism states that the differing strengths of ideal men and women are meant to complement and support one another. On the complementarian view, sex differences can even be a cause for celebration due to the ensuing teamwork required, among other reasons. Although many proponents of the opposing view, egalitarianism, argue that even the most benign form of complementarianism is inherently sexist due to its placing harmful, rigid expectations and inaccurate, false structures around people of each sex, there are complementarians who hold their views in good faith and without hate, and this flavor of complementarianism is the focus of the arguments to follow. The aggressively negative belief systems of misogyny/male chauvinism and misandry, which are quite distinct from complementarianism, will not be discussed. Even though complementarianism has a religious connotation, this is the term I will use for the general belief, religious or secular, that holds men and women to be essentially different.
The other side of the philosophical coin portrays men and women as fundamentally the same and deserving of the same treatment. The most rigid version of this view claims that men and women are exactly alike, at least mentally, psychologically, and internally (because, physically, they clearly differ.) Proponents of this dogmatic form of egalitarianism label any acknowledgement that the sexes, on average, might be different as sexist or even hateful because such remarks judge a person based on sex alone. If, as they claim, no difference between men and women exists, then such opinions are inaccurate and (perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently) destructive or violent in their attempts to control and judge. Of course, even egalitarianism must admit that men and women have different lived experiences due to various cultural and interpersonal biases and expectations as well as due to physical divergences in size/strength and biologically defined reproductive roles, but when it comes to innate sex differences or proper gender norms, as far as true egalitarians are concerned, there are none.
If I were forced to align myself with one of these two philosophies, I would certainly choose egalitarianism. I believe in an egalitarian approach to the world for two related but distinct reasons: 1. It is by far the more accurate of the two and 2. It is the more socially beneficial view. On the accuracy front, an egalitarian stance avoids the pitfalls of confusing statistical group averages with the actual traits of real individuals – the living, breathing humans we interact with in real life. As for its utility, egalitarianism allows for greater individual freedom, detachment from harmful psychological storylines about proper “gender performance” that result in immeasurable pain for both women and men, and a far healthier framework for romance and dating (and not only for heterosexuals!) Additionally, egalitarianism allows for the gradual phasing out of the vague concepts of masculinity and femininity, ideas which have no real definable meaning and cause more confusion than useful communication but have nevertheless been greatly fetishized as universal archetypes in many cultures.
Although the truth and usefulness of a philosophy are not one and the same, egalitarianism’s advantages in both domains can be explored from the launching pad of the following point: the egalitarian view actually allows for moderate complementarians (i.e., complementarians who embody a non-militant, non-proselytizing, live-and-let-live mentality) to fully inhabit their personal preferences as well without any philosophical contradiction. People who wish to adhere to more “traditional” gender roles (and I quote around “traditional” because different societies sometimes feature radically different traditions) are still absolutely free to do so in the egalitarian approach that I advocate, which is critical to ensure that the egalitarian stance does not itself become oppressive by criticizing those who exemplify more traditional or even stereotypical gender patterns, patterns which might simply be their genuine natural preferences. Complementarianism says that living according to traditional gender roles is the correct way. Egalitarianism says that such a lifestyle is but one of many possible models.
The properly understood and applied
egalitarian view, by avoiding a focus on the subtle differences between groups,
allows for greater differences between *individuals*, differences which are
both much more pronounced and more important for societal and individual
flourishing. The key misunderstanding of countless people, not only when it
comes to sex and gender differences but also across a wide array of analyses of
human nature and life, is a confusion between the evaluation of groups and the
evaluation of individuals. Statistical averages of groups are mistakenly
overlaid upon every individual within that group, and, conversely, the traits
of individuals are generalized and extrapolated to represent the defining
qualities or behaviors of whatever culturally demarcated group the individuals
are thought to belong. Much of the inaccurate and harmful thinking around sex
differences comes down to a warped view of statistical properties – these
distinctions between groups and individuals – and an overreaction to small
differences in statistical averages. A failure to comprehend the nature and
limits of empirical observation/statistical study pollutes society’s thinking.
