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Books of Interest

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Posted: Apr 10, 2006 09:40


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By: Steven E. Rhoads
San Francisco: Encounter Books: 2004
ISBN: 1893554937

Book Review by: Lon Woodbury

Most contemporary discussions would consider even the title of this book an anachronism because the term "gender" is usually preferred over the term "sex." The contemporary orthodox view is that society determines the most significant differences between the sexes, thus there are potentially any number of varying genders. In this orthodox view, distinctions by sex are too limiting, and it considers the term gender better reflects the rich and wide diversity of human behavior. However, the author challenges this view and insists sex differences are hardwired and are basic to human nature.

In the media, public policy and academia, the usual assumption is that society teaches little girls to be feminine and little boys to be masculine, and all that implies for later in life. In essence, this view of nurture over nature indicates that in most societal roles, men and women are or can be, virtually interchangeable.

However, author Steven Rhoads, who teaches public policy at the University of Virginia, comes down solidly with the position that this androgynous view is too idealistic and not accurate. He claims that many sex distinctions appear "hardwired" into our biology. He then reviews the scientific evidence he accumulated, which shows that despite efforts to achieve equality, sex distinctions remain a deeply rooted part of human nature.

A central part of his argument is that a wash of testosterone during pregnancy permanently and radically restructures the male brain, a restructuring of a type that does not occur in the female brain. Thus, the author asserts sex differences are determined before birth. Rhoads describes testosterone test levels in both males and females that show traits traditionally associated with masculinity such as competitiveness and aggression have a direct connection to higher testosterone levels. In contrast, he says lower levels show increased cooperation and nurturing, traits traditionally associated with femininity. Rhoads asserts that even though men have considerably greater testosterone levels than women, the variation of testosterone in each sex is strongly related to behavior. For example, he found women with higher amounts of testosterone (though still less than men) tend to show what might be considered masculine traits-they prefer competitive careers over having children, or are at least conflicted about the choice, and appear more promiscuous than those with lower testosterone levels. On the other hand, he found that women with low testosterone levels exhibit the commonly considered feminine traits, such as a strong attraction to children and nurturing. In the same respect, the author sees an equal variation in men, with high testosterone levels being indicative of aggressive and competitive behaviors, while low levels appear to reduce their aggressive and competitive drive.

In another example, he conducted an interesting survey of a group of college professors, who lived in a community highly oriented toward the equality of the sexes. These people, for example, espoused the importance of both parents equally sharing the childcare and domestic activities. He provided them with a list of domestic chores such as changing diapers, feeding the children, cleaning house, etc. He asked how much they enjoyed each activity and which parent did them most often or if they shared the chores equally. In virtually all areas, not only did the mothers do the activities more often, they also enjoyed the activities more than the fathers. For example, a little over half of the mothers said they actually enjoyed changing diapers, while not one father said they enjoyed it, yet many said they did it frequently. The author also found that while new mothers usually took maternity leave to spend time with their baby, the fathers frequently took paternity leave to spend time on research or something to advance their career. Rhoads considered this significant because these people firmly believed in equally sharing the domestic burdens, yet their actual behaviors were more consistent with traditional sex differences.

The author uses another example that he asserts is explained by traditional perspectives of sexual differences better than by androgyny, and again suggests many traditional sex differences are hardwired. He pointed to research showing that while men get a chemical high from winning in a competitive situation, women get a comparable chemical high from nursing.

Throughout the book, the author challenges contemporary clichés and spotlights what he sees as biological realities, which is based on the assumption that a realistic view of sex differences is necessary to better help men and women develop the life they find most satisfying.

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