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When I saw Will Wilkinson assert that "men need women to be women and women need men to be men. And if you don't know what that means, or know and object to it, then life among the humans may turn out to be tough for you," I started waiting for the sparks to fly. How indefensible! Just to state the obvious, what about gay men? But I didn't want to get the ball rolling. Anyways, Julian and Amber gave Will the what-for, but then instead of issuing another controversial reply he chose to adopt a defiant tone and retreat:

Perhaps the claim is less mysterious if more specific. I'm saying that, in general, men prefer women who are more typically feminine and women prefer men who are more typically masculine. Yes. Wow.
Now that's a defensible -- indeed, true, indeed, rather banally true -- position. It's also, to my eye, non-trivially different from the original claim and, tragically, leaves us with nothing left to argue about except whether Will's first point really meant the same thing as his second post. But maybe someone wants to help get a rollicking debate going by adopting a strawman position on the other side of the debate, now that Will's abandonned the strawman version of his side. I see two main possibilities:
  • You could deny that "In general, men prefer women who are more typically feminine and women prefer men who are more typically masculine."
  • Alternatively, you could concede that this is true and yet deny that the observed regularity has any genetic basis whatsoever.
Any takers? I often here rumors of blank slaters who will be willing to take up option two, but I've never actually located any. The closest I've come are people who point out the impossibility of devising a method of unambiguously sorting each and every individual into the "male" and "female" categories (there are these rare cases of tri-chromosomal people and some people are born in varying stages of intersexedness) and then try to leverage this into a denial that "man" and "woman" are meaningful concepts. That's a kind of misunderstanding of the semantics of vagueness, however, and not a real denial of the underlying reality of the observed regularity and the fact that it has some (repeat: some) genetic basis.

A more promising approach than simply denying the claim might be to note that it has an air of tautology about it. Generally speaking, men value "femininity," but what is femininity but that which men find desirable. And vice-versa for masculinity. And of course men will try to cluster their behavior around patterns that they believe women will find attractive, turning that behavior into typical male behavior and therefore constitutive of masculinity. And vice-versa for femininity. So maybe there's something there. Personally, I'm just upset that Will doesn't have the balls to defend the original, stronger version of his claim: All men need women to be effeminate and all women need men to be macho. That's a bold, gutsy, aggressive claim and the ladies would love it. . . .

January 10, 2005 | Permalink


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» Man & woman from Gene Expression
Will Wilkinson on male & female, and a follow up, and Matt Yglesias' response (sort of). I've wasted enough time on this (a few semi-grammatical comments over at Will's blog), it seems that these arguments when involving people with college... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 10, 2005 7:54:01 PM

» Knocking Down Straw Women from The Bit Bucket
A few days back, Will offered the bold hypothesis that "Men need women to be women and women need men to be men. And if you don't know what that means, or know and object to it, then life among... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 11, 2005 12:36:11 AM

» Sociological Digression from Sebastian Holsclaw
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Tracked on Jan 11, 2005 2:12:30 AM

» The Sheep Are Still Scared from green gabbro
Blathering on about masculinity and femininity is like trying to draw a line between porn and erotica. It's fun 'cause you get to think about things that turn you on, but it's not exactly vital to free society. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 11, 2005 3:47:29 AM

» Gender and social psychology thoughts from Pub Sociology
I ran across a couple of interesting things online to which I thought I'd link as I thought they would probably attract the interest of some of you sociologists or sociologist-wanna-bes. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 11, 2005 12:49:18 PM


Most people do find mates, though. Does anybody really think that only perfect specimens of either sex marry and reproduce?

Posted by: janet | Jan 10, 2005 3:53:04 PM

For me it all comes down to what's considered feminine. Too often, it's all about a "nurturing spirit" which when parsed means taking care of men, having a strong domestic gene that compels us to cook and clean. Bah on that.

So that's my question. What constitutes femininity?

Posted by: Kathy | Jan 10, 2005 3:57:30 PM

And we all need gravity to pull and not push, but I don't see an impending crisis on that front either.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 10, 2005 4:02:16 PM

Maybe I can equivocate on 'men' and 'women' using each one time descriptively and one time outrageously normatively loaded, as in: "Men, qua men, demand feminine women..."

The first version was pretty clearly a generalization, anyway, sort of like "people eat meat." It's pragmatically clear that locating a person who doesn't eat meet doesn't really address the intended claim. I intended it as a banality. The surprising thing is that people do deny it.

Anyway, if you're questioning my masculinity, I demand satisfaction! I'll meet you at the Af-Am Civil War Memorial at midnight. And, I add, my beard is more luxuriant than your derivative version!

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Jan 10, 2005 4:02:45 PM

Ditto what Kathy said. And the same question for masculinity.

