In a discussion such as that surrounding Jordan Peterson’s recent interview, one can predict with some certainty that several responses will appear countering claims about psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes with appeals to the forces of socialization and social construction. These, it will be insisted, are the principal reason for the differences between the sexes that we observe. Any appeal to natural differences between the sexes will be dismissed as founded upon sexist science and unwarranted assumptions. Contrasts in outcomes between the sexes, it will be claimed, can easily be accounted for without needing to assume such significant biological differences. The real cause of the great majority of the differences can be found in the system of patriarchy and its attendant forms of socialization.
This challenge, unfortunately, often functions as a purely negative move. Its purpose is to dismiss claims concerning differences, not to advance any alternative testable hypothesis. In practice, this denial of differing innate traits or tendencies—or ‘blank slatism’—tends to function as an anti-empirical appeal to faith, rather than as a position presented for critical consideration. It doesn’t subject itself to the same rigorous cross-examination as the positions it criticizes. Rather, it offers a way to escape a deeply unwelcome position that threatens the sacred principles of egalitarianism; much like an octopus might squirt ink to evade a predator, social construction and socialization are appealed to in order to explain away, rather than explain the evidence. Sadly, the purpose seldom seems to be that of serving the constructive task of illuminating and advancing understanding.
Our particular expressions of gender are certainly social constructs, rather than inevitable results of nature. However, so are things like personhood, consent (and the age of consent), rights, rape, the individual, money, etc. The claim that something is a social construct does not have anything quite like the deflationary force that many laypeople presume (scholars generally know better): to be a social construct is not to be unimportant, nor is it to be exceedingly malleable. It certainly doesn’t mean that the social construct isn’t independent of any constraining or ordering reality beyond itself, or that social constructs can take whichever forms we prefer.
Nor, for that matter, is it something we can simply do without. For instance, masculine and feminine gender norms differ from culture to culture, but having masculine and feminine gender norms is pretty much a cultural universal. Besides, most cultures choose to accentuate the difference between male and female in various ways, because it is a beautiful and a meaningful difference, worthy of being gloriously ‘dressed up’.
It can be important to recognize the relative contingency, plasticity, and performativity of many aspects of gender and the many seemingly arbitrary features of our gender norms. For instance, pink for girls and blue for boys is often referenced as an example of this, many claiming that the colours used to be reversed in their assignment (although there is more recent research questioning the accuracy of these historical claims, which also draws attention to cross-cultural patterns in sex differences in colour preference along the more familiar stereotypical lines). The association of pink with girls is most likely a form of socialization that, even if it were to play to some underlying natural tendencies, can encourage pronounced gendering effects that are not themselves straightforwardly attributable to nature. Many of us are justifiably wary of the way that the ‘pink is for girls’ assumption may drive both girls and boys away from some things and towards others, preventing them from exploring certain interests and possibilities, trapping them within certain restrictive expectations.
Socialization and social construction are clearly important factors that we should attend to. However, rather than just gesturing vaguely in their direction as the factors that explain everything, it is important to give an intelligent and careful account of how exactly they function and what and how much of the differences between the sexes they can actually explain.
Many feminists seem to think that, since it isn’t hard to locate bad science and research supporting the existence of sex differences, all claims that such differences exist can be rejected. We can merely reel off some of the more ridiculous claims of evolutionary psychology and be done with the whole thing. Of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and feminism would almost doubtless fare far worse if judged by the standard of the poorest research that it produces!
Writers like Cordelia Fine have made a cottage industry of challenging poor research on sex differences and are unsurprisingly darlings of the feminist left. However, it is important to notice that the appeal of Fine and others like her rests in part upon the fact that they are only drawing attention to part of the picture, to the most questionable research on sex differences. They are pushing back against various extreme arguments and claims that have been pressed too far, but they are certainly not demolishing the main body of the sex differences case. Nor are they highlighting the many weaknesses of some of the most popular research on their own side of the questions. For example, see this criticism of a piece that received considerable attention among feminists a few years back, or the fairly devastating criticisms of Daphna Joel’s work denying empirical brain differences between the sexes. The problem is that feminists generally aren’t sticking around with the conversation long enough to see that, despite the fact that they are landing (or sometimes just appearing to land) a few widely-publicized blows, they are increasingly on the losing side of the scientific debate.
