Man is polygamous
—attributed to William James1
Well, yes, men and women differ. But after granting that, what do we say next? Can we find encompassing statements that apply to every member of each gender? We all know of polygamous women and monogamous men, which would refute one sweeping assertion, however deftly rhymed. Still, the impulse to universalize springs eternal, especially in professions that place a premium on theory. To make their arguments sound conclusive, authors are wont to cite authorities. Scripture used to be a source. Today the source is more apt to be science, which has an even greater aura, since its laws and principles and findings are the closest we have to settled truths. In fact, reliance on science goes back a long way. Recall how classical economists cited Newtonian physics as part of their rationale for unregulated markets. Now even fundamentalists who seek to sway curriculums call their alternative “creation science.”
Of the six books under review, all on women and men, three are by anthropologists who draw chiefly on human evolution to explain differences between the sexes. As it happens, none refers to “evolutionary psychology,” even while accepting its major premises. Departmental turf aside, psychology is still largely a speculative discipline and not widely accepted as a science. In order to resolve the basic natures of men and women, Lionel Tiger asserts, “the broadest and most comprehensive answer to the puzzle…is to be found in biology.”
Nor should it be surprising that these authors rely heavily on Charles Darwin. Tiger proposed that his Rutgers chair be named after him. Michael Ghiglieri dedicates his book to Darwin. For her part, Helen Fisher cites him more than any other authority. Some of the other books to be reviewed do not claim a scientific base, but the certainty they show is at least as emphatic. Only one, by Susan Faludi, sets the interplay of men and women on a historical stage, on which she considers the effects of social forces on human choices in today’s sexual terrain.
In Tiger’s view, these are parlous times for men. He sees a “growth in the confidence and power of women, and of erosion in the confidence and power of men.” Even more distressing, in his view, is that moves toward sexual equality fly in the face of a primal fact: “Differences between men and women are in some tangible sense derived from evolution.” Clues to their disparate natures are best “found in biology,” a “basic science” too often scorned by proponents of “a broad and general antimale ideology.”
Technology has also shifted the balance of power. Modern contraceptives not only prevent pregnancies but allow women to decide by themselves if or when they wish to reproduce. This is an important shift. “Pater-nity certainty,” Tiger writes, “has long been at the heart of…male efforts to control women and their sexuality.” With that gone, we now have studies showing that 10 percent of married men unknowingly have children sired by other men, enough to make the other 90 percent worry. Women can also get abortions without telling the father, let alone securing his consent. Moreover, birth control pills work by making women who take them “chemically pregnant.” As Tiger reads biology, men are not aroused by women in that condition. Even when their pregnancies aren’t visible, apparently there are emanations that turn men off. While he provides no hard evidence that this must be so, Tiger still concludes that wide use of the pill by women has brought diminished virility in men, at least as signaled by lower sperm production:
One reason for the possible decline in male sperm counts in industrial countries is that the pregnant status of large numbers of otherwise attractive and sexually vivacious women depresses sperm production.
Each year, more women have incomes and careers, indeed homes and cars, of their own. (Among my students, women take part-time jobs less to augment their wardrobes than to get their own cars. Once they have wheels, they are less dependent on the whims and wiles of a boyfriend.) Women are also getting married later, often in their thirties, which means that they begin marriage with more experience of the world and with their characters more fully formed. They tend to look for marital parity, and are quicker to file for divorce if they don’t get it. “Women are taking firmer control of their destinies,” Tiger observes, while “men are unclear and confused.” If the sexes got on better in the past, it was in Tiger’s view because men and women accepted what he takes to be their separate and complementary roles. No longer. “The male and female sexes,” he concludes, “are slowly but inexorably moving apart.” No other species has seen such a divergence, or at least none that has survived.