These errors can easily be rectified with the proper understanding of concepts
such as averages/means, bell curves/normal distributions, and a few simple but
seemingly elusive truths, such as these: 1. Groups and individuals must be
thought of in completely different ways 2. Groups of people are essentially no
more than invented concepts and therefore we never actually interact with
groups per se in actual life and 3. No “average” man or woman (or anything
else) actually exists; only individuals do.
It’s quite obvious that, on the whole, men and women are not exactly the same, and there is no reason we should lie to ourselves about that truth nor be surprised by it; after all, there will be observed differences between any two compared groups of people. This is where my views part from those of the most rigid egalitarians who advocate for a total “blank slate” philosophy. Clearly, there are physical differences between men and women, and though the science is still evolving, studies do show some observable differences in both personality and relative strengths in different areas of intelligence. It is essentially impossible to parse out which of those mental and emotional differences are cultural and which are innate, but these differences do exist. Most of the differences are quite small. Critically, the differences are far wider *within* the statistical groups (in this case, men and women) than between the two groups. To take an obvious example, consider height, which is a physical difference that is far more pronounced than most of the subtle and small differences in average personalities or intelligence strengths between the sexes. Men are, statistically, taller than women on average. Is the difference significant? That depends on perspective and perception. While the average man is taller than the average woman, there are many women who are taller than many men. I am friends with a woman who is 6-3 (1.91m). She is taller than perhaps ~97% of all men worldwide and, given that the percentage of women she towers above is even larger, she certainly stands as an exceptionally tall person in general. That said, how often do we hear obviously false statements like “men are taller than women”? Any other stereotypical trait, such as “more violent,” “more emotionally attuned,” or “better at math” can be inserted for “taller,” and the sexes, swapped. We hear such utterances all the time, and these claims confuse statistical means with universal truths. Even though many people understand that statements like those refer to statistical averages – the phrase “on average” is (hopefully) implied – the language that we regularly use matters greatly because it eventually shapes how we think about the world and even distorts what we see right in front of us. This linguistic and logical sloppiness can spill out into how we think about the sexes and, quite literally, everything we experience. It poisons our perceptions of reality.
Statistical differences in averages (or “means”) are more obvious at the extreme ends of the bell curve (or “normal distribution.”) In the middle of the distribution spectrum, a small difference in average is hardly noticeable. There are millions of American women who are 5-7. There are also millions of American men who are that same height. A woman who is 5-7 is not exceptionally tall, nor is a man who is 5-7 exceptionally short, and there exists a sea of men and women who are slightly taller or slightly shorter than 5-7. The sex differences become more pronounced in, say, the 6-0 range or the 5-2 range. Yet still, I have known many women who are 6-0 or taller! I see them on the street every day in New York, as does any open-eyed resident of a densely populated area. The bell curves overlap significantly such that while a difference in the mean is clear and obvious, people of either sex who fall out of the blunt “men are taller than women” stereotype/expectation are not shocking in the least. And height is one of the most significant dissimilarities between men and women, and one of the aspects of the human experience that is most purely genetically determined, one of few traits that cannot readily be influenced by innate desire or work or personal expansion. When it comes to other more shapeable traits, small disparity in the means becomes even less important because, if so desired, those differences can be partly or wholly overcome via action.
