Old-Fashioned Girls

Wendy Steiner

  • Brain Sex: The Real Difference between Men and Women by Anne Moir and David Jessel
    Joseph, 228 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7181 2884 2

This must be the first popular attempt in decades to prove that the sexes are inherently unequal. According to the authors of Brain Sex, the male and female brains are differently structured because of the pre-natal activity of genes and hormones, and these produce ‘the real difference’ between men and women. The traditional view of the genders is thus a valid reflection of nature, and all the liberationist adjustments in nurture since the Sixties have done nothing to change matters. ‘To maintain that [men and women] are the same in aptitude, skill or behaviour is to build a society based on a biological and scientific lie.’

Moir and Jessel claim that infants come into the world ‘with their minds made up’ through gender. In the womb, the sexual organs douse the embryo with hormones, which, in the case of a boy, transform the basically female neural template into a male brain: strong in visual-spatial ability, highly compartmentalised, possessing a thinner corpus callosum and hence fewer connections between the left and right halves of the brain. The average female brain has particularly focused verbal centres in both halves, but other skills are diffused; a thicker corpus callosum and the distribution of skill centres allows for more extensive connection among the various mental functions.

As a result of their neural structuring, men have an inborn advantage in mathematics, physics, abstract thinking, and all sports requiring hand-eye coordination. Compartmentalising their various mental states, they have difficulty expressing (right-brain) emotion in (left-brain) language. Most comfortable in object relations and naturally aggressive, men are promiscuous, competitive, and less emotional than women. Women’s linguistic acuity, sensory receptivity, and the extensive interconnection among their brain functions allow them to synthesise more information than men – the famous ‘women’s intuition’. They show an aptitude for all activities involving inter-personal relations (mothering, teaching, nursing). People-orientated, sensitive and emotional, they are generally monogamous, and sacrifice prestige and gain for social cohesion.

The hormonal washing in the womb is not a one-off event, but a repeated process in which the physically-sexed body parts, the appropriate brain structure, and the mechanisms of sexual arousal, are severally generated. If anything should go wrong with these sexual baptisms, the child will be ‘abnormally’ male or female. If a mother takes female hormones through part of the pregnancy, for example, her boy child may look physically male and have a masculine range of abilities and mental traits, but be attracted to men rather than women. If the female hormone interferes at a different point in pregnancy, the physically male child may act unaggressively and show other ‘feminine’ mental traits, as well as being attracted to men. Or he might look like a man, act like a ‘sissy’ and be attracted to women. It all depends on what phase of the hormonal action is disturbed.

Since male foetuses have to be acted upon by testosterone in order to develop male brains, whereas females, in order to develop female brains, only require not to come into contact with male hormones, there is more chance of error when it comes to men, and therefore male homosexuals outnumber lesbians four to one. The authors blame similar hormonal vicissitudes for transsexuals and transvestites and, less dramatically, for a whole range of socially-condoned sexual variation-high-achieving women, retiring men, the Margaret Thatchers and J. Alfred Prufrocks of the world.

Because of their neural dissimilarities, Moir and Jessel argue, the sexes have a difficult time relating to each other. They are initially attracted because of their bodily differences – her ample bosom and round hips, his broad shoulders and trim torso. But once the dust settles, their brains become the issue. ‘These alien species are thrown together by their biology – a biology which attracts them physically, yet, in so many other respects, is mutually antagonistic. No wonder being in love is so confusing.’ The pair end up in ‘bed, that battlefield of mutual misconception’, where his visual keenness and propensity for objectification lead him to keep the lights on and ignore her after climax, whereas her aurality and sensitivity call out for ‘pillow talk and gentle stroking’ in the dark, with a slow, shared coming down.

Men’s infidelity in marriage means little, for they are naturally promiscuous, whereas an unfaithful wife is a wife ready to break off her marriage. The ‘Coolidge Effect’ is the experts’ term for this contrast in sexual attitudes. On a Presidential visit to a farm, Mrs Coolidge asked her guide how many times the rooster copulated daily.

‘Dozens of times’ was the reply. ‘Please tell that to the President,’ Mrs Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the rooster, he asked: ‘Same hen every time?’ ‘Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time.’ The President nodded slowly, then said: ‘Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.’

When it comes to children, there is no comparison between the parenting skills of the sexes. Men are occasional playmates and teachers of their children, but women provide the continued interaction necessary for healthy growth and development. In the workplace, in contrast, men have the drive and emotional distance to succeed, whereas women are drawn to less aggressive, poorer-paying jobs where they seek approval and interpersonal contact. They are not made, in most cases, for high-achievement careers, and if they have families they feel enormous conflict rather than gratification from ‘having it all’. According to Moir and Jessel, the advances of the women’s liberation movement, a mere blip on the evolutionary graph, are doomed by biology.

Brain Sex will please many people – male chauvinist pigs, fundamentalists of all sorts, our mothers. But one audience will be fascinated by it: those women who grew up in the Sixties and proceeded to structure their lives on the assumption that they were the same, in all but obvious ways, as men. For this group, among whom I count myself, Brain Sex comes at first as a revelation, a confirmation of that faint, unfocused sense one has of playing the game by the wrong rules.

After the first rush of acceptance, however, one begins to worry. The authors work in television studios rather than laboratories (although Anne Moir earned a doctorate in genetics long ago), and Brain Sex reads like a pop-science best-seller – repetitive, simplistic, cute, with the odd blooper making it hard to trust the authors’ wilder flights. Does the larger number of connections between women’s left and right brains really allow them to express their feelings better than men? It is always problematic to generalise from extreme cases (though Moir and Jessel like to do so), but Shakespeare, Donne and Keats, for instance, seem somehow to have overcome the exiguousness of their male corpora callosa.

