Denying the differences between men and women is an interesting
academic pastime, but in practice the cost of being wrong can be very
Feminism has never been a coherent ideology but it has broadly come to mean that men and women are identical, except that women are better. This was the starting point for a speech I gave recently at the Case Western Reserve Law School in Cleveland, as the guest of the Federalist Society. Under the heading, "Humane Alternatives to Feminism", I argued that we would be better off embracing the reality of gender differences, rather than a) denying them, b) suppressing them and c) feigning surprise when they emerge anyhow.
One of my questioners asked the fairly standard feminist question of whether these gender differences I cited weren't simply all products of cultural conditioning. I asked her what she would be willing to accept as evidence that some gender differences are not cultural artifacts, but actual differences. She didn't have an answer.
If she clings to the theory that all the differences between herself
and her boyfriend are simply culturally conditioned, she will tell
herself that there is something wrong with her and her reaction. She
might try to steel herself against feeling attached. She may try to
anesthetize herself, so she feels less altogether. In extreme cases,
she may turn to drugs or alcohol to medicate the pain. Potentially,
pretty serious costs.
I got to thinking afterwards: answers based on evidence never seem to be convincing to someone who is already committed to radical androgyny. Maybe a better approach is the risk management approach. My feminist questioner and I each have a hypothesis. We'd like to test our hypotheses against each other, and manage the risk associated with being mistaken.
Feminists have a theory that cultural conditioning accounts for all differences in men and women's sexual responses. My theory is that women respond differently to sex than men do: specifically, women attach to their sex partners. Let's pretend we have no reason to favor one hypothesis over the other. What is the risk to the individual if she adopts one of these hypotheses, but turns out to be wrong?
If she adopts my hypothesis, she will expect to respond differently to sex than the men in her life. She will take her choice of partner seriously. She will decline to have sex with somebody that would be a disaster for her to become attached to.
If this hypothesis turns out to be mistaken, she will find out for herself that she didn't actually connect with her sex partner. She bears the cost of giving up some potentially fun sexual encounters that would not have been too harmful. A cost, to be sure, but a relatively modest cost.
But what if she adopts the alternative hypothesis and it turns out to be false? She chooses her sex partners on the assumption that she will not attach to her sex partner any more or any differently than he would attach to her. She finds herself sitting by the phone, wondering whether the guy she slept with the night before will call her again. She finds herself wondering whether the encounter meant as much to him as it meant to her. The cost of her mistake? A broken heart.
If she clings to the theory that all the differences between herself and her boyfriend are simply culturally conditioned, she will tell herself that there is something wrong with her and her reaction. She might try to steel herself against feeling attached. She may try to anesthetize herself, so she feels less altogether. In extreme cases, she may turn to drugs or alcohol to medicate the pain. Potentially, pretty serious costs.
My hypothesis can account for the data (1) which shows having multiple casual sexual partners puts teenage girls at risk for depression. Their bodies want to attach to their partners. If the relationship doesn't work out, the theory that men and women are identical basically forces her to suppress the evidence of her own feelings.
From the risk management point of view, it makes more sense to adopt the more modest theory that it is at least possible, that men and women respond differently to sex. The risks associated with being mistaken are much more manageable than the risks associated with believing that all gender differences are culturally conditioned.
And yet, we have had a generation or more of policies dictated by the feminist-inspired principle. Women are bombarded with this theory, from provocative clothes for little girls, to "comprehensive sex ed" programs in high school, down to sex-saturated freshmen orientation week on many college campuses. Unlimited sex is an entitlement. Women are entitled to have as much uncommitted sex as men. And women should expect to feel the same way about it as men do.
It is time to put an end to this systematic pattern of lying. Even if I am completely mistaken (which I'm not), it is safer to act as if women and men react differently to sex.
Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD, is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.
1. Halfors, Denise, D. Martha W. Waller, Daniel Bauer, Carol Ford and Carolyn Halpern, (2005) "Which Comes First in Adolescence- Sex and Drugs or Depression?" American Journal of Preventive Medicine 29(3) 163-170.