Gender-based differences

I’d better introduce this post by affirming my credentials as a liberal-minded individual.

For the record, then, I am reluctant to conclude that behavioural differences between men and women are innate. It’s too easy to assume that the traditional division of roles has a biological basis, and is therefore immutable.

I’m particularly sensitive to this criticism because, as a man, I may be accused of having a vested interest in the traditional, paternalistic norms. (In fact, all the jobs I’ve had were of the sort more traditionally associated with women: for an example, see my previous post, which discusses my experience as a caregiver.)

Now that I’ve got that out of the way (whew!), I can turn to the subject I really want to address.

This article, A tenth of early teens sexually active: study, in today’s Globe and Mail, summarizes a report from Statistics Canada. The main point of the article is, “More than a tenth of Canadian teenagers report having sex by the age of 15.” But the report also touches on the issue of gender-based differences with respect to sexual behaviour:

The report also found that girls who had a weak “self concept” were more likely than those with a stronger sense of self to have had sex by 14 or 15.

“The opposite was true for boys,” Statscan said.
Presumably this reflects what teenagers really want. Up to the age of 15, most teenaged girls prefer to keep their virginity. The self-confident ones say “No”, and make sure that boys take “No” for an answer. The ones who lack self-confidence end up yielding to the boy’s wishes, and having sex.

Most teenaged boys, on the other hand, are eager to lose their virginity even before age 15. The self-confident ones are more effective in persuading girls to have sex. The ones who lack self-confidence end up yielding to the girl’s wishes, and go without.

I suppose this information only confirms what we all remember from high school. But aren’t women — even young women — becoming as brash in their sexuality as men have always been?

Three thoughts:

(1) Perhaps we should draw a positive conclusion from the data: that young teenaged girls are exercising due caution. One biological fact will never change: sex is inherently more risky for the female than the male. Obviously this is true with respect to pregnancy, but it’s also true with respect to STDs.

(2) Sex may be less of a thrill for a young woman than it is for a young man. I suspect that the average 14-year-old boy doesn’t know what a clitoris is; or, if he knows what one is, he couldn’t find it; or if (by some miracle) he knows what one is and can find it, he won’t approach it with the necessary diplomacy.

Anecdotally, I understand that some men figure it out, years later. And some men never do.

(3) I’d like to think that the pattern changes as women age. Anecdotally, I understand that many women do not find themselves sexually until they approach age 40. Maybe, at that stage of life, women get to be the sexual aggressors some of the time.

More unwelcome news, from the same article:

Roughly three in 10 young people who had sex with multiple partners in the last year said they hadn’t used a condom during their last encounter.
One day, we’re going to get these things right. But apparently not in my lifetime.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. snaars
    May 03, 2005 @ 21:26:00

    Clira-what? Clear-ratose? Sounds like a decongestant. Anyway … (Forgive my strange sense of humor. Not so subtle as yours, Q.)

    I wonder what a “self-concept” is, and what is the correlation between it and the level of sexual activity. I’m assuming that the term “self-concept” is roughly what I think of as my sense of self-identity. This is a sense that I know who I am, my capabilities, and what my wants and desires are. The strength of my sense of identity is a measure of my confidence in my own understanding of myself.

    If this is the case, then could it be that in-so-far as an individual accepts the influences of family and society, the stronger will be his/her self-concept?

    Could there be a fallacy in the study, of the following sort: society teaches us that normal well-adjusted boys want sex. Therefore, perhaps indirectly, those same sorts of boys that vigorously pursue sexual activity are regarded as well-adjusted. They have opinions and talents that are accepted and valued by others. They have received society’s message loud and clear that well-adjusted boys can and should have sex, and because of all this they are perceived as having a “strong self-concept”?

    Those that may have a “weak” self-concept are those that do not readily accept the values they have been taught. They may not reject those values completely, but they question them. These people may have more difficulty defining themselves because society has not offered them an accepted or acceptable vocabulary with which to do so.

    On the other hand, in some cases a person might come to understand him- or her-self in reference to a position contraindicated by society, and this could lead to a very strong self-concept. But these kinds of people might be somewhat older, or there might just not be enough of them to influence the study.

    Reply

  2. Q
    May 04, 2005 @ 09:00:00

    You raise a good question — one which I can’t answer. I’ve sent an e-mail to one of the authors of the study asking, “Can you tell me how the study distinguished respondents with a weak self-concept from respondents with a strong one?”

    My own view corresponds to your last paragraph. Someone who is able to think critically about society’s values, and accept or reject them according to his or her inner lights, has a strong self-concept; someone who falls into lock-step with the values of others manifestly has a weak self-concept.

    But my view doesn’t matter. The question is, what criteria did Statscan use to distinguish between the two groups? (Presumably they didn’t just ask the respondents to self-identify.) I’ll let you know the answer when I receive it.
    Q

    Reply

  3. Q
    May 04, 2005 @ 10:27:00

    A very quick turn around on my question to Statscan:

    To measure self-concept, adolescent respondents were asked to reply
    to four statements on a five-point scale:

    false (score 0); mostly false (1); sometimes false/sometimes true (2); mostly true (3); and true (4):

    * In general, I like the way I am.
    * Overall, I have a lot to be proud of.
    * A lot of things about me are good.
    * When I do something, I do it well.

    Scores could range from 0 to 16, with higher scores indicating a strong self-concept. Scores of 10 or less (lowest decile of the weighted distribution) were defined as indicating a weak self-concept.

    Other than that bit about the “lowest decile” I think it’s self-explanatory. I’ll let everyone draw their own conclusions.
    Q

    Reply

  4. Jack's Shack
    May 05, 2005 @ 13:04:00

    For the record, then, I am reluctant to conclude that behavioural differences between men and women are innate.

    FWIW, in my experience as a father I have seen very clear distinctions in how boys and girls play and approach situations.

    I think that some behaviors are learned, but too many distinctions appear without any sort of clear indicator of societal influences.

    I could be wrong, but this is what I have seen.

    Reply

  5. Q
    May 05, 2005 @ 15:55:00

    Coincidentally, last weekend I listened to a radio program which discussed the issue. The participants mentioned a study which tried to exclude the influence of socialization by giving children’s toys to monkeys. The male monkeys chose cars and balls and the female monkeys chose dolls.

    The choice of stereotypically male toys may result from exposure to higher testosterone levels during fetal development.

    Of course, physiological factors and socialization are not mutually exclusive variables. As I understand it, most human behaviours result from a combination of nature and nurture. I assume it may also be true of gender-specific behaviours (though some may wish it were otherwise).

    Your comment distinguishes between behaviours (some are learned, others are innate). I think a given behaviour may be partly learned and partly innate. Perhaps you would agree with that way of presenting the matter.
    Q

    Reply

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