Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Penis Envy

This is the seventh post in my series about why feminism is still needed. (You can find the earlier six here.)

This one is about science and pseudo-science, about the study of sex differences and about the motives for such studies and their consequences.

Doesn't that look objective and scientific to you: 'the study of gender or sex differences'? I can see the men (and women! there must be a few women!) in their white coats in laboratories all over the country, sincerely and earnestly staring into test tubes or the desperate eyes of monkeys in cages, all studying gender differences without any preconceptions, without any bias. Just a pure-as(s)-snow scientific inquiry into why biology is destiny, but only for women. Almost as if the researchers just dropped to visit us from outer space, themselves un-gendered and totally uninterested in the uses their studies, totally unaware of any societal effects which mediate and influence any possible innate sex differences.

Which reminds me of my visiting alien. It has spent some time in university libraries, studying the biological and psychological explanations for why men and women differ. It just came back with a large pile of books (stolen! I must explain libraries better) and a list of comments and questions it still has.

We had a fun chat on the history of this field and the many accounts of female inferiority (for that's what the history of the field boils down to), ranging from the suspicion that women were deficient because of an imbalance of humours to worries about the womb over-riding the puny female brain (about as small as that of a chimpanzee) to penis envy and finally to evolutionary psychology and various current-day biological theories.

What's astonishing about all these theories is their almost total ignorance of the sexual division of labor, my alien friend pointed out, the fact that it is women who give birth to children and women who mostly spend years taking care of them. To an alien that looks like the sex difference, you know. But human theorizing gives the visible sex differences fairly short shrift, preferring to focus on the fascinating insides of the skull. Well, the female skull. And all the other bits of the female body which might account for the lesser female lives.

That this is the political use to which theories of sex differences are put to is obvious to my visiting alien. If the ancients 'proved' that it's women's bad humours which make them weak and scatter-brained it wasn't so that they could institute affirmative action programs for women in the government and the military, you know. Rather, it was to allow the then-status-quo to continue.

Likewise, the sudden focus on the dangerous and all-consuming wombs in the late nineteenth century had nothing to do with some new epidemic of 'women's complaints' but the desire of more women to enter higher education, a previously male arena, and the corresponding desire to keep them out. Hmm. What might work to achieve that? Let's see. Maybe women will have to choose between their mental health and fertility on the one hand and education on the other?

The most intriguing part of this odd history is the penis envy episode. Old Freud sure explained the Woman Problem there, in a totally untestable way, too! But it was Science speaking. Or Pseudo-Science, if you like. In any case, to criticize it means that you are politically motivated and probably have a wondering womb inside your brain. Hysteria, that's what you are suffering from! Real women learn to revel in their submission to vaginal orgasms and the ever-existing penis envy.

That was gender science then. Doesn't it look silly in hindsight? Remember that one day the same might be said about today's studies of gender differences. Don't you think that a fair spoonful of cynicism is important before agreeing with the current popularizers that, yes, women indeed are dripping, dripping with empathy but utterly uninterested in the single-minded male occupation of collecting coins without even a lunch-break (to paraphrase some ideas popularized by Louann Brizandine and Simon Baron-Cohen, respectively)?

My alien friend thinks so. It points out several reasons for such cynicism:

1. There's no field called 'the study of gender or sex similarities'. No fledgling assistant professor will make tenure or get promoted by publishing an article which points out that men and women really are rather similar in some characteristic. Just imagine the sensation that would be caused by a book titled Men Are From Baltimore. Women Are From Philadelphia. Snores.

2. New declarations of innate biological sex differences proceed with unseemly haste. Indeed, we have hardly learned one explanation (the left- vs. right-brainedness by sex, say, or the idea of man-the-bee flitting from one female flower to another) when we are offered another one (men use one brain half more, women use both halves, or the older man-the-provider looking for that young symmetrical woman with a 0.7 waist-to-hips ratio) and then yet another one (the female and male brains: meet the empathizer and the systematizer). And so it goes. Yet at every stage the argument is presented as a final one: The mystery of that elusive difference between men and women has been pinned down, finally! Conversation closed.

3. The flag of science is hoisted over all these inquiries! To criticize them must be politically motivated! To criticize them must be a sign of someone denying the value of scientific inquiry! To criticize them must mean that the critic thinks men and women are exactly identical!

To ask about the motivations and biases and the training of these researchers is simply an indication of the critic's own bias: Those who study gender differences (or rather, those who popularize them) are coldly objective thinking machines, have no axe to grind, don't even have a gender themselves! All they are asking are difficult questions with answers which are unsavory, even politically incorrect. And those answers must be scribbled down in great haste, great haste, the minute one study looking at the brains of four women and five men comes out. So it goes.

Why does any of this matter? First, because these studies are always a defense of the status quo. That status quo is always "the worst of times and the best of times" for women; the worst because the studies have established that women really can't (and don't even want to be) be equal with men due to all those hard-wired (by some prehistoric electrician) sex differences, and the best because the current arrangements in the society are the best women really can hope for. But of course the status quo of the different-humors theory was different from the status quo of the late nineteenth century which is different from the status quo of today.

Second, bad just-so theories about the difference between men and women affect more than what people talk about at cocktail parties. They affect the culture and its norms, and they affect the beliefs, aspirations and self-confidence of girls and boys yet not born.

One might think that this would make the popularizers of various gender essentialist theories pause and even have a sleepless night or two. One might think that they'd get up and read a few more articles critical of their theories. One might.

But then again, it might be my penis envy talking there.