The old trope — men are from Mars and women are from Venus — is woefully limiting to discussing gender and relationships. It reinforces the concept that gender is black and white, that one’s sex is the same as one’s gender, and that just because you identify with a certain gender or society identifies you with a certain gender, you automatically ascribe to a preordained set of preferences.
Yet that old trope still gets a lot of mileage, despite the fact that society is slowly moving toward a more progressive take on issues of same-sex marriage and equal gender rights, and becoming more accepting of non-traditional lifestyles and gender roles. While progress has been made, it is not completely dismantled. The male/female binary still (largely) guides how our society works.
For example, a survey conducted by Gallup in May of this year found that “perhaps not surprisingly, men and women have different views on the moral acceptability of certain issues related to sex and relationships.” In particular, men approve of watching pornography and having affairs in far greater shares the women, while women are far more accepting of divorce and having children out of wedlock. But more interestingly, the data shows “the differences between men and women are mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind.”
Gallup’s survey is worthy of examination for several reasons: First, it shines a light on how American society is growing more progressive. Second, it indicates that views on major societal issues are no longer as divided along gender lines. But the final reason to think critically about Gallup’s findings is arguably the most important; when looking at any data group, it is important to determine what peculiarities are in the questions asked and how the individuals surveyed might have guided the results.
In this case, as with many straightforward polls of a similar style, the results gloss over intricacies that make up gender identity by ignoring transgender Americans, gender fluidity, and the fact that opinions on marriage and sexuality are not as linked to gender as the poll would like to assume. This is not to say that gender does not play a role in a person’s belief system, but that opinions on these issues are informed not only by that one factor; education and religion, among other determinants, also guide the formation of opinions.
Of course, given that Gallup’s survey depends only on short telephone discussions, the research firm does not really have the ability to unpack all these complexities.
Research conducted by Terri D. Conley, Amy C. Moors, Jes L. Matsick, Ali Ziegler, and Brandon A. Valentine of the University of Michigan does not answer any questions on the influence of religion and education, but it does show that gender differences are largely created by societal norms, and it serves as a nice foil to Gallup’s data. Furthermore, this speed dating study does quite a bit to deconstruct the male/female binary. The authors noted a total of six commonly made claims that are not entirely accurate, but for the sake of brevity, we will focus on three that relate most closely to our topic of discussion.
First, the study deconstructs the idea that woman look for status when choosing a partner and men put the greatest value on physical attractiveness. It is true that men and women do express different priorities when hypothetically discussing potential partners. However, Conley and her colleagues observed that was not the case when men and women were actually presented with partners.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, when the object of one’s potential affection shifted from ideal to actual, gender differences in preferred qualities of partners disappeared. Specifically, attractiveness and status were found to be equally important to men and women when considering actual dating partners (both in initial speed-dating encounters and a month after those encounters) across a variety of dependent measures (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008).
It is also a commonly held belief that men tend to have more sexual partners than women. And again, the observations of Conley and her colleagues revealed there is a difference between how many partners men and women say they have and the actual number. To test this, the researchers hooked both male and female participants to a fake polygraph, which the subjects believed was real. “When participants believed that their true sexual history could be revealed by the polygraph, gender differences in reported sexual partners disappeared,” the researchers noticed, meaning in actual practice both men and women lift or lower, respectively, their actual numbers to conform with social expectations.
Finally, there is the question of whether it is true that men are more interested in casual sexual relationships and women tend to want love and commitment. To answer this, Conley and her colleagues looked to a famous 1989 study, in which men and women were asked to solicit members of the opposite sex. Not one women said yes, while 70% of men agreed to the proposition. Now, this huge gap seems to support the assumption that men are far more willing to engage in casual sex than women. However, that’s not the whole story. The researchers postulated that this difference arose from complicated gender norms, including the stigma associated with women engaging in casual sex.
Of course, this research is far from all encompassing, nor could it be expected to cover all issues of gender identity and beliefs in the United States, but it does do much to tear down the “men are from Mars and women are from Venus trope.” As Conley and her colleagues noted in the conclusion:
Popular perceptions within psychology and among the greater public are that gender differences in sexuality are immutable and largely unaffected by the proximal social environment. We suggest that these conclusions are premature; in fact, gender differences can often be directly linked to forceswithin our current social world.