Let’s take on another of the most obvious and pronounced sex differences: athletic ability. Surely I cannot argue that athletic performance suggests that men and women are the same, but sports is a helpful case study to explain how the dissimilarities that do exist are less important at an individual level than typically thought. Clearly, men are on average more gifted than women when it comes to strength and endurance. And yet, the women at the very tops of their athletic fields, while not able to successfully compete with the most elite men, are still better at what they do than all but the top tiniest fraction of a percent of men. A woman with extreme natural gifts in endurance who applies a world-class work ethic and passion to distance running can run far faster than the average man could ever dream of. The women’s marathon world record, held by the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, stands at 2:15:25. Most people consider a sub-3 hour marathon a remarkable achievement for a man, and the qualifying time for the upcoming *men’s* Olympic Trials in America is 2:19. World-class female weightlifters, through a combination of innate talent and hard work, could easily crush the average untrained male in any competition of strength. Again, it is true that sports is one of few arenas in which, at the highest levels, men and women cannot consistently compete, but these differences are not relevant to either the average person’s casual athletic pursuits (e.g., highly talented girls successfully compete against boys in youth sports all the time) or the typical physical requirements of daily life (such as moderate manual labor.) So, even in another example of physical difference, where sex divergences are most pronounced, there is enough statistical overlap that, aside from these most extreme arenas of Olympic-level athletics, the assumed hierarchy of abilities implied by the statistical means is only relevant from a certain point of view. The mean tells us something real, but making assumptions or placing limits on people because of the mean is often inaccurate and potentially destructive.
Speculation about the innate personality and intelligence differences between men and women never fails to trigger. Developing science (and it always is developing, especially now given that our scientific understanding of people and psychology is in its absolute infancy) does point to some differences between the sexes in average personality traits as well as some differences in specific intellectual abilities. Certainly, the mental worlds of thoughts and behaviors and academics are likely to be influenced heavily by social pressure and conditioning and biased parenting. However, it is certainly possible that some subtle trends, strengths, and weaknesses are genetic and innate. Regardless of the sources of the differences, these bell curves are highly overlapping and not significant enough to warrant judgment of the personality or intelligence or capabilities of any individual person on the basis of sex. To take a stereotypically gendered trait as an example, some of the most aggressive people I have ever met are women and some of the meekest are men. Anyone who has met a diverse array of people and is not blinded by his or her own gender biases will have shared this experience. Men are more aggressive on average, but not so much so as to warrant an automatic assumption about any individual man or woman’s personality. Moreover, questions about in-born vs. socially conditioned traits aside, behavior and personality and intelligence are to some degree modifiable by the efforts of the individual (or, in childhood, by their parents.) Admittedly, many people remain fairly stagnant in their emotional or intellectual development for long periods of time, but spiritual and psychological work can bring about, for dedicated seekers, titanic shifts in behavior, presentation, and skill. History overflows with examples of poor students who work hard, breakthrough, and change the world with their brilliance. Sometimes violent criminals “see the light” and become gentle humanitarians. Science has shown that the brain, once thought to be essentially locked in place after the developmental years, is far more plastic and mutable throughout adulthood than was once believed, and for passionate and uninhibited seekers, the shoring up of weaknesses or lopsidedness in personality or intellect is often attainable.
What would the world look like if gendered expectations were removed from the equation and most people were encouraged to expand to their maximum potential regardless of gender roles? The average man might be gentler and more compassionate and the average woman, more assertive and goal-oriented. Complementarians argue that this would send humanity off course because all people are not supposed to be the same. They claim it is natural for humans to exhibit different strengths and that if men become more “like women” and vice versa, the proper duties of each sex will be inadequately fulfilled and much social chaos will ensue. First of all, society does indeed benefit from a diversity of personality types and strengths and preferences, but there is no reason why this diversity needs to be linked to gender in any way. More importantly, this argument that a more well-rounded and “gender fluid” society could undermine the historically enjoyed benefits of traditional gendered strengths would carry great weight if not for one simple but critically misunderstood fact: humans are complex. In practice, personality traits are not part of a zero-sum equation in which developing more of one virtue means an automatic reduction in another. People are immense webs of thoughts, ideas, feelings, personality quirks, behaviors, and moods. Different moments call for different aspects of our natures. Some spiritual traditions assert that personal identity does not even actually persist across time and