When we think about women and men as entirely different species, as “others” that we need to learn to understand and interpret, we create the kind of divisions that let us do really, really bad things, says Emily Heist Moss.
“I don’t know how to talk to them.”
“I’m trying to understand how they think.”
“Why are they like that?”
“They’re like a different species.”
Every week, I get emails from men that begin, “Why do women…” Why do we want you to pay for our meals? Why don’t we want you to pay for our meals? Why do we talk to some guys in bars, but not others? Why do some of us like this in bed, and others like that? Why are we so crazy? Why are we so sensitive? Why are we so emotional? Why are we so bitchy? Why are we so complicated?
To the nice ones, the ones whose hearts seem like they’re in the right place, whose intentions are curiosity and a desire to understand, I try to write cogent replies. But the answer, to them and to the assholes both, is almost all always the same. Yo bro, I want to write: It’s because we’re human.
A few weeks ago, the brilliant and insightful Amanda Marcotte wrote this for Slate:
“Women are a foreign country,” is, of course, one of the longest standing justifications for misogyny around, an artful way to reject seeing a woman’s point of view by claiming it’s impossible to do so.”
We see this creation of an us vs. them dichotomy everywhere, claiming that the differences between men and women are so fixed and absolute that we can separate and differentiate these groups over and over again by preferences, desires, abilities, and behaviors. Women are, categorically, like this, while men are, categorically, like that. Women love this, want this, do this for this reason; men love that, want that, do that for that reason.
This is not the space to make the “there is no such thing as gender” argument, nor is it one I believe. What I do believe is that gender is neither as fixed nor as relevant as we like to pretend it is. It means much less about who we are and what we can do in just about every facet of life than we are told. We default to these stereotypes because we are lazy, and it is an easy way of classifying people, but I believe that the list of “fundamental” differences between men and women is very, very short.
I don’t believe that men and women are “the same,” but I do think that viewing human preference and ability on a spectrum is a more productive way of thinking. Take these things we “know” to be true: Women are better listeners. Men are handy with tools. Women are “naturally” better parents. Men want casual sex. Women want commitment. Men are more ambitious. Women are more compassionate. Men are more confident. Even if, statistically, some of these statements might on average be true (albeit subjective; what is a “better parent” anyway?), what use is there in dividing by gender when we make these kinds of statements? In other words (or pictures, as the case may be), the spectrum of “compassion,” for example, would never look like this:
Even if you ran all the studies, crunched all the numbers, and women are more compassionate then men on average, this is probably closer to what we’re talking about:
Humans are different, yes, and some of these differences trend along gender lines. But the differences in human variation are way more interesting, and more meaningful, than the differences between genders. The difference between Dude A and Dude B are just as fascinating and worth discussing as the differences between Dude A and Lady A.
Why does this matter? When we think about women and men as entirely different species, as “others” that we need to learn to understand and interpret, we create the kind of divisions that let us do really, really bad things. Every incidence of human-created tragedy, like the Holocaust or slavery, is borne out of our ability to convince ourselves that these other people are fundamentally different—read: less human—than we are. They are less deserving of respect, of kindness, of equality, of justice.
When I see and hear men othering women (and women othering men) with language about “trying to speak their language” or “figure out what they want,” this is what I’m afraid of. We are creating space for tragedy and violence.
I’ve talked enough about Steubenville—to myself, my friends, the Internet. I can’t talk about it any more, but we, as a culture, can never talk about it enough. Steubenville, or any of the equally atrocious instances of mistreatment of women and girls around the world, is an example of what happens when we give credence to the idea that women and men are fundamentally, intrinsically, substantially different. We are linguistically and philosophically creating the room for us to justify our own worst instincts. If she is not the same kind of human that I am, then what I am doing is not so heinous. If she is not the same kind of human that I am, then being cruel to her is not that big a deal. If she is not the same kind of human that I am, then her agency is not the same as my agency, and what I want matters more than what she wants.
To the guys who want to learn how to talk to women, who email me asking for advice, here is my #1 tip: The range of ways in which we differ is absolutely, unequivocally dwarfed by the range of ways in which we are the same. Treat us like people who have thoughts and feelings, opinions and preferences, histories and futures, hopes and dreams. Let’s start with that.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.