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Who Says the Sexes Are Planets Apart?

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Feb. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus? Maybe not.

It's a pop psychology theory that has permeated modern culture, but a new study debunks the premise that men and women are irrevocably different in every way.

"A lot of people think about men and women as being different species somehow," said study senior author Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "We wanted to hold that assumption up to rigorous scrutiny."

Reis and his co-author, a self-described "tomboy," analyzed 122 different physical and personality traits in more than 13,000 individuals. Their findings are reported in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Physical traits included weight, height, shoulder breadth, arm circumference and waist-to-hip ratio. Psychological characteristics included empathy, fear of success, intimacy, choice of mate and sexual attitudes and behavior.

The conclusion?

Sure, men and women were physically different, obviously in terms of genital organs but also in height, weight and prowess (men tended to throw the javelin farther and jump higher than women did), the study found.

And certain stereotypes held true with regard to hobbies and activities. For instance, women were more likely to be interested in scrapbooking, pedicures and TV talk shows, while men veer toward boxing, video games and watching pornography, the researchers said.

But that's where the distinctions ended.

In terms of psychology, the thinking of men and women tended to overlap. In other words, men can be from Venus or Mars, and so can women, although it might be more accurate to say both genders are from Earth.

"We're accustomed to men having a penis and women having a vagina, then putting all kinds of attributes on them," said Dr. T. Byram Karasu, psychiatrist-in-chief at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "In reality, there's no such thing as men's and women's characteristics."

"Masculinity is a spectrum and there are men who are more 'woman' than women in terms of 'female characteristics' such as empathy and compassion," he added. "Femininity is also a spectrum. On one end, some females have more testosterone and aggression than most men."

So why do people tend to segregate men and women into such separate stratospheres?

"It is the drama that we love," Karasu said. "These are the roles we are given to play."

But this role-assigning may actually be harmful, Reis said. For instance, if you attribute your mate's annoying behavior to immutable gender traits, he or she will have no reason to change.

"It would make me very happy [if people started seeing] these various qualities as human differences -- qualities that some people have more of and some people have less of -- and that a person's gender is a very small piece of that," Reis said.

And what about the idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus?

"That idea should go into the trash can and, yes, you may quote me," Reis said.

More information

The World Health Organization has more on gender.

SOURCES: Harry Reis, Ph.D., professor, psychology, University of Rochester Medical Center, New York; Byram Karasu, M.D., psychiatrist-in-chief, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; February 2013 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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