Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Battle of the sexes

Simcha Fisher writes today about two things: 1. that boys and girls are different, and 2. that saying so in public is so politically incorrect that you might as well keep your piehole closed. Preferably around pie. Or waffles, apparently.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, a report today comes out saying that while boys and girls have different brains in early childhood, the differences may disappear earlier than was once thought:

Boys' and girls' brains are different—but not always in the ways you might think.

A common stereotype is that boys develop more slowly than girls, putting them at a disadvantage in school where pressure to perform is starting ever younger. Another notion is that puberty is a time when boys' and girls' brains grow more dissimilar, accounting for some of the perceived disparities between the sexes.

Now, some scientists are debunking such thinking. Although boys' and girls' brains show differences around age 10, during puberty key parts of their brains become more similar, according to recent government research. And, rather than growing more slowly, boys' brains instead are simply developing differently.

So there may be more similarities in our brains--but does that mean men and women are roughly identical and interchangeable? Well, no:

A female war photographer from the New York Times revealed tonight how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted during her nightmare hostage ordeal in Libya.

Lynsey Addario was one of four Times journalists have now been released after being held captive by pro-Gaddafi forces.

During their six-day detainment, the Americans were beaten and threatened with being decapitated and shot.

Miss Addario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, gave a harrowing account of her brutal treatment at the hands of their Libyan captors in an interview given just hours after her release.

After she and her colleagues were hauled out of a car at a checkpoint near the eastern city of Ajdabiya, one of the Libyans punched her in the face and laughed at her.

Then I started crying and he was laughing more,’ she told the Times.

One man grabbed her breasts – the start of a pattern of sexual harassment she endured over the ensuing 48 hours.

There was a lot of groping,’ she said. ‘Every man who came in contact with us basically felt every inch of my body short of what was under my clothes.’

When I first saw this article, I noticed that a commenter had expressed concern that a female photographer would be put into such a situation--only to be chastised by other commenters for saying any such thing. Women can do everything men can do--and if the price paid is a little sexual assault in conditions where men are merely beaten, well, so what? was a common sort of attitude in the responses. Feminism should be proud--I guess.

I do think there are significant and real differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond the "swathed-in-pink girly girl" on the one hand, and "scruffy-tool-wielding he-men" on the other. To the extent that there has been a reaction against that idea, I think the reaction has come from the tendency some people have either to insist that the stereotypes are the reality, to the extent that a woman who isn't strongly domestic or a man who isn't strongly gifted in typical masculine pursuits has been considered less a woman or less a man, as the case may be. Then, too, there has been the equally unhelpful tendency to view one gender through a completely negative lens, and to say things about how women are less intelligent or less capable than men on the one hand, or that men are less civilized or less capable of emotional depth on the other.

I think it is a little stupid and even a little dangerous to deny that men and women are different, or to pretend that they are equally at risk or not at risk in combat zones, or that they are equally gifted in all areas of life; but I also think it's a little stupid and more than a little dangerous to pretend that either men or women are superior solely by virtue of their genders, or that one's gender makes some particular types of tasks (N.B.: tasks, not occupations or vocations) completely impossible for all members of that gender, or that while men's and women's gifts are different they are not somehow both equally valuable.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Men and women are different. We don't have a really good grasp on what the differences are. As long as each individual man or woman is free to pursue whatever skills, training, and work they feel called to, and to be judged by their ability and performance, not their sex, then we really don't have to worry about the fact that more men tend toward some lines of work, and more women toward others.

Liz said...

Years ago at a La Leche League meeting a mom arrived with a child with longish hair in fairly uni-sex clothing. We sort of assumed it was a little girl.

