The following was written by Christopher Kilmartin, PhD, Professor Emeritus, author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant and professional psychologist. His major scholarly work is The Masculine Self (5th edition Sloan, 2015, now co-authored by Andrew Smiler). He has also co-authored Men’s Violence Against Women: Theory, Research, and Activism, Overcoming Masculine Depression: The Pain behind the Mask: and Sexual Assault in Context: Teaching College Men about Gender, a manual based on his consultation experiences.
This is the first in a series of essays in which I explore the myths about women and men that are sold to us by various cultural forces. Many widely accepted ideas about the nature and character of men and women turn out to be untrue once cast under the spotlight of careful research.
First, we need a definition of gender, which is a psychological, not merely a biological term. It is not merely the sex you were assigned at birth. Gender is a pressure to behave and experience the self in a way that the culture prescribes for the body that one inhabits. It’s hard to resist a pressure that you cannot name. So what I’m going to do is to help you name it, and then you’re in a better position to decide whether to resist it, and if you can help others name it, they’ll be in a better position to make smart, responsible decisions, because much of what we have come to believe about men and women is not only untrue; it is downright destructive.
How often have we heard or participated in conversations about the supposed differences between the sexes? Most people seem quite comfortable with tossing around stereotypes about men and women such as that women can watch one TV station for longer than 5 seconds without changing the channel; men do not worry about whether their underwear looks pretty; women can ask for directions when they’re lost (thank god for GPS); and that even if a man has long hair, he would never think of mounting a ponytail on the side of his head.
And the thing I’ve always noticed about these conversations is that there’s never any theory to explain these supposed differences. If men and women are so different, what makes them so? The explanations are about “that’s just the way men are.” It’s attributed to some vague biological essence.
Fiction #1: the myth of the “opposite sexes.” We hear this term used often and uncritically. I challenge audiences to tell me a way in which men and women are opposites. At this point, I see a lot of people smirking and fidgeting, and eventually someone will say something polite like “anatomy.” And let’s be honest, what they really mean is “genitalia.” Is a penis the opposite of a vagina? Certainly they are different in some respects, but would you call a nut the opposite of a bolt? Would you call your sleeve the opposite of your arm? To me, a more apt analogy is that of a PC and a Mac. They’re a little bit different, although they do a lot of the same things, but I doubt that if someone asked you, “do you have a PC?,” you would be unlikely to answer, “no, I have the opposite computer.”
Fiction #2: The myth of the “battle of the sexes.” This is the mistaken belief that men and women are enemies, and that men lose when women win, and vice versa. There is even a board game called “battle of the sexes.” Can you imagine a board game called “battle of the races,” or “Jews vs. Christians.” Many fair minded people rightfully feel offended when racist or religious stereotypes are offered but at the same time believe that sexism is an acceptable social activity. And it has got to stop. There are a lot of problems that we will never solve until we see men and women as being on the same team. In fact, men who commit gender-based violent crimes such as sexual assault and intimate partner violence show a much stronger tendency than normal and healthy men to hold adversarial sexual beliefs. In other words, they think of women as being the enemy.
And when you think about it, isn’t this the most curious “battle” of all time? One in which about 90% of the combatants are allegedly in love with and having children with the “enemy.”
I’m just getting started. There are many, many other untruths about men and women that we are encouraged to believe, so stay tuned for my next installment.