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On Male and Female Sexuality

I’m reading an excellent book at the moment on the science of sex difference. The book is written by Rebecca Jordan-Young, and is titled “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference”. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the subject. You can check out her website and buy her book here.

There’s so much interesting material to discuss, but I wanted to take a look at the assumptions in much of the early research about sexuality. Jordan-Young splits it up in time windows as what is considered “masculine” and “feminine” sexuality has changes so dramatically over the last 7-8 decades that the completely opposite conclusion is often drawn from the exact same data. Not a very good indication of rigorous and objective science to put it mildly.

Figure 6.2 summarizes how characteristics of sexuality were interpreted as either masculine or feminine in studies of human brain organization through about 1980. Qualities that could be quantified were put on scales with masculine at one end and feminine at the other: libido, number of partners, and number of sexual positions enjoyed. Which end of the scale is which? Brain organization researchers almost always treated this issue as though it goes without saying, and the simple rule was “male is more.” More libido, more partners, more “versatility” in terms of actual positions, and more ways to be aroused were all a part of scientists’ ideal for masculine sexuality. In contrast, there was scarcely any conceptual space for autonomous feminine sexuality in these studies. Given that scientists consistently interpreted behaviors such as initiating sex, expressing intense physical desire, or masturbation as masculine, it is scarcely an overstatement to suggest that sexuality itself was seen as a masculine trait. Female sexuality—if not an outright oxymoron—was nonetheless thought to be decidedly responsive rather than autonomous, requiring a masculine sexual partner to move it from mere possibility to expression.

I get the very clear impression from reading the definitions used and considering the fact that the majority, or at least leading, researchers are all male, that the research is incredibly male-centred. It took quite some time before women’s sexuality even “existed”, let alone lesbians, or for that matter trans men (i.e. men assigned a female gender and sex at birth).

Jordan-Young goes on to discuss the paradigm shift that happened in the late sixties and early seventies when what was considered “female” sexuality and “male” sexuality did almost a complete 180. It is quite astonishing, as she notes, that one trait that was considered masculine at one point, could be considered as clearly feminine just a few years later, even by the same research team! The worst part is that nobody seemed to notice this.

Bem (1974) Gender Roles.

Bem (1974) Gender Roles.

In addition the way scientists looked at masculinity and femininity changed.

Most scientists no longer worked from a behavioral paradigm that looked at sexuality as one-dimensional, in which masculinity and femininity occupy opposite poles of a single continuum. Another way of thinking gained currency in the 1970s and is now (at least officially) more favored than the idea that masculinity and femininity are trade-offs. It had long been known that normal female animals routinely display both “male-typical” and “female-typical” behaviors (and the same is true of male animals), but this observation fit poorly with mid-twentieth-century theories about human sexuality and gender, which assumed that “normal” and healthy development involved either consistent masculinity or consistent femininity. In 1974, psychologist Sandra Bem (1974) proposed the “orthogonal” model, suggesting that masculinity and femininity are two separate domains of personality and behavior. According to the orthogonal model, any individual may be more or less masculine and, independently of their masculinity, more or less feminine.

In my experience people who take on an exclusively masculine, or to an extent a feminine, expression, seem incredibly caught up in these alleged differences, and also often incredibly insecure. Psychology has recognised for a long time that masculinity and femininity isn’t polar opposites, though sometimes it is still presented like that, especially in outdated approaches to trans* health care like we have here in Norway. I believe that a fluidity in gender expression and a freedom to express yourself in the way that feels most “right” (or comfortable) to you, makes you a much better and more well-functioning individual. Not just for transgender people, but also for cis people. I don’t believe there is a a trans/cis binary either. It is an as artificial a binary distinction as male/female is. Reality is much more fluid and the so called binary labels are just poles in a landscape, not two areas separated by a ravine.

Jordan-Young elaborates on the research by Bem:

Bern’s model specifically departed from the traditional psychological “assumption that it is the sex-typed individual who typifies mental health” and suggested that “in a society where rigid sex-role differentiation has already outlived its utility, perhaps the androgynous person will come to define a more human standard of psychological health” (1974, 162). Research has tended to support this view, indicating that androgynous people are better able to engage in “situationally effective behavior without regard for its stereotype as more appropriate for one sex or the other” (Stake 2000; Shifren, Furnham, and Bauserman 2003; Lefkowitz and Zeldow 2006; Hunt et al. 2007).

Gender roles are restrictive. In 2013 they may not feel as restrictive as they once were, and they will never feel equally restrictive to everyone, but just because you as a person don’t encounter these restrictions, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. This, I feel, is a point frequently missed by women who think feminism is overrated and unnecessary in today’s society. Some will feel that way because they have adapted to a state of fighting the system, but that itself indicates that there’s a problem. Why should you have to fight to be yourself or to express yourself?

We should be very careful when dismissing the huge influence gender roles and gender stereotypes have on both society and scientific research. It is quite disheartening to see how often research done on sex difference confirms gender or sex stereotypes. Not because it’s an inconvenient truth, but because the results stem from badly constructed research that produce results that only reflect the definitions used in the input data. That’s not science, that’s confirmation bias.

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