A few days ago I was in my car just long enough to hear a bit of an NPR Talk of the Nation feature about a new book called The Longevity Project, based on 8 decades of research following 1500 individuals in the US. From NPR’s Website:
Health scientists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin explain how factors such as social connections, personality and marriage affect long-term health in The Longevity Project.
As the NPR tagline notes, “it’s not all about broccoli. The “news” in the story is that many of our beliefs about who lives longer are either wrong or true but for a different reason that we thought. So, for example, worriers live longer than cheerful, optimistic people because the latter aren’t as cautious.
So anyway, I tune in just in time to hear the following conversation between scientist Leslie Martin and the interviewer, Jennifer Ludden. (I don’t promise my transcript is 100% accurate, but it’s pretty close. If you want to listen to it, the part I’m quoting starts around minute 17:40 of the piece.)
Ludden: . . . well known gender gap that women always seem to live longer than men. Why did you find that is?
Martin: This was really interesting! We looked at relative masculinity and femininity in our sample. Relative to other individuals in this particular group, were you masculine or feminine in your preferences? Not looking at risk behaviors per se but things people enjoyed doing or thought they would like as an occupation or a hobby. And using their responses we scaled them high or low for masculinity or femininity. And what we found is that the more masculine people, regardless of whether they were men or women, were at greater risk of earlier mortality whereas more feminine individuals, women and men, actually were protected. . . . The more masculine women were more likely to smoke and drink and do some of these things that historically have not been the things that women were as likely to do but that didn’t completely explain what was going on. There really was this femininity that encompassed other things such as social connections and . . . and other elements . . . that was protective, regardless —
(Up ’til now, Martin sounds very confident and pleased to report the findings. When she comes to the description of “this femininity,” she slows down a little, getting suddenly vague by saying “other elements.” Right in the middle of her sentence, Jennifer Ludden cuts her off.)
Ludden: And when you talking about femininity and masc –, are you talking about a personality — type again? Or? (Ludden hasn’t really thought through her question it seems; she interrupts herself in the middle of a word, trails off, then, as Martin begins to respond, adds a little more.)
Martin: Um . . . I wouldn’t call (Ludden: Or conscientiousness?) this measure a personality type per se, but it has many similarities in that it tends to be stable over time. So that the more feminine men, they never were the tough guys – even in childhood they were a little more sensitive, their parents and teachers reported as caring a bit more what other people thought than the more masculine kids.
I found it fascinating that Dr. Martin, obviously a scientist into hard data, didn’t initially think it necessary to define what she meant by being “more feminine” or “more masculine.” I guess I will have to get the book to find this definitive list of masculine and feminine characteristics, but apparently, having social ties, being sensitive, and caring what others think of you are feminine, and being tough and drinking are masculine.
On the one hand, duh – everybody knows that, right? On the other hand, doesn’t the fact that a percentage of men in the study had a set of traits make them, by definition, naturally occurring male traits? Psychologist Jerome Kagan pioneered the idea of temperament in children. His work gets used all different kinds of ways by different folks (for same-sex education by Sax, for seeing children as spirited rather than difficult by Kurcinka), but his basic results were that while the majority of boys tend to behave one way and the majority of girls tend to behave another, there are some kids in both groups who don’t.
To take how the majority of boys or girls act and conclude that boys are one way (only) and girls another way (only) is not good science. Apparently about 1/3 of gay men report having what The Longevity Project scientists would call feminine traits; so do about 1/4 of straight men. I don’t know the figures for women, but I think we need to acknowledge that “cultural ideas of masculinity” or “stereotypical notions of masculinity” are not the same as “masculinity,” which is obviously richer, and more robust (not to mention culturally dependent).
Humans naturally seem to see the unusual as the unnatural; the uncommon as the abnormal. Fortunately, we’ve moved past the point where we burn redheads (2-4% of US citizens) at the stake or tie left-handed children’s (10% of boys and 12.5% of girls in US) hands behind their backs. I’ll hold out hope that we will progress to the point that sensitive boys and rambunctious girls are also not considered aberrations, but naturally occurring manifestations of masculinity and femininity.