Archive for March, 2009

Gender and Biology

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?

There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:

Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.

Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.

Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:

“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.

“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.

Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.

Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology

Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.

Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.

In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…

What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?

  1. Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
  2. Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
  3. The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.

What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?

  1. This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
  2. If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
  3. Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal. 

My Own View

I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.

Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.

My Vision for the Future

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

It’s easy to point out what is wrong with the current gender roles, or to point out how feminism is incomplete and sometimes plain wrong. What’s harder though, is to be able to state a positive vision for the future, without pointing out all the negatives that can be identified in the gender debate.

So what I would like to do in this post is to simply list my vision for the future, i.e. how I would like men, women and gender roles to evolve. In the not too distant future, I would like the following bullet points to become a lived reality around the world:

  • Gender stereotypes have been completely transcended, and each individual is free to pursue the life path that he or she wants. No boy, girl, woman or man is shamed for having a certain interest, or for wanting to pursue a certain career or be a homemaker. Transcending stereotypes does not necessarily mean that men and women will make the same choices on a group level, since biological differences will still remain in the brain and in bodily makeup.
  • Biological differences between the brains of men and women will no longer be ignored, since scientific research clearly shows that such differences exist. However, biological differences aren’t overemphasized either, since everyone recognizes that each individual is biologically unique, and may not have a brain that corresponds to biological sex.
  • Feminism has been replaced by a gender liberation movement that cares equally about the well-being of both sexes.
  • It has become common knowledge that traditional gender roles arose as a reaction to historical circumstances, and that it made perfect sense at one point to have those gender roles, since they were a functional fit to the current conditions. This understanding enables women and men alike to relax, and to refrain from blaming the other sex for the negative baggage that each gender role has.
  • All legislation is gender neutral, including laws concerning military service and the draft. Gays and lesbians are allowed to get married and adopt children, just like anyone else, since there is no logical reason to uphold such discrimination.
  • Men and women recognize that a marriage is not only about love, it is also something that has a huge impact on your life as a whole. Because of this, men and women form agreements when getting married about what will happen to any children if they are divorced, and how each person will survive financially in case of divorce. Financial and social capital are both valued highly when forming such agreements.
  • Biological paternity and maternity are established on all newborns using DNA testing, and legal paternity and maternity correspond to the results of such testing, unless the child is put up for adoption.
  • Discrimination is frowned upon, as are people who try to blame their own shortcomings on discrimination.
  • Schools teach children relationship skills and emotional awareness, so that the children can grow up to use these skills in the workplace and in personal relationships. This decreases the violence that both sexes instigate in the home, and the violence that men perpetrate outside the home. It also lessens the emotional manipulation of girls and women.

What is your vision for the future?

Abortion Contradictions

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Abortion is a procedure with a dark past. For a very long time, secret abortions performed without the necessary medical competence was the norm, and as a consequence women died or were maimed for life. An absence of safe, legal abortions is still the case in many countries around the world, which is something I vehemently oppose.

I believe that every country that hasn’t already done so should have their abortion laws reformed, so that abortions can be done legally and with complete medical support. I fully support legislation that allows for free abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with a possibility of granting an extension as long as the fetus isn’t old enough to be able to survive outside the womb.

However, I do not support the view that once free and legal abortion is in place we have reached the goal of reproductive freedom. It’s true that free and legal abortion bestows reproductive freedom, but only upon half the population. We’ve liberated women by making available abortions that are safe, legal and in many cases included in medical insurances or government funded health care. Men however, have no rights and no freedoms  whatsoever vis-à-vis abortions.

Men and Abortions

If a woman becomes pregnant, then the woman can choose to have an abortion, even if she and her partner had agreed beforehand to have the baby. Similarly, if a couple has agreed to get an abortion in case of an accidental pregnancy, the woman can decide to keep the child and make the man pay child support for the next 18 years! No method of contraception is 100 percent safe, so accidental pregnancies do happen regularly.

These facts lead to a scenario where the woman has all the power, all the rights and all of the freedom. The woman’s decisions are the reproductive destiny of the man, in a very real sense. Every man is expected to trust a woman 100 percent, whether they are carefully planning to have a child, or if the couple is instead trying to avoid a pregnancy. 

How can we motivate men to be responsible fathers under these circumstances?

Here’s a breakdown of what pregnancy means for a man nowadays:

  1. Prenatally, the mother has all the rights. She can keep the child or have an abortion, even if that goes against what the couple had decided beforehand.
  2. Once the child is born, fathers are expected to take on 50% of the responsibility, and even if the man never wanted the child he will be forced to pay child support.
  3. In case of divorce, the woman is usually favored by the courts and women win the majority of custody battles.

