If you think that women and men are different by nature, and are destined not to understand each other, you may have to revise your ideas
Women are more sensitive and men more rational. Women are sociable and men are lonely. Women cannot read maps and men cannot put the washing machine.
“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is the book by the American psychologist John Gray, written in 1992, and which perfectly synthesizes the conception of the human being that is still held today from various sciences and popular knowledge: we are from different planets. The idea is attractive, but it doesn’t hold up.
Gray’s work served to leave in the collective knowledge a radical version of something called the theory of sexual dimorphism . According to this theory, the supposed differences between women and men have a biological basis, and this makes them extraterrestrials who can hardly understand each other. Not only this, but they also need all kinds of guides and strategies to be able to relate in a fluid way.
What is sexual dimorphism?
The theory of sexual dimorphism developed throughout the 19th century and describes the biological differences between males and females of the various animal species: size, weight, color and other attributes.
According to the dimorphic theory there are primary (with which one is born, such as the penis or vulva) and secondary (which develop later, such as hair or horns) sexual characteristics. These sexual characteristics are typical of males or females and distinguish them from each other.
This makes it possible to discern whether a particular animal is male or female, for example, by looking at its genitalia, its plumage, its horns or its size. It is what allows chicken sexers to do their job.
However, the same theory admits that there are subjects of many animal species that have characteristics of both sexes, a state known as sexual polymorphism . But this has not always been applied to people.
The theory of sexual dimorphism applied to the human species reached its maximum expression with the book “Sex Antagonism” by the British endocrinologist Walter Heape, from 1913. Heape, 79 years before Gray spoke of Mars and Venus, theorizes about differences in character and behavior between men and women based on hormonal differences. It assumes that the sexes have undergone divergent evolutions that lead them to have interests and ways of life so different that to some extent it makes them antagonistic.
When the differences are not so clear
At the beginning of the 20th century, certain sexologists such as Havelock Ellis concluded that the processes of sexation (sexual discernment) in humans were more complex than in other species. This leads to various theories that try to explain it.
Among the most prominent theorists is the German doctor Magnus Hirschfeld with his theory of “human intersex” (which, although it has the same name, has nothing to do with clinical intersex, for example, when there are ambiguous genitalia) and to the aforementioned Ellis with his notion of the “Continuum of the sexes.”
In his monumental work “Studies in the Psychology of Sex”, Ellis clearly explains the idea of this continuum, after exhaustively compiling the medical records of his patients. The conclusion is that in the human species, using two types of sexual characteristics, primary and secondary, is clearly insufficient.
Ellis adds a third category of sexual characteristics in human beings, which would include the uses, customs, roles and other cultural elements previously associated with one or the other sex in the dimorphic theory. In addition, it shows how all these characters, whether primary, secondary or tertiary, are not exclusive to males or females but are interchangeable and shared to one degree or another.
A study involving more than 13,000 people in 2013 studied the main characteristics or psychological tendencies of the subjects, including the five major personality traits, and others such as the desire for casual sex. The conclusion was that there was no significant difference between men and women in the vast majority of personality traits and preferences.
While popular culture is still full of messages that attribute social characteristics and “natural” origin to behaviors and ways of being only as women and men, science is becoming increasingly clear that these differences are not so much the product of biologies divergent, but environmental and educational issues.
It is not about the false dichotomy between the natural and the cultural, but rather that these environmental and educational factors influence us at all levels: biological, neuronal, gonadal, genetic, psychological, sociological, emotional, cultural, symbolic, and they are all part of complex human nature.
We are a sexual mosaic
In 2019, Daphna Joel, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, published her book “Gender Mosaic” in which she analyzes various studies, both in the field of neuroscience and other related fields, with the alleged behavioral differences between men and women.
In his work, Joel explains that the idea of “man’s brain” and “woman’s brain” is scientifically wrong. Human brains share several different characteristics with each other, in such a way that they form what she calls a “gender mosaic.”
This mosaic exists not only at the neurological level, but also at the endocrinological level. Every human brain has a unique combination of characteristics traditionally considered characteristic of one sex or another, and each subject also has a unique distribution of hormones.
These two data destroy any theory that gives a supposedly biological origin to the differences in behavior between men and women. The science of sexology has been saying it for a hundred years: we are subjects who share more similarities than differences, in addition these differences are gradual and statistical, not essential.
Neither they are from Mars, nor are they from Venus. All human beings are from the same planet and what seems to make us different has more to do with our upbringing and education (but not only in that area) than with biology.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexed Bodies. Editorial Melusina, Madrid, 2006.
Joel, Daphna. and Vikhanski, Luba. Gender Mosaic. Editorial Kairos, Barcelona, 2020.