When Sex Differences Should Count


Male-Female sex differences are small. I recently asked a neurosurgeon if he could tell if he was operating on a male or female brain. He answered without hesitation: No. Male/female distinctions seen in a certain light seem slight. Because men and women are both human beings. But small differences can make a big difference in the male and female experience. In my last post, I featured Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, for giving some good reasons to highlight the differences. He presents findings efficiently of differences effecting risk-taking, aggression, addictions, physical intimacy and school. But this is only part of the story.


As I have counseled people about gender, I have found that highlighting sex differences is good. And it is also bad. I have tried to learn when they should count. Because enumerating sex differences can help and hurt.


Briefly, highlighting sex differences is:


  • Good if that awareness helps teachers to teach young students better. This is what Sax mainly is trying to show. For example, when shown different colors and asked to name them, girls respond faster and more accurately than boys. On the other hand, boys are significantly more accurate in targeting a moving target. Shouldn’t these facts inform grading on assignments?
  • Bad if the differences make a man feel that he is not a man or a woman feel like she is not a woman. As the stories in my books show, at certain moments in a person’s development, the suggestion that he or she doesn’t measure up as a man or woman will be deadly to maturing.
  • Good if, in a relationship, acknowledging the sex difference helps a couple understand each other. Recognizing that men and women experience lovemaking differently chemically, for instance, can do wonders for a marriage. As Sax points out, during sexual arousal, men show more neural activity in the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus (older parts of the brain). Women show more activity in the cerebral cortex.
  • Bad if the sex differences encourages pre-judging a person or denying a person needed opportunity. There is that very occasional lady firefighter. So long as she is prepared for the life an outlier, allowing in the fireroom can make beautiful things happen.
  • Good if, in a relationship, sex differences help us appreciate the wisdom found in the other. At this stage in my life, I have reached absolute certainty. I would be an idiot without the women in my life.
  • Bad if sex difference replaces in our heads the Biblical definition of gender. If we focus on less important concepts or if sex difference is made the cause of gender distinction, as is sometimes done in conservative circles, we flatten life. God’s image-bearing calls us to a deeper and richer expression of difference coming together and we lose out when we reduce our distinction to physical traits.
  • Good if appreciating sex differences helps a person understand herself or himself. For example, Sax notes how, among ages15-24, boys are ten times more likely to die in drowning accidents than girls (p32).  Human males are much more likely to die in thunderstorms than females (many of these are from flash floods on roads, p32). Same with monkeys. For boys, the danger itself often gives the activity a pleasant tingle. Realizing this can help a guy approach risk with understanding.


One could enumerate more of these benefits and problems, of which it is important to be aware. God made us “male and female” (Gen 1:27) and yet there are times when “there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28).


Knowing when each is true is wisdom.



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