Thursday, May 05, 2005


Officials at a school in Michigan are scrambling to contain the damage done by a student who distributed what were described as "racially innappropriate" fliers to fellow students, according to WJRT-TV. The 17-year-old says he had been harassed for months by students who referred to him with such hateful and offensive terms as "hick" and "redneck," but school officials refused to intervene or insist on sensitivity training for the entire student body.

So the student handed out a flier inviting his fellow students to attend a meeting at a local park to "take back the Creek" (sort of like Take Back the Night? – ed) and "keep outsiders away from our town and support our way of life."

The flier was described as an act of racial intimidation that carried an "inherent threat" of violence. A subsequent search of his pickup truck turned up a hunting knife and a box cutter the kid used at work, so he was permanently suspended and will not be allowed to graduate with his classmates.

School official now tell the Flint Journal that race had nothing to do with it, but the expulsion stands. "It was a poor choice of words, and on the surface, it sounded racist. It's easy to understand why it was interpreted that way," said superintendent Roy Pearson. "But after spending a very long time talking to this boy and listening to what he had to say in his own defense, we no longer believe this had anything to do with race."



That men and women are different is an accepted tenet of popular culture- indeed, the success of everything from reality television shows to self-help books relies on the notion that la difference is a fact that yields happy, challenging, and occasionally comic results in the course of everyday life. The acknowledgment of difference has also provided fuel for many a political fire. One of the phrases often chanted during the previous century's battle for women's suffrage was, "For the safety of the Nation to the Women Give the Vote / For the Hand that Rocks the Cradle Will Never Rock the Boat."

Yet amble any great distance along the path of sex differences, and you will soon find yourself with Harvard President Larry Summers, tripping painfully on the gnarled and dangerous roots buried there. Summers's provocative comments about sex differences at an academic conference prompted Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nancy Hopkins to walk out of the room in protest. Hopkins, who now moonlights as the Ivy League's self-appointed, publicity-seeking gender warden, several years ago spawned a similar media tempest by claiming, on paltry evidence, that women at MIT were the victims of institution-wide discrimination. Posturing provosts nationwide reacted with predictable alacrity, setting up panels and convening commissions at their own universities to root out this new but amorphous enemy: "unintentional" discrimination against women. Summers's crime, in this context, was to have the temerity to state what science has long known about men and women, and to do so without worrying about offending the missish sensibilities of some female academics.

It is, in this clime, a great relief to discover Steven E. Rhoads's Taking Sex Differences Seriously, an intrepid book that does much to advance the debate about why men and women are the way they are. A professor of public policy at the University of Virginia who has written previous books about economics and comparable worth legislation, Rhoads brings common sense and astute critical judgment to the difficult task of explaining sex differences. He begins with the word "sex" itself, noting, "When discussing the lives of men and women, we now use the term gender far more often than sex." This, he argues, "reflects the assumption that any distinctions between the sexes' traits, values, interests, skills and behaviors arise from societies' rigid gender roles, which channel people's thoughts and actions in stereotypical directions."

But this assumption is incorrect. Drawing on extensive scholarly research in history, biology, sociology, child development, psychology, and economics, Rhoads examines a range of evidence about the biological basis of sex differences and in an appropriately dispassionate tone notes the intractability of certain facts: Men's and women's brains are structured differently, for example, and even from the earliest moments of a child's life, the effects of these differences are impossible to ignore. "One-week-old baby girls can distinguish an infant's cry from other noise; boys usually cannot," Rhoads writes. "Three-day- old girls maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys," and boys "are more interested than girls in three-dimensional geometric forms and in blinking lights" at five months of age. Children understand these differences intuitively, as anyone who has glanced at a kindergarten playground, where young boys and girls self-segregate by sex, can attest.

But sex differences have an impact on far more than our individual impulses. If you're wondering what is at the heart of our so-called culture wars, Rhoads offers an intriguing answer: cherchez la femme. The culture wars, so called, are really about women and their choices, and he adds an intriguing twist to the question of why: there are actually two kinds of women, he argues, "a majority who are traditionally feminine and others who are more like men than their sisters are." The latter include women who have been exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero, and throughout life exhibit more male qualities than other females. These "high-testosterone women are more assertive, more career-oriented, and more likely to have high-status and traditionally male-dominated careers," he writes.

Although Rhoads does not posit a direct link between high levels of testosterone and a feminist worldview, he suggests that it might be one source of the tension between feminist and traditional women. Indeed, Rhoads's book poses significant challenges to mainstream feminism, whose devotees continue to impart a feverish urgency to the denial of sex differences. So tendentious is mention of sex differences among feminists that even stating an indisputable scientific fact can get you into trouble. A few years ago, he recounts, when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine planned an educational ad campaign with messages such as "Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children," the National Organization for Women denounced the group's "scare tactics" and "negative message" and pressured them to withdraw the advertisements. That feminists are loath to admit even this stark biological fact speaks to their determination to deny sex differences. But as Rhoads's evidence suggests, and as critics of feminism have often noted, Mother Nature is not a feminist.

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