The need to keep more than one thought in mind when discussing sexuality and gender
This essay was previously published as episode #61 on Mind the Shift podcast.
A protracted, undulating, often difficult and at times surprisingly toxic question is that of possible differences between the sexes.
Are there any differences, apart from the obvious? And if so, does it even matter?
From a higher perspective, it doesn’t. I want to make that clear right away. On a soul level we all dance with feminine and masculine energies, regardless of our physical gender, and this is what is most central to the essence of life.
But from the perspective of the three-dimensional experience we have here on the planet, I think it is relevant to give the issue a thought or two. Like with most aspects of life, there is something there. My take on the matter is focused on sexuality.
I had this great podcast conversation a couple of weeks ago with the writer and journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman about the new view on gender and sex that is taking hold, which has its origins in the transgender community but is now spreading to all kinds of social and political arenas. The idea is that you are the gender you feel you are, regardless of what you have between your legs. There is even talk of scrapping information about gender in documents such as passports.
This view has problematic consequences, not least for gender equality. How can we know if women or men are treated unfairly in different contexts if we don’t know their sex?
Kajsa is a feminist but also a marxist and a materialist. After our talk I mentioned my interest in the esoteric side of the human experience. She found it interesting and told me about a Jungian analyst, Lisa Marchiano, who recently published a scientific paper about the new gender perspective. Marchiano calls it a form of ”psychic epidemic”. ”Carl Gustav Jung wouldn’t be surprised”, she says.
When Kajsa Ekis Ekman and I left the studio a few questions remained on the table, as always. We spoke just briefly, towards the end, about differences between men and women. The interesting thing about my conversation with Ekman is that for a left-wing feminist like herself, the fight for equality is about getting rid of every stereotype about female and male behavior, but to be able to see those stereotypes clearly, one must establish the physical differences.
So, which are those? How widely should we define them? What can be classified as physical and not arguably goes beyond what the body looks like and which biological functions it features. But where does ”physical” turn into ”mental”, ”emotional” and ”psychological”, which opens the door to socio-cultural explanations?
Hormones can trigger certain drives and feelings, which can in turn trigger certain behavior. When we reach the function of the brain, which obviously is a physical organ but seems to constitute a battleground for the debate on possible nonphysical sex disparities, it gets really unclear. We will return to that in a while.
(Here is a sidetrack: The truly nonphysical realm is beyond the scope of this essay, but just to touch on it: If you are not a materialist you will at some point ask the question where the original impetus comes from. If we are essentially energy, are then certain energetic impulses interpreted as masculine and others as feminine when they affect the physical realm? That could explain why some people feel they are the opposite sex to the one their body has been shaped as. Or perhaps that particular condition is simply due to the ”testosterone shower” they got, or didn’t get, just before birth. Or it is both.)
I had wanted to ask Kajsa about the #metoo movement and what that revealed — and what it didn’t reveal. As you know, #metoo was basically about men sexually harassing women, from lewd talk to groping to rape. What was clear to me from the beginning was that it was very difficult to talk about these instances of sexual harassment in terms of sexuality.
The narrative was that something else was at play. The harassment was seen as an abuse of power. Which it clearly was, in many cases. But why so often express that abuse sexually and not in other ways? There are hundreds of ways to abuse power. Why had so many of the men who were disclosed made an effort to do what they did under the radar?
And why is it so strikingly uncommon among women of power, of whom there are quite a few nowadays, to abuse their power by sexually harassing young men? Is it that women simply are not as prone as men to abuse power? In that case there is apparently a gender difference, albeit within another property than sexuality. Or is it that these abuses do take place but largely go undocumented, because the victimized men do not report it?
At one point during that frenetic fall of 2017, I cautiously suggested in a social media post that the ”elephant in the room” was male sexuality, without which the whole #metoo thing appeared almost incomprehensible. I wrote something to the effect that we ought to be better at honing male sexuality, at sanding off its sharpest edges. It should be expressed respectfully and lovingly and held back when not called for, of course. And that there is reason to believe that female sexuality might not need precisely that kind of honing.
The reaction came immediately. Many said they were shocked.
