On the Meaning of Sex 3: On Sexual Differences

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]


(Not what Budziszewski means.)

On to Chapter 3.

Budziszewski starts the chapter in his favorite way: by beating a fictionalized college freshman in a pseudo-debate. This time it’s a girl named Carissa who, we’re told, “had been reading some of the classics for the first time.” Budziszewski writes:

One day when we were talking, she asked a question which all well-socialized women who are reading the classics for the first time are expected to ask these days. Why did those bygone writers speak as though men and women are different?

“Maybe because they are different,” Budziszewski replies. But Carissa insists: But men and women aren’t different.

And we’re off.

Chapter Three deals with “the meaning of sexual differences,” and in it, Budziszewski is going to tell us 1) that men and women are different, 2) that the differences between men and women are meaningful, and 3) that those differences point (like an arrow) to our ideal natures, and tell us how we’re supposed to be.

Those are the broad contours of his argument. Let’s take each of those points in turn.

1) Men and women are different.

This is where he expects to find disagreement, and this is where he builds all of his defenses. He pummels Carissa with evidence that, on average and in general, men (as a group) are different from women (as a group) in ways that go beyond the physical fact of different genitalia. He looks at brain scans and he considers cross-cultural psychological surveys (in a half-assed way, ignoring studies that complicate his argument, but we’ll let that slide this week). I probably don’t have to tell you what he says are the differences between men and women, because it’s the same list you get with any defense of complementarianism:

In any case, women everywhere tend to have much higher survey scores than men in nurturance or tendermindedness, trustfulness, and anxiousness. In various ways, they also show greater sensitivity to emotion… Perhaps because of this sensitivity, they are also more vulnerable to moods and mood swings, more likely to show signs of depression, and more susceptible to stress. On the other hand, they are warmer, more talkative, more gregarious, and more agreeable or compliant. They also differ from men in the way they consider potential mates. In particular, they care much more than men do about ambition and socioeconomic status, somewhat more than men do about intelligence, and somewhat more than men do about moral virtues, like honesty and sincerity. (47-8)

And what about men? “Men show the opposite patterns,” he writes. We also care much more than women about physical attractiveness in our mates, and we “are much more likely to engage in sex without personal relationships” (48). Oh, also men are better at abstract thinking, and women are better multi-taskers (57). Seriously, sometimes it feels like Budziszewski is just Steve Harvey with a PhD.

But there’s a reason that Steve Harvey sells a lot of books and keeps showing up on the Today Show, and it’s because he’s very good at describing what’s average. And if you describe what’s average, most people will relate to a lot of what you’re saying.

Budziszewski spends nearly half the chapter trying to prove that men (as a group) and women (as a group) are different, so he might be shocked to hear that I don’t disagree with him there. (This shock, btw, comes from his misunderstandings of feminism.)

But, hell, it would be silly not to believe that. For one thing, we know that men and women tend to have different hormones in different proportions, and we know that those hormones affect our personalities, our propensities, even our brain structures. Of course that’s going to show up if we look at traits across large populations. But the key words in those sentences are “tend,” “as a group” and “large populations” and there’s just as much evidence that biological sex means less in determining these traits than individual factors. Budziszewski disputes this, writing that “the cliché that variation within each sex is greater than variation between the sexes is simply false” (38). But he offers no support for that assertion, and it contradicts things he’ll say later in the chapter.

Budziszewski’s list of “masculine” traits doesn’t capture me very well. His list of “feminine” traits doesn’t capture my wife. Neither list describes any of my friends, or my family members. Even the most traditional couples I know break from those lists in significant ways. The point is, every generalization Budziszewski makes about “how women are” and “how men are” breaks down in individual cases, as Budziszewski will acknowledge later in the chapter. So the questions become: what do group differences tell us about how we should behave as individuals? Are people who aren’t average flawed? Should we strive to be more normal? Should I, for example, be less turned on by my wife’s intelligence? Should I be less agreeable? Less trusting? Less nurturing towards my daughter?

Budziszewski offers answers, but first he has to argue that…

2) The differences between men and women are meaningful.

That is, there are good reasons why men (as a group) and women (as a group) are different from each other.  And, again—probably to Budziszewski’s surprise—I’m not going to disagree with him here.  I think he’s right that the world needs agreeable people and it needs assertive people, it needs introverts and it needs extroverts, etc.  And if those people pair off and start families, I think there’s a nice balance in that. [Although I would insert the very very important caveat that it’s difficult to map “complementarity” onto individual couples—after all, I think my wife and I complement each other nicely, but we’re both nurturing and tenderminded people.   Budziszewski’s “logic” implies that this is a deficiency in our relationship.]

