12/11/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Gender-Neutral Advice Isn't Always Useful

Brigitte Wodicka via Getty Images

Sometimes I get feedback from women with higher sex drives than their husbands, or husbands who want to talk about feelings more than their wives (actually that didn't happen, but I have seen that dynamic in therapy so I'm using it as an example) that think that articles like this one or this one should be made gender-neutral and should emphasize the similarities between men and women, rather than emphasizing the differences. I have also received the criticism that saying that men generally want sex and that women generally want emotional connection can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and prevent people from realizing that some men want emotional connection more than sex and some women want sex more than emotional connection.

There is certainly a place for focusing on the similarities between all people, in that they all want love, attention, respect, and connection. I have never said that men don't want emotional connection (but I do think that for many men, this emotional connection is through physical affection, including sex), and I certainly realize that many women have higher sex drives than their partners.  But this is not the usual, and I feel that it is very useful to acknowledge the usual differences between genders, learn about them, and accept them.  While tearing down stereotypes is important to me, I do not think this should be done solely via dismissing or even minimizing innate differences.

Empirical research has provided evidence for many biological gender differences, e.g., women are more verbal and men more spatially oriented.  Some studies, like this one, show that these differences are present before any social conditioning can even take place, as newborn girls show a stronger preference for faces and newborn boys show a stronger preference for mobiles.  And instead of toy preference being purely a byproduct of socialization about gender norms, research shows that little girls with higher levels of male hormones exhibit stronger preferences for traditionally "male" toys, which would not occur if a predilection for dolls versus trucks was all about how children are socialized (as the little girls with higher male hormone levels are still socialized and treated as little girls).

There is also lot of evidence that there are innate differences between how men and women behave within relationships.  What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire is a great book to dispel the harmful stereotype that all women need to be sexually aroused is love and emotional connection. In fact, the research now indicates the converse; women get more bored within monogamy than do men, contrary to previously held beliefs.  I refer to this finding all the time (in my "monotogamy" spiel), not only because it challenges traditional stereotypes, but more importantly, so that male clients and readers don't think, "But I act so loving, and she still doesn't want sex!  Why? Must be something wrong with her!"

Here's another example of biological research that can help people better understand their partners: women are wired to want to increase the diversity of their species, so, particularly when ovulating, they are less satisfied with their monogamous relationship and more motivated to seek outside genetic material, particularly from traditionally "sexy" looking guys.  This finding can help a couple realize that maybe there really are hormonal ups and down in a woman's cycle, and that just because a woman doesn't find her husband sexy 100 percent of the time doesn't mean that they aren't compatible or in love.

I strongly feel that if couples know the science behind why they act as they do, it can help them to understand and empathize with each other, rather than viewing each other as the enemy.  In the case of this example, if women know that when they are ovulating, they may be naturally wired to be more critical of their stable, nice partners, they may not overestimate the significance of their irritability at this time and extrapolate to assume that the relationship is ill fated.  And men who know that women in monogamous relationships tend to get bored and experience decreased desire (my "monotogamy" idea) can take this less personally and work with their wives to come up with solutions to this low libido problem. If biological differences are explained and discussed openly, I find that women and men both benefit.

While I am aware that there are many women who want sex more than their husbands do, for various reasons, all research points to the fact that this is still less common than the reverse. Michele Weiner Davis' The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido: A Couple's Guide and Laurie Watson's Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire and Heal a Sexless Marriage both cite a great deal of research to say the same thing.  (In fact, Weiner Davis wrote a specific book for women whose husbands don't want sexThe Sex-Starved Wife: What to Do When He's Lost Desire since the usual books, including her first, didn't address this situation in depth.)