The kids started playing. This little kid grabbed a truck and started making vroom, vroom noises. Then as we did the introductions the mom told us that her son's name was (here I totally forget)...My co-Leader joked afterwards that you can always spot the little boys, even if they look like little girls. This mom was trying her very best to raise her son in a gender neutral fashion, she was a single mom, and there was no dad in the picture. Yet her little boy, despite his beautiful long locks, still behaved like a little boy... There may be some little girls out there who make the same noises with trucks (perhaps the daughters of truck drivers?), but I've honestly never known one. From a fairly early age my son could discriminate types of vehicles, my daughter could discriminate types of horses.

Geoff G. said...

I don't think Ms. Addario's treatment at the hand of her Libyan captors says much of anything at all about her abilities or potential as a photographer relative to that of a male's.

It does speak to North African culture, where there are very strong gender roles externally imposed by the society (Andrew Sullivan noted an amusing example of this running the other way—note that the old woman expects men to deal with the political mess there; it's not a woman's job)

But whether or not a woman can be a newspaper photographer in Libyan society really isn't relevant to whether they can be one in ours (and recall that they've done that job here for quite a while).

So what you're basically looking at here is a cross-cultural problem, not a gender one.

Geoff G. said...

BTW, I kind of took this post as a jumping off point for a tangent which I turned into my own post back at Alexandria. If you're interested, it's here.

Anonymous said...


I'm sitting here with my jaw hanging on the keyboard.

The sexual assault is the woman's fault for being a photographer in a war zone?

Men can also be sexually assaulted - just ask several generations of Catholic men. But the fact that the Libyan culture promotes abuse of females is hardly something for feminism to be ashamed of.


Red Cardigan said...

Elizabeth, of course I'm not saying that the sexual assault is the woman's fault. I'm saying that we have blinders on when we expect, for instance, that Libyan culture is going to be exactly like American culture--or even that in American culture it is perfectly safe for women to walk alone on dark city streets at night.

The point is, women ARE more vulnerable to assault, sexual and otherwise. We are typically smaller and less muscular than men. Sure, some few individual women are taller and stronger than some men, but in general it is the case that women are more vulnerable.

I'm sure that Ms. Addario is a fine photographer, and that many women are. My question was: should women be *combat zone* photographers? Should they serve on combat forces in the military? If physical fitness requirements have to be lowered to allow them to serve as police officers or firefighters, then should we be doing that (as we are)?

To call Ms. Addario a "newspaper photographer" is to ignore the fact that she was sent into a combat zone amid a culture which is not known for equal treatment of women. That is the blind spot I think feminism has always had: to insist, as you do, that men can be raped too (though the example you use is of small boys, not men) and women are no more vulnerable in these situations, when, in fact, we are.

Now, does that mean female newspaper photographers must be relegated to covering society teas? Of course not. But there is a happy medium somewhere, one which recognizes and respects the differences between men and women while not denying women opportunities in which gender is truly not an issue.

Geoff G. said...

Erin, I think I'd extend to Ms. Addario the courtesy of expecting she'd know and understand that she was being sent into a potentially dangerous situation in a culture that treats women quite differently.

Indeed, I rather doubt that she'd have been chosen by the Times to head off to Libya if she hadn't had quite a bit of experience in similar conditions over the years.

And looking at and reading about her, she seems to be one tough cookie. This experience was probably harrowing for all of the reporters—being threatened with beheading ain't exactly my cup of tea—and to assume that Ms. Addario is somehow less capable of handling it because she's a woman seems to be falling into precisely the stereotypical trap you took such pains to avoid in your article.

Red Cardigan said...

Good Lord, Geoff. I'm not saying Ms. Addario's femaleness makes her unable to be a tough cookie or to handle herself in a tough situation. I'm saying it makes it more likely for her to be sexually assaulted, as she was.

What I'm getting from you and Elizabeth--correct me if I'm wrong--is that a sexual assault on a woman is no big deal, that the likelihood of it happening in certain situations (e.g., women in combat zones in Libya) is no excuse for women not to dive into those opportunities, and that if a woman experiences the kind of lifelong psychological or emotional trauma from such assaults which is very common (because sexual assaults impact women somewhat differently from how similar experiences impact men) well, toughen up, cookie, and deal with it.

