Thursday, March 31, 2011

All Men Are Criminals...Until Proven Otherwise

One form of bias or illogical reasoning that perpetuates a lot of gender stereotypes is what might be called the irrelevant conditional, which explains why a lot of men are treated as criminals until proven otherwise. Conditionals are essentially if-then rules specifying a relationship between an antecedent and a consequent. So, with respect to the "man as criminal" stereotype, the conditional if criminal, then male, is a pretty accurate given that 90% of criminals are indeed men. The problem is a rather illogical tendency to reverse the antecedent and consequent and accept the same evidence as “proving” the alternate rule. No matter how gender biased the prison population is, this does not support the if male, then criminal, conditional. The two are independent of one another, yet there is a tendency to reason that the former implies the latter.

This is exactly how society behaves when, for example, airlines automatically separate children travelling alone from men in an airplane. It’s true. Airline policies will generally not allow an unaccompanied minor to be seated next to a man. My brother was on a plane one time, seated in the aisle seat at the very back of the plane. A young boy of about 5 was to be seated at the window seat next to him. The plane was chockers due to a cancelled flight, and a man was assigned a seat between bro and boy. This man was immediately asked to move – without explanation – and a woman was re-seated there. Her husband was seated two seats further down the plane. The airline actually separated a married couple so that an unaccompanied boy did not have to sit next to a man. A flight attendant with an Australian airline has indeed admitted that there is a policy that a man cannot sit next to a young passenger flying alone. Now regardless of the assumptions and good intent on which this policy is, no doubt, based, it is patently absurd. An airline flight is the last place a pervert would be able to molest a child. In a plane?!?! 10,000 meters above the earth?!?! Toilets the size of matchboxes, and uniformed flight attendants endlessly circulating about the cabin?!?! So the policy is asinine on the face of it, but it does reflect the illogical reversal of the conditional if criminal, then male to if male, then criminal.

All men have been exposed to this kind of illogical reasoning from time to time, though we're not always consciously aware of it. As a man who has walked quite a few streets alone at night, I’ve observed many pedestrians travelling in the opposite direction – mostly women – actually cross the street to the other side of the road to avoid any contact with me. Makes sense given the stereotype of the criminal male. Any single man walking near a playground where children are playing runs the risk of being questioned by a passing police car. Fathers who purchase underwear for their daughters may get questioned by store security staff. So what you say? Well, not only do men comprise 90% of all prison inmates, they make up 97% of all wrongful convictions, and the more violent the crime, the higher the percentage of wrongfully convicted men. How many men are still behind bars because of wrongful convictions? We’ll never know because we only have statistics for the cases where the wrongful conviction was discovered and overturned. How many undiscovered cases are there?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Are Men "Naturally" Promiscuous?

Research suggests that – get this – men have a stronger sex drive than women. Good thing we have all those scientists doing research to prove stuff like this! Pretty much common sense you say? It turns out there’s more complexity than meets the eye. Men and women enjoy sex with steady romantic partners about equally. However, when asked about having sex with attractive acquaintances or strangers, most women aren’t all that interested. What about men? You guessed it. Men are just as enthusiastic about having sex with a stranger as they are with a romantic partner; and whereas women tend to report being “in love” with their first sexual partner and with sexual partners in general, men like sex with just about anybody they are attracted to. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing if you’re Tina Turner or the typical male.

It’s hardly surprising then that men express more positive attitudes towards premarital sex, sex with multiple partners, casual sex, and sex of just about any kind, even masturbation. Even when women do have sex, they don’t like to admit it. Women tend to under-report the number of sexual partners they’ve had; men, you guessed it again, tend to over-report. In general then, women have much more stringent criteria for who they will and won’t have sex with. Underlying all this is perhaps the most basic sex difference of all; women can have babies; men can’t. How does this lead to many of the attitudes described above? Because the “cost” of a pregnancy is much higher for a woman.

In addition to having to endure childbirth, women are simply limited in the number of offspring they can produce in their lifetime. The maximum number of babies born to a woman is 69, with 67 surviving infancy. The mother was a Mrs. Vassilyev. This number would seem to be pretty close to the maximum potential. If each birth was a single birth, that’s the equivalent of 52 straight years of being pregnant. In fairness, all of Mrs Vassilyev’s children were born in a series multiple births over a 40 year period (1725-1765). So let’s set the maximum potential for females at 70 children just so we have a nice, round number.

What’s the maximum potential for males? According to multiple sources, the top male in our derby, one Moulay Ishmael the Bloody, the last Sharifan Emperor of Morocco, produced 888 babies, from a harem of over 1000 women. But even this number seems well below a man’s maximum potential. Since a male orgasm only takes a couple of minutes, it represents a minimal amount of work relative to the woman’s nine months gestation. Okay, we have to allow the man some recovery time, but even with recovery time taken into account, a man could produce far more than 888 babies in a lifetime.

