By: Ally Fogg, Guardian.co.uk
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
When it comes to sexual behaviour, scientists increasingly agree that men and women are more alike than we imagine
Several of the larger feminist websites got a little bit excited last week about a new psychology paper entitled Men, Women and the Bedroom. "Science confirms what feminists have been saying forever," declared Feministing triumphantly. "All those myths about innate gender differences when it comes to sex? Not actually true."
University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley and her team were the academics responsible, and they are quite explicit about their intention. They say they wish to "challenge popular perceptions within psychology and among the greater public that gender differences in sexuality are immutable and largely unaffected by the proximal social environment". In other words, this is the latest volley in a long-rumbling intellectual battle between feminist theory and evolutionary psychology.
Despite the claims of Feministing, this is far from a nail in the coffin of gender essentialism. Conley et al bring up six commonly held "myths" about male and female sexuality and look for contradictory evidence in the literature. Two of the myths, they argue, can be disproved. The other four are true – so not actually myths at all – but to a lesser extent than commonly imagined. For example, the "myth" that men think about sex more than women is confirmed – yes, they do, about 18 times a day as opposed to 10 for women. But men also think more about their other physical needs too, such as food and sleep. The authors point out that this is in keeping with models of socialisation where females are raised to worry about the needs of others more than their own. It might be, but it could also be that men and women have evolved different innate instincts towards nurturing, altruism and self-interest.
One could raise similar objections to each of the claims made in the paper, but perhaps the broader issue is that there are only six of them. This is not a systematic literature review – evolutionary psychologists have found literally dozens of gender differences in sexual behaviours, and we must assume these six were selected because they were the ones most easily challenged.
It is easy to understand why feminists are suspicious of evolutionary psychology. The idea that human behaviour and character is determined by our genes has been used to justify all kinds of ills, from racism and slavery to eugenics and patriarchal social structures. It has been hard enough for women to win rights to independence without men in white coats claiming that it is more natural for them to stay home with the cooker and the kids. It is also true that a huge amount of duff science has been published under the banner of evolutionary psychology; much of it justifiably dismissed as speculative, non-falsifiable theories.
Claims that women have naturally evolved to prefer the colour pink, that black women are innately less attractive, or that men have evolved to fancy slimmer women tend to be media misrepresentations or deliberate provocations and should be laughed off the page. However, while any specific claim about the genetic basis of a particular human behaviour can be found wanting, the general principle at stake – that our brains and instinctive traits have been shaped by evolutionary principles, and will in some ways be different for men and women – is pretty much indisputable.
In criticising evolutionary psychology, feminists are often pushing at an open door. No serious academic believes that all human thought and behaviour is programmed by our genes. David Buss might be called the high priest of modern evolutionary psychology, and has worked extensively (and controversially) on human "mating behaviour". Earlier this year he penned the introduction to a special issue of the journal Sex Roles, which was overtly conciliatory towards feminism, explaining why human behaviour is not, and cannot be, genetically determined.
At best, this debate is about the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors, not their existence – but psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly realising that the distinction between the two is far from clear. Human beings shape the environment in which we live, our lived experiences shape our brains (known as neuroplasticity) and then our brains influence how we shape our environment. As Cordelia Fine explains in Delusions of Gender, even the genetic code is an unhelpful guide to our behaviour, as different genes and groups of genes are triggered into action by environmental factors. We might have a whole bunch of genes that came in handy on the savanna, but that doesn't mean they're particularly influential on our behaviour today.
Fundamentally, what Conley et al are claiming does seem to be true. Gender differences in sexuality are not immutable and are certainly affected by the social environment. They're also remarkably small. In a recent meta-analysis, Petersen and Hyde pooled 834 studies from 87 countries and seven national data sets to give them over a million subjects. While hundreds of gender differences were found, almost all were marginal – only a handful could be described as persistent and pronounced. Importantly, the more gender-equal societies become, the more those differences diminish. Forget Mars and Venus: it's more like Men are from Manchester, Women are from Salford.
On topics of sexual behaviour and sexual politics, we can argue all day about what is moral, what is sensible, what is practical, what is just. Let's not get distracted by what is natural. There is really no such thing.