Sex and Equality

Dr. Eliot Staler delivered a lecture on Biological Differences and Social justice to the Mental Health Trust & Research Fund on February 21st 1973 and an article extracted fron it and entitled Race, Sex and Equality was published in the New Statesman of April 6th 1973. The full text of the section regarding sex, reincor­porating paragraphs on the physiology of sex differences omitted from the article, is here reproduced with acknowledgment both to Dr. Slater and the Editor of the N.S. With regard to both race and sex Dr. Staler's concusion is that "biological differences will always be with us and injustices are not to be remedied by deny­ing them. Differences of all kinds, genetical and cultural, are the source of our mental and spiritual world”.


   The nature of the biological differences between men and women, and the social injustice to which women have been and still are subjected, are here my theme. If the facts were not so familiar as to be taken for granted. we would be staggered by the irrationality and unfairness with which we subject women to legal in­capacities, proccoural handicaps, occupational bars and financial degradation. It is painful for a biologist to have to admit that this oppression has actually been sup­ported, though never justified, by arguments based on the biological differences between men and women, their different roles and diflerent needs.

   These specious and misleading arguments have had a most iinfotiunatc effect. Women liberationists, instead of showing that the premises do not justify the con­clusions, have tried to undermine the premises. They have pointed out the common humanity of men and women, and have minimized psychological differences. They caught at the idea, promoted by some psycholo­gists on the basis of work done by Money and the l'lampsons, that gender role is not inborn but is learned by the infant and young child from the way he or she is brought up, once the original distinction has been made from the appearance of the external genitals. It was found that ititersexual indivieflials successfully adjusted to the sex role to which they were allocated, although it might be contrary, say, to their chromosomal sex. A deeper understanding of the embryonic processes leads to a quite opposite conclusion.

   Fertilized egg‑cells are either male or female according to their chromosomal constitution, xy or xx. They take a common line of development up to the appearance of a primitive gonad. At about the seventh week in the male embryo, the Y chromosome steps in for the first and only time in the life of the individual and starts the gonad developing into a testis, if nothing happens, then a little later the gonad of its own accord develops into an ovary. All the male reproductive system is developed from the Wolffian system under the control of the testis, and further development of the Mullerian system is inhibited. If there is no control by the testis, then the Mullerian system develops into the female reproductise organs. Between the 60th and the 120th day the testis hormone starts influencing the organization of the hypothalamus in the brain. If there is no testis hormone, then the hypothalamus is programmed along female lines. So by the time it is born the infant is already equipped with a male brain or a female brain. The big ditlerence is that the female hypothalamus works cyclically, the male hypothalamus acyclically. Both hormonal balances and their phasing differ in the two sexes (Harris, 1971; Hutt, 1972; Taylor, 1973). [1]

   Male sex hormones also have an anabolic effect, so that the male grows bigger and stronger than the female, in skeleton and musculature. Not only does the male carry a lot more muscle than the female, but in his case the mitsele fibres are intrinsically more efficient, especially under stressed or hvpoxie conditions.[2] The fact that men are physically so much stronger than women has been a prime factor in the oppression of women, because it has made that oppression, not justifiable, or reasonable, or even adaptive but, simply, possible.

   Intellectual differences between the sexes are very interesting, though they do not appear to affect dominance. Men are more variabie than wmen, with a shift towards male preponderance in the sex ratio, both among mental defectives and at a highest intellectual peak. There is no difference between means, so that for society's normal purposes neither sex should be at an advantage. There is also a difference in cognitive style. Women do better than men in tests of verbal intelligence, men better than women in spatio‑temporal tests. On that basis one might expect men to provide more than their share of engineers, and less than their share of politi­cians. If things don't work out that way, maybe it is because we are not selecting our politicians on their merits.