I guess if I did want to accept Matt's challenge to take on these assertions (which wasn't really on my to-do list for today), I'd point out that the definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" have been quite fluid over time, as has the relative emphasis on what traits are desirable in members of the opposite sex. So the argument might always be inherently true, because what's considered feminine or masculine over time changes to reflect what people are looking for/desiring.

Even the relative emphasis on certain secondary sex characteristics we can't imagine not being attached to "feminity" or "masculinity" changes over time; I mean, look at pictures of Elizabethan women: the corsets they wear are designed more for posture than clevage and basically flatten out their chests, but they wear these massive buttresses (not the correct term but, anyway) to emphasize their hips and make them look bigger. Not how we look at it today.

But I'd rather debate the difference between like and need. Sure, women may prefer "masculine" men, but that doesn't mean they need men to be masculine (and the opposite, too). I could probably cope with a less than "manly" guy were he sufficiently good in bed :)

Posted by: veruca | Jan 10, 2005 4:09:09 PM

Why should we accept this guy's word for anything of the kind - without links to sociological research on the subject?

And some better definition of terms also seems in order. Just what is the essence of "masculinity", apart from the level of a guy's testosterone? The way he dresses, body language, his choice of car and deodorant? The number of guns he owns?

I personally like men who do not confuse "masculinity" with aggressive, in-your-face bad manners.

Posted by: Judy | Jan 10, 2005 4:12:30 PM

I don't know if I agree with Will or not but I really want to punch him in the nose.

Posted by: LowLife | Jan 10, 2005 4:13:11 PM

I'm disgusted by (as I'm sure a majority of people in our county are as well) the thought of grotesquely fat people having sex. If they want to get married or reproduce they shouldn't have the right. Because... uh... um... ew.


Posted by: The Hollywood Elitist | Jan 10, 2005 4:13:54 PM

ooops, I meant, ditto Kathy's question. I'm ambivalent about "Bah!"-ing on anything.

Posted by: veruca | Jan 10, 2005 4:14:01 PM

Shorter Wilkinson - I like unequal power relationships - especially in bed.

Posted by: peBird | Jan 10, 2005 4:20:32 PM

Most women prefer men who are "masculine" as they understand the term; most men prefer women who are "feminine" as they understand the term; OTOH, I don't see it as at all obvious that there is substantial agreement on the defining characteristics of what is desirably "masculine" or desirably "feminine"; and I think if you looked deeply into it you'd find that, to the extent that there is a vague consensus, it varies vary much by culture, and thus is likely only weakly genetically influenced if at all.

So, yeah, I'd disagree on both the grounds Matt suggests.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 10, 2005 4:21:43 PM

And, I add, my beard is more luxuriant than your derivative version!

Which brings up an interesting sidebar... typically, beards were signs of masculinity. In medieval times, if you didn't have a beard, it meant that you were an underage boy or a eunuch. Beards were, quite literally, the means from which one separated the boys from the men. However, the statement "Women prefer men with beards over the beardless" would be taken as laughable.

The problem is that one is making a tautological statement. "Women prefer men who are more masculine." Fine. What's more masculine? The answer inevitably becomes, "The traits that women generally prefer in men during/in that era/place." Well, no kidding.

Posted by: Constantine | Jan 10, 2005 4:24:16 PM

Most men prefer the kind of women that the majority of men prefer, and vice versa.

Posted by: Realish | Jan 10, 2005 4:25:19 PM

I prefer my German Shepherds.

1. I find it more difficult to define "masculine & feminine" as clearly as Will does. The beards don't even help (had mine since 78; not psuedo-beards like Yglesias and Wilkinson, but something a Civil War veteran would recognize)....example Harvey Fierstein. I guess.

2. Experience and brains have convinced me the the "traits" can express themselves in subtle or ironic ways, intentionally or not. Harvey Fierstein is quite aggressive, or assertive if you like. Short of surgery, hormones will out.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 10, 2005 4:28:55 PM

"And, I add, my beard is more luxuriant than your derivative version!"

So you're a closeted gay man, and your female faux-mate for social occasions is more luxuriant than some derivative version?

Consider me confused.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 10, 2005 4:31:31 PM

"I prefer my German Shepherds."

Please don't tell Santorum.

(God, this thread is like shooting fish in a barrel...)

Posted by: Petey | Jan 10, 2005 4:32:32 PM

Oh, please. A) Weasel words like "generally" and "typical" render the argument into tasteless mush, but even if they didn't, B) it takes just a wee bit of digging to reveal the set of characteristics labelled as "feminine" is as uselessly subjective, self-defined, and irreconcilably self-contradictory as the set of characteristics labelled as "masculine."

