At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Mona Charen drew boos — and eventually needed a security escort out of the building — for criticizing conservatives’ shift of late regarding sexual propriety. “How can conservative women hope to have any credibility on the subject of sexual harassment or relations between the sexes when they excuse the behavior of President Trump?” she asked in a subsequent New York Times op-ed. “And how can we participate in any conversation about sexual ethics when the Republican president and the Republican Party backed a man credibly accused of child molestation for the United States Senate?”
In her new book Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense, Charen lays out the case the Right should be making on these topics. It’s an excellent issue-by-issue overview of conservative thinking on, well, sex matters — from the wage gap, to abortion, to the rise of unwed childbearing, to the mommy wars, to the hookup culture and alleged rape crisis on college campuses, to the new debate over transgenderism. Its one major limitation is that it focuses far more on pushing back against feminism than on offering a positive conservative vision of what relations between the sexes should look like.
After an interesting historical overview of feminist thought, Charen launches into “Vive La Difference,” a chapter diving into the science of sex differences — the kind of thinking that got James Damore in trouble at Google. It’s a concise and readable summary of the research supporting the commonsense idea that men and women are different, and not just because they’re socialized differently.
Let’s start with the differences we can observe. Men are bigger, more aggressive, and more physically powerful than women, and many of their traits are more “variable” — e.g., there are more male geniuses but also more male dullards. On average, men outperform women in spatial skills (such as mentally rotating objects) and abstract math; women outperform men when it comes to language skills, concrete mathematical calculation, and interpreting facial expressions. In terms of interests, women are more likely to care about people, while men are more likely to be fascinated by things.
How do we know this isn’t just socialization? Some of it certainly is. But many of these differences are visible at such young ages as to make the theory somewhat of a stretch (e.g., female babies “typically start speaking earlier and advance to whole sentences sooner”) and have been documented in such a wide variety of cultures across the globe that they can safely be described as human universals. Some can be found in non-humans as well, or have been linked to hormones — most famously, men have more testosterone, which boosts aggression and sex drive. Charen also discusses some studies of brain structure, though research in this area is changing rapidly. (She claims that women have larger hippocampuses, for example, citing a book from twelve years ago; newer work suggests that men do — and that there’s no measurable difference at all when you account for the fact that men have larger brains overall.)
Having established that sex differences are, at minimum, nothing to scoff at or ignore, Charen proceeds to explore a wide variety of topics on which feminism’s denial of this basic truth has led us astray. The standout arguments involve the ongoing battles over women in the work force, the demise of the two-parent family, and sexual assault on college campuses.
Given the male–female differences outlined above, it’s little surprise that men and women find themselves in different jobs — and make different choices as their careers unfold. Men dominate many high-paid engineering fields, for example, while women make up the majority of workers in early-childhood education, pediatrics, and social work. (Women are also a majority of financial managers, budget analysts, and insurance underwriters, which Charen presents as surprising; my guess is that the female advantage in mathematical calculation plays some role here.)
Women are also more likely to scale back work when they have kids, thanks to a combination of the simple fact that they are the ones who physically bear children, the more controversial reality that females seem wired to be more attentive to kids’ needs, and of course the cultural pressure and discrimination they experience. According to one Pew survey, most mothers don’t even want to work full-time (though most don’t want to stay at home full-time, either).
A gender wage gap isn’t evident among the young and childless, but kids change the picture dramatically. Even European countries that have tried heavy-handed interventions haven’t been able to conquer this challenge — if you give both moms and dads government-funded parental leave, women will take more of it, which remains true even if you don’t let parents pool their leave or pay a “gender equality bonus” to couples that share it.
And families face real trade-offs when it comes to figuring out who will watch the kids. While not disparaging daycare outright, Charen draws attention to some research suggesting that spending a lot of time in non-parental care can cause behavioral problems down the line, while minimizing some evidence that it might produce cognitive gains. For what it’s worth, my own read of this research — which isn’t too different from Charen’s — is that the effects are probably small and likely vary from family to family, child to child, and daycare to daycare, making broad academic findings not particularly useful for individual decision-making. (Then again I would say something squishy like that: My mother stayed home, while my wife and I both work full-time.)
Yet if the “mommy wars” among middle-class married women are fraught with peril, single mothers have a tougher go of it. Both unwed childbearing and divorce skyrocketed decades ago. The consequences of the former are well-documented — in addition to the obvious financial and logistical advantages of having a second adult in the picture, two-parent families seem good for kids psychologically and socially. I was more surprised by some of the statistics Charen marshals regarding divorce, such as studies finding that “ten years after a divorce, nearly two-thirds of the children had not seen their fathers for a year.”