   None of what we know about male‑female differences in any way justifies or excuses the oppression to which women have been subjected. We have, then, to look not for rational reasons but for irrational motives. Looked at in this way, we see how deep in the unconscious these motives take their root. We are struck at once by the ferocity with which the oppression has been con­ducted. Perhaps we have now reached a kinder age. But in past eras, at least in Christendom, women have been loaded with every sort of disparagement, denigration, vilification. How can this be? Although of course as­perities do arise at times, in the main, women provide for men a warm, loving supportive environment. They are the source of tenderness and care which he cannot expect from other men. Why then have the prophets and saints, theologians and philosophers heaped on woman­kind every imaginable insult? Typical of the male hatred and fear of an earlier Christian puritanism is the sulphurous pit opened up by Shakespeare in King Lear.[3]

The male the weaker just where he is most proud

   What unleashes this fury is woman in her sexual aspect, one on which women themselves do not open up very much, and which has remained for the male perpetually beyond his empathy, or his comprehension, or his con­quest. Here there is an asymmetry, even though male and female sexuality are matched against one another. The female is liable to find male sexuality, when it isn't wanted, a nuance or even a danger, but not a pretext for despising the whole male sex. The male, on the other hand, is very uncomfortable with his own lust, tends to be rather ashamed of his libidinal satisfactions, and to find those of the female inexcusable. There must be a reason. According to an ancient myth, the prophet Tiresias in his youth changed his sex by a miracle, and lived for seven years as a girl, during which time he married. Later on he was asked by the gods to settle a dispute, which of the two sexes received greater pleasure in copulation. When he replied that the pleasure received by the female was ten times greater than that of the male, the goddess struck him blind.

    The truth that lies in this old story has been fully confirmed by recent scientific investigation. The re­searches of Masters and Johnston have shown that the orgasm capacity of the female is a whole degree of magnitude greater than that of the male: whereas he can manage one, two or three orgasms, she is good for ten, twenty or thirty. Such a difference must be based on differences at an organic level and this is what we find. The clitoris in the female is a very richly innervated sense organ. The male has nothing to compare with it. Indeed, the penis has a poor nerve supply, and is nearly an­aesthetic. One never finds a well‑innervated peripheral sensory apparatus without corresponding central repre­sentation. The female must have a mass of circuitry in the subcortical centres in an activated state, which in the male have been shut off by the testis hormone and have remained latent. This organization in the female will also have its chemical support system. We may suppose that the neurotransmitting substances, which are so rapidly exhausted in the male, are in much larger supply in the female and allow her the higher level of performance of which she is capable.

   One might ask, what selective advantage could it have for the female to be so much better endowed than the male? Surely, it is because the tasks nature demands of her are so much heavier. Since any coitus is capable of causing her a nine‑months pregnancy followed by a perilous confinement, sexual activity might have become extinguished unless its immediate rewards had been very great. Even now maternal mortality stands at 14 per 100,000 still‑ and live‑births, and in past ages must have been a hundredfold greater. Paternal mortality, on the other hand, is and must always have been zero; and it was not necessary for nature to provde the male with anything much more than an irritable persistent itch to make sure the job was done. The female, in­(Iced, has been furlher rewarded by blooming health during pregnancy and, after the difficult confinement, the compensations in suckling, caring for, responding to and playing with the infant. All this has been a closed book to the male.

   Down the ages, then, the stronger, more muscular, more aggressive male has had to try to compensate himself for these biological deficiencies. The female might be frigid, though all that meant was that she had not been adequately aroused. But the male, deprived of a specific sense organ, was sexually blind and not only blind but, all too often, paralytic. It is the male sex that is the impotent sex. In the flower of his youth, it is just where he is tempted to pride himself, in his virility, that the male finds himself weakest, matched with a partner with ten times his powers. No wonder he sometimes turns to homosexuality.

