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Are Gender Roles Inhibiting Interpersonal Communication?

Men and women are different. They think differently, they act differently, they look differently, and they are conditioned differently. Men and women are supposed to have clearly defined roles, and because they are different, they are able to satisfy the requirements and expectations of those roles. This has been a greatly debated topic, and it will continue to be, especially in terms of roles in the workplace and home. The roles are changing, or I should say, that the expectations are changing and the current roles are being questioned.

When thinking of a typical male-female relationship, people like to think that each party is equal, in terms of having control. The problem is, because control looks at the communication of both partners in a transactional way and requires one to exhibit an act of dominance and the other to exhibit a submissive response, how does the couple reach equality? Are partners in relationships expecting to be equal? Research by Townsend suggests that modern woman act like they want to keep their independence and equality at first, with not traditional courtship, until the relationship passes the initial initiation stages. At that point, women want more signs of investment (What Women Want – What Men Want, 146). Equality is expected at some point, but eventually traditional gender roles step in and interfere.

Hugo Schwyzer recently wrote a post titled “The Damaging Expectation Of Higher Male Desire”, bringing up a particular topic of situations in which young women find themselves in sexual relationships having a higher libido than their male partner. On the surface, many may not view this as a cause for concern. A young woman with a high sexual desire is not uncommon, and with the media depicting more and more women openly expressing their sexual fantasies, desires and endeavors, there has never been a more acceptable time to be a young woman with a raging libido.

However, concerns do arise when we find out that the woman has a much higher desire than the man she is with. Why would there be any concern over this? From the very beginning of time, we are bombarded with messages about how uncontrollably high male desire is. We learn that men are always supposed to be the aggressor and that “all men do is think about sex.” According to studies conducted by Miller, Plant and Hanke, by age seven, girl were trying to fit the form that was expected of them by other women and eventually men. In the same studies, boys were fitting their predestined mold by kindergarten! (Communication and Sex-Role Socialization, 56). Saying that all men have a greater sexual desire is a stereotype, and stereotypes don’t arise out of nothing.

Humans stereotype because they’re looking to reduce uncertainty about someone or something. Being able to lessen the threat of the unfamiliar by grouping someone together with others that are similar, or appear to be similar, is not necessarily evil. We do it so that we can better proceed with the situation, because we have some knowledge and we should use it. In the interpersonal communication realm, stereotypes are also referred to as role schemata. Schemata allow us to interpret and organize new information, and role schemata provide information about appropriate behavior based on social categories such as age, sex, and occupation.

When the young female with higher desire experiences an encounter or situation that goes against the typically accepted stereotype, there can be a breakdown. Communication between the two partners may stop because she may feel something is wrong with either her partner or herself.  As research shows, equity is highly correlated with satisfaction in relationships and marriage. If one partner feels that their ratio of rewards compared to their costs is less than their partner’s rewards/cost ratio, they will feel under-benefitted. The goal, according to equity theory, is the want to perceive that one partner’s R/C ratio is equal to the other partner’s R/C ratio.

Once stereotyping stops being an effective tool to reduce uncertainty, people turn to other methods of uncertainty reduction. In addition to stereotyping, human beings enjoy applying attributions to other’s actions. People are motivated to not just observe, but to draw conclusions about the people they interact with. When we are able to give meaning to something, we feel more connected or better understand the situation, circumstances, and outcomes.

In the situation described in Schwyzer’s article, the young woman with the higher sexual desire wants to draw a conclusion about why her male partner has less desire. It may be something to do with him or her internally, or can be attributed to something externally. Attributions can be made about the situation in three different ways:

  • Consensus – “How is this person acting as opposed to how most other people would act in a similar situation?”
    If the female had other partners that had higher desires than her, she can make internal attributions about him, as in “something is wrong with him.”
  • Consistency – “How is this person acting now, versus how they act in that same situation over time?”
    If the female always is the one with the higher sexual desire, both her and her partner are displaying high consistency, and she can make internal attributions.
  • Distinctiveness – “How is this person acting now in comparison to other similar situations?”
    If the female’s partner showed low desire for other women, she can make internal attributions about her partner. He may have low testosterone levels or other conditions affecting his desire.