Men who were raised to expect blue-collar jobs now find they lack the skills employers want, so “in an increasingly feminized workplace, they do increasingly poorly.” Each year, women come closer to equality in salaries, in large measure because they match men’s credentials. As Table A shows,
women now receive over half of all bachelors’ diplomas, and are nearing parity in law and doctoral degrees. Table B
points to similar progress within the labor force. As a result of these advances, not only are they marrying later, but they are having fewer children, as is shown in Table C
2 While China, whose fertility rate is now 186, is the only country to explicitly enforce a policy of family planning, others are moving that way without official oversight. Still, Tiger wants us to believe that American women are defying an evolutionary mandate by not having enough children to reproduce the population. So he is not distressed by the rise in out-of-wedlock births (“these women are not necessarily casual mothers”), as they are at least doing something to produce the next generation. Here he is at odds with conservatives and many liberals, particularly when he proposes “supplying adequate support to unmarried women who have small children.” Indeed, he is more troubled by two-career couples who, he says, regard it as “normal and even honorable not to have children.”
The Decline of Males could well have been subtitled “Darwin for America.” In fact, the human species as a whole continues to thrive in great numbers, in some places excessive numbers, and it is nowhere near leveling off. High fertility rates range from India’s (340) and the Philippines’ (390) through Iraq’s (520) and Mali’s (710). Even Mexican-Americans within the United States (331) are doing their bit. America’s population continues to rise, largely because of immigration, so there is no danger of a depleted labor force. And their paychecks are already providing deducted dollars for the growing proportion of retirees.
Rape is the murkiest of felonies, defying simple analysis. Apart from their being bullies, it isn’t easy to generalize about the men who are drawn to this crime. At most, we can say that rapes result from mixed and varied motives, ranging from a desire for rough sex to psychopathic sadism. Nor are alleged rapists always men who can’t get sex in other ways. When Alex Kelly, William Kennedy Smith, and Mike Tyson were being tried, their lawyers argued that they had no need to rape, since they had no shortage of willing women.
Like Tiger, Michael Ghiglieri begins by stressing that “we humans carry a legacy of instincts from our primeval past.” He asserts that the overriding instinct of men is to sire a succeeding generation. To which he adds there will always be some members of the gender who take more aggressive steps to disseminate their genes. These men, who commit the felony of rape, are driven to “steal copulations from unwilling women and thus increase their odds of siring offspring.” So sexual assaults are not about pleasure or power: rapists want to make children, even if they are unaware of this, let alone deny it.
Can such an argument be taken seriously? This seems to be yet another case of pushing Darwin over the edge. Ghiglieri never makes it clear whether he believes rapists simply want to perpetuate their personal genes or whether he thinks the species somehow produces such a phalanx in order to help preserve its numbers.3 He adduces no convincing evidence for either view.
As it happens, three agencies in the Department of Justice release different sets of statistics about rape. The most recent FBI total, for 1997, based on “reports received” by local police forces, lists 96,122 “forcible rapes,” which resulted in 40,119 arrests. But many cases, probably most, are never recorded. In an effort to provide a broader picture, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts a “victimization” survey, to uncover unreported crimes. Based on responses from a nationwide sample, it estimates that 115,000 women were raped in 1997, while another 79,000 were the object of unsuccessful attempts, which taken together amount to twice the FBI’s figure. In a third survey, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, one in seven of the women who were interviewed stated they had been raped at least once in their lives. Their total for 1997 is 876,000. But their figure combines rapes and “sexual assaults”—the latter a catchall category—and includes repeated acts by husbands and other intimate partners whom the women themselves seldom publicly accuse of wrongdoing.4
Ghiglieri regards these numbers as too low. His own estimate is that 1.6 million American women endure some kind of sexual attack each year, but he doesn’t show how he arrived at this total. Of course, he cites surveys, such as one that sampled college men, of whom 60 percent “admitted to having used force, as early as age six-teen, to achieve sexual intimacy.” Ghiglieri’s figure of 1.6 million includes these incidents, but there are probably fewer men who actually rape women, since many rapists boast long lists of victims. Moreover, Ghiglieri never tries to estimate how many rapes in fact result in births, which is crucial for his thesis. Since unwanted pregnancies can be terminated in much of the world, it is hard to see how coerced sex contributes more than marginally to the size of populations.