that in each moment, we are, essentially new people. To suggest that a strong or aggressive man will lose his value by becoming gentler is to suggest that being aggressive and being gentle are competing virtues in all of the same situations. A balanced and complex person has a range of modes and approaches that can be called upon to suit a given situation. Virtues do not exist on a spectrum set across opposite and competing virtues. The bravery of a warrior defending his or her family from violent invaders is not contrasted by the loving warmth of a parent tucking in his or her child – it is contrasted by cowardice. Similarly, in the world of the intellect, there is no trade off between aptitude or passion for math and, say, the visual arts, despite what the pseudoscientific “left brain vs. right brain” tests that we all took in seventh grade have led many to believe. In fact, skills in math and visual arts or other supposedly unrelated fields can enhance appreciation and understanding of each other. An anecdote: when I arrived for a voice lesson just after having attended a football game, I was stunned when my brilliant teacher said to me that he “could never understand how people could like both sports and music.” My guess is that his mentality is rooted in adolescent ideas of factions or tribes, the schema that there are jocks and there are artists and that each person is one or the other and the two crowds don’t mix. I told him that it’s quite easy to love both athletics and the arts! I could assert successful arguments for the possibility of enjoying both pursuits either on the grounds that liking one has nothing to do with liking the other or, alternatively, by reasoning that athletics and the arts actually have a lot in common on a deeper level. The “either/or” approach to personality, talents, and passions exemplified by the “jocks vs. artists” example is a common fallacy as it applies both to gender expectations and life generally. It leads not just to inaccurate judgments of others but also, perhaps even more damagingly, to limited and constricted understandings of the self. Much of people’s attachment to less fluid paradigms of gender is, I estimate, grounded in two beliefs: 1. This zero-sum, trade-off conception of virtues that does not take into account the complexity of humans, who can enjoy or embody different things at different times 2. The worshipping and fetishizing of the nebulous and fairly meaningless ideas of masculinity and femininity, to, which I will return later.
If natural ability levels of the sexes are similar enough that wholesale pre-judgment on those grounds is unwise, then another culprit for possible gender discrepancy is experience. Culturally, men and women do experience different treatment from individuals as well as contrasting expectations from the world generally. However, that experience gap has narrowed radically over the last century as women have joined the work force and men have become more involved in parenting, amongst many other balancing cultural shifts. Looking deeper, how dissimilar are the overall experiences of men and women? In the grand scheme of things, they are not very different at all. Men and women both breathe. They both think. They both speak with languages that our brains have evolved to understand and utilize at remarkably high levels. Men and women suffer, laugh, love, lust, lie, preach, dream, and pursue goals and passions. Unlike throughout most of human history, men and women in developed countries today frequently participate in almost all of the same activities, including extreme sports, war, and childrearing. If today there remained a long list of gender-specific experiences that the opposite sex never encountered, a profound difference in typical life experience could be argued, but that is far from the case. The overlap in experiences, even in our still heavily gendered culture, is massive, with the only completely separate experiences stemming from our separate reproductive roles (pregnancy/birth vs. insemination.) What great uncrossable chasm exists to divide us? There is none. Again, just like with the empirically observable differences in personality, the difference in experiences between groups is far less than the difference among groups. A wealthy, highly educated, lacrosse-playing man from Connecticut is likely to have far more in common with a wealthy, highly educated, lacrosse-playing woman from Connecticut than he will a poor, illiterate, man from India (and even then, the two would arguably share more common ground than not on the basis of their general, conscious, human experience.) To look at a clear and specific but dark example of the vast overlap between the sexes, one of the lived experiences most commonly linked with a specific sex is rape, historically associated with male perpetrators and female victims. Though women, on average, are more likely to have been raped, the fact remains that many millions of men have also survived rape, which has only become an accessible fact in very recent human history due to increased scientific study paired with greater societal openness, awareness, and consciousness of these most sensitive matters. The once common idea that almost no man can understand the hell of the sexual abuse that so many women throughout history have endured is demonstrably false, and to believe that only people of the same sex can understand the tragedies and the triumphs of the other is a mistake that hinders connection and will stunt our development as a species. The truth remains that most violent actors are men, but “the fairer sex” murders, too. Women have been successful world leaders, Nobel prize-winning scientists, and serial killers. Men have been caring nurses and loving stay-at-home fathers and homemakers. Whether in brilliant shining success or abhorrent deed, no role or experience, aside from matters of reproduction, leaves either sex wholly unaffected.
