Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who Are We?

... So it's occurred to us that we have not properly introduced ourselves. Well, allow us now to take a moment to tell you a little about ourselves and what we aim to achieve with our ramblings. We are two undergraduate female students at the University of Virginia who enjoy asking questions and thinking about possible answers. We like to read and write, especially about issues that arise in conversation with our peers.
As students, we recognize that we know just about nothing, save our names, dining hall hours, and our social security numbers. Heck, we often can't even remember basic rules of grammar- yet we still seek to explore love, friendship and the sexes. We hope the reader understands that our musings are the humble outputs of an enthusiastic search for answers to questions that face us in daily life, in particular, concerning relationships. We do no purport to be experts in any field, and when we write, we do so with the intention of inquiry into topics that interest us. Ours is not an academic endeavor, but more of a cultural investigation that is influenced by many disciplines. In addition, we admit that we have a biased view as two women. For this reason, we welcome input from readers, particularly those of the male variety.
Honestly, we just want to take a look at the way men and women interact today and ask if it can't be better. That's why we write. We're asking questions and seeking answers--if such answers are to found. Thank you for reading and it is nice to meet you!

Renoir's Two Girls at the Piano

Friday, March 13, 2009

Woman as Gatekeeper?

Manet's Chez le Père Lathuille

Our readership has called us in for questioning. "Who are you," they ask, "to talk about friendship between woman and man? You are hopelessly one dimensional. You're both women!" This question isn't a jab against the female sex. It is not a shameless plug for the dialectic mode of reasoning. It is an exploration of the legitimacy of a woman-led social dynamic.

In a commentary on "Social and Domestic Relations" in Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes, "No free communities ever existed without morals; and, as I observed in the former part of this work, morals are the work of woman. Consequently, whatever affects... their opinions has great political importance in my eyes."

Tocqueville brings up an interesting and extremely politically incorrect point. He identifies woman as the source of society's morality. The key is he claims that woman is the source of morality, not the embodiment of morality. Woman is not necessarily more moral that man. Woman is, however, more aptly suited to take on the moral education of her society as her burden. We interpret this quote as an indication that Tocqueville took sex differences very seriously. His position, while it may appear limiting (man depends on woman in his development toward independent practical reasoning?!), resonates with something still relevant in today's culture. Men and women are different, and have different, biologically-influenced strengths and weaknesses. It is the task of the woman to guide man in those things at which she excels. We'll put it out in the open- we think that woman excels at nagging is perfectly justified in offering suggestions on how man ought to relate to her. We also propose that woman is better suited to face some of the challenges of male-female relationships, although certainly this goes both ways. (Disclaimer- we are not advocating that woman has an intimate interest all of man's activities.)

So men and women have different strengths and weaknesses. Take, for example, the folklore that men respond to the physical, while women respond to the emotional. Pish posh, one might say- woman can be just as sexually responsive! They are just as physical! However, only about 30 percent of Internet pornography consumers are female (Internet Pornography Statistics, 2008; Nielsen//NetRatings, April 2005) Women might also engage in such and similar activities, but they enjoy more freedom from addictions to socialized means of objectification. (Yes, we did just call porn an objectification. More to come...) This example is not meant to dissuade the interest or concern of man in porn-related debates; it is meant to demonstrate a particular advantage that woman enjoys (her relative freedom from addictive, physically sexual addictions) and propose the legitimacy of her involvement in said realm.

In traditional cultures of courtship, woman is the object of a pursuit, a biological and social chase. Her position, that of "object of the game" allows her to set every rule. Whether or not one subscribes to this particular model is irrelevant- woman has the capacity to wield an incredible amount of influence over the rules of male-female interaction. In any male-female relationship, woman has every power and every right to "set the tone." Indeed, her role as primary educator might even extend beyond the male-female dynamic. Into the family? The inculcation of virtue in children, perhaps? Their socialization? We'll leave the exploration of woman's potential propensity for education for another day. For now, consider this. To quote the best summer blockbuster ever (Spiderman), "With great power comes great responsibility." It seems that, in one realm at least, woman has quite a bit of responsibility over the tendencies (if not morality) of fellow man.

We encourage our fellow women and men to comment.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sex Differences Explained, Part I

Mary Cassatt's Children On the Beach

Men and women are different. This statement forms the foundation upon which we seek to construct a new understanding of interpersonal relationships between men and women. We suggest that a greater appreciation and respect for these differences will yield relationships—both platonic and romantic—that preserve the dignity of the human person.

As we previously discussed, the overwhelming majority of human beings are born either male or female. And generally, it is understood that male and females exhibit characteristics unique to their sex. For example, it has been observed that typically, women are more person-oriented, nurturing and compassionate. Men, on the other hand, are generally viewed as more task-oriented, protective and competitive. While one could dismiss these traditional understandings of the two modalities of human sexuality it becomes increasingly difficult to do so when observing small children. Take for example, Professor Marc Breedlove from Berkeley, who formerly believed that the characteristics ascribed to men and women are socially constructed. After observing his little girl in juxtaposition with the little boys she played with, he acknowledged the existence of significant inherent differences between men and women, and went on to call anyone who failed to recognize these differences, “childless.” After spending just a few minutes around little kids, it soon becomes apparent that little boys are very different from little girls. While little boys love trucks and tools, little girls usually enjoy playing with dolls and games more than their brothers’ toy guns. While this is a generalization, it is one rooted in the experience of many.

The scientific evidence for differences between the sexes is overwhelming. Steven Rhoads, in Taking Sex Differences Seriously, does a thorough job outlining a great number of them, and his book would prove to be an interesting read to anyone interested in the topic. One study highlighted by Rhoads showed that when day-old infants listen to a recording of a baby crying, female infants cry longer than male infants, pointing toward a greater capacity for compassion on the part of the baby girls. This ability to sympathize and empathize is a power that perhaps comes more easily to most girls than boys. As a result of the advanced networking between the left and right sides of the brain, females are more able to build emotional connections. This doesn’t mean that males are unable to connect emotionally to others, but due to the wiring of the brain, women are typically better able to respond to others on a personal level.

A key difference between men and women are their brains (and one could say too, their minds). Women's brains are 11% smaller in size, though not in intricacy. Man's brains are larger, supposedly evolved to sustain blows to the head. Men's brains are more compartmentalized, while a woman's brain functions more as network, with far more synapses connecting the left brain and right brain. This could explain why women are better at verbalizing emotion as the left brain is associated with speaking and the right brain with emotions. Evolutionary pyschologists also suggest that 99% of genetic inheritance comes from the time when humans were hunters and gatherers. In this way of life, women took control of the foraging, and developed a more finely tuned memory for spatial location. Foraging for plants and vegetation season after season led to the development of a better spatial awareness than men. This still holds true today. As Rhoads points out, think of the many times when a man loses his car keys or cell phone and his wife, sister or daughter was able to find it more quickly than he.

This is just a small sampling of the many examples and experiences that support our belief that men and women are different.
Our goal in focusing on sex differences is to shed light on how they impact our interpersonal relationships. Because men and women are different, they generally think differently and act differently. This fact heavily impacts the way males and females relate. To ignore sex differences in relationships is to open wide the door to confusion and misunderstanding; two thieves that rob relationships of the potential to help men and women grow as human beings.