This is a very confusing situation for men, to say the least. Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand; you cannot expect men to be responsible if men are not awarded any rights, yet this is exactly what we expect of men in relation to pregnancy.

What’s the Solution?

In my mind abortion is actually one of the “hard” problems of the gender field, i.e. a problem where there is no obvious solution and no obvious way to improve the current situation. I don’t believe in removing the woman’s legal right to decide when and if to get an abortion, since I cannot conceive of how that could be done in a satisfactory way.

Instead, I think we need to focus on cultural values, and how we discuss abortion in society. Instead of saying things like “my body, my choice”, I think we need to propagate the idea that men and women should make conscious agreements on how to handle accidental pregnancies, and then respect those agreements. If no agreement has been made, the potential mother and the potential father should sit down and discuss what needs to be done, from the perspective of all the affected parties.

Abortion is not about the woman having rights and simply doing whatever she feels like doing, even if she’s legally entitled to do so. It’s about taking all the affected parties into account, which include the fetus, the potential mother and the potential father.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Feminism

Friday, March 6th, 2009

I sometimes hear the claim that feminism cannot be discussed without specifying what branch of feminism is being referred to. However, in some circumstances it is entirely reasonable to refer to feminism as a single entity, for example when discussing what the key assumptions of feminism are. After all, the reason we even have a movement called feminism, is that the various branches of feminism share at least a few basic premises.

I’ve written several blog posts where I disagree with some of the core premises of feminist thinking and analysis. I simply don’t agree with the opinion that men have structurally oppressed women, or that the female gender role is far worse than the male gender role.

However, when it comes to what feminism actually wants to do and implement, it’s no longer possible to refer to feminism as a single movement. Indeed, if we want to make life complicated, we can talk about any number of feminist branches: liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, Libertarian feminism, Eco-feminism and so on – since each of these ideologies propose different solutions to women’s situation.

But what it really comes down to as far as I’m concerned, is whether the proposed or implemented changes are constructive, and useful to society as a whole. Therefore, when discussing what feminism actually wants to do, I simply make a distinction between healthy feminism and unhealthy feminism, two terms that are pretty much self-explanatory.

Healthy Feminism

Healthy feminism fights for a host of important and highly constructive reforms, many of which have already been implemented in modern countries:

  • Legislation should always be gender neutral
  • Every adult citizen should be allowed to vote in elections
  • The labor market should be accessible for men and women alike
  • Women and men should have the same rights and responsibilities, not only the same rights
  • It’s important to put a financial value on child rearing, instead of only valuing work in the public sphere
  • Works actively with rape prevention and against domestic violence
  • Encourages women to “find their voice” and to live an authentic life
  • Acknowledges that there are issues with the male gender role too

Unhealthy Feminism

Unhealthy feminism lashes out and creates headlines fairly regularly, to the detriment of healthy feminism and other gender movements. The polarized views of unhealthy feminism unfortunately make for some good headlines in newspapers (“Girls Are Being Shortchanged in Schools”, etc).

Unhealthy feminism:

  • Tries to make a case for women being shortchanged in every situation, even in situations where the female gender role is obviously beneficial.
  • Fights for women’s rights, but not interested in the accompanying responsibilities
  • Perpetuates the view that women are weak and fragile victims, for example by claiming that women need affirmative action, and by claiming that only women are the victims of domestic violence.
  • Wants to keep the advantages of the female gender role while gaining the advantages of the male gender role. However, unhealthy feminism is not interested in sharing the advantages of the female gender role or sharing the burden of men. For example, unhealthy feminism will claim that women should have half of the top jobs in society, but not half of the dangerous jobs that men perform.
  • Uses feminism as a tool to avoid personal issues and problems. “If I can blame everything on me being a woman, then I don’t have to face my own issues or take responsibility for the mess in my own life.” Projects all the negative human qualities onto men, leaving women to be sweet and innocent creatures.
  • Makes women feel guilty for the choices they make, by labeling women who don’t work full-time as traitors


The work that healthy feminism has done, and is still doing, needs to be included in a Gender Liberation Movement Beyond Feminism. Indeed, without the work of healthy feminists we wouldn’t have the awareness of gender issues that we have nowadays.

On the other hand, unhealthy feminism is simply a pathology, that has no place in any gender movements of the future. I believe part of the reason that unhealthy feminism has arisen is because since the 60s, men have been too acquiescent and accommodating in relation to feminism, which has allowed a very vocal group of feminists too keep on demanding more and more reforms for women – whether any more reforms have actually been needed or not.