Oversimplifying Gender Differences Obfuscates Issues

There’s this thing called the Sexual Strategies Theory.  This theory uses shallow evolutionary arguments to explain perceived differences in male and female behavior.  In 1989, a paper was published that seemed to support evo theory using a simple study.  An opposite-sex stranger walks up to a person and asks them to have sex.  All the women turned down the offer, while some men accepted.

The simplicity of the original study was its downfall.  First, it positioned itself as having one variable – man hits on woman or woman hits on man.  But that’s really two variables, right there.  Both parties change.  Second, third, etc, etc…all the other variables that are ignored in that study strip the meaning from the results.

There’s a new study.  (Isn’t there always?)  The great thing about this new study isn’t that it has all the answers.  The great thing is that it shows how complicated sexual decisions are.  The new study shows that people quickly and not always consciously weigh lots of factors in deciding whether or not to have casual sex.

There’s a wonderful synopsis (not short but very well done) on the YesMeansYes blog.  It’s here: Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research.

What I take away from reading Thomas’ synopsis is that everyone, male and female, makes the decision to have or not to have casual sex based mostly on two factors – how much pleasure they believe they’ll get and how much risk they will run.  The gender of the person who has been propositioned is not the element that introduces a change in the study results, as was posited by the previous study.  The element that changes the result is actually the gender of the person doing the propositioning.  And to be more specific – it’s the perception of both (cisnormative) genders that casual sex with women results in greater sexual enjoyment and lesser risk.

Even the straight women in the study were more likely to agree to casual sex with a strange woman than a strange man.

How strange is that?

Anyway, while I think that the results are fascinating, especially when you get into the studies where they used famous people to reduce the perceived risk and reward, I’m most interested in how limiting most studies are.  It’s is a solid scientific principal that one devises a study with the fewest variables to get the strongest results.  How does this work, though, when we don’t understand the factors well enough to know whether or not they are variable?  The people who put together the original study considered the two situations roughly similar without taking hundreds of factors into account.

This new study – they show pretty clearly that pleasure and safety are more important than gender of the decision-maker in determining whether or not the person will accept the offer.  But what aren’t they considering?

I want to believe that we can factor large numbers of variables, with large enough samples.  But I think the new study, while improving the opportunity of subjects to reveal reasons for their behaviors, is simplifying the issue in yet other ways.

It comes down to a fundamental distrust of behavioral sciences.  Hell, all sciences. And know what?  That’s the right attitude.  We’re not supposed to trust science – those two words should never appear together.

I’m torn between the idea that repeated study and controlled experiment is the only way to prove anything and the idea that we’re not as clever as we think.   Those ideas are dissonant because we don’t practice conditional belief – weighing the conditions and refusing to allow a definitive statement to be made.  We cannot test for something of which we cannot conceive.  And we have not conceived of everything, even if we were able to pool all human intelligence.  With proprietary research and modern patent law, we are far from pooling knowledge.  We are all working in tide-pools rather than oceans of information.

Conditional belief requires that we hold, in our heads and in our statements, a three-dimensional understanding.  We must be aware of the source of our information, the likelihood of message garbling, the weight of repeated experimentation, and the possibility of change over time.  We have to hold all that for each and every piece of information we want to treat as fact.  It doesn’t take long to have so much conditional fact piled together that one forgets or loses track of which arguments were well-bolstered and which were weak but promising.  Science wants us to focus on those ideas that require the fewest assumptions.  I want us to become more able to maintain a constant multilevel understanding of where the assumptions are and how they affect the argument.  We’re not sophisticated enough, we don’t have enough processing power to rid ourselves of assumptions and leaps of logic while considering the important issues of our time.  We’ll have to use the other parts of our intelligence to learn how to act on conditional truths and then adapt when the conditions change.

I distrust behavioral and natural sciences because it’s the only rational position.  I fear them because of the way limited truths are put to service of social sciences.

Climate change research is a perfect example of this, with arguments raging and evidence being proffered for every political need while the coffee suffers.

Or the debate over whether or not we non-het people are born this way when there are so many more interesting questions in the world.

It’s all complicated, but we need to try to understand.  In a world where we’re still learning the reasons why batteries work, we need to be tolerant of uncertainty and better educated about how much we don’t know.

Sophistication in science will mean better systems for modeling larger numbers of variables.  Because I think we won’t get much of anywhere if we keep oversimplifing.


One comment

  1. First we don’t have the slightest idea how many thousands of variables are instantly processed when and if someone ask if you want to have sex. Like the study of how close a young woman stands to a hygienic but sweaty construction worker when alone with him in an elevator. The main variable was where in her cycle she was. We aren’t aware of 99% of what goes into making the decision what to have for lunch, much less who to have sex with. Maybe someday but not now.
    The other thing about this post is how far you’ve left the average reader behind in your ability to understand what you just wrote, much less the larger questions.

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