Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

A good masculinity is hard to find

Part 3 — gender as behaviour

This is the third and final part in a series I’ve been posting under the general title, “A good masculinity is hard to find”. The earlier posts are Part 1 – episodes from the early life of an antimasculine male and Part 2 – gender as identity.

For most of my adult life — at a conservative estimate, from my mid 20s to my late 50s — I’ve thought of gender as predominantly a question of behaviour: certain clusters of actions, attitudes, proclivities, beliefs and traits can be categorized as more or less masculine, others as more or less feminine. As I said in part 2, the notion of gender-as-identity was completely foreign to me, something I had never considered.

When I first started to think about gender (masculinity/femininity) as something distinct from sex (male/female) in the mid 1980s, it seemed clear that in this schema sex was entirely a matter of biology. It was the way our species reproduces itself, the mechanism by which the next generation was brought into existence. If you weren’t born with a uterus and ovaries, there was no possibility that you could ever bear a child. Conversely, throughout most of human history, without testes and a penis you were never going to fertilize an egg. Sex was straightforward and (a relatively small number of intersex people apart) obvious. The vast majority of people were either male or female and were going to stay that way, whether they liked it or not. And, strange as it might seem from today’s viewpoint, that was no big deal.

Because, if sex was reproduction, gender was more or less everything else. Whether you preferred to wear dungarees and short spiky hair, or frilly dresses with ringlets down to your waist; whether you shaved your legs and armpits or the bottom half of your face; and whether you listened to death metal or showtunes: none of these had any necessary connection with whether you had a womb or not. And if the male/female stuff was all about biology, the masculine/feminine characteristics and activities must be … well, they must be the opposite. That meant they must be sociocultural.

If you were solicitous and nurturing, accustomed to putting the needs of your family members before your own desires; or, on the other hand, if you were assertive and belligerent, and wary about being taken advantage of, this wasn’t the product of genes or chromosomes, but rather of your social conditioning. If you were a macho hard man, it was because “society” (for its own inscrutable purposes) was always nudging you in that direction.

I stuck with this model of gender for several decades, despite the lack of evidence to support it. If gender was a matter of social conditioning, it ought (presumably) be easy enough to decondition ourselves as a society. Don’t give your boy children toy guns and trucks to play with, or your girl children dolls’ houses and nurses’ outfits. Don’t dress them in blue or pink. Don’t encourage the boys’ ambitions more than the girls’ or the girls’ caring, self-sacrificing side more than the boys’. And so on. I don’t have any statistical evidence, but I believe that most parents who have tried this approach would agree that it hasn’t been a spectacular success.

Say we accept that gender-as-behaviour is primarily a matter of social conditioning. Is that in itself a good enough reason to want to change it? After all, there are many phenomena whose continued existence we accept despite the fact that they are largely social constructs: the stock market, academia, the film industry and the international law of the sea, to take a few examples. In other words, if it’s true that gender is something we’d like to free ourselves from, that isn’t because it’s “merely a social construct” but is more likely to be because we experience it as a limitation on our freedom: a set of shackles. And equally, if it turns out that gender really is merely a social construct, I don’t believe that it will therefore be easier to escape from it. In short, the supposed (unproven) social nature of gender may be a red herring.

Since the early 1960s, many women have come to see femininity as a trap, or as a set of constraints on what they can do and what they can be. In the decades since then, women have remade and redefined femininity, turning it into something that would appear unrecognizable to their 1950s foremothers. For the most part, they have freed themselves from its chains. In doing so, women did not become men (or become like men), though that is what many of the critics of feminism accused them of attempting. It’s striking that we men haven’t accomplished anything comparable in relation to masculinity. That imbalance between women’s considerable success in escaping femininity and men’s failure to get out from under the weight of masculinity requires some explanation.

It is, no doubt, partly a matter of men’s refusal to relinquish our advantageous gender position. Privilege of any kind has never been an easy thing to surrender voluntarily and it’s clear that the imbalance in gender relations — patriarchy, in short — has historically benefited men at the expense of women. Women have had much more incentive to shake off behavioural gender than we men have. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. In many areas of life (law, politics, business for example), older men have a historic advantage which is rapidly being eroded. As these old men retire, they will be replaced by a much more sex-balanced cadre. The privileges of masculinity have an expiry date and it’s getting closer all the time. And yet a substantial proportion of the younger male lawyers, politicians, executives etc. seem hardly any less dedicated to masculine behaviour than their predecessors were. Why should that be?

