Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Gender Complementarity, Part II

Yesterday, I outlined the basic gist of the "gender complementarity" theory and my reasons for opposing it. Today, I'm going to discuss applicable research and explore these ideas further.

Supporting my position that men and women are more alike than they are different are results from a recent review of 46 meta-analyses. These results align with the Gender Similarities Hypothesis which holds that "males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables" (PDF). In this report, it was found that 78% of gender differences were small or close to zero. This was true even though most of the meta-analyses addressed "classic gender difference questions- that is, areas in which gender differences were reputed to be reliable, such as mathematics performance, verbal ability, and aggressive behavior." Thus, the vast majority of gender differences are "small or close to zero" even when looking at areas generally believed to show reliable gender differences. The largest differences were found in the domain of throwing velocity and distance (especially after puberty), incidences of masturbation, and physical aggression.

In light of this report, what those who promote the "gender complementarity" argument are essentially telling me is that I should marry a man because he can (maybe) throw a ball farther than me, masturbates more than me, and is more aggressive than me. And furthermore, these differences, therefore, complete me. I think these meta-analyses demonstrate nicely that, as Collette Dowling has written, we don't know "what differences, if any, there are between the essence of what it is to be female and the essence of what it is to be male." If we don't know what the "essence" of maleness and femaleness are, is it not impossible to specifically describe essential characteristics that males exclusively have and that females exclusively have? I'm not talking about anatomy here. We all know that men have a penis and women have a vagina. What I am wondering is whether those who promote "gender complementarity" are basing their theory on more than the "lock-and-key" characteristic of the penis and vagina.

On his blog Gays Defend Marriage, David Benkof has generally stated his belief that men and women bring unique contributions to parenthood that those of the other sex cannot bring. While he's stated that he is not a proponent of the gender complementarity theory, he nonetheless believes that men and women have inherent differences that marriage and parenthood require. To me, the obvious question to such an argument is, aside from sperm, what is it that a man brings to parenthood that a woman could not possibly bring? Like, what are the specific characteristics that are inherent in maleness and fatherhood that women are necessarily precluded from bringing to parenthood?

David gave what I believe to be a good, valid, and concrete response to this question in a blogpost of his own. While focusing on sex, as opposed to gender, he gave examples of bonding moments between mothers/daughters and fathers/sons with respect to biological "rites of passage" like menstruation and shaving. For instance, he writes:

"Mothers and daughters often (usually?) have an important bonding moment before or during the daughter’s first period. They discuss what menstruation is, why it happens, and what it means. They may buy the daughter’s first tampons together. By contrast, what are two Dads going to do - print out an article from Wikipedia, sit their daughter down, and say 'It says here that the, um, fallopian tubes…'"

Yet, while it might be awkward for dads to discuss menstruation, for instance, I just don't believe that a parent who has not experienced some of the biological phases of the other sex would be unable to adequately discuss these things with his or her child. Further, I do not believe that just because a man is incapable of experiencing menstruation he, as a single man or the partner of another man, would make a poor father or should be denied the right to raise a daughter. Perhaps David would agree. While a parent who has experienced certain biological phases may be able to better relate to his or her child's experience, a little compassion and understanding in a parent can go pretty far in dispelling teen-angsty awkwardness surrounding these things.

And, it does bear mentioning that even for parents who share the same sex as their child, these oft-romanticized phases of life do not universally prove to be memorable "bonding" moments for all. For some, especially intersex and transgender people, as well as other gender non-conformists, these markers of "official" manhood and womanhood can be quite painful. I know more than a few women, for instance, who in their pre-teens resented their mothers for "making them" begin wearing bras and certainly did not want to bond over or celebrate the occasion.

Yet, it is also my inkling that when it comes to the "gender complementarity" argument or the "men and women are inherently different" argument, these relatively few biological sex differences are the vast majority of specifics that proponents of "gender complementarity" have to offer us. For, general statements regarding the characteristics of "all men" or "all women" inaccurately leave out individuals who vary from these absolutes. In the real world, for instance, not all women are "nurturing" and not all men are "strong." So, given the fact that men and women are not so different, I continue to maintain that there are few, if any, specific traits that a woman brings to parenthood that a man would be unable to bring and vice versa.

As a little "experiment" of sorts, David asked my help in preparing two statements to send to 200 sociologists for their "expert opinions" on the matter. Specifically, the sociologists were asked which statement closely resembled their opinion:

"A) Men bring some specific contributions to parenthood that women are pretty much incapable of making, and women bring some specific contributions to parenthood that men are pretty much incapable of making.

B) The contributions of men and women to parenthood are pretty much interchangeable. There is little if anything that a male parent brings to his children that a female parent could not bring pretty much equally successfully; and vice versa."

Unfortunately, only 9 respondents answered (3 agreed with statement A, 6 agreed with statement B) and so we decided to abandon this super-duper scientific experiment. 9 responses out of 200 isn't exactly significant. Yet, I would have been interested to hear all respondents further elaborations on the issue. Although, as I alluded earlier, I do believe that generalities as the above two statements to be problematic. In the face of such absolute statements, I think it is crucial to remember that it all depends on the individuals involved.

The ability of an individual to be a good parent or a good partner to another human being does not depend on race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation and that's why categorical exclusions, such as Arkansas' ban on adoptions by gay couples, are ignorantly overbroad. We allow felons to raise children, yet in some instances all gay people are completely barred from doing the same just because some people believe all men represent "manhood," all women represent "womanhood," and therefore all children (and marriages) require one man and one woman.

Our reality is that family is what we make it and the word means something different to a lot of different people. Our reality, and science, tell me that while it's true that human reproduction requires a sperm and an egg, the idea of "gender complementarity" is a myth and, therefore, neither marriage nor the act of raising children requires both a man and a woman.

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