I began this series by saying that there
was a time when “reading feminism” was a joyful, liberating journey.
That was pre-1980. Then it became a depressing experience, a subject for satire
or/and outrage as inanities, tradition, and right wing activism filled the
I also began by quoting the results of a 1970s study to the effect that fathers
spent an average of 37.7 seconds a day relating to their newborn offspring—this
alone should point to overcoming a long-standing gender division of labor
in the struggle for women’s liberation.
But rather than pursue this fact (and many others like it), evolutionary psychologists
and other so-called scientists have been doing something quite different.
They claim that new evidence shows that women and men have evolved gender
traits from deep history (our ancestors on the African grasslands of many
millennia ago) and that these gender specific traits are (1) part of our genetic
makeup; (2) part of our prefrontal brain structure; (3) enhanced by the presence
of estrogen and/or testosterone. This means that men and women are fundamentally
different in behavior, desires, preferences, ways of working, etc. Women’s
particular traits, they claim, were of little use in agrarian society and
so women were subjugated. The information age needs women’s tendencies
and women will become more and more influential in the 21st
century. Can’t wait.
Last month, I looked at The First
Sex by Helen Fisher and I continue here as Fisher brings the above “insights”
to the question of sexuality. Fisher writes that men and women have the same
sex drive but, it differs in many specific ways. The ways they differ could
have been gleaned from the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”
lecture circuit, but here Fisher asserts the power of “science in making
her claims.” Women, she says, are just as interested in making love as
men are, but women are more attracted to signs of commitment, status, and
material resources. Men are more attracted by visual stimuli—signs of
youth, health, and fertility. Men are more turned on by looking—into
bedroom windows and at their own genitals. How fascinating. In a 1920s study,
65 percent of men said they had peered through a bedroom window (20 percent
of women said they had). This of course reveals our inner wiring. Men fantasize
with different partners more than women do, probably, Fisher says, because
it was biologically adaptive for men to inseminate as many females as they
Women are turned on by visual erotica, writes Fisher, but not as much as men.
(Apparently “not as much as” is a new scientific term that means
I have no firm evidence about anything much less an explanation.) Women are
more aroused by romantic words, images, themes in films and stories. Women’s
sex fantasies involve more affection and commitment. Women envision more caressing,
yada yada. So far the only evidence Fisher cites for these claims is “deep
history,” which is of course unknown, and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay,
W. H. Auden, and John Donne, and the 1920s study mentioned above.
Fisher goes on to say that 71 percent of men and 72 percent of women fantasize
while having sex with a partner. Men fantasize about conquest and domination,
women about submission and surrender—“women are twice as likely
as men to fantasize passive sex, as objects of desire.” But, Fisher assures
us, these are not rape fantasies as only 0.5 percent of men find it appealing
to force women into sex; and less than 0.5 percent of women want to be forced.
(Ah, she gets it to the decimal point.) She then refers to a friend’s
fantasy involves about driving down a country road and being stopped by a
policeman who demands that she have sex with him in the bushes as confirmation
Fisher says that while many psychologists feel that women embrace fantasies
of submission to avoid feeling guilty about their sex drives, she thinks that
they may arise from the “primitive parts of the female brain,” plus
female surrender is common in the animal kingdom and she gives examples of
the “submission” of female iguanas, lions, and rats. Just how we
evolved the behavior of female iguanas, she doesn’t explain.
Another difference between men and women regarding sexuality is that men are
more riveted (good choice of words, Helen) on sex, while women are more distracted.
This could stem from the female brain’s tendency toward web thinking.
“On moonlit evenings in ancient Africa, the distractible woman was probably
the sentinel for the copulating pair.” Amazing.
Fisher gives us the results of many
surveys on sex drives.
In a 1990s survey of 14,070 U.S. men and women, 87 percent thought women
were less interested in sex than men. Dozens of other studies support this
In the 1940s and 1950s, 94 percent of men and 40 percent of women said they
In a recent survey, 90 percent of men and 70 percent of women said they
In a 1994 survey, known as the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) study,
of 3,432 men and women from ages 18 to 59: 30 percent of men and 26 percent
of women had sex 2 to 3 times a week; 54 percent of men said they thought
about sex every day; 19 percent of women said that sex crossed their minds
daily; 27 percent of men masturbated once a week, 8 percent of women did.