Attributions are made for the same reasons why people stereotype, uncertainty reduction. By applying meaning to people’s actions, we can make greater inferences on what people are like, and what they will be like in future interactions.

Interpersonal communication slows when processed through gender roles. Men have been conditioned to not talk about their feelings or go into great detail about themselves. When problems arise in a couple’s relationship, most may assume that men don’t want to deal with it. Men want to share those concerns, but fear that sharing one emotion or feeling may open Pandora’s box and have the opposite sex question everything about them. The biggest problem is that society has been conditioned by and for both sexes. Men know how men are “supposed” to act, but also to expect how women are “supposed” to act, and vice-versa.

What is interesting is that in a study conducted by Nash in 1975, results showed by age eleven almost 40 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys would prefer to be of the other sex (Sex-Related Cognitive Differences, 143). The study also found that by age fourteen, percentages dropped to 15 percent for girls and zero for boys. This is interesting because if we begin to change the conditionings children are receiving at a young age, we can help alleviate problems we see stemming from trying to live up to traditional gender roles.

There are implications that go far beyond just the scope of sexual desire. We live in a time where men are still expected to initiate most interactions with members of the opposite sex. These expectations touch upon the fact that at a scene like in a bar, the male is constantly aroused, so he tries to get with the best looking woman in the place. The fact is, because most people try and relate everything back to these outdated gender roles, communication does not occur. If it does, it doesn’t happen at a frequency and quality that is possible if gender roles were less emphasized.

I’ve been a part of enough situations where I am interacting with a young woman on a regular basis, and at some point the level of intimacy and quality of interactions hits a plateau. In my experience, the plateauing is not due to sudden disinterest, but a collection of mixed messages that becomes confused with or reliant on traditional gender roles. Dr. Terry Kupers may offer an explanation as why this occurs, “Some men refuse to permit much intimacy to develop because they are afraid of the rejection they believe is inevitable” (Revisioning Men’s Lives, 60). Dr. Kupers also goes on to say that men must remember that women have idiosyncrasies too. At this point, being 22 years old, I’ve learned not to try and protect those true feelings, because more often than not, the woman also has those same feelings or discover similar feelings once I put them out on the table first.

The American culture and society has taught woman that the man has to ask the woman out on a date. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it always will be. When people see woman going against this norm, and being a bit more forward or asking the man out on a date, they see her as powerful, edgy, and even sexy. In those situations, rarely do you see the man portrayed in a less masculine way, but you see him as being so unbelievably manly that the woman had to ask him out. I believe men want to be just as flattered by women asking them out on dates, initiating sexual intimacy, or surprising them by remembering the little things, as women seem to be when men do the same for them. The problem is, we’ve been conditioned not to share those feelings.

Maybe the greatest concern that can arise out of the situation detailed in the “Expectations” article, or any gender role-confusing situation, is that constantly trying to live up to these gender stereotypes can result in poor mental health and shortening of life. Research conducted by Maccoby and published by Jourard demonstrated that “boys who identify strongly with their own sex roles tend to be less intelligent and creative than those who identify less rigidly with members of their own sex” (Sex-role Stereotyping, 60). I believe that men do have anxiety over their roles, but try and diminish it by displaying even more masculine behavior or thoughts.

Gender roles play too big of a role in society today. Though we have progressed from earlier restrictions and adherences, particularly due to the media, our interpersonal interactions are still too guided by these outdated models. Problems arise because men and women alike try to live up to their gender’s roles, in the same way their heroes, role models and parents did. Additionally, with the amount of research that has come out of this area, men and women are more and more aware of the opposite gender’s roles. When that happens, interpersonal relationships hit a stalemate. Men expect to act one way, and expect women to act one way as well, and the same goes for women. The only remedy that I can see is, let’s be ourselves, not who we’re supposed to be.

In all actuality, who knows us better than ourselves? No one.