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.

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