Male and Female

Alex Comfort

  • Sex and Fantasy: Patterns of Male and Female Development by Robert May
    Norton, 226 pp, £7.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 393 01316 2

‘One theme of this book is that there are significant psychological differences between the sexes.’ The trouble is that from where we are standing the task of distinguishing differences which are or might be programmed, differences due to learning, and differences which are not differences but stereotypes is not operationally feasible. Dr May does not attempt it. He is probably right. As a clinical psychologist, he is concerned with feelings and attitudes, and a feeling or attitude which was not overdetermined by any or all of the possible sources of difference would exist on paper, like an ideal gas, not in the head of a man or a woman.

One limit, however, is physical. Men and women do differ on the average in muscle mass. Men cannot bear or (with rare exceptions in endocrine disorders) suckle children, and their genitalia are complementary rather than identical. For these reasons, their body image and life experiences in important areas have to differ. Subtler differences – in response to hormone cycles, for example – are probably real, but are very difficult to document because of extreme individual variation. This is a common finding with old primate restes in humans: they persist, but have yielded most of their original importance to the learned and the social override.

Clues to real physical differences can be got from intersexual and sex-reassigned subjects and from endocrinology, but their importance is technical: it would be useful to know about them for special purposes, but their importance for any attempts to generate fair and decent relations between the sexes is probably minimal. Sex in humans has expanded into something far more comprehensive and amorphous than mere reproductive division of labour.

May’s approach to this material is basically sound: that humanness is approached through maleness and femaleness, that although we are either male or female physically, we are all both in terms of the ‘soft’ definitions of those terms – and may express the balance of a physical enactment of either or both roles in ‘sex’ – and that the mix is complicated, more complicated than a points scale. His title is therefore well-chosen: fantasy is what the book is about. Animus and anima, man-in-woman and woman-in-man, are not homunculi but preconceptive fantasies which probably differ grossly from culture to culture. May seems to have set out to ask himself or his patients: ‘What do “male” and “female” mean operationally to individuals?’ In other words, he is facing the same situation he would have faced had he asked Frenchmen or Black Americans: ‘What does being French, or being Black, mean to you?’ And he gets very much the expected result: there are some free-floating consensuses about maleness, femaleness, Frenchness or Blackness, plus a great many pressures to adopt roles and large differences in personal interpretation.

Most of the time, however, he is cutting his way through a jungle of his own making: projective tests, which actually introduce a whole rack of factors other than gender-fantasy, blandly ignored in scoring the interpretations; myths (he arbitrarily picks Phaethon and Demeter as anchors – why not Heracles and Proserpine, or Theseus and Ariadne?); and a vast amount of sincere, well-meaning psychobabble. ‘Man [when masturbating] can shift back and forth from being the containing hand to being the contained penis’ – say again? He is very short on, and uneasy with, biology. At the same time, he has genuine perception of people’s ways of seeing which surfaces from time to time when it is not swallowed up in thesis material. On the vision of the androgyne, at least in its neo-feminist form, he has some wise things to say: but the subject is a bigger one than appears in this treatment, and a far more basic preoccupation of mankind than any simple equalitarianism, as exposure to comparative anthropology or to oceanic religious traditions would show him.

The use of the book is in making the growing army of counsellors, who take the place in America of a normating and supportive culture, a little more sensitive to all the unbiddables for which gender is a mask. This undertaking, however, needs a slightly more hard-nosed start, which could take this form: since humans come anatomically in two models, and have (if the parents stay around long enough) one parental example of each model, individuals build up a gender package from characters they admire, reject or envy, and label it by reference to one or other model. They then set about – with constant interference from the public stereotypes of society – enacting the fantasy package and laying it on others. Having or not having oestrogen cycles, siring and bearing, laying and being laid, are rarely the limiting factors in this piece of psychodrama: where these physical constraints do not fit the prospectus they are simply put into a watertight compartment. May does, in fact, make this conclusion implicitly, but it could be put more simply. He has the academic weakness of taking seriously what others have written and going on about it. His main defect is a non-recognition of the enormous variations in people’s attitudes: that everyone’s inner perception of gender is in some regard unique. His main pluses are a civilised attitude to people and to dangerously intoxicant enthusiasms of all kinds, and a genuine interest in what makes people tick. He is the kind of scholar who would do infinitely better without a library, being more sensible than his sources. Meanwhile, a biology of sexual differences will probably grow up slowly and practically in contexts where it creates no controversy. The stridency of barroom sociobiology (usually male-chauvinist) and gender militancy (usually – and often quite justifiably – feminist) will tone down as time abolishes old nonsenses, and the therapist will have the job of furthering the ideal state: a warm and secure appreciation of both human physical options, and the unlimited range of role and living options which attend them both in complementarity.