Here it is also interesting to pay attention to the admissions that people like Fine will make, which reveal that their arguments really don’t undermine the growing scientific consensus as much as their feminist supporters might think. Scott Alexander observes in a post about the successful functioning of the scientific consensus:
Yes, Cordelia Fine is still around and is still writing books arguing against gender differences. But she’s starting to sound really defensive, basically the literary equivalent of “I know I’m going to be downvoted to hell for this, but…”. Meanwhile, other scientists are doing a good job pointing out the flaws in her books and conducting studies like this biggest-ever look at male vs. female brain differences, this magisterial look at personality differences, et cetera – not to mention great and widely-accepted work on how intersex people take on more characteristics of their hormonal than their social gender (honestly, we should probably thank transgender people for making this field socially acceptable again). People talk a lot about how Larry Summers was fired from Harvard for talking about male vs. female differences, but Steven Pinker did a whole debate on this and remains a Harvard professor.
It is also telling to see the way that Fine responded to the firing of James Damore, the author of the controversial Google memo about sex differences potentially explaining the greater number of men in STEM fields. Although Fine clearly doesn’t want to go as far as Damore, she can’t simply dismiss his approach as bad science either:
Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels “torn in many different directions” by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature”.
Some of Damore’s ideas, she adds, are “very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.”
Fine knows that Damore’s position is probably closer to the developing scientific consensus of the field of sex difference research than hers is, so she can’t simply discredit him, even though she wants to push back against some of directions that the field seems to be moving in. That can be entirely good and healthy—science thrives in environments where ideas are rigorously stress-tested—provided that such critical work is not, as is far too commonly the case, taken as the definitive word on the matters in question, entirely discrediting the positions it criticizes. We can all become stronger when our ideas are subject to careful challenge from intelligent and informed critics. People who are identifying weaknesses in advancing sex differences positions and pushing back against them to some degree, honestly and intelligently engaging in the scientific debate, are to be praised. However, those who simply discredit those positions on account of some of their weaker research, fail to subject their own positions to close critical scrutiny, and fall back upon some dogmatic natural egalitarianism are just being dishonest or wilfully blind.
When people approach an area of research primarily as a source of challenges to their deeply held prior convictions to be warded off (or also merely as a source of validation for those convictions, for that matter), rather than as a field of inquiry rigorously to be engaged in in the pursuit of understanding, all sorts of mischief can occur. Creationist science has long had problems on this front. It too easily focuses upon criticizing extreme cases in order to discredit threatening positions, rather than presenting a constructive, coherent, testable, and contestable vision of its own that accounts for reality. It more readily explains away evidence than it explains it. While it may genuinely identify problems with certain evolutionary explanations, it doesn’t present strong alternatives that could sustain critical examination.
People who snipe at science from the safety of their ideological or religious encampments should be drawn out into the field, where the mettle of their own positions will really be tested. Highly selective criticism of opponents for the purpose of discrediting them is neither proof of nor evidence for one’s own orthodoxies, especially when you do not subject your own position to the same sort of criticism. Those denying that significant natural sex differences exist and attributing observed differences largely to socialization and social construction are advancing extremely partisan and controversial positions. As their form of egalitarianism demands the minimization of natural differences between the sexes as a tenet of its orthodoxy, they cannot usually countenance placing that conviction in jeopardy in the arena of scientific questioning. As I’ve already noted, it functions as a sacred dogma, rather than as a contestable hypothesis.
However, as I believe that conversation and testing of ideas in these areas is important, I’ve decided to list some of the questions and issues that I would like to see such blank slatists tackle or account for. If they can do so, they will demonstrate that their position merits more serious consideration and respect. If they can’t, it is probably best largely ignored as unscientific and obscurantist.