A “rape crisis,” meanwhile, pervades college campuses. Here Charen carefully threads a needle — noting the dubious nature of the statistics that are commonly thrown around, as well as the Obama administration’s jihad against due process for college students accused of assault, while not denying the horrifying reality of sexual assault. Similarly, in a section on “victim blaming,” Charen explains that while rape victims are obviously not to blame for what happened to them, this is no reason not to advise potential victims to protect themselves: to “limit their alcohol intake, maintain awareness of their surroundings, and take other commonsense precautions.”
Most of these issues boil down, in one way or another, to humanity’s eternal struggle against its own nature. Sometimes we win — cherished institutions, from democratic government to monogamy, do not come to us naturally yet can prevail with concerted effort. But often, our social-engineering efforts simply cannot pan out, owing to the inherent limits of human nature, and Charen argues convincingly that much of the modern feminist project belongs in this latter category.
To put it bluntly, barring the most extreme of interventions, we are not going to make every level of every profession, and every government body, half female and half male. We are not going to close the wage gap. We are not going to create a society where fathers and mothers do equal amounts of parenting. We are not going to keep young women safe solely by “teaching men not to rape.” These are ridiculous goals, and yet feminists constantly point to our failure to achieve them as clear evidence of sexism in our culture. Sex Matters is an excellent corrective to this thinking.
But if human biology imposes real limits on our attempts to impose gender equality, it leaves us an incredibly wide variety of possible arrangements, the differences among which hinge on countless technological developments, cultural choices, and government policies. And if liberals lack an understanding of the limits we face as humans, conservatives lack a clear vision of how to address the legitimate grievances that modern feminism raises.
Charen does wade into this territory here and there, though when doing so she is not as thorough and confident as she is when pointing out feminism’s mistakes. Sometimes she’ll note a policy idea someone has floated and express a few reservations; other times she calls for an overhaul in how our culture approaches an issue (e.g., “relink sex and love,” “a move back to marriage being the norm”).
That isn’t a criticism of the book so much as a request for a sequel — there’s nothing wrong with a brief volume focused on taking apart the other side’s arguments. But I’ll conclude with a few broad suggestions for a conservative approach to these “sex matters.” The overarching principle is that while the government shouldn’t try to mold society into some androgynous dystopia, it can enforce basic rules and ensure families are free to make their own decisions:
- Women have legitimate complaints about the harassment they encounter in the workplace, and while claims of pervasive sex discrimination in hiring and promotion may be overblown, such practices no doubt persist to some degree. Conservatives should make a serious effort to enforce the laws currently on the books against harassment and discrimination, should welcome research aiming to quantify the current extent of the problem, and should encourage the development of objective hiring and promotion practices — including ones that minimize the consequences of gender differences in personality (such as the fact that women are less likely to ask for raises), so long as such differences are not relevant to the job itself.
- The government should not pressure families to make specific decisions regarding child care and work/life balance, but instead should make it easy for each family to make its own choices. This means the government should subsidize neither stay-at-home moms nor daycare services. As I laid out in a 2014 National Affairs piece, that’s more complicated than it sounds, but at minimum it involves holding the line against liberal proposals to the contrary — and pruning the current tax code of various provisions that manage to push women in both directions at once. It also means, however, that we should give families more flexibility with the benefits already on offer, such as by letting new moms and dads use their future Social Security benefits to pay for parental leave.
- Charen supports a cultural campaign in support of two-parent families; this is a must, despite its frankly low chance of success at this point. It may also be worth continuing to experiment with marriage-promotion programs despite their dismal track record to date. But more practical approaches, to my mind, would involve (A) the endorsement (though not subsidization) of “long-acting, reversible” forms of contraception to help unmarried women make childbearing decisions in a more deliberate manner and (B) a comprehensive effort to remove marriage penalties from the safety net, ideally replacing them with policies that outright encourage marriage.
- Sexual assault is a horrific crime, whether or not it occurs on a college campus, and however common it is. As promoters of law and order, conservatives should support women when they report such incidents and should cheer well-founded criminal prosecutions. As my colleague David French has noted, civil lawsuits (à la Taylor Swift) are another promising approach to the problem — they have the lower burden of proof that governs those horrifying on-campus show trials, but take place in an actual courtroom and respect due process. Moving colleges’ own proceedings into civil courts as well would be a major improvement.
In short, men and women aren’t the same and we will never make them the same. But things could, and sometimes should, still be different from the way they are today. If we conservatives don’t want the Left to chart a way forward, we’ll need to figure one out ourselves.