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Gender Differences in Reports of Intimate Expression
Findings from a number of studies have indicated that women have reported a greater degree of intimacy within their interpersonal relationships than men. This difference is especially noticeable in the study of same-sex friendship. Studies have consistently indicated that women show a deeper level of intimacy experienced with same-sex friends when compared to their male counterparts. In these studies, women have also given more positive ratings to their same-sex friends than men on qualities associated with relationship dedication, disclosure, and support. Other related studies have found that women may actually engage in different patterns of behavior than do men within same-sex friendship. In fact, it has been claimed that the relationships of men, in general, are characterized by a lack of intimacy when compared to those of women. Since the identification of this distinction is based on gender, researchers have attempted to understand the role of gender in relationships, particularly in same-sex friendship. Findings such as these have often led to the characterization of women's friendships as “face to face” and men's friendships as “side by side.”
A Brief History of Gender and Intimacy
It was not until the late nineteenth century that writers made a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Slowly, same-sex relationships began to be seen as less acceptable. This delineation soon led to the view of some intimate same-sex relationships as immoral. It is suggested that there is an association between the perception of same-sex friendships as unholy, and the increased inhibition of the expression of intimacy by men. It was not long after this that psychological research began to identify gender differences in intimate expression.
Along these lines, Paul Wright has suggested that researchers be cautious in the interpretation of gender differences in relationships. Among several reasons, he noted that statistical significance can be misleading and that using gender as a subject variable can confound interpretations. For instance, the extent of within-gender variation is sometimes overlooked when research has gender as a primary focus. Furthermore, other variables (e.g., gender role orientation, intimacy motivation) have been found to outweigh gender differences regarding intimacy in relationships.
Although the role of gender in the experience and expression of intimacy may be unclear, the frequency with which research has indicated gender differences cannot be ignored. A consistent pattern of gender differences has been indicated in the literature and has led to the following conclusions: (a) Women frequently have yielded higher scores than men on measures of intimacy or on variables related to intimate emotional expression (e.g. self-disclosure); (b) Women have indicated that they participate in what are considered to be “feminine” modes of intimacy (e.g., talking, physical touch), whereas men more often have reported engaging in activities together as intimacy; (c) Few significant gender differences in the ways in which men and women define intimacy can be found and (d) Caution should be used in the interpretation of gender differences since within-gender variations or other variables (e.g., gender role orientation) may help explain noticeable gender differences. It is suggested that women and men agree on what intimacy is, yet it is in their expression of intimacy, in their reports of intimacy, that they may differ. Furthermore, in any investigation of gender, the role of related variables should also be examined.
Possible Explanations for Gender Differences in Intimacy
Evolutionary and Biological Theories. One explanation of gender differences in intimacy relies heavily on biology and evolutionary psychology. That is, since women are biologically prepared for childbearing and breast-feeding, they must also be innately predisposed to intimate interactions. Men, on the other hand, will achieve the most successful proliferation of their genes if they have as many female partners as possible. Consequently, men may limit intimacy with sex partners as well as same-sex friends, in order to move on to the next conquest.
Role Theory. Another popular alternative holds that socially constructed roles prescribe behaviors appropriate for each gender. Traditionally, women have assumed feminine roles concerning nurturance and primary care giving, while men have held masculine roles portraying them as agents of action with less of a focus on people's needs. Women are primed for intimacy, whereas men are not, according to this perspective. Modern theories of gender roles have their origin in A. Constantinople's conception of sex-role orientation representing two separate continua, masculinity and femininity. Previous conceptualizations of sex-role orientation had viewed femininity and masculinity as polar opposites on a single dimension. Based on Constantinople's work, Sandra Bem developed the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to assess the degree to which individuals endorsed what are thought to be masculine and feminine characteristics. Bem's assessment results in four possible categories for individuals: (a) Feminine (the high endorsement of feminine qualities and the low endorsement of masculine qualities); (b) Masculine (the high endorsement of masculine qualities and the low endorsement of feminine qualities); (c) Androgynous (the high endorsement of both feminine and masculine qualities); and (d) Undifferentiated (the low endorsement of both feminine and masculine qualities). Feminine females and masculine males are often classified as sex-typed since they have highly endorsed characteristics that are thought to be typical of their gender. Gender Role theories recognize how individuals internalize characteristics of what behaviors are deemed socially appropriate for each gender. For example, children learn of expectations others have of them because of their biological sex at an early age. Boys are encouraged in more rough and tumble play than are girls, who are treated in a more gentle manner by parents.
Gender Differences in Perceived Meanings of Intimacy. Wood has proposed another explanation for this gender difference—women and men actually define intimacy in different ways. Several studies, however, have discovered that few differences exist in what men and women believed emotional intimacy to be. As described earlier, M. Monsour found that students reported seven most common meanings. Though male participants were more likely to mention sexual contact with cross-sex friends than were their female counterparts (16 percent vs. 8 percent), a finding similar to his previous research, only weak gender differences surfaced. Furthermore, when asked to write about a time when they experienced intimacy, both men and women were likely to include an experience with a romantic partner. Only slight gender differences were found and these occurred with men being more likely than women to include persons outside their close circle in their intimate experiences. Women also used a greater number of words to describe their experiences than did men. Nevertheless, both studies suggested that men and women may be similar in what they believe to be the meaning of intimacy and that both genders may agree on which qualities create an intimate experience.
- Gaia, Celeste; Understanding emotional intimacy: a review of conceptualization, assessment, and the role of gender; International Social Science Review; 2002; Vol. 77; Issue 3/4.
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