Most people assume that men, in general, are more aggressive than women, and that women, in general, are more emotional. In fact, the genders do not differ with regard to their natural tendencies in these areas. You heard me right. These are not true gender differences.
It is true that testosterone when injected in animals, immediately makes them more aggressive. This experiment, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done with humans because of ethical and legal issues. But my guess is the results would be the same.
It is also true that men have far more testosterone in their bodies than women do. So logic says that men should be more aggressive, and they are, physically, but not when you consider other types of aggression. More on that in a moment.
In the 1970’s, researchers attempted to prove the testosterone/aggression link in humans by looking for a correlation between testosterone levels and violent crime. They compared the levels of this hormone in violent criminals in prison with those of non-violent criminals, i.e., those who committed “white-collar” crimes such as embezzling or insurance fraud. Sure enough, the violent criminals had more testosterone in their bloodstream. There was just one wee little problem with this study. It couldn’t be replicated. Several attempts to repeat the study did not get the same results. Some studies found no differences. Several found that the violent criminals actually had lower levels of testosterone than the nonviolent ones.
Here’s another piece of confusing data. If one just considers physical aggression, elementary-school-aged boys are more aggressive than girls. But guess what? They don’t have all that much testosterone in their systems yet. This hormone is not released in any great quantity until the onset of puberty.
There are several kinds of aggression. But first let me define aggression. It is the act of invading another person’s territory, physical or emotional, or of violating their rights. So here are the different types:
Instrumental aggression: the goal is to get something the person wants or avoid something they don’t want. Examples would be a child grabbing another kid’s toy because they want to play with it, someone intentionally butting in front of you in line, or the little brats above fighting over a bunch of grapes.
Reactive aggression: the person responds to something they perceive as a hostile act with their own aggression. One kid pushes in front of another in line (instrumental aggression); the other kid hits him (reactive aggression).
Unprovoked aggression: intentionally hurting someone, physically or emotionally, because the act of inflicting pain is pleasurable or rewarding for the aggressor. This ranges from the schoolyard bully to the sadistic rapist or serial killer.
And here is the one that levels the playing field gender-wise. Drum roll, please.
Relational aggression: using ostracization, spreading rumors, withdrawal of friendship, etc. to punish, manipulate or otherwise intentionally harm others’ social standing.
Studies that only look at physical aggression–be it instrumental, reactive or unprovoked–will most definitely find that boys and men, as a group, exhibit more. But when you include relational aggression, the gender difference disappears.
So despite the whole testosterone issue, level of aggression does not seem to be a true gender difference. What is different is the way girls and boys are socialized
to express aggression. “Boys will be boys” while girls are admonished to “play nicely.” So the girls quickly learn to use other tactics to express their aggression.
Now, think about the men whom you know personally. How many of them are truly aggressive, physically, verbally or relationally? Probably just a few. Most men are as uncomfortable with anger and conflict as women are. Fighting is not fun, bottom line.
Now think about the women you know. How many of them are spiteful, or at least rather snarky when gossiping about someone they don’t like. You probably know about as many spiteful women as you know truly aggressive, ready-to-pick-a-fight men. Maybe more.
As an author, I struggle with making the emotional reactions of my characters realistic and also believable. But aren’t these the same thing? No, because people believe that women are more emotional than men. While realistically, they actually feel the same emotions, at the same level of intensity, as women. They are just socialized not to express them!
Yup, you heard me right. Studies that tease apart how men and women actually feel from what they are willing to express find that the feelings are the same. One particularly good study asked both men and women to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist in hypothetical situations. They were given several scenarios to read and then asked to identify what emotion they would feel if they themselves were in such a scenario, and then to rate the intensity of that feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. After they had done that with all the scenarios, they were asked to go back and describe how they would express those feelings.
Both the men and women identified the same emotions. The anger-provoking scenarios provoked anger; the sad scenarios, sadness; the scary ones, fear; and the you-screwed-up ones, guilt.
The more surprising finding, however, was that there was no significant difference between the genders in the intensity of the feelings!
But, boy, did the differences start to show up when it came to expressing those feelings. That’s where the learned gender roles came into play. These are called display rules–which emotions each gender is or is not allowed to express in any given culture.
When I talk about gender differences with my developmental psychology students, I ask the question, “What emotions are women allowed to express in our society?” They list every emotion out there, except anger. Okay, they might say things like “annoyance” or “frustration,” the milder forms of anger.
Then I ask, “Guys, what emotions are you allowed to express?” There is a long silence, and then one of the male students will say, “Anger.”
“None of the others?” I ask. They think about it for a minute or two, then the guys all shake their heads.
“What?” I say. “You haven’t heard that women like a sensitive guy? Isn’t it okay for you to cry now?”
At this point, the room usually erupts into a lively discussion. The guys cite examples of times when they’ve let their softer sides show to girlfriends, and it didn’t go all that well. Unless she was a platonic friend. Then it was okay, but not with romantic partners.
And some of the gals will admit that it unnerves them when their guys cry. That they might feel empathy for him at the time, but there is a subtle loss of respect. But more and more, in recent times, the female students tell me that they are more assertive, more comfortable expressing anger. And yet the guys still can’t admit to being scared or sad.
In our society, gender roles for boys and men are actually more rigid than for females.
Are women still discriminated against in the workplace and a variety of other arenas? Sadly, yes, all too often. But when it comes to gender roles, we are much more accepting of females exhibiting more masculine roles than we are of males exhibiting more feminine ones. Think about the different implications of “tomboy” versus “sissy.” And girls and women have been wearing pants since World War II, but how often do you see a man in a dress?
While a female police officer or firefighter may still experience harassment by some of her male colleagues, society in general will admire her for choosing that profession. But that same society will look askance at a male interior decorator or hairdresser, or even a male nurse, and may very well question his sexual orientation.
So, times have changed regarding gender roles in our culture, but perhaps not as much as we pretend they’ve changed.
What are your thoughts on all this? What gender differences have you observed recently in how men and women express anger and other emotions?
(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
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