The catch-22 in this context is that it is virtually impossible to be taken seriously if you both claim there is some difference in sexuality and condemn sexual harassment as much as anybody else. It has to be either or, it seems. It is as if every hint at biological differences beyond the physically apparent equals defending male filth.
Speak about a psychic epidemic.
From a materialistic point of view it is understandable if people think it would be easier to do away with discrimination and harassment if the whole gender thing was merely a social construct. On the other hand, since human beings are to materialists just another animal, it would seem a bit odd to imagine that humans were the only mammal to have evolved away from biological differences in sexuality.
(Here is another side track: As a matter of fact, environmentally and socially conscious materialists do view humans as something different than animals, because they often point to the fact that humans destroy the planet in ways no other species would do, thus establishing that we don’t have a natural place in nature. In this they actually coincide with conservative Christians. But I don’t think they see the irony of it.)
A Swedish writer and illustrator, Kerstin Thorvall, was much admired but also criticized. Her books were successes as much as they stirred up scandal. She had a compulsion to write about taboos, often of sexual nature and often from an autobiographical perspective. One of her last books had a very long title: ”I remember all my lovers and how they used to touch me”. Again, it was mostly hailed as audacious self-confessional literature. I can’t remember that anyone had any particular problems with the title. I have a feeling that the title, at least, would have been received slightly less positively had the book been written by a man. And I strongly suspect that the title in that case would have read: ”I remember all my lovers (beloveds?) and how I used to touch them”.
Having studied some of the (abundant) research on gender disparity in sexuality, pondered and taken account of my own experience, I think it’s fairly obvious that sex drive can be just as powerful in women as it can be in men, when it is present. The thing is, however, that sexuality expresses itself slightly differently in the different sexes. My conclusion is that two dissimilarities stand out:
1 It is, on average, easier for women than for men to shut sexuality off and turn it on at will.
2 Sexuality has, on average, a stronger connection to visual impressions for men than it has for women.
Numerous scientific studies have been made which conclude that women’s sexuality is more changeable, more malleable and more complex in nature than men’s, and that men’s is more straightforward, more constant and has a clearer connection to biology and to visual stimuli. (Research actually also shows that aggression is more strongly linked to sexuality for men than for women.)
Of course, it is difficult to assess to what extent social factors make for instance women suppress arousal or not to admit being aroused by, say, pornography. This measurement problem should have diminished significantly over the last few decades, given the massive shift towards erasing perceived sex differences in society — especially, and most saliently so, in the so-called west.
In fact, one 2019 study where brain activity was measured found no difference of any importance between the sexes when men and women looked at pornographic images (another study made a few years earlier did find a difference, however).
The question that arises with this kind of study is to which extent gauged brain activity actually reflects the qualia itself, i.e. what the individual experiences. Can we safely assume that no measurable brain difference means that women look at men’s bodies when walking down a street exactly the same way men look at women’s?
A few years ago two female colleagues of mine expressed sincere surprise at the fact that anybody at all could have sexual connotations around young women’s habit to wear tights and thin tops. I was taken aback by their surprise and didn’t know how to respond.
One may see these average gender variations in sexuality as significant or not, but I think the ones I have zoomed in on here are salient enough that they could cause some of the conflicts that were pointed out during the #metoo movement. Being aware of them might clear the mist and help us avoid some misunderstandings.
And apart from sexuality? We don’t have to go further than to the nearest dinner table to find combative camps advocating for their respective standpoint: biology fanatics who all have their pet examples of striking differences, and social constructivists who reject all signs of polarity as ghosts in the (patriarchal) mind.
Both camps often point to science, because there is of course an array of studies on every possible kind of gender disparity besides sexuality. The results are a mixed bag, as far as I can understand. Often vague. And the debate has become a quagmire.
When it comes to personality traits, studies have shown that women score higher than men on four of the ”big five” traits — in particular agreeableness and neuroticism, and to some extent on extraversion and conscientiousness — whereas there is no detectable difference on the fifth, openness.
The research on brain/mental dissimilarities is mired in controversy. Some studies have found differences in spatial and verbal capabilities, and some have not (or found them too small to classify them as that).