Do you really not care at all? Does it really not matter that you might be sending women into situations where they can be raped or otherwise sexually assaulted? Is that the price we pay for the feminists' dream of equality--just shrugging and saying, "Oh, she's a tough cookie. So what if a bunch of men grabbed her private parts and ran their hands all over her body. She'll get over it!"


Geoff G. said...

I think you misunderstand. It's not that the sexual assault isn't a big deal. It's rather that the whole experience is a huge deal for everyone concerned.

We've known for quite some time that some men who find themselves in situations like these, even your standard issue "tough guys," can themselves suffer lifelong emotional damage from this sort of thing.

Yes, I agree, the results can manifest in different ways depending on a variety of things, including gender. But your attitude seems to be that Ms. Addario is somehow more prone to damage because she's a woman.

Both you and I may someday be called upon to act under extraordinary circumstances as these reporters were. I would hope that you wouldn't consider yourself any less capable under those conditions than I might be simply because of my gender.

Likewise, some people, both men and women (and yes, perhaps more men than women) seem drawn to careers and lifestyles that are more likely to place them in danger. If there's a good understanding of the risks involved and the reasonable ability to manage them (qualities I'm sure Ms. Addario has in spades), then I don't see her career choice as being the problem here.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, no, Ms. Addario is just more prone to sexual assault because she's a woman--sexual assaults and rapes committed against adult males are a tiny fraction of the total of such assaults, you know.

But you've made it clear that you think a sexual assault is no worse--in fact, probably better--than being kidnapped and threatened with death. Women aren't any more vulnerable at all in your mind, clearly, and the fact that they can be raped is just no big deal.

Okay. I don't agree.

Hector said...

Ms. Addario was sexually assaulted for one simple reason. Because the Islamic religion, at least as practiced in the Arab world, promotes barbaric and backward views towards women.

The fault for that sexual assault lies with the men who did the assault, and with their culture and religion, not with anyone else. None of us should be making excuses for these yahoos. The way to avoid situations like this isn't to keep women out of war zones, it's to reform and revolutionize backward Islamic cultures. And to refuse to make excuses for honour killings, polygamy, female genital mutilation, stoning teenage rape victims to death, assaulting female journalists, or any other form of gender-based barbarism.

Red Cardigan said...

So, does NYC "promote barbaric and backward views toward women?" The number of rapes reported in New York City climbed more than 13% last year.

What about enlightened Oslo, which has a rape rate more than six times higher than that of NYC? Prostitution is legal there, which makes it a feminist paradise, of course, but rape is still distressingly common.

When you write, "The way to avoid situations like this isn't to keep women out of war zones, it's to reform and revolutionize backward Islamic cultures..." you don't seem to be on the same page as Geoff, who seems to think that women should expect rapes in war zones but that hey, it's no big deal compared to the threat of being killed, and no enlightened woman is going to let a few rapes keep her from being a photojournalist in a war zone, or a combat soldier, or anything else.

But if reforming and revolutionizing backward cultures stops men from committing rapes, why hasn't rape ceased to exist altogether in first world nations--or at least decline persistently in number to the point where any woman can walk alone in any neighborhood in any city in America at midnight with no concern whatsoever?

Red Cardigan said...

Here's the thing: all I was trying to say about this can be summed up in these two points:

1. Men and women do have real, actual, significant, gender based differences, and

2. One of these differences is that women are generally more physically vulnerable, particularly to sexual attacks, and have the burden of needing to protect themselves from these attacks, even by avoiding situations in which these attacks are more likely or there is greater risk (since it's hideously politically incorrect to suggest that men ought to protect women in any way imaginable).

It's amazing to see the contortions to which my more liberal readers will twist themselves to avoid agreeing with either of those two things.

Anonymous said...