Danielle Crittenden and Wendy Shalit are as certain about what women want as Tiger and Ghiglieri are about what drives men. But instead of invoking science, they draw on personal anecdotes, conversations with friends, or simply impressions they have formed. Their books are essentially essays whose arguments rest not on evidence but on the hope that readers will feel their observations ring true. In this vein, Crittenden seeks to convince her audience, presumably young women, that they “may actually be the losers in the sexual revolution.” Although “as sexually free as it is possible to feel,” all too many are finding themselves “powerless to experience anything more with the opposite sex than unsatisfying, loveless flings.” To which Shalit adds that “a lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them.”
Both argue that men have responded to the increased sexual freedom of women by updating their exploitative tricks. Crittenden generalizes freely about the “unreliability,” “irresponsibility,” and “immaturity” of men. Men from all classes behave badly. Teenaged youths in the slums who impregnate the girl next door are matched by suburban executives who walk out on their families, often for a younger mate. If her title, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, is to be taken literally, her readers need to be told, she feels, that the “impulse that leads men to sleep with women and not call them again” shows no sign of abating. The men who do call get hardly any attention here.
For her part, Shalit stresses that equality exacts a cost: “It’s rather difficult to turn around suddenly and try to teach men to be gentle among women, when we have been training them all along to assume that women are the same as they.” So it is “no accident,” she says, that there are so many cases of harassment, stalking, and rape. Women are seen as wanting, expecting, even asking for that kind of treatment. Nor it is surprising that many men are confounded when faced with civil suits or criminal charges.
Shalit puts most of the blame on explicit sex education in the schools. She describes a class she had when she was a fourth graderwhich discussed masturbation techniques and oral sex. The presumption was that within a few years they were going to be sexually active, so they had better be prepared. It’s easy to blame a curriculum, not least because lesson plans can be quoted. It’s much harder to pin down the effects of a highly sexualized culture, especially its erotic advertising and popular music aimed at young people, as well as the sultrier soap operas and movies. About such effects, Shalit has little to say. If she pursued the subject further she would have to take on the market economy, which knows that sex sells. (The jacket illustration of A Return to Modesty features a glimpse of pubic hair.) In closing, Shalit calls on her readers to say no to casual sex and return to “modest dress.”
What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us is more explicit. The problem for women, as Crittenden sees it, is that they are staying single too long. The average age at which they eventually marry is at an all-time high. Of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine today, fully 38.6 percent are still unwed, as are 21.6 percent of those between thirty and thirty-four. This adds up to ten, fifteen, even more, years following high school. During this time they must, on their own, work out what kinds of sex lives they are to have. Hence they experience one heartbreak after another; they feel embittered, if not slightly soiled. Or at least that is what Crittenden sees: women who have more satisfactory experiences of men and work get little attention in her book. So her remedy is “for a woman of twenty-two or twenty-three today to get married and promptly have a baby.” An added dividend: with a smaller number of “sexually available young women,” predatory men will have to turn to marriage.
Crittenden believes that earlier marriages will also work out better. In her observation, when couples start young, they mature together and evolve more of a common bond. Perhaps, in some cases, but who cannot think of young marriages that turned out differently? As it happens, and as Crittenden fails to notice, the odds of divorce are high for couples who wed young, although most who do divorce have no children. The simple statistical fact is that fewer adults are currently married than at any time in the past. Table D
singles out persons from thirty through thirty-four, once a time when marriage was usually assumed. As recently as 1970, fully 81.6 percent of the men were husbands living with their wives; to-day only 58.7 percent are. Moreover, if current trends continue, of the marriages contracted this year, half will end in divorce. So why do some marriages still succeed? In many cases, the partners may have married for the wrong reasons, knowing little about each other. Yet while living together they discover they get on, since their temperaments turn out to be compatible. After reading such highly generalized accounts as those under review, one may still think that for each person there is a likely partner somewhere, but finding that person may be largely a matter of luck.
