National Marriage Week: Is sexual difference a chasm? Is it just about gender roles?
Today’s post is the second in a series about sexual difference.
In Thursday’s post, we shed light on two popular (but misleading) claims about sexual difference: that it is a wound or curse, and that it is a societal construct. In this post, we’ll look at two more popular ideas about sexual difference.
Is sexual difference an unbridgeable chasm?
If sexual difference is something more than a societal construct, are we obliged to think that men and women exist on opposite sides of the great Gender Divide chasm – or even on different planets? John Gray’s 1992 book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus popularized this view and offered numerous translation devices for Martians and Venutians who wanted to progress from intergalactic gridlock to a tentative truce.
But, as we’ll see in the next few posts, sexual difference is not an unbridgeable chasm – if what is meant by that is that men and women occupy completely separate, parallel universes. Instead, as Mary Healy titled her book on the theology of the body, “Men and Women Are From Eden.” The fact that men and women share a common humanity gives them an abiding source of communion, a shared “difference” in comparison to the rest of the world. [i] Even further, sexual difference itself is the avenue toward the unique communion of persons found in marriage. This difference is the basis for the fruitful complementarity and collaboration between men and women.
Is sexual difference simply another way of saying “gender roles”?
Some may fear that the notion of sexual difference is really just archaic gender roles in disguise. Assertions like “All women are x” or “All men are y” suggest that an individual person can be summed up simply by his or her maleness or femaleness. You’re a man, so you must like football; you’re a woman, so you must be a chocoholic. Feminists and others roundly criticize this line of thinking, noting it as stereotyping or reducing personal complexities into gender-specific traits.
But sexual difference is much more than gender roles. Masculinity and femininity are neither just a matter of anatomy nor just a matter of different functions in the home and society (although they have something to do with both). Sexual difference has first to do with one’s identity as a man or as a woman. Maleness or femaleness reaches to the very core of one’s identity, shaping one’s personality “from the inside out.” The bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter on marriage put it beautifully: “Male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another – two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love” (p. 10).
Reducing sexual difference to a matter of rigid “function” ignores the depth of one’s sexual identity. A man may nurture, but he nurtures as a man; a woman may provide, but she provides as a woman. There may be biological or historical reasons for tasks that were typically assigned to men and women, but it’s important not to confuse sexual difference with these tasks (or think that masculinity or femininity is first a matter of doing; it is first a matter of being).
Onward and upward
The next post will take a look at what Scripture and the Catechism say to us about sexual difference. Also, for more on sexual difference and complementarity, check out the video Made for Each Other and companion materials (Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet).
Next: Sexual Difference: Back to the BeginningTOB, 5.6). This solitude is both a lack (“It is not good that the man should be alone” – Gen. 2:18) and a confirmation of man’s unique identity as a self-conscious, self-determining subject who is capable of “a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself” (TOB 6.2; see also 6.1).
John Paul II is clear that the experience of “original solitude” is shared by both man and woman. It is, in fact, the very foundation of their unity: “The communion of persons could form itself only on the basis of a ‘double solitude’ of the man and the woman, or as an encounter in their ‘distinction’ from the world of living beings (animalia)” (TOB, 9.2).