Why Men And Women Do Not Complete Each OtherBy Hugo Schwyzer
March 13, 2012
Hugo Schwyzer says the "complementarian" theory—that men and women were created to occupy separate but parallel spheres, each doing for the other what the other could not do for themselves—isn't just insulting to both genders, it's bad math.
What are women for? That’s the question James Poulos posed recently in the Daily Caller. As part of a longer musing about the state of contemporary progressive political culture, Poulos wrote that “women have a privileged relationship with the natural world” and that “a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise.” The piece aroused, unsurprisingly, considerable criticism.
A quick summary of the argument: for Poulos, and for a great many others ranging from right-wing politicians to evangelical pastors to evolutionary psychologists, women play a vital civilizing role, taming the savage masculine beast. Poulos repeats the sentimental trope that women are “better” than men and thus perhaps too good for the rough-and-tumble of politics and war; women are the ones with the intuition, the maternal instinct, and the steadfast tenderness to keep us all from descending into Hobbesian brutality. The more we empower women to act like men (by, say, doing away with the sexual double standard and providing access to contraception, or even giving them the vote) the less focused the ladies will be on performing their civilizing role. What social conservatives like to call the “coarsening of the culture” inevitably follows as women are lured away from their natural purpose.
I think James Poulos was right to ask about women’s purpose, even if he came to a wrong answer. The truth is that a male-dominated culture has chosen to outsource virtues like self-control and the capacity to nurture to women. Women’s “purpose,” in other words, is to do for men what men have chosen not to do for themselves. Take sex, for example. The biological truth is that both men and women have powerful sex drives; the psychological truth is that both men and women also have the power to regulate their libidos. The dominant cultural myth, of course, is that young (and not so young) men can’t regulate their own lust. Women, who according to this same myth are much less prone to libidinousness (often presumably only feigning horniness in order to entice men), need to be the ones to set the sexual boundaries that men are incapable of setting.
As long as we believe that men are fundamentally weak and women strong when it comes to self-control, then women serve a very convenient purpose indeed. They not only get saddled with the responsibility of always being the ones to say “no,” they are invariably the ones who must shoulder the responsibility for infidelity or even rape. A man who cheated or who forced himself on a woman, according to the worldview that Poulos defends, was simply aroused beyond his natural capacity. “Men only want one thing” is a slogan designed not to honor women or shame men, but to remind the former that they are ultimately responsible for the behavior of the latter.
In theological circles, what Poulos is proposing is often called “complementarianism”—the idea that men and women were created to occupy separate but parallel spheres, each doing for the other what the other could not do for themselves. It’s an attractive idea. Let men be quick to anger, ambitious, lustful, and fierce; let women be demure, reflective, tender-hearted, and nurturing. Why bother working on becoming a whole person when you can be content as a half? If you buy into complementarianism, then it’s obvious what women and men are “for”—to “complete” the other.
As the great psychologist John Bradshaw pointed out many years ago, there’s a problem with the complementarian arithmetic. We imagine that romantic love on a micro level, or societal harmony on a macro one, is the consequence of two “halves” being added together to form one whole. Men and women look for partners to “complete” them; the likes of Poulos look for men and women to perform their distinct roles so that the world functions smoothly. But as Bradshaw points out, the truth is that wholeness is the consequence of multiplication, not addition. When you multiply two halves together, you get one quarter—both individuals (and both sexes) are diminished by the complementarian lie. The only way you get 1 as the sum by multiplying two integers is if each is already 1; the way you build an honest and healthy relationship or an honest and healthy society is by challenging men and women to become full and complete people. If you want oneness, in other words, you have to have wholeness first.
The truth is that men and women are human beings whose capacity for love and rage, desire and empathy are in no way circumscribed by hormones, genitalia, or chromosomal structure. If we want romantic wholeness and global healing, we need to be serious about identifying the ways in which sexist structures have deprived men and women of the full range of their humanity, forcing us to be “half people” looking desperately for completion in heterosexual relationships. We need to accept and celebrate the male capacity to nurture and reflect—and the female capacity to embrace ambition and anger.
In earlier generations, complementarians quoted Scripture; today, they cite popular articles on evolutionary psychology as evidence that men and women ought to play fundamentally different roles. Poulos and those who share his view that women are here to civilize the be-penised and the testosterone-addled think that feminists who argue for radical equality—wholeness—are hopelessly, maybe even dangerously naïve. But the real naïveté belongs to those who don’t see that men and women alike are endowed with the capacity for all that is human. That’s good policy, that’s good science…and it’s good math too.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.