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April 4, 2008

How Harsh Environments Hurt Women and Men

The snow whipped around my home in the Rocky Mountains. The night wind howled and woke me. My husband, Dale, heard it too but in our sturdy home, reliable furnace, and warm comforter we just snuggled closer.

Yet, put me back before electricity, fuel, and birth control and a storm like that could shake me up. I'd be more dependent on Dale for food and warmth, possibly pregnant, definitely cold. And I sincerely doubt I would be a writer/speaker working alongside my husband. This world without our modern inventions affects how men and women interact. Without protection a harsher environment actually segregates women from men.

Let me explain. As David Gilmore of the State University of New York has observed (Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity), in most cultures men must earn and maintain their masculinity through stressful testing. Women are granted safer jobs that allow for the bearing and nursing of children. Therefore, in case of danger, the men may be sacrificed first and are easily replaced. So our biological distributions predispose women for safety and men for risk. Women are essential; men are expendable, as practices in the animal kingdom (one male with a harem) and polygamy indicate. But, Gilmore is quick to assert, men are not naturally noble, nor more eager for the job. Men must be pushed into risk. Boys are coerced, and when required, shamed, into manhood making obstacles and male rites of passage, to prove they are real men.

For American males in college the rites often include kegs of beer. For the Masai cattle-herder living in Kenya circumcision provides his initiation into the warrior group. He will also be required to prove his herding feats warding off leopards and lions. But not all cultures enforce rites of passage. Gilmore argues that the harsher the environment, the more difficulties a boy must endure to prove he can make it in this hard world.

After passing the tests, is it any surprise that this newly made man will set himself up as superior to women? Cultures with stressful, high-pressure rites have consistently high instances of abuse towards women. Among the Masai for instance, the men practice polygamy, refuse to eat with women, and assist by holding girls down during female circumcision. Pressured manhood makes the men feel superior. They've earned the right to lord it over women.

But if you travel to the tropical, benign environment of Tahiti, where Tahitians live among the abundance of lagoons and fertile land, there are no practices of pressured manhood. Among the Tahitian men and women an almost complete overlap in roles, personalities and responsibilities exists. The safer, gentle environment creates softer lines between the sexes (for more see Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's My Brother's Keeper: What the Social Sciences Do (and Don't) Tell us About Masculinity ). Harsh environments create hard lines between the sexes; softer environments create more flexible roles.

Gilmore's argument makes sense in light of what happened to Man in Eden. "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you . . . by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" (Gen 3:17-19). As the habitat became harsher, men took upon themselves the need to conquer it, fighting for security. In the process they developed male rites of passage and further divided themselves from their female partners. Everyone missed out. The curse on the earth hurt men and women's interaction so that today men's fraternities and church nurseries flooded with females fail to strike us as aberrations of the way God created us to be.

The irony is that Americans today don't need to experience a harsh environment. We live among the modern advantages of electricity, abundant food, and relative safety. In this security men and women might find more mutuality. We might work side-by-side even when the storm rages. We would do well to consider if the "roles" we assign to men and women reflect necessities or if we are artificially insisting on "roles" to reflect a harsher time in history. Perhaps we're missing the full benefits of modern advantages today and thereby missing how men and women might work together in all areas of life.


How silly we are to take anthropology and technological change as our guiding hermeneutic.

Hi Gregg,
I'm curious what you meant. Are you saying that we should not look for and share the anthropological evidence that backs up Scripture? Do you disagree with the evidence that harsh environments harm men and women's relationship? Or do you disagree with the idea that gender relations were harmed as the earth was cursed? I'm not sure what you disagree with...or if you do.
I was interested to find evidence that a change in our environment affects gender roles. Why was this silly to you?
For me, it's lent further light to the causes of the gender war as I've observed it in Scriptural passages and many cultures.
Isn't it our joy and privilege to observe how anthropology or technological change affects us as men and women living after the Fall?
It seemed to provide more support for what we already know to be true in Scripture, to validate that God truly is the God of all truth regardless of where we find it, anthropology, technology, sociology, psychology, philosophy. What are you concerns?

Ironic that the relative security required for this relational utopia depends for its existence on the courageous, self-tested men of antiquity...

Wow, thank you for this article. I love thoughtful, researched, outside-the-norm insights like this, and find them very thought-provoking. I have often expressed the thought that one of the first results of sin was division between men and women, and it is one of the most powerful tactics that the enemy has used ever since.


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