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A NOTE ON SEX DIFFERENCES, FROM THE
PSYCHO-ANALYTIC POINT OF VIEW
By S. S. BRIERLEY.
I. Introductory. The psychological problem of sex differences shares with other psychological inquiries, in contrast to the problems of the physical sciences, the essential difficulty that the very facts under discussion, the particular trends and mechanisms at issue, may themselves colour our observations and influence our judgments. These inherent difficulties would seem to be unusually great with this problem, for a study of both popular and quasi-scientific literature on the subject gives one the impression that there is nowhere a greater confusion between what is and what 'ought' to be the truth, what is and what we should like to be the truth. To the psycho-analyst, this is scarcely surprising; for it is clear that the question of sex differences must be peculiarly liable to affective judgments, since from its nature it lies so close to the major elements in the unconscious life of both men and women. Indeed, a study of the unconscious factors in opinion and belief on this matter would indirectly be, in large measure, a psycho-analytic study of the sex differences themselves. One knows that no one is exempt from these influences; but one has, nevertheless, to press forward with at least the intention of objectivity, and with the hope that awareness of the nature of some of the pitfalls in one's path may somewhat lessen the risk of falling into them.
The total differences between the sexes in the human species may be divided, for the purpose of this discussion, into three groups, (a) the primary anatomical differences, (b) the secondary sex characters, and (c) the psychological differences. These three groups are by no means independent of each other, but the relation between them is highly complex and to some extent variable. I refer to the primary distinction between male and female as 'anatomical,' for a good psychological reason. The strict definition of maleness and femaleness is in physiological terms, a female being any individual organism producing egg-cells or ova which, after uniting with cells of different character derived from a male, give rise to new organisms. Normally, however, this egg- or sperm-producing power is accompanied by the appropriate external genitalia; and these constitute for the ordinary mind the gross physical distinction between male and female, awareness of which is the fundamental and primitive content of specific sex consciousness, reverberating profoundly, as psycho-analysis has shown, throughout the mental life as a whole.
The second group of differences, those known as the secondary sex characters, covering differences in the skeleton, musculature, rate of growth, skin, hair, voice, gait, and the other obvious or more subtle physiological sex characteristics, are now, as is well known, attributed to the internal secretions of the essential reproductive organs, acting in conjunction with the secretions of the other ductless glands. They are, in fact, an expression of the total and highly complex metabolisms of the male and female. Here, however, as both common and more exact observations show, we do not find the sharp distinction between male and female which normally occurs in regard to primary maleness and femaleness. As might, perhaps, be expected from the number of variables which enter into the determination of these characters, we find, within the range of normality, an indefinitely graded series passing over from the typical male to the typical female, the great majority of actual men and women lying somewhere in between the completely feminine female and masculine male. This, again, is a fact of considerable psychological importance. It is so directly, since our third group of sex differences, the mental, are in their turn determined, at least to some extent, by the action of the endocrine secretions, and would for many purposes be included in the secondary sex characters. This is generally held to be true of emotional and temperamental characteristics, at least. And the serial gradation of actual men and women between the typical male and female, so easily to be observed in the more obvious differences of outward structure, affords a strong presumption that there will be no sharp line of difference in the case of the subtler emotional and temperamental characteristics, but that every degree of difference will be found. A study of the experimental evidence suggests that the gradation is even smoother in the latter than in the former respects. In any case, it is clear that any thorough study of the problem involves not merely the identification of the sex groups, for purposes of comparison, with the mean difference found rather than with the extreme case, but also a reference to the actual curve of distribution, to the degree of scatter of the differences.
This fact of the gradation of the secondary sex characters, including the emotional and temperamental, and the contrast of this gradation
with the sharp primary distinction of maleness and femaleness, is also of importance indirectly, for it will have to be kept in mind at a later stage of the discussion, when the question of predisposing factors in the 'castration-complex' has to be raised. We may content ourselves at this point with suggesting that some of the psychological differences actually to be observed between grown men and women must be, not so much secondary sex characters, as tertiary, the offspring of the self-consciousness of sex, of the intense primitive awareness of the primary sex distinction. We are here in contact with the problem which most students of sex differences have kept in mind, viz. how far the observable differences are innate and how far acquired, being in the latter case the result of suggestion, custom and tradition, and, psycho-analysts may add, an expression of the 'castration-complex.' To take an example, how far the generally acknowledged imitativeness of women, their readiness to follow a plan laid down for them, their comparative lack of initiative and originality, are innate, or due to the effect of a tradition of sexual modesty and submissiveness. This is an obscure issue, and one which experimental methods have so far been unable to decide. Neither is the psycho-analytic method yet able to give a full answer. It does, however, throw some valuable new light upon the problem; and that, mainly because this question of sex differences is essentially a genetic problem, and must in the end be approached from the standpoint of a genetic psychology. In this respect there is a striking parallel between the history of this study and that of criminology. Not so very long ago, criminology was a mere accumulation of facts about adult criminals. It was what one might call a fortuitous concourse of atomic facts; and it was this condition which made the Lombrosian theory possible, the theory being an attempt to substitute a speculative evolutionary dynamics for a concrete individual history. The science did not begin to move until it shifted its attention from the adult to the child, and the individual genesis of the criminal was studied. So with our present problem; a static enumeration of mental differences between the adult man and woman has only limited scientific value. What is needed is a genetic study of the individual boy and girl. And the psycho-analytic method is essentially genetic. The time would thus seem ripe for a brief review of the new facts as to sex differences which psycho-analysis has been able to bring together in the pursuit of its individual studies.
