In a final attempt to rescue gender essentialism, some scholars claim that if a certain gender difference holds up cross-culturally—that is, across many different learning environments—we can more safely conclude that it is “natural” and “fixed.” But this conclusion is also too simple. For example, in chapter 27 (p. 469) of Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) Cynthia Neal Kimball cites (and seems to accept as accurate) cross-cultural studies showing that men “are more oriented toward promiscuity and finding a younger and attractive female partner” while women are “more concerned with finding older men who have attained financial resources and social status.” Although she does not reference any of the relevant research, the most-quoted study of this sort is a 37-nation survey of mate-selection standards by Texas psychologist David Buss.
But his study made no attempt to control for the differing opportunities that face women and men in many cultures. That powerful, older men marry gorgeous younger women more than the opposite scenario is certainly the case. But as New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier wryly observed, “If some women continue to worry that they need a man’s money because the playing field remains about as level as Mars [or Venus if you prefer] then we can’t conclude anything about innate preferences.”
More recently, social psychologists Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood did control for changing opportunities by sex. They took the 37 countries of Buss’ study and rank-ordered them according to two indices of gender equality devised by the United Nations Development Program. One is the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), which rates each nation on the degree to which its female citizens do not equal their male counterparts in life span, education, and basic income (which is still the case, though to varying degrees, in all nations). The other is the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which rates nations on the degree to which women, in comparison to men, have entered the public arena as local and national politicians, and as technicians, professionals and managers.
Using these two measures, they found that as gender equality in Buss’ 37-nation list increased, the tendency for either sex to choose mates according to Buss’ so-called evolutionary sex-selection criteria decreased. Eagly and Wood concluded from this that sex differences in mate-selection criteria are less the result of evolved biological strategies than of the historically-constructed sexual division of labor, which makes women dependent on men’s material wealth, and men dependent on women’s domestic skills. As this wall of separation breaks down—a process nicely traced by the two U.N. measures—both sexes revert to more generically human criteria to judge potential mates, criteria such as kindness, dependability and a pleasant personality.
Making Relationships the Unit of Analysis: How the Social Sciences Can Help: So far I have tried to show that the odds are not good for using social science research to define the content of gender complementarity—if by that we mean showing how men and women essentially, or even generally, differ for all times and places. Nor should that surprise us. A responsible reading of Scripture indicates that God has built a lot of flexibility into what we call gender—which is why I always prefer to talk about genderrelations rather than using the more static term gender roles.
As Richard Hess noted in his treatment of Genesis 1 (Ch. 3 of DBE) sex is something we share with other, lower creatures. But gender is a part of the cultural mandate. If we compare Genesis 1:20-22, with Genesis 1:26-28, we see that God first speaks to both animals and humans in exactly the same terms: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill [the seas, the earth].” What differs is that the primal human pair are given an additional mandate: to subdue the earth. What Christians have too often done instead, under the influence of Pagan and Greek thought and the doctrine of separate spheres is to assign men to subdue the earth while telling women to be fruitful and multiply.
Sexual dimorphism is indeed part of our creational framework, but gender is something to be responsibly structured and re-negotiated throughout the successive acts of the biblical drama—not a mystical, rigid, archetypal given.
In chapter 26 of DBE, Jack and Judith Balswick—a sociologist and a marriage and family therapist—have perceptively developed a relational approach to gender in the service of just and flourishing marriages. In such marriages, “The locus of authority is placed in the relationship, not in one spouse or the other,” and both independence and interdependence are crucial: “Without two separate identities, interdependence is not possible.”
At the other, hierarchicalist extreme, they note, “[t]he dilemma of unequal partnership is that husbands carry the burden of having to know everything and always be right, while wives pretend not to know or suppress what they know is right” (p. 461). In contrast, the Balswicks’ four marital relationship principles—covenant, grace, mutual empowerment, and intimacy—focus less on prescribed roles (which are seen to be flexible and negotiable throughout the family life cycle) and more on processes needed for the ongoing flourishing of couples and families. These include that “partners hold equal status; accommodation in the relationship is mutual; attention to the other in the relationship is mutual; and there is mutual well-being of the partners” (p. 454).
There is a wealth of research—both in industrialized and pre-industrial cultures—showing that the more nurturantly involved fathers are with their sons, the more secure those sons are in their gender identity(which is simply the sense of being happy and adequate as a male). At the same time, nurturantly-fathered sons are less likely to engage in stereotypical “hyper-masculine” behavior, such as antisocial aggression, the sexual exploitation of girls, or misogynist attitudes and actions.
Similar benefits accrue to nurturantly-fathered girls, who are more likely to show independent achievement and less likely to engage in premature sexual and reproductive activity.
Children of both sexes need to grow up with stable, nurturant, and appropriately-authoritative role-models of both sexes to help develop a secure gender identity. But strong co-parenting also allows growing children to relate to each other primarily as human beings, rather than as reduced, gender-role caricatures. Paradoxical as it may seem, those who are most concerned to display rigidly-stereotypical masculinity and femininity are apt to have the least secure gender identities.
Clearly this does not require that children’s role-models always and only be their biological parents. But it strongly suggests there are limits to the diversity of family forms we should encourage around a core norm of heterosexual, role-flexible co-parenting, as described by the Balswicks in their DBE chapter. As Genesis 1 reminds us, sex is indeed something that we share with the lower animals, and as such it is irrelevant to the image of God in humans.
At the same time, lifelong cooperation between the sexes is part and parcel—indeed the climax—of the Genesis 2 creation account, in a way that is not required of other animals: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Sociologist David Fraser significantly notes, “In this passage the couple is complete without children.” Thus heterosexual pair-bonding is not simply a convenient way to have children—although children are indeed part of God’s promised blessing in creation. It is based on the deeper creational truth that women and men are both created in the image of God, derive equal dignity and respect from that image, and are called to be God’s earthly regents—not separately, nor hierarchically, nor in competition with each other, but cooperatively.
This does not mean that all men and women must marry: the New Testament is very clear on the value of singleness. But it does suggest that attempts to form single-sex communities (or to impose a rigid doctrine of separate spheres within families and/or churches) as a way of avoiding the challenges of heterosexual cooperation and gender justice are something less than creationally normative, and will eventually be shown to be so by their results.