The Battle Over the Sexes: Catholic Perspectives on the Gender Debate
by Benjamin J. Vail
Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine. (“A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.”) – St. Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia
By now, most people have heard the common saying, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” popularized by the book by John Gray in the 1990s. That God created men and women with equal human dignity but distinct and complementary natures is a perennial teaching of the Catholic Church, but today’s society is becoming increasingly untethered from this eternal truth, leading to great confusion over the relationship between the sexes and a misguided politics that threatens to undermine civilization. As Catholics, what should we know about this debate, and what resources are available to keep us grounded in reality? Are men and women really from different planets?
To answer these questions I want to focus on the provocative writings of Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade, a feminist sexologist who promotes radical gender equality at her influential blog “Sociological Images.” Her views are representative of a strand of gender theory that is widespread both in academia and popular culture. (As an aside, maybe I should mention that Prof. Wade and I were classmates in the sociology graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 2000s.)
Contrary to John Gray, in her popular and academic writing Prof. Wade advances the notion that “men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota”—in other words, sex differences are mostly a social construction and are not grounded in significant biological differentiation. This new metaphor has its origins in the work of Kathryn Dindia, a professor of communications, who has written:
Men and women are not from different planets or different cultures, and they do not speak different languages. Men and women are from the same planet, the same culture; they communicate by using the same language. Indeed, the empirical research indicates that the average man is not that much different from the average woman. For many communicative, social psychological, and psychological variables, sex differences are small, and approximately 85% of men and women overlap in their scores on these variables. Men are not from Mars, women are not from Venus. The metaphor that more accurately represents the differences between men and women is that men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.
Competing visions of human nature
What is the implication of this notion, which I will call “the Dakotas metaphor”? Simply put, the implication is that if men and women are basically the same, there is no justification for any sex-based differentiation in society. In other words, men and women should be treated perfectly equally. This raises the question: are men and women really so indistinguishable?