Thursday, March 26, 2015

Real Men Let Women Die: A Discussion on the Role of Protection in the Development of Gender Roles

It might not be readily apparent based on my Facebook discussions, but I'm a huge supporter of gender equality. Specifically, I have a Utopian dream that one day all of us, regardless of sex, can have the freedom to express gender however we see fit. In fact, my Utopia would encourage members to develop as many gender-specific skills as possible, then learn to use them in the appropriate situation. Any member of the group could do any task regardless if it required "masculine" or "feminine" traits.

There's a major problem with my Utopia: Men and women aren't all that close to being equal yet. Worse, neither gender has unlimited freedom of gender expression.

I'm not one to dream about a Utopia without some sort of plan to make it a reality, so I've been spending a lot of time considering the issue. My first question - what barriers exist that could be preventing actual gender equality?

The standard issue most give usually involves power. Specifically, men are not willing to give up their positions of power in our society. It's a nice, politically-correct answer. But is it accurate?

While there may be some old-timers that genuinely do not want to see women in power, pretty much every male I know doesn't care if women assume power positions. In fact, many actively support it. Women have a lot of male allies.

It seems logical that women should be in a position to simply take power. By the time women can vote, they hold a numerical advantage over men. Add the male allies and women should have a hell of a voting contingent. That should be all that's needed to take positions of power.

Yet it doesn't happen.

Maybe power isn't a cause of our gender roles after all. Maybe the real cause is something a lot less controversial. Maybe the real cause is something that was (and could still be) practical and even desirable.

What if our gender roles developed because men and women, through some combination of biology and socialization, have developed a system where men protect women in exchange for something... maybe intimacy? Maybe men have a drive to protect women because it helps both genders advance their genes to the next generation. 

Way back in college, I was exposed to the theory of sociobiology. The field essentially attempts to explain modern human social behavior as a function of our biology as it developed via natural selection. In other words, we behave as we behave because it helped our ancestors produce kids that could reproduce. Sociobiology is used to explain why men tend to be rather promiscuous (because they produce billions of sperm cells) and women are selective (they only have a limited number of eggs and pregnancy and child-rearing are a huge investment.) It also explained the honeymoon phase of relationships (it compels us to have sex, thus make babies) and the subsequent oxytocin-fueled bonding phase (keeps us together to raise aforementioned babies.) 

I liked the idea of sociobiology, but I'm inherently extra skeptical when dealing with evolutionary theory. Inferring anything about the past based on shady evidence and present behavior is a dangerous game. Fun, but dangerous. The real problem I had with sociobiology, however, had to do with the underlying motivation. What exactly drove our behaviors? Also, it didn't really address why relationships seemed to tank after about four years. That oxytocin- fueled bonding wears out after a while. The standard explanation was kids and stress, which is entirely legit. Kids are a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the same effect occurs in childless couples, too. 

So back to gender roles and the original question - why haven't women achieved equality yet? This "protection drive" could be part of the problem. Men, unconsciously, want to keep women safe. Women, unconsciously, want to feel safe. Unfortunately, the very idea is so controversial, most can't even fathom it. After all, men are socialized that women are just as capable as men. And women are socialized to be strong enough to take care of their own shit.

Yet the drive still persists. 

If it didn't, we'd require women to sign up for the draft. If it didn't, we'd execute more female prisoners for committing capital crimes. If it didn't, we'd encourage more women to be machinists, firefighters, or garbage collectors. If it didn't, women wouldn't prefer fit, rich men. 

So if this hypothesis is correct, we're fucked, right? Gender equality would be impossible, right?

Not quite.

The other part of my hypothesis: We only feel that "protection drive" when we perceive a threat. I'll dive into my personal story for this point. As my regular readers probably know, Shelly and I have been training at an mma gym for over two years. Prior to training, I felt a much stronger drive to stick up for Shelly. If she was in any sort of danger, I felt a need to help her out. For the last two years, I've seen her learn the skills to do significant bodily harm to pretty much anyone. In other words, I've watched her learn to take care of her own shit. The result - I have virtually no drive to protect her. 

There's a weird catch-22 with this strong woman phenomenon, however, and further evidence there's a strong unconscious drive to protect women. Men, generally speaking, really do not like strong women. Again, I'll use Shelly as an example (though I've observed this effect time and time again with my strong female friends.) Shelly today is a different person than when we met. She's far more assertive, confident, and brash than she used to be. And both genders respond to her in much different ways. Most women now have a tendency to submit to her, and men tend to avoid her. It's the male reaction that's especially interesting... it's the same reaction many men have to female comedians... it takes a certain male personality type to appreciate them. What's that characteristic? I'm hypothesizing it's a low desire to play the protector role. 

When considering this issue, one of the questions I asked via Facebook and IRL friends was:

Take any hetero couple with children. Give them thirty seconds to make the following choice: Either they choose one member of the couple to die OR both members and the children will die. How often will the male be chosen to die and how often will the female to be chosen to die versus how many will chose for all to die?
Predictably, men, across the board, said they would die. Women, with only one exception, answered along the lines of "of course I'd die for my children." Good answer, but that wasn't the question. I was asking if they would volunteer themselves to die instead of their male significant other. Only one woman was willing to take the bullet first. 

So maybe that's the key to that protection drive... it's conditional. If we live in a chaotic environment we perceive as dangerous, we see more protective behaviors. As conditions improve or women become more capable of protecting themselves and we perceive greater safety, that protective drive disappears. That could explain why we see greater gender equality as socioeconomic status increases... people feel safer when they're not dirt poor. That could explain why "warrior societies" where women could fight alongside men enjoyed more gender equality. 

If this hypothesis is correct, achieving gender equality would be rather straightforward. Since there would be some sort of biological explanation for this drive, it's not something most of us can necessarily intellectualize away. We need to do two things:

  1. Support women's efforts to take care of themselves, especially in the physical realm. Naturally, I'd recommend mandatory mma training in schools. This would also include really embracing strong women. 
  2. Stop making our world seem like a scary place. We enjoy the safest world in the history of humanity, yet we continually try to convince ourselves we live in a scary world with danger around every corner. We fear terrorists, chemicals in our foods, tap water, global warming, ebola, vaccines... whatever. 
That's it. That's all it would take. Of course, many will dismiss the idea because it's ridiculously politically-incorrect. Sadly, that's the nature of our modern world - we're so worried about being offended we're intentionally blinding ourselves to honest self-assessment. But that's another post for another day.

It's a weird hypothesis. It's obviously controversial. Yet, nobody has given a better explanation for many of our seemingly illogical mate selection and relationship behaviors. What do you think? Leave a comment!

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