Another factor that makes complementarianism tempting for many despite its obvious drawbacks is society’s general obsession with “masculinity” and “femininity.” These mysterious labels hypnotize an enormously wide array of people. Some never reflect on why they assign these concepts such gravity or what they even mean, while others concoct elaborate philosophies of gender, believing, for some reason, that masculinity and femininity are real spiritual energies or somehow universally archetypal and foundational to life. These ideas, which I, too, took for granted and left unchallenged for many years, are deeply problematic for several reasons. First, in order to understand why masculinity and femininity are relatively unimportant and not even what I would describe as “real,” it is critical to explore my underlying epistemology, which seeks to find truths that are more likely to be eternal and universal rather than contingent or temporary or invented and grants much greater value to the former. The *concepts* of masculinity and femininity are certainly quite real, and one must look no further than the clothes people wear every day to see their effects. But the actual existence of masculinity and femininity as real things in and of themselves is another matter.
At the top of the list of universal truths is mathematics. Philosophers and scientists essentially agree that it is impossible for a world to exist in which 1 and 1 does not equal 2. There exist certain facts about the world that are not contingent but necessary, and mathematical facts are among them. If anything exists in any possible universe, those mathematical truths exist – period. Now, what else belongs in that category? This remains a subject of great debate. Some thinkers have moved toward basic language structures as examples of truth that might be in some way universal. On this view, the very foundations of language (nouns/subjects/objects, actions, the assignment of properties via concepts) are universal, and the basic framework of reality is somewhat attached to these structures. Additionally, consciousness is a candidate to be nearly or even equally as fundamental to existence as mathematics. This idea of consciousness as fundamental to reality dovetails into countless other topics, including the idea of God and/or the hypothesis that, perhaps, consciousness itself is an aspect of God or even that consciousness and God are one and the same. Space and time are also part of the conversation around necessary truths. I posit fundamental aspects of our conscious experience – such as love, fear, or virtues like hope and courage – as other possibilities for universally bedrock foundations of all experience and reality.
If there are things that are more
necessary to the fabric of the universe than others, then some facts about our
world, even ones that we take for granted, are not universal or “eternal.” For
example, the film The Godfather isn’t fundamental or necessary to existence in
the same way that mathematics is. We can easily imagine a world without The
Godfather, as wonderful a film as may be. If Mario Puzo had never been born,
The Godfather would not have existed. (Now, a determinist could argue
that everything that ever exists is fundamentally necessary and therefore
fundamentally true and foundational, but even if we were to allow that, The
Godfather is still only true at a certain time and place, and it is still clear
that it is built from elements more fundamental to the world than the film
itself. As a fairly radical determinist myself, and I still place the existence
of The Godfather in a far different category of truth than math or
consciousness – The Godfather is something that is *built* from fundamental
things rather than a fundamental thing itself.) To take this logic further, it
is quite easy to imagine a universe lacking humans but still featuring advanced
conscious life. This thought experiment
is enormously beneficial across all sorts of cases and topics. Here, because we can imagine a universe in
which intelligent conscious entities experience some but not all of what humans
do, it follows that the more distinctly human a trait is, the less universal it
could possibly be. Some aspects of human
experience are much more distinctly human than others (e.g., grooming our
toenails is much more distinctly human than studying mathematics, because
clipping nails requires that we have toes, that we have toenails, that we care
about grooming, etc. whereas mathematical truths are likely to be discovered by
any highly intelligent conscious species, toed or untoed.) Our concepts of masculinity and femininity
are clearly extremely specific to humans and thus cannot be amongst the most
universal or foundational of ideas. When
ranking the truths most likely to be fundamental to reality, the ideas of
masculinity and femininity are very, very far down the list. In fact, they are
so far buried on the list of likelihood that they do not make my list at all in
any meaningful way except insofar as they are concepts that exist.
