16 October 2006
When A Penis Becomes A Handicap
by Paul Aitken
Men are stronger than women. We're bigger, tougher and have more muscle mass. We're decisive and we lead naturally (usually while facing into the wind with a chiseled chin). So it may come as a surprise to learn that by practically every measure, save for physical prowess, men are, by some margin, the weaker sex. Perhaps I'm being a little disingenuous using the term "weaker." I use it because it's ironic. It confounds our expectations. For centuries women have been referred to as the weaker sex, but in a wider sense, the term is better applied to men. Let's start with the basics. Males lack a duplicate set of X chromosomes. As such they fall prey to any recessive disorder carried on the X chromosome including color blindness, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, Rett's syndrome and a couple of dozen others that you've never heard of. For reasons unknown, men are also more susceptible to birth defects, mental retardation and autism. And those are just the diseases latent when we're in the womb. After we're born it gets worse.
We're more susceptible to alcoholism, obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. We're more likely to suffer from a host of mental disorders including schizophrenia and manic-depression. While it's still men that scale the commanding heights of social success, it's also men that plumb its depths. Of those living on the streets, men outnumber women by a factor of 5. Although both men and women are buffeted by circumstances both inside and outside their control, men seem to have less resilience. Men are more likely to succumb to disease and stress and widowers are far more likely to die shortly after their spouse than widows.
In his excellent book Y: The Descent of Man, Steve Jones describes an ill-fated expedition of Mormons that got caught in an early winter in the Rockies. Ultimately, forty men died through starvation and exhaustion while only four women suffered such a fate. We men like to think we're as tough as steel but push us too far and we're as fragile as glass.
On average, women live eight years longer than men. While some of this discrepancy can be accounted for in the myriad failings listed above, most men don't have genetic defects, nor are most alcoholics or mentally ill. Most of us survive our reckless teenage years. What then explains this longevity gap? There's a thought that the defining male hormone, testosterone, may itself be to blame. Studies have shown that testosterone weakens our immune systems and accordingly leaves us susceptible to infectious disease and cancer.
But even given all the above, it doesn't change the fact that we guys still dominate affairs on this planet, right? That might be true now, but not for much longer, and this is a tough idea for men to get used to. For all our genuflection to the idea of gender equality, men accept dominion over women pretty much as a birthright. And for all of history (and likely most of pre-history), man's natural endowments of physical strength, coupled with the inclination to use it aggressively have allowed him to dominate the female gender.
But for some time now, at least in the developed world, physical strength has not been a primary determinant of power. We have laws that protect the weak. Violence is now the prerogative of the state, not the individual. Within the state we are all equal, at least in theory. That notion will never trickle down into the trenches of grade school, but it has seeped into all levels of adult society. Instead of warrior princes, it's spindly geeks who rule the world. As a natural corollary to the forces of economic and technical change, masculinity is being progressively devalued. Tasks requiring strength and endurance are being done by machines or shunted to the third world. Wage labor is less physical and increasingly mental and in many ways better served by the innate skills of women.
Whether the sexes are born intellectually equal depends on what your frame of reference is. What is clear is that we are not born the same. Evolutionary logic requires this. We have different reproductive agendas, different natural roles and different skills required to carry them out. Men are more visual, we're better able to manipulate objects in a three-dimensional space. And for what it's worth, we seem to be better at making judgments dispassionately. While there will always be jobs that require these skills, the labor market is increasingly weighted towards the service sector, where jobs require tact, communication and attention to detail; skills that women have in abundance.
Right now we're at a tipping point, and ground-zero is the classroom, where girls are consistently outperforming boys. They score higher in scholastic achievement and are already over-represented in colleges and universities. And the trend shows no sign of abating. This is a complete reversal from a generation ago and no one knows why it's happening. Theories range from the effect of brainless video games to a global male sulk to male-oriented scholarly pursuits like blowing dope, chasing ass and mooning passing traffic. But young men have always put such activities ahead of study, so perhaps one can conclude that while boys haven't changed all that much, girls have. It could well be that girls are simply better suited to the world of academia. At every stage, save for perhaps those unfortunate years between 12 and 15, girls are clearly the more sensible gender. Guys are more impulsive, restless and less able to sit still and pay attention. It's not our fault; it's mandated by our genes. It's testosterone that turns us into Dennis the Menace while the Margarets of this world study and get good grades.
Like it or not, it's those who get the grades that will, in the future, make the grade. There is direct relationship between the level of one's education and the level of one's future income. Men may still out-earn women statistically, but for those under the age of thirty those differences are largely non-existent. In another decade it will be women that are bringing home the larger share of the bacon. And this financial clout will inevitably translate into political clout. And what will happen then? Feminism arose to address the perceived inequalities between men and women. Can we expect a similar movement representing the interests of men to arise when the tables have been turned? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Feminism succeeded through solidarity. And that sense of solidarity was achieved because women perceived themselves to be the weaker sex. Men will never view themselves as such, even when all the evidence screams to the contrary. If it's not in our nature to stop and ask for directions when we're clearly lost, we're not likely to summon the collective will to whine about our fate. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. And for the first time since we split from the Bonobo (our closest relative), Venus is ascendant.