What Does It Mean to Be Male?

Nothing is closer to our sense of self than our sense of “maleness” and “femaleness.” When our babies first emerge from the womb the mother (and increasingly the father who is in the delivery room) hears “congratulations, it’s a boy,” or “it’s a girl.” Many “parents to be” will say that they would be happy with either a boy or a girl, but none can ignore the fact that boys and girls are not alike.

Although we all recognize the differences, there is a great deal of controversy about what differences exist, whether they are inherent or a product of culture, and what these differences mean. In the past differences have often been used to restrict the freedom and opportunities of one group, most often women. Even the consummate scientist, Charles Darwin, believed that men were naturally smarter than women.

This superior male intelligence, he proposed, arose because of the unique tasks that men practiced. It was the men that fought to win mates, made tools to hunt, cooperated with other men, and fought wild animals to “bring home the mammoth.” He believed that the need of our male ancestors to compete with each other, created a superior level of intelligence. He assumed an aggressive, intelligent Adam and a gentle, nurturing Eve. This image conformed to what Darwin saw everywhere around him in Victorian England.[i]

This sexist view of gender differences was bitterly attacked after World War I. Margaret Mead was among the intellectual leaders of the period who believed that differences were not built in, but were a product of the particular culture in which a person lived. As Mead wrote in 1935, “We may say that many if not all of the personality traits which we have called masculine and feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners and the form of headdress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.”[ii]

This view that what makes us male and female is largely determined by our environment has held sway since then. Certainly when I was doing my graduate training in the 1960s that was the view in most academic settings. To suggest that there were inherent differences between males and females was to open oneself to attack as being ignorant and sexist. For some women, and particularly for many academic feminists, there was a fear that acknowledging that there were inherent differences between males and females would lead back to a time when “different” was seen as “inferior.” It was an understandable fear.

However, there is an increasing body of evidence that has accumulated over the last 25 years that shows that males and females are different in many ways. Even many feminist academics now recognize these differences and realize that men and women can be different without one being superior to the other. According to Dr. Bobbi S. Low, Professor of Resource Ecology at the University of Michigan, “New research in evolutionary theory, combined with findings from anthropology, psychology, sociology, and economics, supports the perhaps unsettling view that men and women have indeed evolved to behave differently—that, although environmental conditions can exaggerate or minimize these differences in male and female behaviors, under most conditions each sex has been successful as a result of very different behaviors.”[iii]

This was certainly my experience raising a boy and a girl. No matter what my wife and I tried to do to raise our children in non-sexist ways, there were certain things that just seemed to be built in. Our boy turned everything into guns, even when we gave him dolls. Our daughter spent lots of time playing house even when we tried to interest her in baseball. “Some societies minimize the difference between the sexes; others—perhaps the majority—exaggerate them,” say David Barash and Judith Lipton authors of Making Sense of Sex: How Genes and Gender Influence Our Relationships. “But the differences are never reversed, and thus evidence mounts in favor of a biological common denominator.”[iv]

We will see that a good deal of what leads to the Irritable Male Syndrome can be understood in terms of the ways the biology of being male interacts with the environment we find ourselves in. It isn’t a question of nature versus nurture. Our biological nature influences our environment and our environment can have a profound impact on our biology.

In future columns we will take a look at some of these male attributes and see how they can help us understand why men are so vulnerable and subject to stresses and strains that lead to increased irritability.

[i] Helen Fisher. Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray. New York: Fawcett Columbine 1992, p. 190.

[ii] Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: William Morrow, 1935, p. 180..

[iii] Bobbi S. Low. Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000, p. xiii.

[iv] David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton. Making Sense of Sex: How Genes and Gender Influence our Relationships. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997, p. 5

©2010 Jed Diamond

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Jed Diamond is the internationally best-selling author of seven books including Male Menopause, now translated into 17 foreign languages and his latest book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing. The 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. For over 38 years he has been a leader in the field of men's health. He is a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Men’s Health and has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network since its founding in 1992. His work has been featured in major newspapers throughout the United States including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. He has been featured on more than 1,000 radio and T.V. programs including The View with Barbara Walters, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, CBS, NBC, and Fox News, To Tell the Truth, Extra, Leeza, Geraldo, and Joan Rivers. He also did a nationally televised special on Male Menopause for PBS. He looks forward to your feedback. E-Mail. You can visit his website at

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