4 September 2006
The Penis Preference
by Paul Aitken
Heaven loves ya,
The clouds part for ya,
Nothing stands in your way,
When you're a boy
David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging
It's better to be a boy. Admit it, it's true. You've always had a feeling, not necessarily of superiority, but perhaps of being favored in some way. This sense of entitlement, sometimes subtle, often overt, is endemic to all cultures across all time periods. Despite the fact that we all agree (in western culture anyway) that gender favoritism is unfair, efforts to counter this imbalance have been patchy at best, and have largely been led by the popular media. On television and in movies, children's books etc., women and girls are now favored. It's rare now to find a female character who is less kick-ass than a man. And to some extent this has been successful. Women dominate the music scene. Girls outperform boys in school and outnumber them in university. Teenage girls are more aggressive. Their testosterone levels are rising. But note that what is happening with Buffy, Lara Croft and other icons of grrrl power isn't the celebration of the feminine so much as the celebration of the masculine in the guise of the feminine. After all these years of male diminishment and female ascendance, it's still better to be a boy.
A moment's thought reveals the reality of this. Even in our western culture, where political correctness has become something of a secular religion, parents still voice a preference for boys. "It's a boy!" is still a more triumphant proclamation than; "It's a girl!" And while it's okay to be a boyish-girl (parents speak with sneaking pride about their tomboy daughters), it's definitely not okay to be a girlish-boy (sissy). Males in urban cultures diminish their rivals by calling them bitches. Female empowerment may be the dominant cultural force of our time, but as any five year-old in the playground can tell you, the greatest insult for a boy is to be called a girl.
Why does society have a preference for boys? What parent in their right mind would prefer something made of snakes, snails and puppy dogs tails to something made of sugar and spice and everything nice? Boys are not easy to raise. They're aggressive, destructive little things; and when they grow up they can be downright murderous. Males are responsible for 80 percent of crimes, 90 percent of murders and pretty much every war throughout history. Men are less forgiving, more judgmental, more right-wing, more prone to mob violence. They're more vulnerable to schizophrenia, genetic diseases and baldness. They die younger. Their body odor is ranker. Their claims to superior logic are belied by their impulsive behavior and their tendency to think with their dicks. Men are just as emotional as women but in all the wrong ways. Women may get weepy at the slightest thing but it's men that go postal. Men will kill out of anger, jealousy, revenge, sport... you name it. And if there's a cause out there, then they'll kill for that too. Does anybody think America would be at war in Iraq if Laura Bush ran the country?
So, given that girls are better behaved, more caring, more giving, more even tempered, more likely to be exemplars of everything we recognize as worthy and good; why, oh why, do we favor boys? Well, let's start with the obvious. Half of society is made up of men and men like men. They want to have sex with women and they're willing to live with them but they generally prefer the company of men. And it's not hard to see why. Guys get other guys. Guys understand why it's fun to get drunk and piss off the edge of a rooftop. They speak the same language. They know the rules. A guy is never going to get pissy because some other guy forgot to call him. And there's nothing a guy likes more than to see his guyness reflected back at him. When a man looks at his infant son he can envision their whole relationship; from playing catch to drinking beer on the porch. The father-son relationship is profound, almost sacred. It's completely different with a daughter. Women, generally, are a mystery to men. Men don't truly understand their wives, their connection to their sisters is often limited to tearing off their dolls' heads and God's knows what's going on with the whole mother thing. Daughters, to men, are an unknown quantity. They have no memory of a father-daughter relationship to draw from. And any fantasy about her future life comes to an abrupt, unfathomable end when he imagines her of dating age. In poll after poll from around the world, men strongly (up to 95 percent in China) prefer sons.
Women, on the other hand, do not strongly prefer daughters; and like men, women also like men. They may not appreciate their testosterone driven excesses, but they're attracted to their forthrightness, their boldness, their humor and their sense of honor and duty. They marvel at the ease with which men negotiate their position in the hierarchy. Girls may make better human beings overall, but boys just seem... more appealing. But here's the central question: Does this essential masculine appeal drive the preference for boys or is it simply a reflection of it?
Feminist theory is fairly blunt about this. The preferential treatment of boys and the desire for boys is a social construct. We live in a patriarchal society which places greater value on boys and as long as men have power it's better to have sons. The construct is self-reinforcing and is very difficult to change. If women were to become the dominant gender then the situation would presumably be reversed and girls would be accorded greater value than boys. The theory is speculative of course. There's almost no way to prove or refute it because almost all societies are patriarchal and they're patriarchal because men being physically stronger and more aggressive, naturally gravitate to leadership.
But now that physical prowess is no longer a leadership determinant, is it possible that at some point we may see a shift in gender value towards girls? Given the recent inversion of academic performance (girls now excel in all subjects while boys' sphere of excellence has been reduced to Gameboy, Pokemon and lipping-off at the teacher), and with the increasing importance of education in the global economy, it is quite possible that women will begin out-earning their less educated brothers within a generation. Whether this translates into a genuine shift in gender power and whether this shift has any real effect on gender value remains to be seen.
There are signs that this may already be happening, however. While the preference for sons is very strong worldwide, it is diminishing, especially in the western nations where women have made the greatest gains towards gender equality. If one were to draw a line on the gender preference graph from 1950 to today, one would see the line fall, slowly at first, but quite steeply in the last couple of decades. If one were to follow the angle of this line into the future one could conclude that at some point, girls will be preferred to boys. In one country, that line has already crossed the threshold. In Japan, girls are wanted more than boys. So far, Japan is the lone exception to the gender bias expressed everywhere else and the jury's out on whether Japan is a cultural anomaly or the vanguard of a sea-change in gender value. Fifty years ago the Japanese expressed the same strongly pro-boy bias that was typical in other Asian countries, but over the last thirty years as the Japanese became richer and better educated, that stated preference has fallen. Men still prefer sons (41 percent to 28 percent - the rest being neutral) but women strongly (64 percent to 16 percent) prefer girls. This runs counter to the stats of most other countries and may underscore the Japanese exception. In Japan, sons may carry on the family name but they no longer bring home all the bacon. Japanese women make almost as much money and they're much more likely to care for aging parents. Additionally, mother-daughter relationships are "trendy" in Japan and this has likely been reflected in the current mother-daughter preference. But it's also probable that the shift towards daughters is a product of the increasing valuation of women that comes with gender equality.
So, will we be gender neutral in a couple of decades? Might we actually drift to a preference for females? It's possible but I doubt it. Even if women end up earning more than men. Even if femininity triumphs masculinity and The Gilmore Girls ends up representing a higher standard of female potential than Buffy the Vampire Slayer; boys will still be boys. Boys will never want to be like girls. Whatever value society places on them, they will place a higher value on themselves, individually and as a gender. As David Bowie said so succinctly; "Boys keep swinging, Boys always work it out." And goddamnit, there's just something appealing about that.