“License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned”1
Humans have been preoccupied with sex from long before our fantasising ancestors produced phallic carvings, painted on cave walls, or used all the imagery of John Donne in his elegy, “To his mistress going to bed”, written in 1595. Impetuous, all-consuming, all-revealing passion overtakes humans like no other species; “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love”. It seems like that, like no other species, humans search for a unity of physical and emotional passions. We call it love; beautiful, transforming, and so often fleeting that it more often catches us unawares, than when we seek it. And when we do find it we often lose it.
Deep, bonding ‘Love’ had its origins on the prehistoric savannah, as women, finding it harder to care for big-headed babies over longer periods of childhood, became more dependent upon strongly-built men who could bring back the meat during those childbearing years. They needed love to hold them together when the attractions of sex waned under the daily stress of survival2.
Every foetus starts off ‘sexless’. It’s not until the eighth week of pregnancy that a possible ‘Y’ chromosome flicks those changes in testosterone levels that will turn just over half the foetuses into males. By default, therefore, the human body plan is female (which is probably why men have nipples). Sex is more a matter of hormones than of chromosomes, which is why some boys closely resemble in looks and temperament their mothers, and some girls resemble their fathers3. Boys grow to be 9% taller than girls, while men have twice as much muscle weight as women; they can run faster, and throw better, and are more thick-skinned (which does not necessarily mean being insensitive!). Women are more sensitive to touch, can better distinguish between different shapes and colours, and frequency of sounds4. Sexual mental characteristics exist somewhere on a lspectrum; few are at the extremes, and give individuals an amazing, if annoying, array of behaviours. Essentially they help us to mate appropriately, and by doing this we have sent human evolution into overdrive5.
It has gone like this. We know that men have highly focused vision that assisted them in the hunt, and that women have better peripheral vision to help collect fruit and nuts and watch the children. We know that men are the silent ones, whereas women who always had an audience amongst their fellow ‘gatherers’, seem never to stop talking. Now put these two concepts together; when men talk it is most often about getting things done (it is instrumental), whereas women, able to spend much of their time carefully watching each other’s behaviour, want to talk about relationships6. Woe betide the man who mistakes a woman’s desire to find out what he feels for the opportunity to tell her what he thinks she should do next. Consider what might have happened if, when psychologists first started to analyse our reactions to life-threatening stresses, they had been women, not men? Might a woman not have described the possible reaction as ‘bend and befriend’, rather than ‘fight or flight’?7 Is either in absolute terms actually better? (In biological terms remember it is the female line, mitochondria, that is not easily displaced).
More than twenty years ago a fascinating study of male/female attitudes to ethics was set up at Harvard8. As part of this, two eleven-year-olds, a boy and a girl, were each asked the hypothetical question “If a man is too poor to afford to buy a drug needed to save his wife’s life, should he steal it?” The boy said yes. A human life is worth more than the value of the stolen property. The girl thought carefully before saying no, because the man might get caught and then go to prison, leaving no one to care for his sick wife. The story illustrates an apparently simple sexual difference: the boy applied a general rule, as if in a game of football — go for it, it’s worth the risk. The girl, however, as soon as she gave her answer, wanted to further explain her logic: rather than stealing, the man should have tried to persuade the shopkeeper of the value of his giving him the drug without him having to commit an offence, and upset everyone. The story marks a vital distinction between the sexes; women see important issues in terms of relationships, and seeking some common ground. Men see issues in terms of hierarchies, and always want to be on top9.
So, with these sophisticated ways of understanding the sexes, what do people look for in a partner? There are more books on this subject than any other. At its simplest it seems that men are out for a good time, and women for a good (long-term) life. As the Chinese proverb has it “A wife is sought for her virtue, a concubine for her beauty”. Men get all this confused; they look for women who appear young, have perfect bodies and who will impress their colleagues, so reinforcing their own self-esteem; they fantasise about Madonna, Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. Women take a more practical, long-term view; good looks enter into this of course, but so does the man’s ability to command resources to keep her in the style she would like to be accustomed to; a Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt or Sean Connery. But what men find so difficult to understand is that a woman rates a man by the genuine nature of his interest in her as a person — in what she thinks, and why10. Put like that there will always be so many differences between the sexes to make us endlessly fascinating to each other, so propelling the further evolution of the brain!
Thesis 86: 27th August 2006