1. If gender differences are largely a social construct and a matter of socialization, why do we see such pronounced similarities between gender roles for cultures around the world and throughout history? Why is it that men and women are fairly instantly recognizable as such between relatively unrelated cultures? Why has research tended to reveal that gender stereotypes are largely consistent across otherwise different cultures? For instance, after comparing thirty societies, Deborah Best and John Williams observed that the pancultural similarities regarding gender were considerably greater than the differences, comparing the relations between such cultures as like variations on a single ball game. Across societies, the same sets of traits tended to be associated with men (active, adventurous, aggressive, arrogant, coarse, conceited, enterprising, hardheaded, loud, opinionated, opportunistic, quick, reckless, tough, etc.) and with women (affected, affectionate, cautious, changeable, charming, dependent, emotional, fearful, modest, nervous, pleasant, sensitive, soft-hearted, warm, etc.).
2. Why is it that in egalitarian societies, the greater freedom that men and women enjoy leads to many of the differences between them becoming more, rather than less, pronounced? The social scientists who argued that gendered socialization explained most differences predicted that gender equality would lead to the disappearance of many sex differences, yet in a great many areas they have become more pronounced. Paradoxically, this raises the possibility that socialization is a factor, but that it often serves to dampen the tendency of the sexes to differ, rather than to amplify it. When we have less pressures pushing us in specific directions, we will tend to express our more fundamental inclinations.
3. When talking about the way that we (especially as children) are shaped by cultural ‘messages’, it is really important to ask why certain messages resonate and others do not. Children are impressionable, but practically every parent knows that they latch onto certain things with a fierce intensity, while being entirely indifferent or resistant to many other things that they are strongly encouraged to take an interest in. If the messages given to us in the course of our socialization were so powerful, perhaps fewer kids would refuse to eat their greens! From the very earliest age, kids can develop obsessions that are not readily explained primarily by socialization. How is it that the toddler son of two professionals develops his craze for trucks and diggers? Yes, it is a gendered obsession, but where did it come from? Why that gendered obsession, when there may have been so many other options nearer at hand, which never took root? Why is it that, despite all of the effort progressive parents go to in order to prevent their children falling into gendered stereotypes, so many of their boys end up playing with guns and their girls get obsessed with princess movies? Why is it that two siblings exposed to largely the same socialization can grow up to be so different, especially if they are not genetically related? These are questions that aren’t pondered enough. What they do is highlight that the messages may be less important than the inclinations of the person receiving them.
4. Why is it that children exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb, yet raised as girls, develop more typically masculine interests and activities? Why is it that girls with classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia are more interested in boys’ toys and tend to go into masculine professions far more than their female peers? Why is it that a child like David Reimer, raised as a girl, but actually a boy so strongly rejected the socialization he received? Why is it that receptivity of girls to feminine socialization is so related to the degree of their exposure to androgens in the womb and that girls with particularly high levels of exposure strongly react against feminine socialization? J. Richard Udry expresses the situation well:
A biosocial macro theory is simple: Humans form their social structures around gender because males and females have different and biologically influenced behavioural predispositions. Gendered social structure is a universal accommodation to this biological fact. Societies demonstrate wide latitude in this accommodation-they can accentuate gender, minimize it, or leave it alone. If they ignore it, it doesn’t go away. If they depart too far from the underlying sex-dimorphism of biological predispositions, they will generate social malaise and social pressures to drift back toward closer alignment with biology. A social engineering program to degender society would require a Maoist approach: continuous renewal of revolutionary resolve and a tolerance for conflict.
5. Why is it that we have increasing evidence for differences between male and female brains? These sex differences, according to this piece of research published just a fortnight ago, can be seen even in the brains of one-month-old infants.
