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War Against Boys: Fact or Fiction

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Essay title: War Against Boys: Fact or Fiction

Ariel Ashcraft

Alice Eagly

Psychology of Gender

October 17, 2003

War Against Boys: Fact or Fiction

One of the oldest debates in psychology is the nature versus nurture debate. Its roots extend far beyond the nineteenth century psychologists such as Freud and Skinner into the beginnings of scientific thought. Even Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato addressed the issue of how personality is formed. Today, a relative consensus has been reached that nature and nurture work in tangent with one another; one can have many biological possibilities of which the environment determines the development. In any area involving gender however, this debate is still strong.

In the War Against Boys: How misguided feminism is harming our young men, Christina Hoff Sommers points out that some feminists still support the nurture side of the debate without acknowledging any possibility of a biological influence. Sommers insists on examining the growing number of studies indicating that gender differences are not all socialized but are biological sex differences, just as differences in physiology between the sexes are biologically based. However, in her efforts to show how misguided feminism has become in its search for gender equality, Sommers takes the other extreme of the debate and discounts any differences formed during socialization. Although literature for the biological explanation of gender construction is growing, one cannot discount the environmental influences as Sommers does.

A Biological Explanation

If there is one aspect of research in sex differences to which Sommers does justice, it is the research supporting the differing biology of males and females. She convincingly summarizes the evidence for the biological influence in a clear, concise manner.

First, she addresses the cognitive abilities with which a large difference has been shown to favor males or females. Males are on the whole superior to females in visuospatial abilities, especially mental rotation tasks (Halpern, 1992). In fact, Sommers doesn’t mention this, but the effect size found in this area of sex differences is one of the largest that psychologists study in any field with an effect size of d=0.9 (Halpern, 1992). While not the best at visuospatial skills, females are superior in their verbal skills especially “writing, retrieval from long-term memory, and verbal articulation tasks” (Halpern, 1992). These cognitive differences do not suppose a cause however. They could arise not from biology, but from socialization as the feminists argue.

To prove a biological cause is implicated, Sommers has to draw on research that connects biology such as hormones or structural differences to related behaviors and preferences. Sommers somewhat addresses this issue by using girls afflicted with congenital adrenal perplasia (CAH) as an example. During their time in the womb, these girls were subjected to an abnormally large amount of androgens. They usually grow up with more male-favored preferences and abilities. They tend to play more with male sex-typed toys than girls without the disorder, and they are better at spatial rotation tasks (Berenbaum, 203-6, 1992). This research would indicate that biology not socialization determines the gender identity; however, the parents could be treating the children differently because they know of the disorder. This could present a difference in socialization in the CAH and non-CAH girls and thus account for the behavioral differences, so Sommers still needs to provide more biological support.

Unfortunately, Sommers uses only that one example as support and thus fails to use the full amount of research available to her. She could have reviewed the psychology literature and found a plethora of research on how hormonal levels affect cognitive sex differences as Hampson and Moffat do. It seems that men perform better on spatial tasks when their testosterone is low, but women perform better when they have a high level of testosterone indicating this ability is tied to a perfect level of this sex-differentiated hormone. In terms of another sex-specific hormone, women tend to perform better on memory and verbal tasks when they are taking estrogen then when they are low in estrogen. This also indicates that their verbal superiority is interconnected with the amount of estrogen they have in their body (in press). All these research findings strongly suggest that biology has an influence over cognitive abilities.

Sommers does present several studies which focus on structural differences in the male and female brains rather than hormonal differences. Sommers quoted one neuroanatomist, Laura Allen, from an ABC special as

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