An issue Crittenden and Shalit do not discuss is how far today’s Americans are prepared to make the concessions required when two people live together. Unions in the past endured largely from a sense of duty, which is still the case among Orthodox Jews and Mormons and evangelical Christians. Those with secular leanings might ponder the advice that Alexis de Tocqueville gave our forebears. “The principle of self-interest rightly understood,” he said, “appears to me the best-suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the men [and women, we may add] of our time.” Instead of invoking moral or social duty, some pairings might benefit from more attention to what is personally gained from sustained companionship. Given how our times have shaped our characters, cementing marital cracks may be the best we can hope for.
Helen Fisher, like Tiger a Rutgers anthropologist, invokes evolution as well. However, her theme is that the characteristic skills women have developed over recent decades now give them a competitive edge. In particular, the coming “global service and communications economy” will value not only brains over brawn, but consensus and collaboration over competition and pugnacity. Among “women’s natural talents,” she believes, are:
an interactive style of management, a proclivity to share information, a need to strive for group consensus, a desire to empower workers, a comfort with ambiguity, and a tendency to seek win-win solutions to sticky business problems.
What she calls “natural talents” may hold for aptitudes shown by particular women—for teaching music, perhaps, or having an entrepreneurial flair. However, it is quite another matter to assert that women’s special evolution has given every member of their gender, or even most members, an affinity for “group consensus.” It hardly needs remarking that we all know women who take pleasure in going against the grain. Fisher comes close to admitting this when she says women also have a tougher side. More impressionistic generalizations follow: women “remember slights,” “hold grudges,” and are more apt to “use gossip for revenge.” Nor do they stop at words. A survey covering four English-speaking countries—conducted by a British psychologist—concluded that women “commit the same number of physical acts of aggression against sexual partners as men do.” Indeed, a third of the men they assault require medical attention. Since Fisher cites these findings, is she suggesting that a bent for battering others lurks in human beings with XX chromosomes? If so, women apparently have a genetic predisposition not very different from the one for rape that Michael Ghiglieri ascribes to men. One wonders what Darwin, whom both claim as their guide, would make of all this. 5
women now receive over half of all bachelors’ degrees, a credential that many employers expect. They outnumber men among the entrants at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford medical schools, while in pharmacy and veterinary science they now make up most of the graduates. In law, they account for 43.5 percent of the degrees, and women have risen to 40.9 percent of graduates in medicine.
Women are statistically better students. Among the 576,122 girls who took last year’s SAT, 41.6 percent had grades in the A range, compared with 33.3 percent of the 473,651 boys who took the test. And they work for those grades; a Department of Education survey found that 74.1 percent of high school girls spent at least an hour on homework each night, whereas only 57.4 percent of the boys studied that long. (For their part, the boys put in more hours watching television.) Even if the proportion of men attending college has remained steady since 1970, women have accounted for over three quarters of the growth in enrollments since that time. Men now make up less than half the students at UCLA (48 percent); Brown (46 percent); the University of New Hampshire (42 percent); William and Mary (41 percent); and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (40 percent). While it is incorrect to say there are fewer men in college than there used to be, the rising proportion of women means that for every 100 men who now graduate, 123 women are being awarded degrees.
The First Sex is conveyed by a chapter titled “Tomorrow Belongs to Women.” In asserting this, Fisher is not predicting that women of the future will be happier or lead more satisfying lives. Rather, she makes her argument in an American setting: a competitive society, where “getting ahead” means literally surpassing other people in power and pay. Thus for every additional woman admitted to UCLA or Brown, a young man will have to make do with a degree from, say, Santa Cruz or Syracuse. Her forecasts about “the feminization of lust” and “the reformation of matrimony” strike similar themes, since she sees sex and marriage as experiences in which men will no longer set the rules. (She speculates that men will gladly give up marital power in exchange for more vigorous bedmates.)
Fisher believes that women have the managerial talents the coming century will need. She says that her half of the population are superior to men in their capacity to “think contextually,” “display more mental flexibility,” and “plan long term.” If this is so, then organizations and professions have been remiss in failing to make use of these qualities. Thus far, relatively few women have attained prominent positions in medicine and law, or in finance and the corporate world. This is not to suggest that all who embark on careers aspire to corner offices, any more than all men do. But a growing number have that goal, so their prospects warrant examination. Corporations are an apt place to start. Since in almost all firms there is only one person in the top position, the choice of a woman would show that she is the best in a pool composed wholly or primarily of men.
