Are men and women different?

While common sense suggests an obvious answer, two recent explorations of that question demonstrate the extent to which our culture is in fact deeply conflicted about acknowledging sex differences and deeply confused about how to handle them.

Writing in a recent issue of Scientific American, Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues, “It’s time to take sex differences in personality seriously.” Describing the results of four large-scale, cross-cultural studies of personality differences between the sexes, Kaufman notes, “All four studies converge on the same basic finding: when looking at the overall gestalt of human personality, there is a truly striking difference between the typical male and female personality profiles.

Kaufman notes that these include traits like “sensitivity, tender-mindedness, warmth, anxiety, appreciation of beauty, and openness to change” for women and “emotional stability, assertiveness/dominance, dutifulness, conservatism, and conformity to social hierarchy and traditional structure for men.” Women were also found to be more sociable and sensitive as well as more prone to self-doubt, while men were less risk-averse, more thrill-seeking, and utilitarian on average.

None of this is news to anyone who spends time around the opposite sex, of course, but at a time when the acceptable cultural message is that gender is a fluid construct, and embracing the non-binary is so important that it must be compulsorily enshrined even in our pronoun use, offering evidence that men and women are fundamentally different is a surprisingly radical act.

This is why throughout his discussion of differences, Kaufman preempts his critics by noting in almost every paragraph that the sex differences he observes are “on average” (a phrase he italicizes throughout), assuring his readers that plenty of men and women don’t demonstrate the average personality traits he is describing.

But he is also respectful of common sense. He quotes another sex differences researcher, Marco Del Giudice, who says that the public’s general acceptance of sex differences (as opposed to the ideologues’ denial of differences) is far less likely to cause harm than activists suggest. “People don’t want to just give up on trying to understand the world,” Giudice told Kaufman. “They want to make sense of the world. And so, if the right explanation is that there is some kind of difference, and you kinda close off that possible explanation because of ideological reasons it’s not like people stop asking why. They will come up with a different explanation. So, you will get a chain of worse and worse and worse explanations that may actually backfire in all sorts of ways.”

Or, as Kaufman notes, culturally we are so intent on avoiding harmful stereotyping drawn from sex differences that “rarely do we consider the harm that could be caused by ignoring sex differences!” He notes that there are “many ways in which pretending something doesn’t exist may actually cause greater harm psychologically than accepting the facts of the matter.”

Over at The Atlantic, Peggy Orenstein, whose previous work includes lamentations about the cult of Disney princesses, is deeply concerned about the facts of the matter when it comes to American boyhood. She finds toxic masculinity so rampant in the culture that she declares boys have received a “miseducation” and now need “new and better models of masculinity.”

Despite her search for new models, Orenstein’s essay demonstrates a remarkable incuriosity about the reality of sex differences. At first, she celebrates the fact that young men today seem more open-minded and supportive of their female peers than previous generations. But she then pivots to argue, “Yet when asked to describe the attributes of ‘the ideal guy,’ those same boys appeared to be harking back to 1955. Dominance. Aggression. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Stoicism. Athleticism.”

She repeatedly criticizes these young men’s view of themselves—which largely conform to the sex differences in personality that Kaufman describes as, on average, being common—as a form of “stunted masculinity.” Orenstein complains that boys who turn to the women in their lives (sisters, mothers, girlfriends) to talk about their feelings are “teaching boys that women are responsible for emotional labor.”

The most revealing (and poignant) moment in her piece —albeit one she breezes past in her long march toward re-educating supposedly toxic boys—is when she asks a college sophomore what he likes about being a boy. His response? “Huh. That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.”

He’s right, and pieces like Orenstein’s in elite publications like the Atlantic are a major reason why young men feel this way. So is the relentless message of girl-power uplift that has dominated the culture for decades, and the casual denigration of masculinity that permeates much of popular culture. What do you think passes through the mind of an adolescent boy when he sees t-shirts and bumper stickers that say things like “The Future is Female,” or any of the other casually misandrist slogans celebrated as empowering by peddlers of feminist kitsch? Where does he see himself fitting into this future? What is his role?

Orenstein, like many self-appointed fixers of boys, starts from the assumption that boys (and the male personality traits they are, on average, more likely to display) are a problem that needs to be fixed. This is a far cry from their response to the struggles of girls. When girls struggle, the argument goes, it must be the fault of the culture, or patriarchy, or Disney princesses. When boys struggle, it’s because they are inherently flawed (or have embraced an inherently flawed model of manhood) and must be reeducated by “experts” like… Orenstein.

There is a better way. As Kaufman argues, “We should treat all people as unique individuals first and foremost.” But we should also exercise common sense (and acknowledge the fascinating and nuanced findings of science when it comes to sex differences). “I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever between being an advocate for equitable opportunity for all people and being an equally strong advocate for respecting scientific findings and attempting to get as close as possible to the truth about average sex differences,” Kaufman writes. “Only by facing reality as clearly as possible can we even begin to make changes that will have a real positive impact on everyone.”

He’s right. Unfortunately, writers like Orenstein are more interested in the “reality” of proving their theories of toxic masculinity than in improving the lives of boys.

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