Sexuality has become highly politicized in the last decade. It has become popular to think of gender not as “binary” but as “a spectrum” with as many as 50 or more genders, each fading into the next. In some academic and social justice circles the word “binary” has become synonymous with what is limiting, obnoxiously simple, old-fashioned and dismissed with an eye roll. Ironically (I am not the first to point out) this occurs at the same time as the utter ascendency of technology that is entirely based on a binary system of 0s and 1s.
It appears that at least in the tech world a binary system has been extremely successful, some might say only rivaled in its success by human fertility itself. That fact alone suggests that whatever spectrum we feel we need to express sexuality in these times, the binary notion should not be thrown out altogether. Perhaps there is an alternative way of thinking that would be useful here. If we think of sexuality in terms of two hemispheres it would protect the binary aspect as well as account for idiosyncrasies and exceptions to the rules that so trouble the modern soul.
Just like the earth has two hemispheres, two poles and an equator, in this metaphor a person is either north or south of that equator based on their genitalia and chromosomes. And each person by nature, nurture and circumstances is either further away from or closer to the poles, inclined to the outer extremes of femininity or masculinity, or toward the equator and thus more like the other sex. And when men and women interact, they either have more or less metaphorical “ground” to cover to “meet,” based on each person’s unique characteristics.
Though there are people at all the places on the globe of human sexuality, there are fewer at the poles or near the equator; just as the greater population of the earth lives in the temperate zones, the great majority of the population are in the “temperate zones” of sexuality: neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine. And so, there are many women and men who have roughly the same “climate” when it comes to temperament (for example, a tendency to aggression or compassion) though they live in their own separate hemisphere. So, Buenos Aires is similar in climate to San Francisco though they are quite far apart, in fact on their own side of the equator.
A woman is coming from a set of circumstances that is different from a man’s. She is coming from the land of estrogen: ticking biological clocks, menstruation, possible or actual childbirth and hormonal realities that prime her for nurturing whether she is interested in having children or not, and even if these biological facts are not very helpful in her day job. These simple biological realities are morally neutral and both have advantages and disadvantages for women and the men in their lives.
Women are more agreeable than men and more sensitive both physically and emotionally in ways that would make an infant in a woman’s care more likely to survive. She is “coming from” sensitivity to cold, heat and threat so that she can be a voice for a tiny infant, and that is even so when she has never had a baby, and perhaps does not want to. She is coming from a tendency to gain weight for the sake of babies, and menstrual cramps, morning sickness, stretchmarks and hot flashes. As well, she has been formed by negative social expectations such as always seeming nice and attractive, but also more advantageous ones such as the unfounded assumption that she is incapable of committing most crimes, unlikely to lie (ever, especially about sex) and basically altruistic or at least well-meaning most of the time.
Men on the other hand are coming from a place of testosterone and all that it promotes: aggression and competition, risk taking, line crossing and, according to the data early death, all quite against his will. If he has less testosterone than others, he faces the fears that he won’t measure up to other men. He faces the expectations that he will be the one to do the dangerous things, that he will be strong and unflappable by stress, that he will fix everything including his wife’s emotions. He will be expected to read women’s minds and never pursue a woman whom he doesn’t already know is interested in him; he will be held ultimately responsible for his partner’s unhappiness or even her misbehavior. He faces fewer reproductive rights and, in the U.S., the possibility of the draft and the unfounded suspicion that if there was a crime he probably did it.
And so, sexual difference means being from someplace and not from another. If you lived your entire life in southern California and you tell someone you are from Brazil you mislead them to think you have had experiences you haven’t had.
Both sexes come from the positives and negatives of their sex. Both sexes find nature quite indifferent to their individual feelings and sufferings, subordinating each of us to her will. Men and women come at their individual struggles with a set of strengths and weaknesses assigned by their biological sex which are primarily aligned toward the survival of the species— not their individual thriving per se, but their individual thriving insofar as they pass on their personal genes. Beyond that, to something like a career or financial success, nature is indifferent.
It is true that the hemispheres of the Earth are not real but simply “human constructs.” But this notion is also an undeniably useful designation that only gives a name to what is apparent to everyone. One can insist that there are not two genders but a plethora. But just because there are an infinite number of points of latitude and longitude on a sphere does not negate the existence of the hemispheres altogether.
A person’s position on the globe of sexuality can slide toward the pole or the equator throughout life but their chromosomes don’t change.
Our life circumstances call out for more temperate or more extreme versions of ourselves to tackle what is put before us. With the birth of a baby we may be amazed to see a new sort of tenderness emerge; conversely, when a crisis erupts and we are suddenly capable of shocking and sudden aggression. Our places on the hemisphere move, but never past that equator line. Different people are better than others at sliding back toward the more temperate zones when, say, reentering civilian life after war, or even on a daily basis after coming home from a high stress job as a police officer. Soldiers returning from war and stay-at-home moms going back to work both sometimes need therapeutic help to adjust to the changes.
But how do we describe what is masculine or feminine? What is north and what is south? Men and women have more in common than not, but it’s clear that women are more interested in people and relationships and men more interested in things and systems. Dr. Simon Baron Cohen discovered one day old male infants – that is, before any social conditioning would have been likely – “showed a stronger interest in the physical-mechanical … while the female infants showed a stronger interest in the face.”
This finding is confirmed in the choice of jobs women and men select. As they are freer to choose what sort of work they want, the differences between men and women widen instead of narrow. This is often called the Nordic Paradox because it is very pronounced in the Scandinavian countries where every effort has been made to liberate women from traditional roles.
Dr John Gray called his classic book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus presumably because he thought it wasn’t helpful for people to assume the other sex to be coming from the same place. I think of that as overstatement for the sake of illustration. I’d like to think that we aren’t from different planets, but that we can find common ground precisely because we are from the same planet, only different hemispheres.
Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Western Pennsylvania.