Men also reported more sex partners.
Fisher says that scientists have always assumed from various studies that
men had the greater sex drive because they measured sex drive by daily thoughts
of coitus, the number of masturbatory events, and the number of sex partners.
But Fisher claims that if sex drive was measured by intensity and extent of
the orgasm (as well as a few other indicators), scientists would find that
women’s sex drive was at least as great as men’s. In a poll of 14,070
men and women (the exact same number as the NORC study, how odd) by the Prodigy
computer network found that 75 percent believed that women were more sensual
than men. Why? Because women weave intercourse into a wider context: flowers,
oils, satin sheets, fluffy towels, kissing, hugging, and cuddling during sex.No
wonder women get more distracted during sex. They’re worried about sperm
on the satin sheets. I guess that’s why the fluffy towels.
Fisher thinks there is also evidence that women are designed for lots of sexual
variety. One reason, she says, is biology: men have three different kinds
of sperm—egg getters, egg blockers (to block foreign sperm), and seek
and destroy sperm. (Is this for real?) This means that ancestral women had
a roving eye, how else explain the need for sperm that destroys other sperm.
Okay, I’ll bite. How would the sperm thing work, since it would have
to be injected right after coitus with foreign sperm or right before? Does
the guy whose sperm is already swimming around in there wait to see if some
other guy comes along and dumps his load, so to speak, then does the first
guy rush over and get his sperm blockers in there? What is the woman doing
all this time: is she distracted by the ancient grassland version of TV, i.e.,
birds soaring, lions approaching? Oh, but the sperm blocking couldn’t
work then because it hadn’t evolved yet, right?
Another indication, says Fisher, is that men have gone to such lengths to
suppress female lust (cliteridectomy, veils, seclusion, foot binding). Another
indication is simple math: if men have more sex partners than women, then
either there are a few women having sex with a lot of men or men are exaggerating
their conquests, while women are exaggerating their virtue. Now, that’s
the first sensible thing she’s said.
Fisher looks at research on female prostitutes to confirm that women have
a long history of lust. In 19th century New York and Paris, Fisher writes,
5 to 15 percent of women were short or long-term prostitutes. Currently, Fisher
says, psychologists estimate that 1 out of every 1,000 or 2,000 women engages
in prostitution. (That’s really pinpointing it). Many (how many?) say
they chose (freely?) that line of work “Money is sexy, call girls say.”
What that has to do with proving female lust, Fisher doesn’t say. All
it proves is that, for some women, prostitution pays well.
Fisher says she suspects women are built to seek variety as often as men,
provided it meets their primal reproductive needs for resources. Well, that
explains the recent “So You Want To Marry A Millionaire” TV show,
where 50 women competed in gowns and bikinis for the chance to marry a complete
stranger because he had lots of cash.
Fisher returns to the 1994 NORC study.
It divided homosexuality into three dimensions: desire, behavior, and self-identity.
As a result, 4.5 percent of men and 5.6 percent of women were physically attracted
to the same gender; 4.9 percent of men and 4.1 percent of women had had sex
with a same-sex partner; 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women identified
as primarily homosexual. Also, “school girls experiment more than boys
with bisexuality.” Also, according to psychologist Michael Bailey of
Northwestern University, “Women are more likely than men to have feelings
toward both sexes. Men are more channeled one way or the other…”
From this, Fisher concludes that women are more flexible and tend toward bisexuality.
How these folks go from (pitiful) data about social choices to claims about
inner attributes eludes me. Why not notice that 96.7 percent of all Americans
use forks, 94.1 percent of all Japanese use chopsticks, and deduce that one
has a fork gene and the other a chopstick gene—and trace it to some primordial
difference in the fauna in different geographic regions?
