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Masculinity and Femininity in Sex Attraction

( Originally Published 1957 )



Our discussion of sexual choice has so far centered upon surface attractiveness and other aesthetic features. As seen in the illustrations offered earlier, there are supposed to be traits other than those related to beauty that cause people to fall in love. It should be noted that this means, not personal qualities that merely add to or reinforce the basic amorous attraction, but rather, qualities or kinds of behavior that may directly and in themselves arouse the emotion. If there are such, we shall expect to find them, for reasons already given, among the characteristics in which the sexes differ from each other. What kinds of psychological differences are there between men and women which may be considered as possible sources of amorous attraction?

The problem of sex differences is a very old one, on which a great deal has been written. With respect to many characteristics the sexes do not differ remarkably, or they differ only in terms of general averages and in ways which no one, probably, has ever seriously considered as making them attractive to each other. It is, most likely, in the sphere of "personality" differences that we should expect to find the best possibilities. Some studies of masculinity and femininity have shown that in the "composite picture yielded by majority opinion" the contrasting traits of men and women are fairly definite, at least among peoples of our part of the world. (53) Woman's existence is generally believed to be more emotional. She tends, more than man, to react to situations according to the way she feels about them. Especially richer, it is thought, are her "sympathetic" and tender-protective feelings. She is regarded as more fearful, more jealous, and more sensitive to emotional injury. Her sexual feelings tend, it is assumed, to involve her entire body; she is also "by nature" less aggressive and less inclined to promiscuity. She is more submissive, less adventurous. Her emotional life is more various, complex, and refined. Differences between man and woman in such traits as introversion, inferiority feeling, and emotional stability have been found; also in conservatism, in religious reactions, and in occupational preferences. Women are inclined, it is thought, to be more sensitive aesthetically, to be more personalized and concrete in their judgments in social relationships. A review of the literature since 1920 indicates, among the major findings, the early appearance of greater aggressiveness in boys, more timidity and conforming behavior in girls. Women appear to be more introverted, also "more intimately and intensely personal in their social reactions." "

In the woman who, in our society, is regarded as typically "feminine," according to one study, are to be found modesty, reserve, submissiveness, and a tendency to assume the passive attitude in courtship. (56) In human courtship, states Westermarck, the male role is active, the female passive. A woman's sexual modesty is partly rooted, he suggests, in the "coyness" of the courted female animal. (64) There is much emphasis on feminine "passivity," in contrast with masculine aggressiveness in courtship, in the literature on sex differences. There are also, both as illustrations and as evidence, many references to the fact that throughout the animal kingdom the male is the more active in mating behavior, the female being pursued and courted. This difference is often further illustrated in the "behavior" of the male and female sex cells during the fertilization process, and again in the anatomy of the genitals and in the contrasting roles in the sexual act.

Freud was inclined toward the same way of thinking about sexual courtship, but apparently became doubtful about it because of cases among the lower animals in which the female is more aggressive than the male. But such reversals of sex role are simply exceptions to the rule, in the opinion of Helene Deutsch, whose conviction that femininity and passivity go together is based on clinical observations: ". . . the fundamental identities, `feminine-passive' and `masculine-active,' assert themselves in all known cultures and races, in various forms and various quantitative proportions." The passive attitude is at the heart of a woman's nature and largely deter-mines her personality. Havelock Ellis, who ranks feminine modesty high in importance as a stimulus to "masculine passion," thinks that the basic roles of pursuer and pursued are as evident in civilized courtship as among animals and savages. Modesty is distinctively feminine, he thinks, and without it a woman loses her sexual attractiveness, since men have a natural desire for modesty in the female. In courtship and sexual love relationships it must "always be fundamental."

Here is something close to our question about the sources of sexual attractiveness, since the idea that the male must be "active" and the female "passive" is usually expressed with reference to courtship. Does the male's initiative throughout the maneuvers of courtship directly arouse sexual love in the female, and does her "waiting" role and "coyness" affect him in the same way? Are men and women attractive to each other, in part, because of these differences in the way they behave toward each other when attracted?

These behavior differences, at the human level, are far from universal. Westermarck offers a number of examples among primitive peoples of woman in the role of courter. Ford and Beach found that while the majority of the societies included in their survey regarded the initiative in sexual court-ship as properly that of the male, ". . . in most of the societies ... girls and women do actively seek sexual liaison with men, even though they may not be supposed to do so." In a few cases they report that either men or women might make advances, and some in which the first steps in lovemaking are taken by women. While their study deals with courtship at the genital-sex level, it is probable, on other grounds, that the findings would include amorous courtship as well.

The authors of The Dominant Sex, drawing upon the records of ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sparta, Libya) have shown many cases of the reversal of sex roles. Such reversals, they find, are characteristic of societies in which there is a corresponding reversal of the social status of men and women. Where women are dominant, their rights, privileges, and attitudes in love relationships resemble those that are regarded as masculine in societies in which men are the dominant sex.