6. Social construction and socialization don’t just drop down from heaven. Indeed, there are differences between the sexes to attend to here too. Why is it that men have been so much more powerful in ‘social construction’ across human societies, forming most of the institutions, making most of the laws, etc.? If the sexes really aren’t that different, why has one sex supposedly dominated for so long and so consistently, across a great many different types of society (agriculture isn’t a sufficient explanation)? Why is it that women, as Udry observes, seem to be more susceptible to gendered socialization than men? Why is it that typical male and female socialities differ so much from very early ages, with male socialities being more combative and female socialities more communal?
7. Why is it that we see similar gender differences in those primate species that are closest to our own? Why is it that rhesus monkeys’ gendered toy preferences parallel those of children? Why do sex differences in chimpanzee behaviour emerge during infancy? Why do wild female primates use sticks as play objects in rudimentary doll play (see this video of Richard Wrangham discussing this)?
8. Why is it that the observed differences between the sexes in tendencies seem so closely to correspond to their reproductive roles in an anisogamous species—tendencies we witness in other such species—if they are merely socially constructed? Why is it that women seem to have physical and behavioural traits that are more appropriate to the primary caregiver for young children? Why is it that men seem to have physical and behavioural traits that are more appropriate for the primary provider and protector? Explaining these traits as related to natural telos, whether achieved through divine design or evolution adaptation, has a prima facie logic to it. What is the compelling reason why we should reject it?
9. On what empirical basis are such bold claims being made for the power of nurture to determine character anyway? Considering the relative weakness of the effects of nurture in adoption studies, for instance, where is the evidence that socialization is a powerful enough force to explain the sorts of differences that we see?
10. We should consider the fact that much socialization and social construction is the adaptation of a society to the constraints and the possibilities of our nature and environments. The socialization thesis as it functions in sex difference research often recognized that gender roles tended to be like water, largely following the channels laid down by reproductive roles in specific contexts: we weren’t fixed in these channels by our internal nature, yet in most situations these channels would be the most natural ones to follow due to the constraints upon us. So, for instance, in a less developed society it makes sense for women largely to function in a domestic sphere, where they can work while caring for their children. Men’s greater strength and expendability means that society would depend upon them to bring in most of the calories, to defend it from attack, to perform the primary work of construction, and to be its leaders. The assumption was that, when we were more freed from nature (with contraception, childcare, the welfare state, domestic appliances, etc.) the natural channels moving men and women into particular behaviours and traits would be removed and the sexes would be seen to be fairly similar.
However, it is important to pay attention to the importance of nature here, as it is something often ignored by those appealing to social construction and socialization from outside this discourse. The gender socialization thesis in this form does not hold that gender norms are simply arbitrary, but that traditional gender roles were largely adaptive to situations that, through advanced technology and society, we have developed beyond. In a technologically advanced modern capitalist state, the differences between male and female bodies and roles in reproduction don’t count for so much anymore. We have freed ourselves from much of the gravity of nature in these regards, but traditional gender roles are related to this nature: they just develop from adapting to nature’s pressures upon us from without our psychology rather than from within. Christians appealing to socialization in order to explain away gender difference should consider that God created men and women in ways that made some such divergence of social role almost inevitable for almost the entirety of human history.
11. It is interesting that many of the same people who appeal strongly to the power of socialization in the case of gender will argue that LGBT persons are ‘born that way’ or that things such as abstinence-only education are completely unrealistic. They seem to have an extreme faith in socialization and education on the one hand, and a dramatic lack of it on the other. Such tensions and contradictions should be challenged when they appear. As many have observed, the sexual behaviour of gay and lesbian people also illustrates what happens when gendered tendencies are dampened or constrained by the preferences and tendencies of the other sex. Gay men tend to have a lot more partners and lesbians tend to have less sex.