Does this basic biological difference make men more promiscuous? Does the potential to produce many offspring still linger in the male psyche as a tendency toward promiscuity? The idea has certainly been around a long time. One academic volume reports the following anecdote. “One day the President and Mrs. Coolidge were visiting a government farm. Soon after their arrival they were taken on separate tours. When Mrs. Coolidge passed the chicken pens, she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulates more than once each day. ‘Dozens of times’ was the reply. ‘Please tell that to the President,’ Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the rooster, he asked ‘Same hen every time?’ ‘Oh no, Mr. President, a different one each time.’ The president nodded slowly, then said, ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge’.

Biological research backs this little parable up. Take married men and show them pictures of their wives in various outfits and ask them to imagine having sex. Then take a sperm count. Now give those same men a copy of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and ask them to imagine having sex with each of the women. You got it…the sperm count is much higher in the latter situation. So nature seems to prepare men for opportunities to impregnate any willing female strangers that happen to wander by. According to this argument, men are more promiscuous than women because it’s in their evolutionary interests. Promiscuous men leave more offspring.

However, there are counterarguments to this explanation – and pretty good ones too. First, while men have the potential to father many offspring, most father very few. Put another way, there are far more Homer Simpsons in the world than Moulay Ishmaels, and without the institution of marriage, the Homer Simpsons simply do not reproduce. In this sense, religious institutions have, among other things, evened out the distribution of reproductive success among men. In support of this interpretation, among married adults, the reproduction percentages by gender are almost even; 85% of married women and 84% of married men are biological parents. However, among unmarried adults, 61% of women, but only 36% of men are the biological parents of at least one child. So getting married is a smart thing to do if you want to ensure becoming a biological father. If this is the case, why would men be so promiscuous? Wouldn’t a happily married man with no impulse to stray have a better chance of being a dad?

Another problem is that the link between sex and reproduction is tenuous at best. Birth control and general knowledge allow humans to enjoy sex without pregnancy. The real question is how long it takes for religion and science to offset the effects of millennia of evolution. Churches, and their monogamous ways, have been around for less than two thousand years, and birth control has been widely available for less than a hundred – mere blips on the evolutionary clock. So perhaps the stronger male sex drive, and the corresponding tendency toward promiscuity, is a remnant of men’s evolutionary past when the competition to be the alpha male still mattered. Today it simply costs multi-millionaire athletes a lot of money in divorce settlements.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Women Multi-Task Better than Men

There's been an awful lot written about why women can multi-task better than men. Two falsehoods, or at least half-truths, run through this discussion. The first is the notion that women can do something "better" than men. This is a value judgement. The debate is rarely framed as men being able to focus on the task at hand better than women. Say that mothers make better parents than fathers because they can multi-task and you're fine, but say that men have won more Nobel prizes than women because they are single-minded and you're up S**t's Creek without a paddle.

The second half-truth is that this gender difference as more to do with "nature" than "nurture". For example, articles are quick to point out that women have a larger corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, thus creating a "natural" advantage for spreading multiple tasks over different regions of the brain. Is this really "nature"? Could it be the case that performing specific behaviours repetitively over time would result in differential development of related parts of the brain? Are we simply reversing cause and effect here?

Here's a "nurture" argument for why women can multi-task and why men are so single-minded. Young children do not understand the notion of waiting. Phrases like “just a sec”, “wait a minute”, “We’ll be there soon” have no meaning whatsoever to a 4 year old. Which means, when one of kids wants something, if I am hopelessly entangled in another task, I have to – you guessed it – fulfil their need at the same time I am doing something else. In contrast, a colleague at work perfectly understands these phrases, and even more formally, the idea that she should (a) make an appointment, (b) ask permission to interrupt, or (c) apologise for barging in before disrupting my ongoing train of thought. If I suggest that I am very busy – on a single task – she will likely understand and come back later or email me about setting a specific meeting time. I don’t have to multi-task.

Now women have generally spent more time caring for young children than men, and men have generally spent more time in the office than women. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just or unfair, sexist or efficient. It just is, and has been. Could this be the influence of nurture, or more precisely gender roles, in the female superiority in multi-tasking? Is this why men are so single-minded? Since becoming a single father I must say I’ve become quite the little multi-tasker, often managing to do the laundry, prepare dinner, help with homework, write parts of books and articles, and supervise children more or less at the same time. I’m not as good as the best mothers I know, but then again, I’ve got much less experience than they do.