"I'm sure that Ms. Addario is a fine photographer, and that many women are. My question was: should women be *combat zone* photographers? Should they serve on combat forces in the military? If physical fitness requirements have to be lowered to allow them to serve as police officers or firefighters, then should we be doing that (as we are)?"

(How do we get from a female photographer in a combat zone to lowering fitness requirements for female fire fighters, BTW?)

Women used to be "protected" so very much. At my college, women were "protected" so carefully that they were LOCKED INTO THE DORMS AT NIGHT - and the fire escapes led to a LOCKED ENCLOSURE. Women's safety was so important that it was apparently preferable to risk having them burn to death than let a man in the dorm. Someone finally had the sense to inform the town fire marshall - IN THE LATE 1960s - who put an immediate end to that.

I do think rape is a big issue. I don't know that it is a bigger issue than being tortured or beaten and kidnapped and threatened with death, some of which accompany rapes at times anyway. (In fact, in the U.S. army, a female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than a Libyan street thug.)

I don't understand bringing Oslo into it either. Just because a society has enlightened social policies does not make everyone in it well-brought up and kind, any more than a "Christian" society guarantees that women are safe on the streets or in their homes. (All the wife-beaters and drunks in my family were church-goers.)

Interestingly, women can walk pretty fearlessly at any time of night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And there is no violence against women reported in Iceland. Two more different societies you are unlikely to name.

And both are irrelevant to the topic, just like Oslo.

Let's leave it up to women to decide what risks they want to take on the job.

Me, I work in retail food. I'm a low risk kinda gal. But I've been stalked by guys who make my neck and arm hair stand up. In the grocery store (back when I was young and cute). My co-workers and I had a code - "PK" for "potential killer" - when that kind of guy came in. That's why we don't use last names on our name tags or when we page someone to an aisle or the phone.

We can discuss the causes of male violence some time. Maybe the guys should be limited as to where they can go, if they can't behave.


Red Cardigan said...

Oslo only came into it because of Hector's perception that Islamic fundamentalism is the cause of rapes.

I think your view of men is more realistic than either Hector's or Geoff's, Elizabeth. Not that they're all potential rapists, of course, but that the dangerous ones aren't only found in third-world Islamic countries.

Hector said...

Re: Interestingly, women can walk pretty fearlessly at any time of night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

You've got to be kidding. My friend's father works in Saudi Arabia, and when she traveled there she had to wear a burqa. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, mostly because of the Koran. Women there are treated as the property of their father and/or husband.

Anonymous said...

Let's not throw stones too much at the islamic religion and violence toward women. Christianity in its most fundamental extremist practice is very hostile toward women. Elizabeth has some interesting points. Red, you are right, men and women are different. I used to think that boys were generally wild and ill behaved because people let them behave that way. now I have a son. I still think that, but I do see the marked difference in the genders. They are glorious and I relish them every day. However, I do think that boys have a lower standard of behavior, and that translates into Men who don't believe that the rules apply to them. Aggressivness in boys is rewarded, in girls it is punished. this is in our country. Elizabeth is right, men can also be sexually assaulted. Let's all focus on the most compelling point of sexual assault: it is almost exclusively perpetrated by men. In an extremely patriarchal society, it makes sense that rape is used as a control mechanism. ( I don't condone it, but it does make sense)If a woman wants to fight in combat, or take pictures in a combat zone, it is her choice to do so, as anyone who would take on those jobs would theoretically understand the risks involved.

and Red, you depiction of Legal Prostitution making a place "a feminist" paradise is childish at best. get over yourself and please know that your understanding of feminism seems to be limited to a caricature of extreme feminism.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Could we just agree that, if a woman who is a skilled photographer, knowing the risks, chooses to take an assignment in a setting where some degree of groping or sexual assault is likely, then she is free to pursue the assignment, knowing the risks, and, if she really doesn't want to, she should not be denied promotion merely because "other women do it"?