The most obvious example of mathematics
aside, it is clear that something like love is a far more foundational idea
than the ideas of masculinity and femininity. Love – that is, to define it
simply, two conscious entities caring for one another – is just one example of
a human experience we can easily imagine occurring across many or even all
sophisticated conscious beings. If there exists some advanced conscious species
elsewhere in the universe, it is probable that some form of care or positivity
toward its fellow creatures plays a role in its existence, something we would
recognize as love. On the other hand, masculinity and femininity as we think of
them require a very specific form of sexual dimorphism to make any sense at all
(and a rigid understanding of it, at that.) Masculinity and femininity are
concepts that only exist because humans reproduce sexually, which is only one
of who knows how many ways conscious creatures could reproduce, and our
specific notions of male and female traits are solely dependent on not only the
particular form of sexual dimorphism humans happen to have but also, crucially,
on our often warped or exaggerated perceptions of what our dimorphism actually
is and what it means. Some other animals resemble humans in their sexual
dimorphism, but many have radically different forms of sex differences. For
example, in the modern “Western” world, most people think of women as
more flamboyantly beautiful than are men (and, of course, it’s well noted that
cultures from the past have disagreed.) Today, women are often associated with
bright colors and flashy looks. However, in the natural world, the male sex of
many species is the “beautiful” sex, demonstrating bright colors and showy,
eye-catching visual appearance. In some
cases, the males and females look so different that they are hardly
recognizable as being the same species, whereas other animals feature sexes
that are nearly identical to the eye.
The behavioral gender roles of many creatures (e.g., lions, bees) also
flip stereotypical human patterns on their heads. The females of some species of spider
physically dwarf the males and, after copulation, eat their mates. Other animals fall into some of our
traditional patterns, insofar as our astronomically more complex lives can be
compared with theirs. There are no set rules, no universal traits that
characterize males and females in sexually reproducing creatures. To elevate our subtle sexual dimorphism to
the level of archetype or spiritual energy is like worshipping the fact that
many humans have brown hair. We need
look no further than the countless other creatures on our planet to see that,
in some other environment and along a different evolutionary path, brunettes
could have been instead topped by bright green locks and blonde hair replaced
with purple. These facts really are not the traits that define us and do not,
in the totality of things, matter very much.
Another reason why masculinity and femininity are clearly not amongst the most foundational truths of existence is that they are not traits in and of themselves but are groups of traits, and poorly defined ones at that. Masculinity is not a clearly delineated single characteristic but a collection of vaguely grouped ideas loosely related to strength, largeness, activity, et al. Just as “leonine” is a collection of traits that lions typically possess (skilled at hunting, furry, big) and is obviously less meaningful, due to its relative vagueness, and less important than the individual traits themselves, so is “masculine.” Striving to be skilled at hunting is a much more logical and efficient goal than waking up and saying, “I want to be leonine today.” Critically, there is significant disagreement over what the gendered adjectives of humans even mean. For example, growing up in the South, I always thought that women were stereotypically talkative and bubbly and boisterous – quite louder and more friendly and gregarious than men. In my mind, men were traditionally more reserved, stoic, and silent. My ex-partner from the Midwest grew up with nearly the exact opposite impression – that women are typically quiet and meek and polite and that men are to be gregarious, talkative, loud, and charismatic. This is one of the most powerful examples of conflicting ideas of gender tropes that I have yet come across because ever since I became aware of this clash in masculine/feminine conceptualization, I have noticed that both of these contradictory sets of stereotypes – the strong, silent, reserved man opposite the loud, chatty, giggling/nagging woman or the loud, boorish, demanding and opinionated man opposite the shy, obedient, quiet woman – are everywhere in our society. Upbringing and cultural influences followed by a lifetime of confirmation bias could easily lead one to see either of these two paradigms as the obviously true way of the world.