Speaking as a guy who generally likes femme butches, there's two kinds of people in this world: those who think it's fine and dandy to divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who think this is a terribly sad and limited way to get through life. A mighty yawn to the senses-shattering power of received wisdom.

Posted by: Kip Manley | Jan 10, 2005 4:33:39 PM

T.H.E. forgets that ALL sex is disgusting, absent the viewer's arousal. Hence the "Homophobia is really sex-phobia" argument, which is not entirely without merit.

But what was Will's larger point? That Society needs gendered behaviour to be more pronounced? He'd like Kipling's "IF" to be mandatory reading for boys? No Fat chicks? Regretting our 20th century rejection of the bustle? What?

Posted by: Wrye | Jan 10, 2005 4:35:46 PM

Will's posts show that he is hot for June Cleaver. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But, he can't really pretend that everybody is hot for June Cleaver. It's idiosyncratic.

One interesting thing about marriage that tends to be underestimated with discussion of the biological origins of sexual desire is the importance of status for selecting a mate. People generally only marry people of about the same status level and common cultural background. Since the status variance at a specific college tends to be relatively low, the importance of status tends to be underestimated by people just out of college. It is also part of the reason people have an easy time hooking up in college. The admissions office has done some of the background checking for you.

The other thing about selecting a mate that tends to be underestimated is that, at the margin, it makes sense to trade off X units of some quality most people desire for Y units of something you idiosyncratically desire. "June Cleaverness" may be a bargian for Will.

Posted by: joe o | Jan 10, 2005 4:37:01 PM

Veruca: "But I'd rather debate the difference between like and need. Sure, women may prefer "masculine" men, but that doesn't mean they need men to be masculine (and the opposite, too). I could probably cope with a less than "manly" guy were he sufficiently good in bed :)"

That was kind of my point. Most people may lust after certain ideal types, but they're perfectly willing to and capable of loving, having sex with, and/or settling down with someone less "ideal." In fact, people who can't do that are probably pretty neurotic.

Posted by: janet | Jan 10, 2005 4:37:19 PM

Later, I will draw up a list on my blog of traits that I believe are widely considered masculine and feminine and argue that that these attributes are neither subjective nor objective in the vulgar sense, but response dependent.

Burt Reynolds is more masculine than Paul Reubens. Discuss.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Jan 10, 2005 4:40:26 PM

what is femininity but that which men find desirable

Well, it's also what men (and women, in an unthinking way) find weak and inferior... what's more insulting to men than being called feminine, in usually derogatory language? Even saying that an individual woman "has balls" is basically complimentary, if insulting to women in general in its implication that they're excluded from the ranks of the strong, but positive attributions of stereotypically feminine traits to men pretty much stop at "helpful" or "considerate", and even those generally only apply in the private sphere-- the province of femininity.

And the debate over what constitutes "manly" behavior could go on forever, anyway... I personally don't care for men who kill animals, watch tons of ESPN, engage in constant one-upsmanship, or vote Republican, all of which seem to be stereotypically masculine behaviors. OTOH, I do like them to be on the tall side, at least a bit muscular, have relatively low, pleasant voices... and their being able to fix things is handy, too, as long as they don't make an obsession of it or smell like solvents all the time . IMO, there's really very little that is necessary to delineate gender differences, and about ninety percent of the posturing in which both sexes engage is superfluous and probably harmful.

Posted by: latts | Jan 10, 2005 4:42:58 PM

Burt Reynolds is more masculine than Paul Reubens. Discuss.

Well, for a start & to make the discussion more interesting, we can note that Burt Reynolds seems to have had more plastic surgery & cosmetic enhancements than Paul Reubens.

Posted by: latts | Jan 10, 2005 4:48:06 PM

I once dated a woman who had everything a man could want: a deep voice, big muscles, and a mustache.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jan 10, 2005 4:52:14 PM

and I think if you looked deeply into it you'd find that, to the extent that there is a vague consensus, it varies vary much by culture, and thus is likely only weakly genetically influenced if at all.

I don't doubt that there is some variation from culture to culture, but I think people tend to overestimate this variance. Now my personal experience with world cultures is hardly encyclopedic but I've been immersed at one time or another in American, European, African and to a much lesser degree immigrant communities of the Hispanic and Chinese variety. And, at the end of the day they all seem to have the remarkably similar definitions of masculine and feminine. Masculine means tough, stoic, daring and physically potent. Whereas feminine means soft, sensual, nurturing and sedictive. The whole madonna/whore shtick.

In my experience, the biggest variation in concepts of masculine and feminine have to do with physical (rather than personality) traits. Would it be lowering the level of discourse to introduce Sir Mix Alot into this discussion?

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jan 10, 2005 4:53:11 PM

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