There is a further reason for looking to psycho-analysis for important contributions to this problem. It is becoming increasingly clear to students of sex differences that those differences are greatest in the region of emotional and temperamental characteristics, and that the factor of interest is the key to such intellectual differences as are found in practical life. The experimental studies of sex differences in the cognitive processes, while scantier than one could wish, and sometimes based upon too few or too unrepresentative cases, are on the whole convergent in tendency. That tendency is to minimise the extent and significance of sex differences. There appears to be little or no difference in the mean level of general intelligence and the higher mental functions; where any has been shown, it has been negligible in comparison with the extent of individual variations. Differences with regard to specific mental functions, particularly those on the lower mental levels, appear to be somewhat greater in degree and general significance; but even here the
of individual variation is too wide to allow the sex group difference any great weight. (The range of individual variability itself appears to be the most striking sex group difference found, being, on all counts and with regard to most measurable qualities, greater in the male than in the female.)
It is, however, in those tests in which the detailed nature of the task to be performed is prescribed by the conditions of the experiment, those designed to measure quantitative differences in one or two determined qualitative processes, as for instance tests of controlled association, memory, and reasoning, that the sex differences turn out to be minimal. Where the task given is less rigidly fixed by the conditions of the experiment, and subjective factors have free play, as in experiments on free association, positive and significant sex differences appear, in the form of divergent 'interests.' And interest is the bridge between the cognitive processes and the emotional and temperamental aspects of the personality. Following on this hint, and led by the recent general development of the psychology of emotion and instinct, the student of sex differences has seen the focus of attention shift from the intellectual processes to the conative and affective. It is in this field however that the psycho-analytic method is an indispensable instrument of research, and we must therefore turn to it for any specific contributions it has to offer to the problem of sex differences.
1 See, for instance: (1) Thorndike, Educational Psychology, m (Columbia University, 1914). (2) Burt and Moore, 'The Mental Differences between the Sexes' (J. Exp. Pedagogy, 1911). (3) Burt, Mental and Scholastic Tests (King and Son, 1921). (4) Burt, “The Development of Reasoning in School Children’ (J. Exp. Pedagogy, v). (5) Jastrow, in Psychological Review, III. (6) Thompson, The Mental Traits of Sex (University of Chicago Press, 1903). (7) Report on Differentiation of Curriculum between the Sexes (H.M. Stationery Office, 1923).
It is not hoped to do more in this brief note than to state the nature of the problem from the psycho-analytic point of view, and to hint at possible specific lines of inquiry.
II. Analysis of genetic problem. An analysis, from the genetic point of view, of the problem of sex differences leads to the following necessary lines of inquiry: (a) What are the primitive and specific differences between male and female in the nature of the sex impulse itself? (6) Are there any differences as regards the relation of the sex impulse to the ego trends? (c) Are there any psychological mechanisms characteristic of male and female? (d) What differences are there in the external relations of the male and female child, and in the problems of adjustment set for each by these external relations? (e) Finally, what are the relations between all the foregoing factors and the observable differences in the general mental life of adult men and women? It is important to distinguish these aspects of the problem, although it is hardly practicable to keep them quite separate in the discussion, since they are so closely interwoven in the facts.
(a) With regard to the nature of the sex impulse, it is clear that we must take into account not only the normal sex reactions of the adult, but infantile forms of sexuality also, since we are making a genetic study. The classic writers on the subject of sex differences, and all pre-psychoanalytic students have dealt only with the mature sex impulse. Speaking of this first, there can be no doubt as to a specific difference between male and female in the nature of the impulse, as regards the essential sex act and the fore-pleasures preparatory to it. The male impulse is from the nature of the case relatively active, the female relatively passive; and this complementary activity and passivity are in part an expression of the sadistic-masochistic components of the impulse, and in part of the greater freedom of the object-libido in the male, and the greater narcissism of the female. This distinction as to activity and passivity is not, of course, an absolute one, and it refers to the form or aim of the impulse, rather than to its inner character, since the libido, as Freud points out?, is in one sense always active. It is, however, a sufficiently deep distinction to justify us in speaking of the male sex impulse as predominantly active, and of the female as predominantly passive, as far as the act of coitus and the immediate preparatory stages are concerned. These are not the whole of the sex reactions of the
1 Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, p. 79.