Many concepts of masculinity and femininity fall apart under any noteworthy amount of scrutiny. For example, I once had a conversation with someone who believed that men are the people “who [are supposed to] take care of the family.” I replied that I thought women were, stereotypically, the caretakers. If a woman cooks a meal, is she not taking care of the family? She explained that men and women take care of the family differently. But, I replied, if a man cooks a meal for his family, as many of them do, is he somehow being the provider instead of the nurturer while performing the same action? Her response was that “it’s different when a man cooks.” Clearly, logic is no match for a cherished belief. Spirituality, somewhat strangely, is not immune to harboring bizarre gender concepts. New Age-types talk about the divine feminine and masculine energies. Drawing inspiration from our literal genitals, some claim that the divine feminine is receptive and the divine masculine, giving. But does not tradition often hold that women are the giving ones? Is not the fundamental nature of women, supposedly, one of service to the man? When this is pointed out, the response is, just as before, “Well, that’s a different kind of giving.” To cite one more contradiction: men are supposed to be the protectors, but a common gender cliché is that a female protecting her children is the most powerful protective force in all the world. To me, the cherry picking of examples and constant redefining of terms reduces the concepts of masculinity and femininity into absurdity before very long. The logical twists and semantic hoops that must be jumped through in order to preserve any semblance of consistent meaning in these concepts suggest to me that the concepts are not very accurate or useful when applied to the actual complexity of life and people. Many will resort to even greater lengths, to even more painful logical contortions, to keep their comfortable, if nonsensical, frameworks afloat just a bit longer; I’ll pass.
If the concepts of masculinity and femininity make this little sense, why do so many still cling to them? One factor is that the people most likely to favor transcending the ways of the past and shucking surface-level perceptions – the idealists, the Platonists, the untamed dreamers – are often drawn to religion. Some secularists have taken to trumpeting egalitarian views due to cultural crossover with feminism and human rights, but many science-loving, Aristotelian types still cling to the old ideas and cite evolution (which, often, is their religion) as the definer and limiter of our gender performances. Spiritual types, a major demographic with the potential to see past the historical limits of gender roles and the relative superficiality of the body, are often under the spell of ancient traditions and their primitive ideas about sex/gender, which were codified long ago by humans enmeshed in patriarchal societies of yore and imprisoned in (understandably) anthropocentric worldviews. It is not a surprise that the religions of thousands of years ago cemented complementarian views of gender into their texts. In addition to their likely authorship by men fully invested in patriarchal culture, religions saw male and female as fundamental aspects of the world, and why wouldn’t they? When religions were created, humans still believed that the earth was flat and the center of the universe. For them, humanity was undoubtedly the pinnacle of all of God’s creations, the very pinnacle of all existence. With humankind holding such a lofty status in the universe, what could people worship other than the most obvious characteristics of humans? If man and woman are made in God’s image, then, surely, there is something specific to men and something specific to women that is special. Physical strength was paramount in ancient times, and the associated divergence between the sexes in that area was elevated in mystique as a result. To see beyond the matters of the flesh is an adventurous and futuristic idea, but even today many of those who seek to do so are helplessly ensnared in the traditions of the past. However, scientific development now enables us to understand that our place in the universe is but a tiny speck of dust on a gigantic tapestry of existence, and, thus, our way of life is surely but one of many possible ways to be; our existence is but one of many possible existences, and there is no need for us to feel overly attached or be overly reverent to our historical ways of doing things or seeing ourselves. We can see beyond them, keep what works, and discard much of the unnecessary and misguided approaches of our ancestors, whose strivings toward enlightenment remain admirable and can teach us much but in many ways can now be recognized as misguided at best.