The most incriminating part of Brain Sex is a quiz designed to reveal how male or female one’s brain is. Both sexes answer the same questions, but men collect ten points for some answers and women 15. If a man and a woman were to supply the same answers – four a.’s, three b.’s and three c.’s – they would score, respectively, 40 and 60. The range for a normal male is 0 to 60 and for a female, 50 to 100. Thus, the woman would be normatively female simply by virtue of the fact that she was scored as a woman.

Still, the footnotes and bibliography of Brain Sex indicate a growing body of research about sexual difference, so that the book may be a crude statement of a case that science in due course will formulate more subtly. Could it be true that the abilities and propensities of the sexes are quite opposed: that it takes a man to read a map and a woman to read a character, that ‘men want sex, and women want relationships,’ and that ‘the failure’ of male-female ‘communication is one of the basic facts of life’? Are we necessarily, as Moir and Jessel maintain, a sexist species?

It is sobering to consider that the social structure which feminism has tried so hard to alter may in fact be the greatest achievement of the female sex. ‘The very fact that marriage is, for humans, the norm throughout the world – when, as we know, men are naturally disposed against the institution – represents a remarkable triumph of the female brain and will. It is a truly stunning victory for female power and control over the naturally promiscuous biology of the male. In starkly sexual, and evolutionary, terms, there is nothing in marriage for men.’ Is it possible that through some ghastly irony women’s lib has liberated men? The new woman who supports herself, raises children on her own or does not have them, and is available for sex with no strings attached, sounds suspiciously like a male fantasy come true. One does not have to be an old-fashioned girl to wonder cui prodest – who is the beneficiary of all this freedom, and who, in fact, is free?

We should not forget, however, that there are many reasons for women to reject the proposition that the sexes are identical. In the film of Henry James’s The Bostonians, Superman-star Christopher Reeves looks deeply into the eyes of the suffragette heroine and drawls, ‘Yo’re made for prah-vacy,’ and she is convinced. She opts for a world of personal value. The real-life case of Gertrude Stein was somewhat different. With only one examination left, she decided to leave for Europe without completing her medical degree. When a friend objected, ‘Gertrude, what about the cause of women?’ she answered: ‘You don’t know what it is to be bored.’ Acting on her need for stimulation and freedom, Stein was also affirming the personal.

The problem with both Brain Sex and the notion that the sexes are interchangeable is that each credits only one aspect of what it is to be female. For every indication that women need to exert a power ‘that creates relationships, binds families and builds societies’, there is evidence that they find such structures debilitating. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it:

Matrimonial devotion
Doesn’t seem to suit her notion,
Burial it brings!
Here’s a state of things!

There would have been no women’s liberation movement if biology exercised absolute control over the life of the mind.

It is not at all clear, moreover, what we should do with the ‘knowledge’ that comes from Brain Sex. The authors believe it will change our lives, that ‘men and women could live more happily, understand and love each other better, and organise the world to better effect, if we acknowledged our differences.’ These are brave words, but nothing in the book supports this optimism. The picture painted of the sexes is so starkly contrasting as to allow almost no common ground. ‘Before Propp we did not know what folk-tales had in common; after him, we cannot tell them apart,’ Levi-Strauss said of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk-Tale. If the sexualidentity theory made men and women all but indistinguishable, Brain Sex makes it hard to imagine they belong to the same species.

What would men and women say to each other in the throes of their new understanding?

She: I now know that you cannot help but see me as a sexual object, and so I shall proceed as Moir and Jessel suggest, ‘acknowledging, accomodating, and even trying to find some form of shared enjoyment in the fact’.

He: I understand that you crave communication in our relationship, and though I’m not much good at talking about how I feel – you gorgeous thing, you – I’ll make an effort.

I’d give the marriage about a month.

One cannot be a biological determinist and at the same time argue that ‘knowing how different we are could be the first step in becoming a little less alien from each other.’ Lucidity, as the century wears on, has lost its promise as a panacea. Besides, even at the height of existentialist heroism, lucidity made for teeth-gritting transcendence rather than a jolly family life.

Surely any explanation of sexual difference will have to account for the ideology of romantic love. With its origins in Medieval courtliness, romance is usually taken as the social and literary codification of gender difference – the extreme polarisation of the sexes in terms of appearance, symbolism and behaviour, and the attribution of overwhelming importance to love. Most expressions of traditional sex roles – from the wedding ceremony to Harlequin romances – rely on this set of values, but Brain Sex makes not the smallest gesture toward it. For Moir and Jessel, love is founded purely and simply on sexual attraction; marriage lasts because women provide men with ‘ “services” such as looking attractive, cooking and shopping’, whereas men – when they feel like it – provide women with affection, babies and a context in which to satisfy their need for inter-personal embroidering.

It is fitting, perhaps, that a theory purporting to scientific truth should ignore romantic love, but its failure even to mention this ideology – instigated by men, continuously propagated in art since the Middle Ages, providing the Western idea of personal value – is striking. The omission sharpens the division between biology and culture which Brain Sex sets out to overcome, and leaves us with an unreliable synthesis of scientific research with no apparent application to social problems.

The sexes have gone through a violent upheaval in this century, signalled by the rampant gender confusion in modernist literature. Sam Spade’s ‘You’re a good man, sister’ in The Maltese Falcon expresses an ambivalence found as well in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the night or Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelihearts. A world of clear-cut sexual division without any hope of mutual understanding is a depressing prospect. As the possibilities for personal and social exploration open out for us in the Nineties, it would be sad to think that alien brain structures are all the sexes have to offer each other.