GENDER DIFFERENCES : Chemistry or Culture?

By Callahan, Sidney | Commonweal, September 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

GENDER DIFFERENCES : Chemistry or Culture?


Callahan, Sidney, Commonweal


If you know about "fight or flight" responses in threatening situations, you are probably ready for "tend and befriend" strategies. Researchers in the most recent Psychological Review report that females react to danger by quieting and soothing their offspring and by affiliating with a group for protection. For if females fight, or flee, they endanger the survival of their progeny and of themselves. Better to calm down and blend into friendly networks.

In contrast, the classic male "fight or flight" response to threats activates the sympathetic nervous system with cascading adrenaline hormones secreted into the bloodstream. These highly aroused animals are then mobilized to attack or to flee. But in our civilized world, men cannot easily fight or flee from threats. The resulting buildup of frustrated stress responses has been blamed for the high rates of male cardiovascular disease, and for the fact that men live on the average seven and a half years less than women.

Females can have sympathetic arousal to stress as well, but as the new model of tending and befriending proposes, women more often respond with surges of sedating hormones, anxiety-calming oxytocin enhanced by estrogen. Since assaults and threats to females often come from aggressive males, even from a sexual partner, females who face stress turn to female networks of kin and friends. They create and maintain these cooperative female groups to enhance their survival and that of their offspring. As compared with males, women are thus more likely to "tend and befriend," to create and maintain networks, and to be less threatened by crowding. Such maternal strategies are part of an innate attachment-nurturing system that operates not only in females but in their infants. Such behavior rests on the neuroendocrine underpinnings of oxytocin, estrogen, and opioid mechanisms.

Aha! say those who argue for the importance of innate gender differences between males and females: here is more proof of the complementary nature of men and women. But many feminists like myself who stress gender similarities are quite ready to accept the fact that evolutionary mechanisms have produced some universal sex differences oriented to sexual reproduction. Who can deny that males always and everywhere exhibit more rough-and-tumble juvenile play, more physical aggression, more upper-body strength, and perhaps greater spatial abilities? And yes, females develop verbal abilities earlier, have different play patterns, and emotionally invest more in reproduction. But other differences--in SAT scores, in speech and behavioral patterns (such as the male inability to ask for directions)--can be explained as arising from specific cultural effects. Of course socialization always builds upon biology, but gender differences can be either accentuated or minimized in comparison to other individual differences and commonalities between the sexes. …

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GENDER DIFFERENCES : Chemistry or Culture?
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