No, the real problem comes with the next step, in which Budziszewski argues that…

3) These differences point us to our ideal nature, which tell us how we’re supposed to be.

On page 57, Budziszewski is writing that women tend to be more body-conscious and more protective of themselves physically than men. “But considering their potentiality for motherhood,” he writes, “this heightened physical awareness is entirely appropriate.” Then he goes on: “Women need to be like this. There would be something wrong if they were not like this.”

Er… what?

There would be something wrong if they were not like this?

I had a friend in college, a girl who lived in our dorm, who would come out and play football with us on weekends. She wasn’t particularly big, but she was absolutely fearless on defense—I can vividly remember a flying tackle she put on my roommate, a big guy, behind the line of scrimmage. After college, she joined a rugby club and tried out for a local semi-pro women’s football team. Now she’s a firefighter. Who knows how  much good she’s done in the world, how many lives she’s saved. And, heck, just think of all the good, all the joy, she’s gotten from her body, because of her fearlessness.

Budziszewski says something is wrong with her.

So we have Budziszewski’s answers to the questions I asked in part one of this post:

Are people who aren’t average flawed? YES.

Should we strive to be more normal? YES.

Should I be less turned on by my wife’s intelligence? YES.

Should I be less agreeable? YES.

Less trusting? YES.

Less nurturing towards my daughter? YES.

To be fair, I don’t think Budziszewski himself recognizes the implications of his argument. He tries to account for individual differences, but that just leads him into incoherence (as I’ll try to show next week). But back in Chapter 2, Budziszewski insisted that the way things are indicates the way things ought to be; here he’s locating “the way things are” in statistical averages. This is what I mean when I say that he’s making the average into the ideal. And the thing about an ideal is that any deviation from it is, necessarily, a deficiency.

So rather than seeing my friend’s physical courage as a strength, he suggests that there “something wrong” with her. Rather than seeing my tenderness towards my daughter as a good thing, it becomes a weakness. These implications become more apparent when you read harder-core complementarians, like Mark Driscoll, but those guys are using the same logic that Budziszewski outlines here.

Next week: Budziszewski defines “man” and “woman” and more hits from Chapter 3.

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7 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Sex 3: On Sexual Differences

  1. I have to say, reading his list of qualities for men and women, I can’t help but think that lesbians have the right idea. Men are violent and aggressive and are more likely to use their partners sexually. Who in their right mind would want that?

    • Ha! Yeah, I think, partly, he’s trying to fend off accusations of sexism by making men look a little bad. But he also frames everything that men do as a “fight,” even when they’re encouraging other guys or helping each other. Weird, weird way of looking at the world.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Which reminded me immediately of the wonderful title of a memoir by the lesbian writer Jeannette Winterson, quoting directly the words of her religion – crazed adoptive mother: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”.
    And that is the problem with so much in the distorted tradition of “Natural Law” theory. By insiting on interpreting God’s purpose by drawing lessons from what is statistically normal, it overlooks the simple fact of diversity in God’s creation – and that the real point of natural law, in deducing God’s purpose, is identifying what is conducive to human flourishing – what “makes us happy”.

    Thanks (I’m highlighting and recommending this series in a post I’m preparing for “Queering the Church”)

    • Yes! Budziszewski actually starts Chapter 3 by writing, “How many more colors there are in the world because there are two sexes and not just one!” He misses the whole of the world’s diversity and then complains that political correctness is forcing us to “make ourselves a little blind” and miss those colors. It drives me crazy. He basically sees everything as either red or blue, and if we acknowledge that there’s also purple, and different shades of red and blue, and yellow, and green, and everything else, he insists that we’re somehow diminishing red and blue.

      Thanks again for reading and linking! Like I said, Queering the Church has been a big influence on me, and I see it as a treasure trove of analysis and information, so it’s exciting to be a part of that.

    • Hey, Terence, I really liked your post on St. John of the Cross, about whom I know almost nothing. A weird thing about Budziszewski’s book–frankly shocking to me, actually–is that he uses some of the MOST homoerotic passages from John’s Spiritual Canticle as epigraphs at the start of his chapters. Before Chapter 4, for example, he quotes the following verse:

      “There He gave me His breasts,
      There He taught me the science full of sweetness.
      And there I gave to Him
      Myself without reserve;
      There I promised to be His bride.”

      I haven’t written about it because I don’t know enough about St. John of the Cross to comment intelligently. Am I missing something? How could one not see the irony? Is Budziszewski just trolling?

  3. Pingback: “The Meaning of Sex” (Letters to the Catholic Right)Queering the Church | Queering the Church

  4. Pingback: “The Meaning of Sex Ch 3″ (LTCR) – Binary Opposites, or Diversity?Queering the Church | Queering the Church

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