Sex and animal protection
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1994:
Chances are, most of the people who attended the seminar on “Differences
between men and women” at the American Humane Association’s annual training confer-
ence last fall wondered what this had to do with animal protection. Presenter Judy Lang
asked the same question––after delineating the many behavioral differences found by recent
l research. By then the audience was bursting with examples of specific situations where a
better understanding of sex differences might significantly help.
One difference of note, applicable to both humane education and anti-cruelty
enforcement, is the disparate degree to which men and women recognize personal feelings.
As Lang pointed out, women have a much stronger neurolink between their brain hemi-
spheres, which results in greater capacity for connecting thought with emotion. Thus
women are less likely to blindly react. Some research suggests women are less likely to
abuse children and animals in part because they are more likely to recognize their own anger
and frustration before it emerges in hostile behavior, and are therefore quicker to use empa-
thy as a brake upon negative feelings. Men commit both violent crimes and suicide far
more often; women are far more likely to seek psychological help. Lang stressed that the
physiological difference is a matter of degrees, not of absolutes, and should not be consid-
ered a handicap or an excuse for inhumane behavior: men can and must be taught to
“count to a thousand” before reacting. What is important is recognizing that men often need
to be taught a mode of responding that for women may be inuitive.
A converse situation, Lang noted, is that men tend to be better at certain types of
abstract reasoning where intuition gets in the way. Thus men seem to pick up math and
map-reading more easily. This may contribute as well to the apparent greater ability of men
to limit conflict within ritualized rules, whether those of debate or gangster codes of honor.
Lang showed through a quick classroom exercise that men tend to be more acutely aware of
their status at all times; women are more acutely aware of whether everyone is getting
along. Male consciousness has evolved in response to the development of primate mating
hierarchies, while female consciousness is more concerned with keeping a safe atmosphere
for the rearing of young. Men accordingly engage in overt contests of dominance, in which
display is usually more important than substance. Such contests are involved, in almost
every encounter among men, whether in business, sports, politics, or casual conversation.
They relatively rarely flare into violence because much as predators instinctively understand
that preying upon other predators is risky no matter who wins, men generally understand,
perhaps instinctively, the necessity of respecting rules of engagement to reduce mutual risk.
Dominance, after all, is relative, and the loser in one confrontation may win the next. A
related male understanding involves the acceptance of teamwork to gain a degree of domi-
nance collectively that team members couldn’t gain alone. It is through teamwork that men
wage war, escalating conflict to a degree that would be suicidal for an individual. (It is also
often only through teamwork, including at war, that men discover the empathic emotional-
ly stabilizing friendships that women tend to form throughout their lives. )
When women fight, Lang continued, the issue is more likely to be at least sublim-
inally perceived as life-and-death. This doesn’t mean the issue at hand is serious; only that
where men are programmed for nonstop ritual combat, involving frequent low-risk offen-
sive forays, women tend to be programmed to fight to the death if forced to fight at all.
This in turn results in a dramatic difference in modes of conflict. Because the issue for men
tends to be display, the conflict is overt. Because the issue for women is felt as survival,
women to equal degree place importance upon remaining hidden. Stereotypically, men
challenge; women resort to subtrefuge. The male approach to conflict is the approach of
power-holders; the female approach is that of the relatively powerless, for whom guerilla
warfare is the only viable counterattack. Men who are recognized as great strategists tend to
be those who have learned to use female strategies; women recognized as great strategists
tend to understand the use of male strategies when strategically appropriate.
Some of the implications of all this appear in organizational politics of animal pro-
tection. Groups seen as packs of self-aggrandizing rascals tend to be male-dominated,
though they may have female figureheads. Groups seen as dedicated to humane ideals but
tactically treacherous tend to be female-dominated. Lang suggested, cautiously, that the
often remarked nastiness accompanying divisions of opinion within humane work may
result from sexual demographics: men dominate the upper echelons of most humane groups
(and pay themselves half again more, on average), but four out of five humane workers
(and animal rights activists) are female. Women are frustrated by the sexual hierarchy of
humane groups, which has historically been related to the division of labor: women do
most of the hands-on animal care, while men are more often the administrators, attorneys,
accountants, and until recently, the veterinarians. The frustration of feeling excluded from
leadership may be exacerbated because although women are generally better at conflict res-
olution involving men, they may be less familiar with managing conflict itself. It doesn’t
help that since the subliminal issue for the male leaders may be personal status more than
animal suffering, many large and influential groups lag behind even the general public in
accepting such concepts as ceasing to eat meat––which diet studies have shown women
accomplish with far more ease and often little self-consciousness, whereas men may feel
compelled to eat steaks they don’t want, just to send a status-related message to other men.
Bernard Rollin, author of The Unheeded Cry and other books about animal rights
and animal protection, points toward similar sex-stereotyped conflicts when the predomi-
nantly female humane groups confront predominantly male animal user groups, e.g.
hunters, ranchers, and biomedical researchers. Often, Rollin suggests, a conflict escalates
beyond easy resolution simply because the opponents don’t speak the same language. The
hidden issue for the men is how to change their behavior without losing status with peers by
seeming to surrender to a weaker party. Denial, Rollin suggests, may indicate not that men
are blind to the suffering their activity causes, but rather that they don’t know what to do
about it. They not only need an alternative to whatever they are doing that won’t cost them
their livelihood; they need a way to embrace it that won’t seemingly cost them their man-
hood, which may be perceptually linked to their ability to kill and bear weapons, their
maintenance of large herds, and the size of their research grants. According to Rollin,
“When a guy begins practicing denial, and you know that he knows what you do, then you
have to start showing him an easy way out, because he doesn’t want to fight you any more.
He knows he’s wrong. What you have to do is find a way to let him do right.”
The key is strategic disengagement, which is distinctively different from relin-
quishing an essential point. Successful married couples learn how and when to do it. We
need to learn how to do it in our political life, as well.