Finally, perhaps the most powerful force of buoyancy for the complementarian side – one that cannot be overstated – is the comfort found in the security blanket of simple labels, the warm familiarity of clearly defined boxes that soothes the mind like a mental pacifier, providing a fragile (and largely false) sense of order in an infinitely complex and chaotic world. More than anything else, I hope this essay casts a small amount of light on this most pervasive of flaws in the human mind and can inspire just a bit more self-reflection in a species dominated by its highly useful but inherently inaccurate thought system of flawed language, imperfect labels and often sloppy concepts of reality (the problem is less that our labels are inaccurate than that we do not tend to realize or keep in mind how imperfect they are and, as a result, fail to think, speak, and act with the requisite humility.) Studies show that humans become increasingly unhappy the more choices they have. Who hasn’t at some point longed for knowledge of his or her truest and best role in life? Who hasn’t desperately craved the confidence and security of knowing the answer to that simple but devilish, omnipresent question: who am I? Or its twin: what should I do? How much easier would it be to have much of our lives’ purposes clearly defined by our genitals? I can imagine waves of relief washing over me if I could simply believe that my role in life, because I am a man, is nothing more than to be strong and provide for a family. How much easier life would be with such a clear measuring stick of success! In any situation, I could simply ask, “What would a strong, protector male/John Wayne do in this situation?” and I would have a general answer because I would already know who I should be. I could look at men who are gentle or do not like sports or are stay-at-home dads or are physically smaller than their wives and sneer with self-righteous delight, judging them and knowing that they are doing it all wrong! I could look at forceful, serious men in physically intensive or important professions and celebrate that they, like me, are fulfilling nature’s (or even God’s) commands far more than the misguided male nurses and kindergarten teachers. What a handy conceptual framework that would be, and what safety I would find in being able to easily critique my own life and those of others by our relative adherence to clearly defined gender assignments. I would not have to expand out of my societally prescribed role or face the multitudes within me or challenge myself to see how deeply I can explore my being and my potential and life’s possibilities. What a relief it would be for the infinite crushing weight of the great existential question “Who am I?” to be so neatly limited, to be at the very least cut in half if not completely spelled out for me. Unfortunately, life is far more complicated than that, and I am afforded no such luxuries of guidance or judgment. The truth is frightening: we can be whoever we want to be. And figuring out what exactly that is can be a long and painful journey. The harsh reality is that being male does not excuse insensitivity or coldness or violence, and being female does not excuse being weak. We can expand to the point of paradox and contradiction, and we can experience and honor a multitude of characters that lie within us, some of which clash so mightily that any rational evaluation would question whether our inner lives and choices make any sense at all. We must face the beautiful horror that we are all unique individuals, and that every single human, man or woman, is a complex mystery, a vast web of characteristics, a sprawling matrix of sometimes paradoxical beliefs and quirks and energies. The truth forces us to face difficult questions, but the aphorism holds strong here: with this truth confronted, we can truly be free – to be ourselves.
Despite all of my above efforts to blur the lines, biology cannot (yet) be wholly overcome; the average male and the average female remain different. Even an infant can see that, at least when it comes to our physical forms. General patterns of behavior, many the result of cultural conditioning but some undoubtedly fueled by genes and prenatal hormones, can be loosely observed. Innate abilities in certain skills are not perfectly distributed across the sexes, especially when it comes to physical strength. But once we start honoring the individual and stop looking through the fairly useless, crude lens of group averages, the honest seeker will eventually ask the natural question. In the stillness of a moment of true connection with a member of the opposite sex, in the visceral communion of pain and joy and human experience, almost all of which we share completely in common, the liberated thinker will ask: how different can we possibly be? And shortly thereafter, when the small divergences in average behavior resurface, another question follows: does it even matter? Do we humans want to act as though we are not one but two species, as have so many cultures of the past, or do we want to look toward a different future? Once we stop foolishly judging others, like simpletons, and hastily tossing them into poorly defined boxes for the sake of our own comfort and out of sheer laziness or ancient, antiquated habit, we can begin to see and understand and revere each person for who he or she is. We can get closer to the truth of each conscious being. We can inch nearer to reaching our potential as infinitely complex and ever-expanding people. And we can get closer to who we are, nearer to authentic living, and deeper into honest love. The truth is that, yes, men and women are not exactly the same, but no two people are, and seen through the properly adjusted lens, witnessed from the God’s eye view of the history of the universe and the entire spectrum of what is possible for conscious beings, surely, we are one.