Of America’s one thousand largest corporations, only three have women chief executives. One heads Warnaco, which makes women’s apparel and ranks 699th on the Fortune list. Another leads Mattel, the toy company, which ranks 331st; and Carleton Fiorina was recently chosen as president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the nation’s fourteenth-largest firm.6 Right now, it isn’t easy to identify women who are being prepared for the top at other corporations. Even Avon, the cosmetics company, which had three women as possible candidates, chose to bring in a man from Duracell. He is the 997th male CEO of a company out of one thousand, which wouldn’t seem to exacerbate Lionel Tiger’s worries about the “decline of men.”
Women, of course, run thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, but the Avon example suggests that the corporate world still has a strong male texture, not far from the military model, including the presumption that leadership means command. The chief obstacle for women in the corporate big leagues, which Fisher never confronts, is that they are often viewed as lacking that extra edge needed to rout the competition. Only a small number of women have passed this test: Estée Lauder, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and Donna Karan are among the few who come to mind (and they all founded their own enterprises). So far as corporate America is concerned, the coming decades will reveal how many women want to devote themselves to enriching stockholders and increasing market share—and how far corporate boards are willing to promote them over men.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash, in my view the most important book on women in recent decades, was published eight years ago. In it, she described subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to deter women from pursuing parity with men: like their being told that if they pursue careers, their children will suffer; or if they aren’t given promotions, it is always because of their own defects. She has been on the road since then, not just interviewing but becoming acquainted with hundreds of men for her new book on them. Stiffed is even better than Backlash. It is a significant and serious work, which I hope will be forgiven its frivolous title. It is also a very long book, but every page counts, which becomes apparent as Faludi takes us into the lives of the largely working-class and lower-middle-class men she talked to. She feels confident that she has come to know a reasonably wide sample of the men. But if she is prepared to generalize, she does so without dogmatism or posturing. Indeed, while writing her book, she found herself revising assumptions she had previously held, an experience not acknowledged by the other writers under review.
“Contemporary discussion about what bedevils men,” she writes, “fixes almost exclusively on the psychological and the biological.” She wants to avoid both pseudoscientific generalizations and musings based on random observations or conversations with friends. Rather, Faludi seeks to show how the past impinges on the present, how forces converging since World War II have served to shape the lives of men today. Since most of these shifts were not anticipated, more men are in a state akin to shock than in any previous period.
Faludi talks to California shipyard workers, painstakingly trained in their crafts, whose skills are no longer needed because vessels are now made in Korea, and software can gauge tolerances better than human hands and eyes. Also out of work are aerospace engineers, who counted on lifetime careers funded by military budgets. She even visits one in prison (three charges of reckless driving) who had not applied for early release since inside he is given jobs to do. He wrote his wife that he “takes care of guys in the infirmary.”
From there she goes to Cleveland, whose football team has moved away, leaving behind blue-collar fans who once loyally cheered from the bleachers. Indeed, even if the team had stayed, the game doesn’t even want or need the support of these men. The big money now comes from corporate boxes, plus upper-middle-class home viewers who are “more likely to have the wherewithal to buy the high-ticket items being advertised on-screen.” She also talks to the original astronauts, who for a time were the most publicized national heroes. Their own reaction was one of frustration. Faludi notes that they had been lead pilots, where every decision aloft was theirs. But once in the capsules, they had nothing of great importance to do, since “control was exerted from afar,” replacing “traditional male utility.”