   With the male at such disadvantage, if he did not dominate the female by muscular strength and aggres­sive drive, he might easily become enslaved. Above all, for his pride and security against invidious comparisons, her faithfulness had to be maintained. This was most easily done by the institution of monogamous marriage. This is a male supremacist arrangement about which women have not been consulted. In matriarchal societies it is not thought necessary. Monogamy serves the in­valuable social purpose of providng a female for every male, even the most inadequate. Its evolutionary effects for the male sex have not been entirely satis­factory. There has been no counterselection against relative impotence, when all but the absolutely impotent have been able to propagate their kind.

   Male supremacist attitudes, then, can be plausibly accounted for by the human urge to envy those better endowed than ourselves, and if possible to take their advantage from them. Freud got quite the wrong idea with his penis envy; Adler's ideas on organ inferiority and masculine protest are more to the point. We can see sex‑envy in the male as a powerful motive force in determining male domination over women, the social contract of marriage, and the organization of societies. When power is wielded by the envious, who still can­not right their wrongs, it can lead to savage and appal­ling aberrations. Perhaps the most typically symptomatic is seen in the clitoridectomy practised by some primitive peoples.

Men must share power with women if the world is to be saved

    Suffering under such an incurable disadvantage, how can the male be purged of his envy? Surely, only by recognizing it for what it is and learning to accept it. Men do accept with a good grace many other dis­advantages, their lessened life expectation, their greater morbidity and mortality at all ages, their complete ex­pendability as biological units in warfare and hazardous enterprises, if the male could learn to think of himself as the less gifted partner in love‑making, and could take his mate for his mistress and his teacher, the psychosexual relations of men and women would be put on a sounder basis. He would have his superiorities and she would have hers. Then perhaps he could start to allow her an equal place in the world. The coming decrease in the proportion of their life‑span spent in reproduction will release women for more mentally active lives. Their contribution is very urgently needed.

    There are many obstacles in the way, not least in women's own attitudes, their educational deprivation and their commercial exploitation. We can be sure that Women Liberationists will not get far without male help. They must accept the help of men, and try to persuade them how necessary the liberation of women is for the welfare of men themselves, and for its all. The world in which we live has grown distorted by the institutionalization of male drives. Aggressive striving. ruthless competition between institutions and individuals, the mindless urge for material wealth, for prestige and above all for power, these things are masculinity run mad. We are looking at our problems with one eye only, and miss all the perspective. We have the equipment for binocular vision, for a female as well as a male view­point; and we should ensure that the information reaches the decision centres, Women, they say, are more nurturative than men. Sharing the power. they would surely turn us into looking along gentler pathways. If the American Constitution had provided for a change of sex in each successive Presidency, we can be sure that such pathological phenomena as the Viet‑Nam war would never have gone on.

   The trouble about political power is that it goes to those who seek it, and so gets into the wrong hands. Those who wish for power are, above all others, those whose intentions are most to be feared, it is only the rare woman who seeks for political power; and yet the future health of our world demands that political power should be shared equally between the sexes. If women won't seek power, they will have to be drafted into it. If we can do that, we shall have found a way to divert power from the power‑hungry into more responsible and altruistic hands,


[1] G. W. Harris. "Co‑ordination of the Reproductive processes" in Journal of Biosocial Science, Suppl. 3, "Biosocial Aspects of Human Fertility" (ed. Alan S. Parkes, John Peel and Barbara Thompson) 5‑12. 1971.

Corinne Hutt, Males and Females (London, Penguin Books) 1972. David C. Taylor, "The influence of sexual differentiation on growth, development and disease" in Scientific Foundations of Pzaliatrics (cd. J. Davis and I. Dobbing; Heinemann) 1973.

[2] W. A. Marshall, "Sex Differences at Puberty" in Journal of Biosocial Science, Suppl. 2, "Biosocial Aspects of Sex" (ed. G. A. Harrison and John Peel) 31-41, 1970.

[3] Behold yond simp'ring dame
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are centaurs. ‑
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's.
There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption.

            (Cambridge edition,4.6.118‑129)