Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Back in the Eighties when I first entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry, the PNWD ministers had organized a study group for themselves which they called “Humptulips” because it sounds naughty and because it was held in a little town on the Washington coast with that name.  Actually it was a Native American name that meant a cold and rainy place, which it was.  Part of the mild “hazing” that this bunch imposed was assigning new ministers a topic for a scholarly paper that was meant to challenge the person.  So they assigned me the problem of defining the difference between male and female based religions.  It was the time of goddesses and all that, but I didn’t go there, and they knew it.  They were curious about how I would react.
When I looked at both the literature and at personal experience, especially with small experimental groups like the PNWD UU Leadership School group, I decided that the main difference was that the women wanted emotional fusion -- what I called a “hot tub” -- while the men wanted rationality -- what I called a glass phone booth.  (This is not new.)  In practical terms it meant that when it was time to cross the threshold into liminal space, the women went too quickly while the men held back.  (Suddenly they had to make a phone call.) but when it was time to end, the women dawdled in their seats while the men rushed out to pack the car for the drive home.
This matches up somewhat with Simon Baron-Cohen’s studies on the hormone called testosterone, which is often joked about, even unscientifically defined as a poison.  The general scientific indication -- with MANY qualifications about the variations and the impact of culture or personal experience -- is that high testosterone IN THE WOMB for whatever reason generally means high testosterone in the infant, regardless of whether it’s XX/female or XY/male.  (YY babies cannot survive.)  There are at least twenty-five genes that influence the production of testosterone, and it’s estimated that the molecule accounts for maybe forty per cent of the differences between male and female babies as they grow up.  The most salient difference between high and low testosterone babies (regardless of whether they were formally female or male) is that the high testosterone babies better understand systems like math and “hard” science but the low testosterone babies have more empathy and eye contact with humans.  (Given the usual bell-curves, of course.)
The wild card is one of Baron-Cohen’s primary interests:  is there something about testosterone that encourages autism?  More boys than girls have it.  Autism is a spectrum disease, meaning that you can have it a “little bit” or a lot, but it tends to affect boys more than girls.  It is diagnosed by behavior rather than any lab test, and behavior is always much affected by environment and personal experience, so there is nothing very “hard science” about this.  The study I’m drawing on is discussed at:  http://edge.org/conversation/testosterone-on-my-mind    The situation is complex because even if a body is drenched in testosterone, the molecule can’t do anything unless there are testosterone receptors in the body.   (I’ve always understood that high adrenaline in a mother who is carrying a baby will cause a female baby to have higher testosterone than usual but can discourage the development of testosterone in male babies.  I followed the issue when tests years ago showed that I was high androgen.  But I was also high cortisol, which can be a result of trauma, and I got more interested in that.  Especially in the city one often sees low-income, overweight women with male pattern baldness -- the results of stress cortisol.)
This Edge discussion was particularly interesting because it did NOT link testosterone to aggression or violence or sexual potency -- only to high comprehension of systems and lower empathy.   Though there was an interesting observation about the possibility of a “high system” person being able to figure out social patterns well enough to seem empathetic.  This would be an advantage for, say, a lawyer.  Another interesting question was whether a person could have too much empathy -- the expert opinion was that a person could feel what everyone else is feeling to such a great degree that they would neglect themselves.  No one noted that highly empathetic people can seem invasive. 
It’s quite usual for liturgies in many cultures to separate male from female.  No doubt there are many different reasons, depending on the circumstances.  For instance, the women will have the children with them and so be likely to be distracted or even to have to leave.  But also, when religion is defined as systems, reasoning about the gods or ethics, then those “superior” professorial types are likely to run headlong into the more emotional, elastic and case-by-case approach of the women if there is no separation.  Often the reason given for even curtaining off the women is that they are an erotic distraction.  This sounds like men’s self-congratulation to me.  Are they so easily aroused?
During the feminist movement among the UU’s, it became the fashion to perform liturgies restricted to women.  They were often patterned around merging, like pouring water together, and emotional attachment, like bringing the water from some beloved place.  When this ceremony was performed with the whole congregation in Bozeman, one man managed to evade emotion by bringing water from his kitchen tap and -- when it came time to testify about his connection -- explaining the city water system.  But it was a young boy who brought his jar of water with a living creature in it.
The Humptulips study group fell apart when braininess was valued less than it had been earlier and possibly also because there were more and more women ministers.  The earliest ordained females tended to be from the congregations of those ministers, to be older women, divorced (though not as many times as the male ministers), and to have had to work through some major challenges.  The men tended to have come to the ministry young, to have had wives who supported rather than competed, and so on.  But in the days when the ministers were all male, they took the occasion of “study groups” to become emotional, usually with the help of alcohol, and did a lot of ad hoc counseling with each other.  They dropped their testosterone curtain, one might say.  Even got into actual hot tubs.  It’s the thing to do in a cold and rainy place.

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