Sex Drive in the 21st Century
As women gain economic and social power,
Fisher suggests, we are going to have sexual lifestyles like those of traditional
Polynesians. After centuries of sinful sex, Fisher writes, most Americans
appear to believe that any heterosexual behavior is acceptable for unmarried
adults as long as partners consent to it. In the 1940s, American couples spent
10 minutes at foreplay (how does she know this?); today it’s increased
by 5 to 7 minutes (and how does she know this). In the 1950s, only 12 percent
of married couples engaged in cunnilingus, today 75 percent practice it.
As women become more economically independent, Fisher says, they are rewriting
codes of sexual content regarding harassment (but movements have nothing to
do with it, of course). Fisher says that 40 to 50 percent of women say they
have encountered some form of sexual harassment in the office or on campus.
In 1995, 50 percent of women in top-level executive positions said they had
been sexually harassed. Fisher writes that harassment is still prevalent—very
astute—nearly 50 percent of working women in Estonia, Finland, Sweden,
and Russia report it; in Japan it’s 70 percent.
But Fisher feels that even though women are challenging sexual harassment
and winning cases, there will always be sexual harassment because it has deep
roots in the human psyche. “For millions of years, the sexes did different
jobs. Never have our ancestors of reproductive age worked side by side.”
Nothing has prepared us for being thrown together in offices and for coming
into intimate contact with so many strangers, says Fisher. Fascinating…let’s
rape and plunder.
Infatuation and Romantic Love
Fisher tells of a study she’s been
conducting for 25 years on romantic love. So far, 437 Americans, 402 Japanese,
and 13 Navajos have responded to her questionnaire. (Now there’s a significant
sampling and quite a good rate of return, too, about 40 a year or one reply
every 10 days.) She has put infatuated women in an fMRI (functional magnetic
resonance imaging) brain-scanning machine to measure brain activity. She hopes
to locate some of the regions of the brain that become active when the love-possessed
thinks about a beloved. Research Grant overseers, please take note.
Fisher’s results are too early to conclude anything, she says, but she’s
going to conclude something anyway and that is that men and women seem to
feel romantic love (she uses the word “obsession”) in roughly equal
proportions. Also, the brain stimulants dopamine and norepinephrine appear
to be involved in romantic passion.
Fisher concludes that both sexes feel passionate romantic love with roughly
the same intensity, but their tastes are different. Men are beguiled by beauty
and Fisher says this has a basis in deep history: “In fact, a pleasing
ratio of waist to hips, clear skin, babylike symmetrical facial features,
and small feet are associated with high levels of estrogen and low levels
of testosterone—indicators of reproductive health.” Really? Small
feet and babylike features?
Women, on the other hand, look for men with resources and position, smart
men, men with strong jaws (indicating high levels of testosterone), tall and
coordinated men. Wait; tall and coordinated doesn’t necessarily go together
with smart and rich. What a dilemma.
Both sexes are attracted to those who are slightly mysterious or dissimilar.
This seems to work on a chemical level, says Fisher. “When women are
asked to smell men’s sweaty T-shirts and report on the most ‘sexy
smelling,’ they tend to choose T-shirts of men who have dissimilar immune
Having said the above, Fisher then says that childhood experiences greatly
influence whom we are romantically attracted to: your father’s sense
of humor, etc. So doesn’t that mean we are attracted to the similar and
Fisher believes that one of the social trends of the 21st
century will be the revival of romantic love and women will shepherd us along
this road. This, in spite of her own study that says that men and women are
equal in this regard.
Marrying For Love
Fisher says that in the 1960s 65 percent
of 503 American college men would not marry a woman they did not love. Well,
that’s impressive. That means that 35 out of every 100 men would. As
for college women, 24 percent of 576 said they would refuse to wed a man they
didn’t love—72 percent were undecided. Good grief.
In 1991, according to Fisher’s statistics, 86 percent of men and 91 percent
of women said they would not wed someone they were not in love with and 50
percent of men and women believe that if romantic passion fades that is sufficient
reason for divorce.
