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Taking Sex Differences Seriously

8/23/2004 - 5:00 AM PST

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Research Backs Up a Vatican Document

ROME, AUG. 23, 2004 (Zenit) - The recent letter on the role of men and women issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met with derision from many feminist groups who denounced what they consider to be the Church's outdated vision of the sexes.

One of the concepts the Vatican letter criticizes is the idea that "In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning" (No. 2). The Church, notes the letter, prefers to propose an "active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman" (No. 4).

Support for the proposition that there are substantial differences between men and women is found in a recently published book by Steven Rhoads, "Taking Sex Differences Seriously."

The notion that it is families and culture that determine masculinity and femininity is commonplace these days, observes Rhoads. This belief has been facilitated by the growing equality of women in fields such as higher education and employment, and by the promotion by feminist groups of the idea that gender roles are socially constructed. The social construction thesis is common to many schools of feminist thought, Rhoads explains.

Feminist thought cannot deny the distinct reproductive functions of men and women, notes Rhoads. Yet, these differences are held to be few and of relatively little importance, while the learned gender differences are both numerous and powerful. And if the gender roles are learned, say the feminists, they can be "deconstructed," thus creating a more just society.

Different from Day 1

Nevertheless, Rhoads argues that "Men and women still have different natures and, generally speaking, different preferences, talents and interests." In support of this affirmation he cites research from a number of sources demonstrating that the behavioral and psychological differences between men and women are in fact real, and not due to social conditioning.

Some sex-difference research has identified the hormonal environment of fetuses in mothers' wombs as a factor explaining differences between male and female behavior. And neuroscientists have found that men have fewer connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, with men's brains in general being more compartmentalized than women's.

Male-female divergences are evident from the earliest age, notes Rhoads. Even 1-day-old infants show behavioral differences, with females responding more strongly to the sound of crying. Three-day-old girls maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys. And 4-month-old girls can distinguish photographs of those they know from other people, something boys are generally not capable of doing. Boys, on the other hand, by the age of 5 months are more interested than girls in three-dimensional geometric forms and blinking lights.

Once infants are a year old they can rapidly distinguish between the sexes of their playmates, preferring to associate with those of their own sex. Tests have shown this to be the case even when the newly arrived infants are dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex. Thus, baby girls quickly identify as female another baby, even if it is dressed in masculine clothes.

At 2 years of age, boys are more physically active and much more interested in vehicles, research shows. In nursery school, boys are interested in new toys, while girls show more curiosity in meeting new children.

Rhoads even notes that parenthood has led some feminist theorists of gender to change their minds when faced with how their young children develop. He recounted the experience of a liberal Berkeley academic who tried to raise her son in a violence- and gun-free environment. Yet, from an early age the son was fascinated with toy guns.

Other feminist academics have been disappointed that their daughters insisted on wearing dresses, in spite of attempts to persuade them to the contrary. In general, attempts to bring up children in a unisex environment, such as the Israeli kibbutzim and some U.S. communes, have also failed.

The hormonal factor

Male and female differences are present all through school life. Rhoads explains that a large body of research shows that from second through 12th grades boys have more favorable attitudes toward competition, and girls toward cooperation.

This is clearly revealed in the sports favored at school by boys and girls, with males preferring more competitive games with clear winners and losers, while girls opt for activities with less direct competition. This is true even in pre-puberty children, when girls are just as physically strong as boys.

Behavioral ...

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