I can, and have, encouraged female partners to accept male partners' lower sex drive, and, in therapy, male partners to accept female partners who don't want to talk about their feelings.  So, overall, I want all partners to learn about and accept each others' unique traits, whether biologically based or socially influenced or (as is likely with most things) both.  But refusing to acknowledge the impact of biology and innate gender differences on behavior within relationships seems to me to be unnecessarily shooting couples in the foot; why not discuss something that would likely resonate with them and would help them understand the evolutionary and biological explanations for each partner's behavior?

I do try to inject humor into my posts, to motivate readers to listen to the serious things I'm saying, and also because I think that humor is a positive thing overall.  But when I say, or imply (like with a post titled 5 Things That Make Men Happy, Not Including Sex (Okay, Okay, a Reader Asked For It)) that men usually want sex, and would be happy getting it as an expression of love, I am not saying this because it's funny or because it's a stereotype.  Sure, the phrasing is designed to be funny, but, as I've mentioned, I genuinely believe that it is empirically supported that men have more testosterone and generally higher sex drives, particularly within monogamy, than women.

In my practice as well as in my peer group, mismatch between sex drives (and in the great majority of cases, this means the man wants sex more) is a very common source of marital dissatisfaction, and I do not believe it is only because men are socially conditioned to express love through sex.  There may be a piece of this, but overall, I believe it is biological.  To me, refusal to acknowledge this real gender difference is tantamount to a refusal to acknowledge that women are usually shorter than men, because there are some women who are taller than some men.  Yet, overall, biologically, there is a height difference, and if I manufactured pants that were one size fits all without considering that there are size differences between the genders, the pants would likely not fit anyone well.

As a feminist myself, and a therapist, I very much believe that men can and do espouse traditionally "feminine" traits (e.g., nurturing, gentle), and women can espouse traditionally "male" traits (e.g., assertive, sexually aggressive), and in fact, psychological androgyny is associated with positive mental health outcomes.  Dr. Audrey Nelson, in the previous link, writes:

Think of it this way: an androgynous man might be a weightlifter but also a social worker who helps underprivileged children, a gourmet cook, and a rose gardener. An androgynous woman could be a physicist who enjoys watching professional football, hanging wallpaper, reading maps, and doing needlepoint. Typically androgynous people are highly flexible. They don't feel limited in their nonverbal communication with others. They are fully aware of and can adapt to another person's needs to be either affiliative or controlling, and they can adjust their behavior accordingly.

Understanding, accepting, and respecting innate gender differences is essential to openminded discourse. When sex is left out of the equation, because it is too ideologically messy to deal with the fact that there are in fact basic overall gender differences (with some outliers), it may limit the emotional resonance of the conversation. So, as stereotypical as it may sounds, I truly believe, and feel that research and clinical practice both bear out, that women having more loving sex with their husbands, and understanding how important this is for men as a sign of love and emotional commitment, would improve many marriages.  I also think that males who attempted to be more verbally and emotionally present with their wives would accomplish the same thing.  And I do not believe that husbands offering more loving sex would make THE MAJORITY of wives happier, and that wives wanting to talk about feelings more would make THE MAJORITY of men happier.

I am very passionate about helping couples connect, and helping them learn to treat one another with empathy, which in my mind means not only that their celebrate their (many, deep) similarities, but also that they learn to respect their (just as many, just as deep) differences, whether these differences are socially conditioned or innate.  Hopefully we can get to a place as a society where gender differences are respected and neither gender's perspective, feelings, goals are considered better or more valuable than the other, but differences are still acknowledged and appreciated. My personal goal is to help couples understand one another and explain why they may feel the ways that they do, based on both socialization and biology (and their intersection). I try to help partners to work together to improve their relationships without discounting either gender's perspective or pretending that the preferred way for couples to interact is for them to just have the same needs, values, and goals, entirely uninfluenced by gender.  And of course, I also encourage each partner to express his or her unique needs and preferences, including ones that are counter to gender norms.

Till we meet again, I Remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks Gender is Often Important, Although Not More Important Than What Your Partner Directly States That They Want.

For more, visit Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, and Twitter @DrPsychMom.