From this Fisher predicts that the traditional patriarchal family is changing
to new family forms, that the time is right for fulfilling peer marriages,
even for matriliny (tracing one’s descent through the female line). While
only 3 percent of mammals pair up to raise their young, she thinks humans
will continue to pair bond. In 1994, 91 percent of U.S. women, according to
Fisher, had married once by the age of 45. Why? Fisher believes there is a
biological craving embedded in our brains for pair bonding, and she cites
the example of the prairie vole. Yes, the prairie vole. Sue Carter, a behavioral
endocrinologist at the University of Maryland, has pinpointed the cause of
prairie vole pair bonding: as the male ejaculates, levels of vasopressin increase
in his brain, triggering his spousal and parenting zeal. In the female it’s
oxytocin. Testosterone plays a negative role in attachment, by the way.
Hold it. Does this mean we could overcome millennia of genetic evolution that
resulted in men only spending 37.7 seconds with their newborn babies by injecting
them with vasopressin and a testosterone depressant? Now this is important
Fisher says that when humans started walking, women had a crisis. They had
to carry infants in their arms instead of on their backs and as a result they
couldn’t collect food and protect themselves so they needed mates. Excuse
me; maybe what she needed was a papoose. Also, where did Fisher get the idea
that women couldn’t carry an infant and do other things? What mate collects
food for his woman? I’d like to see that. Also, history has shown that
often the person women need protecting from most are their mates. Why doesn’t
Fisher examine the biological basis for that?
Continuing, Fisher says that as women gain economic power, marriage is changing.
Sociologist Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington divides contemporary
marriage into three kinds: traditional (woman in the home with the young;
the man as the sole breadwinner); near peer (both sexes work, but she does
most of the housework and childrearing as in traditional marriage); peer (each
gender has equal rank regardless of whether the woman has a salary or stays
at home; they feel equal in financial decisions). Fisher sees the rise of
peer marriages since 51 percent of U.S. families are two-income families where
the women are financially independent and men and women form partnerships.
What about sexual and socialization roles in bonded pairs and their implications
for people’s behaviors, attitudes, etc. say mothering, versus fathering,
versus parenting? Uninteresting, apparently.
Women and men crave intimacy but differently. Men are more likely (“more
likely” is a precise scientific term from which we can conclude much
about humans) to define emotional closeness as doing things side by side,
while women often view intimacy as talking face to face. He likes to fish,
go to a ball game, view a movie, and discuss difficult issues while driving
in a car. Women handle infants face to face and talk on the phone with girlfriends,
which isn’t exactly face to face but no matter. Fisher believes that
men’s type of intimacy stems from playing sports side by side in childhood
and also from ancestral men having to face their enemies while they played
and worked alongside friends. What? Also men consider sex the greatest intimacy
(isn’t that often face to face or am I missing something?) and this has
a genetic logic, according to Fisher, as sex is women’s gift to men so
he can spread his DNA for posterity. What?!
Fisher says that since the 19th century migration to the cities, peer and
peer marriages have emerged where intimacy has become important. However,
the male version of intimacy—sharing of physical activities, helping
around the house, making love, and horsing around—are rarely regarded
as close today. The female version—emotionality and verbal disclosure—is
the intimacy of the day.
Next she says that adultery is on the rise. In a 1998 article, Fisher proposed
that the brain circuitry for attachment is not clearly linked to the brain
circuitry for attraction. Hence, we are capable of loving more than one person
at a time. No diagrams of this circuitry at work in her book, however. Fisher
reports a recent poll of the National Opinion Research Center where 25 percent
of men and 15 percent of women say they have strayed at some point during
their marriage. Other studies say that 30 to 50 percent of married women and
Men are more inclined to commit adultery for sex and women for emotional intimacy
that is lacking in an unhappy marriage. Fisher explains this with another
evolutionary gem: ancestral men who philandered tended to father more young;
these young survived because ancestral women got extra food from all these
men she was copulating with and nature perpetuated those who cheated; also
because women tended to rendezvous with philanderers during ovulation. Yikes.
As women gain economic independence, they don’t put up with men’s
dalliances and divorce rises. Wouldn’t that suggest that everything to
do with gender relates to women’s dependence and subjugation in a patriarchal
kinship system rather than some evolutionary gene/brain/estrogen cocktail?