Where women rule, woman is the wooer. The man contributes the dowry; the woman expects a pledge of fidelity from her husband, and the woman has the sole right of disposal over the common possessions. She alone is entitled to divorce her partner should he no longer please her. From the husband, chastity and conjugal fidelity are demanded; the man is often severely punished for unfaithfulness; but the obligations of the wife in this respect are less exacting. The husband adopts the name and nationality of the wife. The children are called after the mother and inherit from the mother. . . . The males are considered kindlier and more benevolent than the females, but less intelligent.

When women dominate in courtship, "men are reported to behave in the way that is regarded as proper for women today when men are the wooers." This extends even to the usual lyrical expressions of amorous emotion: where woman is the courter her love poems may dwell in a familiar fashion upon the beauty, graces, and captivating charms of the attractive male. From all this it is concluded that: "Seeing that the vagaries of love in the two sexes, when these respectively hold sway, are so closely akin psychologically . . . we can no longer doubt that sex differentiation is merely the outcome of the position of dominance or subjection, and is not a product of in-born biological characteristics." "

Whether or not the behavior called masculine and feminine is no more than an effect of relative social status is less important for our interest than the evidence of the social origin of behavior in sexual courtship. Margaret Mead found, among the Tchambuli, "a genuine reversal of the sex attitudes of our own culture," the women being "dominant, impersonal," the men emotionally dependent. She concludes on the basis of thorough studies of three primitive societies that the "passivity" (among other traits) hitherto regarded as typically feminine can no longer be regarded as an essential part of sex. "The material suggests that we may say that many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society or a given period assigns to either sex."

As for the notion that it is always the male, among the lower animals, that takes the lead, sexually, Ford and Beach state: "Distribution of initiative varies from species to species, but in the main the relationship is a reciprocal one in which both partners are sexually aggressive and each contributes to the complete arousal of the other."

The mental differences between man and woman are an obscure region of human psychology. There is much disagreement, and ". . . practically every attribute alleged to be characteristic of a given sex has been questioned . . ." Viola Klein, in her book, The Feminine Character, calls attention to this diversity of opinion. She finds that ". there are almost as many opinions as there are minds, and it is hard to find even two essential characteristics to which the common man or the majority of experts would agree." Among those regarding which there does tend to be fair agreement, she finds, are "passivity, emotionality, lack of abstract interest, greater intensity of personal relationships . . ."

It is clear that we cannot come to any reliable conclusion, at this date, about what behavior differences are most important in sexual courtship, or concerning the origin of whatever differences seem most likely to be sexually attractive. We certainly cannot say that men and women are by nature aggressive, and passive or "coy," respectively, in courtship, and that these differences help to cause them to fall in love. We can say, how-ever, much more safely, that whatever commonly approved "manners" they exhibit to each other will increase attraction, and that if certain ways of conducting themselves toward each other are considered as the ways in which they should behave, then behavior of this kind will increase their liking and respect for each other. Since social psychologists incline to believe that the differences in behavior that "go with" sex are a product of training, it seems best to class these differences with all the rest of the traits we have been calling "socially approved." When a society favors and teaches demureness, restraint, and a "waiting-game" courtship role to its females, and initiative, aggressiveness, and pursuer-role behavior to its males, they will, by and large, be more acceptable to each other when they be-have in this fashion. These sex-linked "virtues" will have values comparable to any others, except that they will tend to characterize one sex, rather than both.

The difference in roles between pursuer and pursued must then correspond, obviously, to a difference in amorous susceptibility. As applied to woman this means that, for example: "The aim of being loved is more stressed in women than the aim of loving the narcissistic need and the dependence on the object are greater." (20) A further expression of the same thought is that it is woman's sexual nature to desire to be sought and needed, to be regarded as aesthetically precious, and to arouse the desire for possession. The male is aroused by the individual aesthetic charm, and perhaps by "passive" behavior. The male wishes to possess what he values highly, the female to be highly valued and to belong.

Ford and Beach write: "One very interesting generalization is that in most societies the physical beauty of the female receives more consideration than does the handsomeness of the male." It would be easy to support this with numerous examples from the literature dealing with primitive peoples. Strength, courage, and skill as a provider tend to be more prized in the male than traits that please the eye. Human beauty, it has been said, is mainly a feminine attribute, and "the normal woman experiences no corresponding cult for the beauty of man." " We noted earlier Lucka's statement that at no time in the history of woman's emotional life has there been anything that could be called a "worship" of man (to parallel man's worship of woman), and Freud's remark that the phenomenon of "over-valuation" is chiefly confined to the male.

Yet beyond question there is plenty of evidence that feminine perceptions, the world over, are by no means insensible to the physical features of the male, and that aesthetic response to these features plays a part in choice. What we have here appears to be no more than a markedly greater emphasis on qualities of appearance in one sex and of behavior in the other. If there is truth in the view that "minor" fetishisms are the central factor in sexual selection and in amorous fixations, it may be significant that, as earlier noted, the abnormal (or "major") fetishisms occur more often in men than in women. If such a sex difference does exist, and if, as we have proposed, the amorous emotion is a response to aesthetic stimuli, the conclusion would be clear that sexual love is not altogether the same experience for both sexes.



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