Theories about sex differences have been used to keep women in the home and to justify male domination. Because of this, many feminists run as fast as they can from any discussion of them. Last week while thinking again about this question, I realized that the debate about essentialism often turns a flawed syllogism that goes like this:
• If there are sex differences,
• then, biology is destiny.
In fact the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The syllogism assumes that there if there are sex differences they must inevitably determine behavior.
What if there are sex differences, but we have a choice as individuals and societies as to how to negotiate them? This suggests another possible syllogism:
• If there are sex differences,
• we can choose how to respond to them as individuals and societies,
• because biology is not destiny.
Primatologist Franz de Waal concluded that mammals are hard-wired for empathy in ways that reptiles are not, because mammals give birth to helpless infants who must be nursed and cared for by their mothers if they are to survive. In contrast, reptile babies are not nursed, and though they are sometimes also cared for by their mothers, the bond is not as strong. De Waal says that the capacity for empathy is highly developed in our primate ancestors because their infants require long periods of care and nurture.
De Waal’s research revealed that that while both males and females are hard-wired for empathy, males seem to be more likely than females to override empathy in favor of aggression when threatened. This may be because females not only experience empathy with their mothers but continue to practice it with their children.
Though de Waal based his conclusions on observation of behavior, it is likely that testosterone, which is found in higher levels in adult males than in females or in younger or older males, plays a role in the aggressive behavior of adult males.
What conclusions should we draw from this sort of evidence? If it is true that females are more likely to be consistently empathetic and males are more likely to become aggressive, does this mean that male dominance is inevitable? Or that there is no hope of ending war?
Frans De Waal’s work shows that it is possible to discuss sex differences without assuming that they inevitably determine behavior. De Waal studied two primate groups, both genetically similar to human beings, that negotiate what de Waal indentified as the male tendency toward aggression differently. Chimpanzee culture is male dominant; in it male aggression is used to create and enforce systems of dominance over females and among males. Bonobos, on the other hand, have created matriarchal cultures in which all tendencies toward aggression are neutralized through sex play. Bonobos make love not war.
In the case of the chimpanzees, culture reinforces nature, and male aggression wins the day. In contrast, in bonobo groups, culture trumps nature, and male tendencies toward aggression are overcome. De Wall suggests that human societies can choose to follow the chimpanzee model or the bonobo model. New research on egalitarian matriarchal societies past and present suggests that cultures can make the bonobo choice. These societies do not reward aggression, and in them both males and females are encouraged to be as loving, kind, and generous as their own mothers and grandmothers.
I think our feminist conversations would be richer if we could find ways to talk about sex differences without immediately jumping to the conclusion that it is regressive or anti-feminist to do so. If females are more consistently empathetic and less aggressive than males, could we see this as positive, without raising the red flags of female or male dominance? If males are more likely to become aggressive, and we don’t want a violent society, maybe we should be thinking about how families, schools, and society in general can correct for this biological tendency.
Sex differences are tendencies and they are on a continuum. Some women are more aggressive than some men. Some women have more testosterone than some men. Some people are intersex. We are all human. We all have the capacity to be empathetic and the capacity to be aggressive. If women are hard-wired for empathy, that does not mean women have to be mothers or only mothers. If men are more likely to react with aggression when threatened, that does not mean they must do so. Sex differences do not have to determine behavior.
We must be careful what conclusions we draw from discussions of sex difference.
Still when a subject becomes taboo, and energy is expended on suppressing discussion of it, I think we should ask what is going on beneath the surface of what is being said. Maybe it is time to retire the essentialist label and to reopen the feminist discussion of sex differences.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.