The most recent studies seem to indicate that the variability that can be found has more to do with the size of the brain than the gender itself. Health aspects tend to be easier to assess, however. Men are more likely to have certain mental health conditions and women more likely to have others.
But the overlap in all these findings is large. The differences are more like ”tendencies”, as Kajsa Ekis Ekman put it. I don’t think variations in these areas are nearly as relevant to human coexistence as variations in the area of sexuality (which, again, seems fairly well corroborated by science).
Most of what is put forward on this contentious subject is possible to refute by sheer conviction and an emphasis on one’s favorite factor or circumstance.
One interesting thought experiment would be to switch the roles in society around. What if women had been the top dogs for centuries? Wouldn’t women then feature the same traits as men do in the majority society, and vice versa? It turns out that this doesn’t entirely have to be a thought experiment. There are actually still a few matriarchies left in the world, although their traditions are gradually eroding due to increased contact with the outer world. A fascinating example is the Mosuo of southwestern China.
The matriarchs of the Mosuo villages are physically strong, active and relaxed, yet nurturing and caring. Sexuality comes naturally and is central. Because of motherhood, women are seen as natural and obvious leaders in society at large, but a few men are appointed to make decisions about practical matters.
Anthropologists from the west have studied the Mosuo matriarchy for decades. A pivotal finding is that this society does not function as an inverted patriarchy. The differences are striking.
In a conversation with the German newspaper Der Spiegel some years ago, Argentinian anthropologist Ricardo Coler said that what had astonished him most with the Mosuo was that there was no violence.
”It simply doesn’t make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don’t know feelings of guilt or vengeance — it is simply shameful to fight”, Coler said.
The women choose which men they want to have sex with. The so-called walking marriages that are practised mean that couples are formed voluntarily and out of love, without signing any contracts. As soon as love fades, either party is free to separate and search for a new partner. But even when a relationship is active, the man stays with his spouse only at night and spends the day with other men. He can always stay at his mother’s house. The children always live with their mothers.
”The one reason to be with another person is love”, says Coler. He continues:
”They aren’t interested in getting married or starting a family with a man. When the love is over, then it’s over. They don’t stay together for the kids or for the money or for anything else.”
When a woman becomes sexually attracted to a man and tries to pique his interest, despite being the gender in charge, as it were, she behaves in a way most people would call feminine. Ricardo Coler describes it like this:
”These are very strong women who give the orders and yell at you as if you were deaf. But when it comes to seduction, they completely change. The women act shy, look at the floor, sing softly to themselves and blush. And they let the men believe that they are the ones who choose the women and do the conquering.”
When Mosuo women make decisions it is part of their job, and they are satisfied when the families and the village function well. It does not cross their minds to take advantage of their position by amassing power or wealth, according to the studies.
Ricardo Coler and others come to the conclusion that men are far better off when women are in charge than when men are: they work less, their burden of responsibility is lighter, they can spend most of the day with friends and they can be with a new woman every night if they wish.
Whether the Mosuo traditions are a fair depiction of what it would be like if matriarchy were the model on a larger scale is hard to tell, of course. But admit that it is a fascinating insight into an alternative reality.
The bottom line of this whole discussion about differences — or possible differences — is that there mustn’t be any valuing or judging. It goes without saying, but I think it has to be said, and stressed, anyway. No variance, however big or small, says anything about good or bad. Whatever is there, is there.
It is about equally valuing all expressions of humanity. If you think of it, there are myriad physical, psychological and mental differences in humans that enlightened people wouldn’t dream of valuing unequally.
Personally, I also have no problem with seeing evolution as distancing ourselves from the cruder features of our earliest editions.
From a higher perspective we are all one. But we are also undoubtedly in this physical world, this spiritual school, where contrast and polarity are part of the curriculum. We all have feminine and masculine energy within us, in differing quantities, and part of the individuation process, to use Jung’s term, is to integrate them in order to become whole. Until we get there, we must deal with the contrasts.
So, why even write about it? I’ve asked myself that question. But I believe this: to just neutrally note whatever dissimilarities there are could actually further diminish gender polarization. Why? Because avoiding misunderstandings and bridging gaps in perception enhances our common life journey.
We are here to embrace the whole shebang, with love in our hearts.
It’s all pretty amazing.