BIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES AND CULTURE–note from 2016

on the occasion of misconceptions expressed by some leaders during this election: the candidate thought check edition

A few years back I had a delightful after dinner conversation with a group of fellow travelers. At one turn in the topic I said what I thought was obvious and so, well known, that male and female brains were different. Two college students then contradicted me, saying the brains were the same, but I went on successfully to explain about differences in development, hormonal response, laterality and other such notions. When I recited Jaak Panksepp’s idea that there are actually 4 sexes (male body+male brain, male body+female brain, female body+female brain, female body+male brain), our group leader, an art historian and archeologist, wondered if in fact these categories were not as discrete as perhaps we might think, and that maybe, given the ‘messiness’ of biological systems, such notions of male/female are more on a continuum. I had to agree that was probably so. Our discussion went on to affirm that determining one’s indeterminate sexual mosaic of a body and brain was not as important to one’s social role and relations, love and marriage as mutual regard, common interests and a consensual relationship.  One’s sexual self should also be irrelevance for one’s intellectual and professional work.

Still, most peoples of the world operate with two categories, male and female, which they consider firm and true, biologically based or god given (actually both of these are firm, but only one true). And sociobiologists, anthropologists, and others who study humanity can give some reasons why the control of female sexuality and reproduction is important to males. The question “Who’s your daddy?” has been around for long time. In my thinking, though, going from biological differences and the importance of choosing a fit mate and on to the cultural mores of power and control is important enough to think patiently through what we know (and what we don’t).

I just read that the Bronte sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte (Jane Eyre), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) were not allowed to check books out of the public library because they were female. The brother Branwen stepped in and checked out books for them but still? The ladies originally published their novels and poems using male pseudonyms. Ah, 19th century England, and women had difficulty owning property (except Queen Victoria) because they were property. They were denied admission to universities; even the 20th century author Virginia Woolf, one of the most brilliant and innovative authors ever, from a highly educated and upper class family (mostly) could not attend university. Not as extreme perhaps as fundamentalists attacking Malala and other girls for going to any school but many notes, same melody.

As I consider the brilliant work of ethologists and biologists like Frans de Waal, I have learned that conspecific interactions are importantly defined by power relationsips and that power may come from many directions. Male chimpanzees and gorillas use brute strength in the old alpha male model. Female bonobos use coalitions and friendships to exert control. The important point for we humans in 2016 is that many sorts of power exist along with many ways of interacting and that, by and large, we have made what little progress we have made by restraining the use of power in over-ruling another’s consent and by making others’, e.g., females, consent and rights, e.g., property, education, voting, etc., valid. This is the true genius of democracy, the only valid authority the government has comes with the consent of the governed.

So the other side of power is consent. If you have been unawares of the amount of sexual coercion and assault in our culture and other cultures around the world, I hope you have been listening to the discussion engendered by Donald Trump’s comments about sexual behavior where consent was irrelevant to him (but surely not to those around him).   Of course, females, or those identified by society as such, suffer the brunt of such coercive behaviors but look up the statistics of how many males have been abused and try not to be surprised.

To pass over the non-consensual features of any coercive behaviors as ‘locker-room’ talk or ‘boys will be boys’ (even at age 69? Really?) shows a lack of integrity; it shows distorted thinking in 2 ways: it pretends to be biological when it is not and it relegates the great power and virtue of consensual behavior to irrelevancy. As a psychologist, I worked with sexually aggressive youth ages 4-18 and some adult offenders, and I heard these misconceptions from virtually every single one. We would used the phrase “stinky thinking” when we heard such statements, so now I hope a fresh breeze powerfully clears the air of such misconceptions and their rotten stench. Consensual relations based upon proper empathy is, after all, our real biological mandate.

Oh, and please vote.

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