How Harsh Environments Hurt Women and Men

The snow whipped around my home in the Rocky Mountains. The night wind howled and woke me. My husband, Dale, heard it too but in our sturdy home, reliable furnace, and warm comforter we just snuggled closer.

Yet, put me back before electricity, fuel, and birth control and a storm like that could shake me up. I'd be more dependent on Dale for food and warmth, possibly pregnant, definitely cold. And I sincerely doubt I would be a writer/speaker working alongside my husband. This world without our modern inventions affects how men and women interact. Without protection a harsher environment actually segregates women from men.

Let me explain. As David Gilmore of the State University of New York has observed (Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity), in most cultures men must earn and maintain their masculinity through stressful testing. Women are granted safer jobs that allow for the bearing and nursing of children. Therefore, in case of danger, the men may be sacrificed first and are easily replaced. So our biological distributions predispose women for safety and men for risk. Women are essential; men are expendable, as practices in the animal kingdom (one male with a harem) and polygamy indicate. But, Gilmore is quick to assert, men are not naturally noble, nor more eager for the job. Men must be pushed into risk. Boys are coerced, and when required, shamed, into manhood making obstacles and male rites of passage, to prove they are real men.

For American males in college the rites often include kegs of beer. For the Masai cattle-herder living in Kenya circumcision provides his initiation into the warrior group. He will also be required to prove his herding feats warding off leopards and lions. But not all cultures enforce rites of passage. Gilmore argues that the harsher the environment, the more difficulties a boy must endure to prove he can make it in this hard world.

After passing the tests, is it any surprise that this newly made man will set himself up as superior to women? Cultures with stressful, high-pressure rites have consistently high instances of abuse towards women. Among the Masai for instance, the men practice polygamy, refuse to eat with women, and assist by holding girls down during female circumcision. Pressured manhood makes the men feel superior. They've earned the right to lord it over women.

But if you travel to the tropical, benign environment of Tahiti, where Tahitians live among the abundance of lagoons and fertile land, there are no practices of pressured manhood. Among the Tahitian men and women an almost complete overlap in roles, personalities and responsibilities exists. The safer, gentle environment creates softer lines between the sexes (for more see Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's My Brother's Keeper: What the Social Sciences Do (and Don't) Tell us About Masculinity ). Harsh environments create hard lines between the sexes; softer environments create more flexible roles.

April 04, 2008 at 11:28 AM

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