Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shock news: men and women not from different planets

For the past three days, the Guardian has been running some very interesting excerpts here here and here from the new book by Oxford language professor Deborah Cameron.

In this book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, she is looking at how women and men do and don't communicate, and has discovered that really we are not so very different. But "men and women pretty much the same really" doesn't, as she rightly points out, sell books and get their authors on lucrative book tours and chat shows. She particularly has it in for the grand-daddy of the genre: Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, by John Gray, which I won't link to because far too many people have copies already.

There are plenty more though: for instance, the fragrant Allan and Barbara Pease "internationally renowned experts in human relations and body language" have a whole slew of books with nonsense titles like Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. Mr Pease gained this expertise as the youngest person in Australia to sell $1m of life assurance and Mrs Pease by modelling and selling advertising. Real experts, then.

How I hate these books. With their glib little catch-phrases, their wacky cartoons, and their ability to over-simplify the most complex arguments, they are an insult to the intelligence, and it always surprises me that people who seem to have triple-figure IQs believe them. “Men want power, achievement and sex. Women want relationships, stability and love,” they say. What all of them? Always?

Not, sadly, that all of those people talking about men and women being "hard-wired" are dimwits. In the first excerpt from her book, she discusses some who aren't. But they are still mistaken - perhaps in a similar way to Simon LeVay who, when looking for the "gay brain", was mistaken not least because he knowingly and deliberately ignored the fact that some men are bisexual. His initial hypothesis - men are gay or straight - was wrong.

Cameron has a political explanation as to why so many people are keen on these differences being "natural". As she says, people have never been less at the mercy of biology, or men and women less different from each other. However, much of this simplistic writing implies that - because differences are "natural" - we'd all be happier and less frustrated if we reverted to the way things used to be.
But things in the western world have changed so much in the past 100 years: even in the past 20, which they couldn't have done if the previous way of being was wholly natural. Men and women relate differently from when I was a young woman; expectations of how we should live our lives are radically different. Anyone with any sense of history or geography knows that gender expectations vary from from place and time. But those changes that do still exist seem more stubborn.

I think people like these pat explanations because they are easy. Because they don't have to struggle with their partners, because they don't have to make any changes; they don't have to think or challenge anything. Society, in the abstract, doesn't have to transform itself to take these changes into account. We can all go round complaining and tutting about the "opposite sex" as per usual.

Personally, I have also never bought into these man = A, woman = B divisions myself - I can read maps pretty well and have lived with men who iron far more than I do. I hate spending long periods of time chatting on the phone, and I am extremely self-sufficient. No doubt, to some people, I have a male brain. How would that tie in with my interest in the domestic arts, I wonder?

But if you like women, how can you like men?

So what has this to do with bisexuality? Several things in particular. If men and women are so very very different, then other people will perhaps find it impossible that one could be sexually or romantically attracted to both. (Although of course, the difference is precisely what some people like about being bisexual!)

Of course, there is also the all women are bi, no men are bi nonsense which I have written about before. That has a societal explanation too, but again, the "we are hard-wired to X" pops up again and again.

In sexual behaviour, the idea that men and women are very different dies hard. But in my 18 years' experience of interviewing many women about sexuality, and now interviewing men too, I would say that there are far greater differences within any group of women than between men and women. Some people need lots of sex with lots of different people lots of the time. Others are more or less celibate for ever. You can say that men or women tend to do something, but that's it.

These people who simplify sexual differences are likely to have similar views on homosexuality: the Peases, for instance. Headings in their books such as “Why gays and lesbians seem obsessed with sex” give a hint of their agenda. The answer to that question, in case you needed to know, is because men are men and lesbians have higher testosterone levels, making lesbians’ sex drive higher. But is it? Is it really? How do they know - have they done tests themselves? Has anyone ever done any research? I think not. And clearly they have never heard of lesbian bed death either.
So where does bisexuality fit into their world view? Apparently, the “mating centre” in the hypothalamus decides which sex we will be attracted to. In males it needs dosing in male hormones so they will be attracted to women; if insufficient, there will be a greater or lesser (bisexuals, I presume?) attraction to other men.

Hm. Twaddle. Who do you believe - an Oxford professor of language or a salesman and model? Complicated things made not too simple. Differences not so very different after all.


Greg K Nicholson said...

(Just a couple of points—otherwise I agree:)

I don't think it's fair to suggest that the Peases don't know what they're talking about because their professions are unrelated to psychology—most people can't be characterised just by their jobs, however long they've done them, and the ones that can are probably really dull people. They could well have experience and insight from other sources, irrespective of their being a salesman and a model. Einstein was a patent clerk.

Conversely, just because someone earns money from doing a particular thing doesn't necessarily mean they're actually good at it, or knowledgeable about related subjects. James Blunt is a professional musician.

Also, has the mating-centre-in-hypothalmus hypothesis been disproven (or is it just not yet thoroughly tested)? It sounds like you think this is obviously wrong or dubious, but why isn't clear to me.

Sue George said...

Well, yes, all right!
The thing about these Pease people is that they say (well they did when I read some of their books a few years ago and took notes) that they are experts on human behaviour because of their jobs as life assurance salesman and model. THAT was what made them experts.

And the mating centre in hypothalamus thingy... what exactly is a "mating centre"? The trouble with popularising science too much is that it ends up making no sense. In any case, why would "dosing [it]in male hormones" necessarily make men straight?
This level of biological determinism makes no sense to me... which is not to say that I don't believe it can't have some kind of influence. But - unless someone can tell me otherwise - it has never been proved one way or the other. Everything which seems to have been proved has later been successfully challenged and rebutted. (Please don't ask me for footnotes here... this is a blog, not an essay!)
Which is what Deborah Cameron says in her book about language too...

Josephine said...

A very thoughtful exploration. I too have long had suspicions about the 'pat' explanations of male/female psyches. I have read a fair bit of it and seen as much of myself in the 'female' pattern as the male. I talk, I emote, I explore my feelings, I cry...all that. My wife, by contrast doesn't talk, values 'strength', hardly bothers with her inner life and practices 'least said soonest mended'.

I rather thought that the reason I felt this way was because I am transgendered...but I always had a suspicion that there was more to it than that - that it was the 'analysis' that was at fault principally.