12. Trans persons are an interesting case study when it comes to sex differences, for various reasons. For instance, they unsettle claims about socialization: if socialization were such a powerful force, why does it fail so badly in their cases? Their experience of and the effects of sex hormones upon them as they transition also exposes some of the problems with the socialization thesis. Here are a few representative accounts. A transman:
When I started testosterone a dozen years ago, I expected my sex drive to increase. The “horror” stories are a part of trans man lore, passed down from generation to generation as we all gear up for male adolescence, no matter how old we are, and take out a line of credit at the adult toy store.
And it did increase, within about four days of my first shot, and I basically squirmed a lot for two years before I got used to it. But I was planning for that. Here are the things that took me by surprise:
> It became very focused on one thing – the goal, the prize, the end. That doesn’t mean that I was not able to “make love.” What it does mean is that there was a madness to my method, because it was goal-oriented. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There was an unguarded hoop just waiting for a slam dunk – score!
> It became very visual. I saw it, I wanted it – whatever it was. This was a new experience for me, because, in the past, I had not been aroused so much by pictures and body parts (or pictures of body parts) as I had been by words – erotic descriptions, stories, and things said to me.
> It became very visceral – instinctual – with a need to take care of it. It had very little to do with romance or even an attraction that made sense intellectually. You’re hungry, you eat. There was a matter-of-factness about it, especially when I was by myself. Hmm … peanut butter sandwich sounds good. Okay, done. Let’s move on.
The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex.
Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say. There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.
After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive—or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality—nice ankles or something—and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.
But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched turned to sex.
My sex drive skyrocketed—I wanted to do it all the time. It wasn’t psychological; it was just that as each bit of T was slowly absorbed into my bloodstream, it affected the spinal ganglia attached to my dick, and made it get hard. It was terribly random, and had no connection to what I was doing at the time—taking out the garbage, riding the bus. Having fairly constant context-irrelevant sexual stimuli going on all the time is not something that women can generally understand or relate to, and I had to find ways to cope with it.
I started with jerking off. I’d never had any shame about masturbation (luckily), but before T it had been something I did once in a while in order to make myself feel good. Now it was something I did two, three, or four times a day to relieve an itch, so to speak. I had to learn to treat it like urinating; when you need to relieve yourself, you don’t wait around and hope it’ll go away; you go off and deal with it as quickly and efficiently as possible, and go back to what you were doing. I had to learn that having a hard-on was not an excuse for having sex, because there were just too darn many of them. I had to learn ways to think through them and ignore them if jerking off wasn’t appropriate; I learned that violent physical activity can relieve them.
I also learned something chilling about my new sexuality—it was far, far more programmable than it used to be. Before T, my sexual interests were fairly static and increased slowly, one new thing at a time. If I didn’t like something, I just didn’t like it. After T, I discovered that if I could think about something heretofore not sexually interesting during approximately six masturbation-to-orgasm sessions, that item would become a turn-on in and of itself….no matter what it was. I could literally program myself in a Pavlovian manner to be aroused by whatever I wanted. I found this out by accident, after I inadvertently added a few new dishes to my arousal buffet without meaning to. When I realized this, I sort of sat in shock for a while, and then I said to myself, “Boy, you’re going to have to be very, very careful from now on.”
Lana is a transgender artist in her 30s. “Prior to transition, my sex drive didn’t have an off switch,” she said in an interview with Broadly. “I would call it a juggernaut of sorts, something that was in control of me rather than me of it.” Like many trans people, she doesn’t use traditional language to refer to her genitalia. “My bits were stimulated in a very straightforward fashion,” she explained. “I had to climax, or I was consumed with sexual desire.”…
In addition to an increased control over her sexuality and the functional changes she’s experienced, Lana said that she became less stimulated by visual depictions of sex; after she began HRT, pornography lost the allure it once had. “Simply going to bed and touching myself in the dark became much more satisfying.”
Zoey also became less visually stimulated after HRT. “I noticed that my sexuality became a lot more sensually focused,” she said. “I became more simulated emotionally than visually and found that ideas and imagination turned me on far more than anything visual.”
There is also suggestive research pointing towards the influence of sex hormones on the cognitive functioning of trans people along typical sex difference lines.