She is equally astute on who did what during the Vietnam War. Not only were blue-collar men sent to fight. They were kept there longer than their officers, who were given six-month stints for their career folders. In a theme she pursues throughout the book, she casts the grunts as young men “who found themselves betrayed” by both their political elders and the military itself. Even the furor over rescuing MIAs “became a stand-in for all the ways the postwar sons had been deserted by their ‘commanding officers.”‘
Americans have always owned guns, but now even more than ever do, and of a kind not intended for shooting squirrels or at target ranges. Indeed, while Faludi was conducting interviews, “thousands of men would take up arms against metastasizing and morphing enemies.” The nemeses they mentioned most were the “Three Witches of Waco”: Sarah Brady, Janet Reno, and Hillary Clinton, women who want to take away their guns. Even so, few directly expressed resentment over feminist demands for equality and independence. For the most part, Faludi says, they could see “no clearly defined enemy who is oppressing them.” An exception was a gun collector. “Because my wife went to college,” he told her, “she is so twisted now she can’t trust a man, especially a husband.”
Apart from the displaced engineers, Faludi doesn’t devote much time to the suburbs, or to men who count themselves successful in an age when “competitive individualism” is imposed on all classes. She spends time with black and Hispanic men, who join in the general view that “to be a man means to be at the controls and at times to feel yourself in control”—and who have felt a continuing loss of that control as the power of women has increased. Even in the pornography industry, the women stars get to choose who will service them, the requirement being to perform how and when the camera dictates. “Basically the guy is a life-support system for a penis,” Faludi was told, and not all the men involved can always attain the condition of the title of her book.
Most of the working-class men Faludi talked to were reared on an ethos of “stoicism, integrity, reliability, the ability to shoulder burdens, the willingness to put others first.” That combination of qualities, she finds, is becoming more and more rare. What of men with above-median incomes and the agility to adapt to changing workforce requirements? Most of them seem to accept women as colleagues, as well as the arrangements of dual-income households. Faludi believes that many of them have a sense of futility because what they do is increasingly ephemeral—like moving money electronically, conjuring up throwaway products, adapting entertainment to teenagers. Moreover, as she made clear in Backlash, many of the less ephemeral jobs—teaching school, working in hospitals—are done by women who get relatively low pay and little respect for work that is demanding and essential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they still make up 93.1 percent of nurses, 84.1 percent of elementary school teachers, and 78.5 percent of laboratory technicians, barely different from the figures for twenty years ago. Faludi recalls William H. Whyte’s “organization men” of the 1950s, who for all their apparent blandness could feel they were building a nation for the rest of the century.
The old model of masculinity showed men how to be part of a larger social system; it gave them a context and it promised that their social contributions were the price of admission to the realm of adult manhood.
So the meaning of being a man—and a woman—rests not on a determined evolution, but the structure and culture arising in historical eras. If we wish to talk of adaptation and survival, we should discuss how individuals react to the conditions they face. As the scientific historian Frank Sulloway put it, genes must operate through the brain; and we still know very little about how they actually do so.7 We can, I think, conclude that the lives and expectations of women have undergone a major historical change and that one of its minor effects is to create a market for moralizing books, most of which lack Faludi’s grounding in actual experience. As to whether a New Man is arising, Faludi believes we don’t have enough evidence to say. Here, as elsewhere, she seems convincing.
October 21, 1999
William James is named in The Oxford Book of Marriage, edited by Helge Rubinstein (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 195, but she doesn’t give a source. The quatrain is not cited in the five James biographies I found in my college library. William Cole, in Eight Lines and Under (Macmillan, 1967), p. 50, says the author is “unknown.” ↩
On the relation in many societies between an increase in well-being and a declining birth rate, see Garry Wills’s summary of recent historical studies in The New York Review, July 15, 1999. ↩
See R.C. Lewontin, “Survival of the Nicest?,” The New York Review, October 22, 1998, and Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” The New York Review, June 12, 1997. ↩
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1997 (November 1998); Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization, 1997 (December 1998); National Institute of Justice, Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women (November 1998). ↩
The Natural Superiority of Women (Macmillan, 1952), by Ashley Montagu, also a Rutgers anthropologist, covered similar ground almost a half-century ago, but before Darwin took hold in anthropology. ↩
A few other women also have the title of chairman, including at Paramount Pictures and the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. But in fact, they head divisions within larger enterprises, and so report to a higher executive rather than the board of directors. It is also unlikely that Golden Western’s co-chair, who shares that post with her husband, would have got there on her own. ↩
See his “Darwinian Virtues,” The New York Review, April 9, 1998. ↩