Sexual Genetics: differences between boys and girls exist, on average. Insisting that the differences are universal, or that they are nonexistent, are both unjust.
When I was a kid, there was a broad, bright line between boys and girls. There were activities, fashions, and behaviors that were exclusive to one sex or the other. Girls were strongly discouraged from any professions other than nursing, teaching, and secretarial; teachers, in particular, still suffer from a lack of respect which stems partly from the earlier times and the sexual prejudice inherent to them.
Girls certainly weren’t supposed to go into high-tech fields like engineering, the military, or medicine. They didn’t serve at high levels of government. And they weren’t supposed to own or lead large business concerns.
Boys had it better, but it was hardly perfect. Nursing and secretarial were largely closed to men, and male teachers were typically limited to older students. Stay-at-home fathering was definitely out except in extraordinary circumstances.
It was not fair.
And then the Fab Four showed up. Their long hair became a sensation and a flash point. That one picayune, stylistic controversy arguably sparked all of the battles we still fight today over sex roles and sexual identification. Including this post.
A friend of mine who lived in Sweden once told me that the Swedes had gone through a period in which they insisted there was no difference between boys and girls, that they were blank slates upon which could be written a sort of ‘neutral point of view’. They were committed to producing a social system that eliminated the differences between boys and girls.
The Swedes eventually abandoned the effort. No matter how hard they tried little boys, and little girls, tend toward different norms.
Both approaches, the 1960’s USA, and the more recent Swedes, were errors. It is just as wrong to tell a children what they must be, as it is to tell them what they must not be.
Human Sexual Genetics
To speak of human genetic behavior is a big no-no in many circles. This is perhaps most pronounced in the humanities, but not exclusively. I briefly corresponded with an internationally renowned scholar in the field of organic behavior. Despite his constant study of the genetic effects on animal and human behavior, he adamantly rejected the idea that human behavior could be genetic, and he broke off communications when I tried to continue the discussion.
The instability of the position that we are tabulae rasae is highlighted1)And why isn’t it ‘highlit’? with the rise of alternate sexual identity/orientations. Hard conservatives insist that sexuality is simply a choice, and that prayer and counseling can ‘cure’ us of any departure from heterosexuality. Liberals mock that idea, when they are not aghast.
So is our sexual orientation genetic, or learned? If it is not a choice, then it is the result of sexual genetics, it is there at birth. If it is a choice, then the hard right is, well, right. For this particular problem, the politically correct answer is that sexual orientation is genetic. So how can we deny that there might be other genetically influenced behaviors, between the sexes, among different ages, or even among different races? We can’t eat all of our cake, and save some for later.
Human Genetic Behavior
Human genetic behavior is real, including sexual genetics, it’s just that genetics is not determinism. For instance, I have had several friends who are married with families, but who later admitted that their sexual orientation was homosexual. Some of them chose marriage because of societal pressure to conform. But at least one of them told me he did it consciously, because for him a ‘traditional’ family was more important than his sexuality. So if someone’s genetic orientation is homosexual, but his intellectual choices are not, that raises a fascinating question: Is he homosexual? And is he right, or wrong, to deny his genetics and choose a different path?
Which is the better path, prohibiting non-heterosexuality, or enforcing it? Until recently, alternate sexual orientations were prohibited in the USA. On the other hand, the Spartans mandated homosexuality; adolescents were assigned to a mature man for training in war, and sex. (The women, not surprisingly, were frequently lesbian, although to my knowledge this was not enforced.)
Clearly, both options are wrong. We should not choose for another person, not to suit tradition, nor to suit fashion. We should not choose someone’s sexuality; we should not insist that she deny her sexuality any more than we should insist that she mindlessly submit to genetic influences. Again, genetics is not determinism. We, each of us, are free to choose to follow our genetic drives, or to choose otherwise.
Boys and Girls
I watch my children’s behavior, my daughter is interested in clothes, my son is not. She prefers stories about people’s lives, he prefers action. She tends to play focusing on domestication and cooperation, he on conflict and competition.
Most boys and girls divide out the same way. There is no problem in recognizing this, particularly if we wish to use the information to help the child to be who he or she wants to be. It is only a problem if we insist that it must be true for everyone.
Or, that it must be true for no one. If my children were to take opposite interests and I were to try to stop it, that would be hurtful. Or, if I were to insist that they must take up opposite interests, that would be equally bad.
Both are problems in the debate in sexual genetics. Boy and girls are different, on average, just as many groups are. To deny the existence of our genetic norms is just as bad as insisting that every child must adhere to those norms.
By the way, Rockwell’s ‘Rosie’ is based on an earlier painting, which is fittingly a painting of a man:
‘Rosie the Riveter’ by Norman Rockwell, and ‘Isaiah’ by Michelangelo Buonarotti, both courtesy of Wikimedia.
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