Fisher says that men and women around
the world have a remarkable tendency to divorce during the fourth year of
their marriages—usually when they are in their mid-20s with one or no
kids. She believes that this propensity stems from ancestors where attachments
lasted through one child. (Evidence for this?) Once weaned and able to play
with older children, then other relations took on some of the burden of parenting
and couples were free to disband. Fisher says that this all relates to receptor
sites on the brain that leave one psychologically susceptible to detachment.
Fisher paints the future of marriage: the traditional patriarchal family is
declining to be replaced by a shift to matriliny. Between 1960 and 1993, the
percentage of births to unmarried women rose from 5 percent to 31 percent.
In 1994, nearly one-third of U.S. births were to unmarried women. “As
women pursue careers, they will preserve their birth names and strengthen
ties to natal kin; as women construct and maintain families, they are provided
a social web in which their DNA can thrive. These kin keepers are reinventing
the hunting and gathering band.”
Fisher says there will be a backlash against this but women will prevail.
The Population Council lists 6 global trends for the 21st
Increased participation of women in the workforce
Decline of men in the formal workforce
More female heads of households
Later child births
More elderly dependents
These bring women more power and more responsibility, says Fisher. Well, more
responsibility surely, it look like a lot of working and caring, caringand
working. But I don’t see where women are automatically getting more power.
Fisher writes: “…although the traditional family had some merits
[and what would those be?], it was not an institution that was necessarily
good for women [now there’s an under-statement]. It denied many women
the opportunity to express their natural talents and stifled their creativity.
It left millions with little else but kitchen, church, and children.”
But the only way this can change, according to Fisher, is if the economy needs
her innately female contribution. But how would a society controlled by men
and dominated by their genetically male traits ever know that? Or decide to
accommodate women? Especially since men were doing fine the way things were:
Several studies show that being married adds more years to a man’s life
and that far fewer men than women initiate divorce.
Fisher says, “It is time to honor
our gender differences…Yet we live in what may be the only time in historic
evolution when a vast number of people, especially academics and intellectuals,
have convinced themselves that the sexes are just about the same. They choose
to ignore the growing body of evidence about inherited gender differences,
maintaining that women are born as blank sheets of paper on which childhood
experiences inscribe male and female personalities.”
Of course, she never provides any evidence of people claiming that women are
blank sheets of paper. She, herself, has described women and men as essentially
the same until the agrarian society forced a division of labor that somehow
implanted gender differences in our genes and brains. Even then, after millennia
of evolving, these differences are pretty scanty and evidence for the connection
between evolution and behavior scantier still. But this does not concern Fisher.
She goes on to tell us that “Corporations, government offices, civil
associations, military, law, medicine, police, education are all changing
and need both sexes working as a team.”
More evidence for this can be found in Fisher’s assertion that girls
are now as favored as boys. “In many cultures throughout recorded history,
men, particularly upper-class men often had several wives and clandestine
lovers, as well as opportunities to copulate with servants, slaves, or concubines.
Men could produce many young. Women, on the other hand, could bear only a
limited number of babies. For this fundamental biological reason, parents
in agrarian societies tended to invest more time, money, and attention on
sons. The boy child could potentially spread more of their DNA into the future.”
Yikes. What on earth? Is she saying that parents favored sons because sons
were impregating slaves and servants as well as wives? This is what made parents
proud to have sons? How many offspring did parents want, anyway? More than
In the 21st century, Fisher says, daughters
are becoming just as valuable as sons for spreading their parent’s genes.
Fisher concludes with the prediction that men and women will live as equals
in the 21st century—the way women did
for so many millennia of our distinguished human past. But how can behavior
that has been the basis of misogyny and patriarchy for millennia suddenly
become respected and make women important economic contributors and equal
partners with their former oppressors? We can certainly have harmony and liberation,
yes, but the path is struggle not genetic resurgence.
Recently, I saw a program about the NASA mission to Mars (also the subject
of a new Hollywood movie). Scientists speculated that in the future, say 200-500
years from now, we will travel to and live on Mars, just the way people traveled
to the New World some centuries ago. Since, according to Fisher and other
psychologists, men are from Mars (and women aren’t), I’m surprised
they don’t suggest that we solve our gender differences by sending men
back to their home planet and leaving women to get on with running this one.