13. When talking about social construction and socialization, it is important to consider the purposes that these serve and the positive goods that they can achieve. For instance, gender norms serve the purpose of forming gendered community, allowing us to enjoy a sense of connection with other people of our sex. Socialization generally involves moderating our eccentricity and individuality so that we get the benefits that accrue to those who have learned to play well with others. Socialization will often tend to play either to the average, or to the distinguishing extremes, of a group’s tendencies. Those who reject gender norms often detach themselves from their sex in ways that can be unhealthy or limiting. Socialization pulls us in, whether through our desire to enjoy community with a particular set of people or through our desire to engage in a particular activity or indulge a specific interest that they share.
Resistance to gender norms often leaves people poorer off, as there are no longer the same social forces enabling us to form meaningful gendered communities. Everyone simply becomes a detached self-expressive individual and their enjoyment of natural commonality with others of their own sex is impaired. It is one thing to criticize certain unhealthy gender norms. However, the argument that we are better off without such norms altogether (arbitrary though they may often be), with gender reduced to a form of individual expression, is an argument that needs to be defended, not merely assumed.
Gender roles weren’t imposed by some great World Headquarters of the Patriarchy. Rather it is far more sensible to believe that they organically arose as forms of sociality around natural differences in reproductive roles and differences in behavioural and psychological tendencies and interests. Some of these roles were merely damaging and restrictive, but many gave great rewards for those who submitted to their limits. In an individualistic society, the worthwhile character of trading off absolute individual self-expression for the joys of group belonging are easily forgotten; the deep fellowship we once could enjoy with others of our sex is abandoned for the sake of maximal individual authenticity.
14. It is worth noticing that, despite fiercely opposing gender norms and the existence of gender differences, feminists can follow extremely pronounced patterns of gendered behaviour themselves. For instance, as I’ve noted in the past, feminist discourse all too commonly follows the typical pattern of female intrasexual competition. Rather than engaging directly, as men tend to do, feminists are far more likely to pathologize, attack the reputations of, sabotage, or freeze out their opponents. They are more likely to play the part of the victim and appeal to third parties to intervene on their behalf or create protective structures to keep them safe from opposing perspectives. If you look at the current battles in our public life, much of what you will see is an underlying conflict between male and female forms of sociality. We really don’t escape our natural tendencies that easily.
15. Finally, Christians may argue against appeals to natural differences by assigning certain supposedly natural traits (typically male ones) to the sinful nature, or perhaps suggesting that the Spirit somehow installs a new gender-neutral nature in us. However, this doesn’t work either. Redeemed men and women in Scripture are still obviously men and women. Sanctification channels male and female traits, but it doesn’t remove them. Paul can still call the Corinthians to courage by telling them to ‘act like men’, recognizing that this trait bears a particular relationship to masculinity. Traits such as tenderness can still be associated primarily with women and motherhood.
It is also important to challenge certain assumptions that many people have about Christian virtue, which implicitly feminize it. However, throughout Scripture, for instance, among other things we see God selecting leaders with decidedly male traits, leaders who are very tough and quite formidable, leaders who are gifted in decisive conflict, or leaders who have the nerve to take ruthless action out of zeal for God’s name when the situation demands. It is the modern Church that tends to have restricted the range of behavioural traits that are ‘sanctifiable’.
I could make many other such points, but I need to turn off my computer and do some reading before bed. Why does any of this matter? For a number of reasons. Not least because when we fail to recognize the reality of natural differences between the sexes in psychological and behavioural traits and tendencies we will tend to try to force people into behaviours that stunt them. We will tend to blame men and women for tendencies that are natural to them and merely need to be better channeled. We will breed resentment as different outcomes are presumed to be the result of oppression, when differences of interests, aptitudes, and traits provide far more ready explanations. We will waste effort and resources trying to force society into an unhealthy form. We will fail to enjoy the benefits of robust gendered community. And we will become oblivious to much of the reality of our own natures.