If someone claims to see “sex differences”—apparently concrete and non-varying differences between men and women—I can be reasonably sure that they’re sexist, or that they benefit from sexism, which is basically the same thing.
The whole notion of “sex difference” is somewhat outdated, along with “sex role” which we now call “gender role,” but the concept remains the same: a highly stereotypical view of two (and only two, of course) genders, from a rigid Western mindset that attributes opposite traits to each.
Men are strong! Women are nurturing!
Men are better at working outside the home in a real career! Women are better suited to domestic tasks and childcare!
Men are rational! Women are emotional!
What actually got me thinking about this topic recently was a conversation with a friend, in which she informed me that my ex-husband likes to vent about how terrible I was/am to anyone who will listen (which unfortunately, included my friend). And that made me remember all the times he and I would try to talk about things, and he would play the “well, I’m more rational than you, so I should have the final say” card. He wouldn’t always say it quite in those terms, but the meaning was clear: he thought I was less rational than him, just as women are supposedly less rational than men, so men should be the decision-makers in relationships.
Being gaslit was one major reason I chose to end my marriage, but whenever stuff like this comes up, it makes me angry all over again.
And the thing that gets me—that really pisses me off—is that even if women were markedly different from men in these supposedly concrete ways, our society still shits on women in general, so it’s like…why would any self-respecting woman believe in sex differences?!
(Of course, I can’t come out and just say that to my college students, so I have to think of other methods to bring up gender inequality and get them critically thinking about how much lip service is paid to “women are awesome and unique” vs. the actual reality of many women’s life experiences)
Gender does structure our lives in fundamental ways, but at the same time, I don’t think gender is actually as rigid as most people make it out to be. Hence, hearing about “sex differences” always makes me roll my eyes, because the people invested in these differences seem—to me—to have ulterior motivations like benefiting from sexist social structures.
Are there some differences between genders? Sure. Sometimes they’re physiological, like if you have a cervix you should get checked for cervical cancer and if you have a prostate you should get checked for prostate cancer.
Sometimes these differences are mostly social and psychological; women are conditioned to be nurturing and do emotional labor, and punished when we don’t. That surely leaves a mark on a population in highly patterned ways.
However, when I see someone defending the notion of sex differences, it reeks of essentialism, and as we all know, I think essentialism is crap.
And even if the essentialist notion of sex differences weren’t utter crap, I would be very leery of anyone who embraces them in a world that is so obviously full of hatred for women. Like, why would women embrace their supposedly unique and beautiful sex differences in a country where (just to take some examples from where I live, the U.S.):
- Paid maternity leave has never been guaranteed, and the wage gap persists
- Sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and femicide remain common
- Jobs that are “feminized” or associated with women – teaching, nursing, carework in general – remain low status and low-paying
- It takes women longer to be diagnosed with chronic illnesses, mostly because doctors don’t believe us about our own bodies (not to mention the horrid maternal mortality rates, which are worse for women of color)
But our sex differences make us unique and valuable, right ladies? No thank you.
So, let’s reject the notion of sex differences, since anytime someone is propounding it, they implicitly stand to benefit from misogynist views and actions.