On the Search for Male-Female Differences

Every year, psychologists publish thousands of studies comparing women and men. Some studies are aimed at documenting differences between the sexes, while some are aimed at challenging heretofore accepted differences. After decades—in fact, by now, a century—of such studies, they seem to continue unabated. Few, if any, conclusions have been reached. Of course, few people doubt that men and women differ in a variety of ways; that is not the issue. The issue is which differences are “real” or intrinsic (e.g., the product of heredity or of brain-biological differences) and which are the product of the circumstances, opportunities, learning histories, and constraints associated with sex category membership.

Although some feminist psychologists have avidly pursued the study of sex differences (or similarities), others have registered several reservations (Kitzinger, 1994; Magnusson & Marecek, 2012; Marecek, 1995). We have already discussed one such reservation, namely, that the sex difference approach reflects a universalist outlook. To recapitulate, the search for sex differences presumes that all members of a sex category—regardless of social location, historical time period, and cultural circumstances—share certain attributes. To the contrary, members of a sex category vary widely in terms of attributes such as their social status, racial or ethnic background, sexuality, age, health, and ability.

Additionally, there are stumbling blocks in interpreting comparisons of men and women. From early infancy onwards, the socialization experiences of boys and girls differ. How then is it possible to distinguish the effects of learning from “intrinsic” sex differences? Studies that find male-female differences may actually be registering how the local gender order expresses itself. Furthermore, focusing on differences between women and men (or boys and girls) draws attention away from the asymmetries or inequalities in their life situations. Societal divisions and hierarchies that are justified on the basis of sex differences may not folhw from differences between women and men, but in fact create those differences.

Finally, the conventional practice of comparing men and women rests on the idea that there are only two sex categories. Today, however, that simple two-sex model is no longer adequate to capture the profusion of new sex categories put forward by individuals who refuse the sex binary. Some examples of these new sex categories are transman, transwoman, genderqueer, gender- fluid, and gender-creative.

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