Based on my own experience as a male person (and a man), it does seem to me that a man who wishes to act in an obviously unmasculine way risks breaking a powerful taboo. I suspect that that acts as a strong check on any impulse we might have to reject masculinity. To be sure, those women in the 1960s and 70s who first attempted to jettison their feminine ways of dressing, acting and being also had to be willing to contravene taboos. Somehow the taboos which enforced and protected femininity were more vulnerable to attack than those doing the same job for masculinity. No doubt this was partly because women had less to lose and more to gain immediately. There may be more to it than that.

My former conception of gender as a social construct has not been easy to give up, notwithstanding the absence of supporting evidence. There wasn’t an identifiable moment when the scales dropped from my eyes. But gradually, unnoticed, I stopped thinking of gender as the product of “nurture” and began to wonder if it might not be innate. Quite likely, my fruitless search for a gender “identity” played a part. No doubt reading several books by Steven Pinker, including The Blank Slate which describes how many of the aspects of our personalities that we’re used to thinking of as learned behaviour actually come preinstalled by our genetic makeup, also had something to do with it.

This is my alternative suggestion. Think about the behaviour and attributes that are stereotypically masculine: strength and bulk, larger size, belligerence and assertiveness, self-confidence. A willingness to defend one’s corner and a wariness and suspicion about being cheated. In a developing early human society, before the institution of laws, tribunals, markets, councils of elders and so on, isn’t it likely that men who exhibited such masculine traits would enjoy an evolutionary advantage? Competing men would be more easily deterred from trying to steal their food, occupy their land, abduct their wives or daughters, or generally to make their lives more difficult.

Similarly, women who exhibited stereotypically feminine qualities, who were caring and nurturing, gentle, unthreatening, pretty, selfless and generous (and so on) would be more likely to attract the protection of the very masculine man, and thus share in his relative invulnerability to theft, dispossession, abduction and other adverse events. Couples like this could be expected to outbreed their rivals and pass their genes on to future generations. Furthermore, those couples amongst them who passed on the masculine characteristics disproportionally to their sons and the feminine ones disproportionally to their daughters would be more favoured by evolution than those who passed these qualities on indiscriminately. Random mutation would tend to select for masculinity in men and femininity in women.

This is what some critics of evolutionary biology have called a “just-so story”. It’s more in the nature of a thought experiment than a serious, testable hypothesis. I’m not claiming that such an evolutionary process as I’ve briefly described is an accurate or reliable account of how gendered behaviour and traits came to be so prominent in humans. I have no evidence to support this account. I believe it’s certain to be wrong in some significant respects. But —

Its purpose is to show that it’s possible to postulate a genetic or biological explanation of gender differences in human beings that is no more fanciful than the “social” explanation. I don’t know whether human gender differences are the result of socialization or biology (or of each reinforcing the other, or some more complex interaction of the two). I would like to assume for the sake of argument that our gender behaviour is as much a product of our biology as our reproductive organs are. If that were true, would it be an argument for accepting and acquiescing in the gender characteristics that we’ve presumably inherited from our ancestors? If both sex and gender are innate/genetic, shouldn’t we just abandon the idea that there’s a useful distinction to be made between them, that there’s any point in trying to keep them separate?

It seems to me that the answer is clearly “no”. We’re not yet finished with sex (always assuming that we think it’s a good thing that our species should continue to reproduce and propagate itself into the future). It still has a function to perform. Conversely, gender evolved, according to my hypothesis, because it made us safer in dangerous circumstances, circumstances very different from the ones we find ourselves in now that we have laws and institutions which provide a more effective protection than a bellowing, chest-thumping individual could hope to. Why should we continue to wear a gender straitjacket which no longer carries any compensating benefit? As I’ve said, women saw more than half a century ago that, in general, there were no advantages and considerable costs to retaining “femininity”. Men (in general) have been much slower to shake off masculinity, though for us too the costs far outweigh the (real, if quickly depreciating) advantages.

In recent years, the old-fashioned idea of gender-as-behaviour (which seemed new and exciting to me just 35 years ago), has been overshadowed by the concept of gender identity. My aim in these posts has been to argue that there are useful and important things still to be said about the older notion. While gender identity issues affect a relatively small proportion of the population, virtually everybody is or has been, to some extent, a prisoner of gender behaviour. The much greater visibility of transgender people in recent years is welcome for many reasons, not least (from my point of view) because it makes gender nonconformity a more socially acceptable choice for the rest of us. But it also comes with at least one major risk: that only trans people will be perceived as needing to escape from gender, and that the rest of us will continue to tolerate, with only relative discomfort, our accustomed gender constraints. It’s time we recognized that there are varying degrees (and quite possibly different kinds) of gender dysphoria, and that virtually all of us are affected by some variety of that condition to some significant extent.

Though this is the last post in the series, there remain things I wanted to say about gender (and possibly also about sex). So there may be further standalone posts in the near future. You have been warned.

Posted by Art on 13-Aug-2020.