Mars vs. Venus: Four Reasons Men and Women Experience the Same Event Differently
There is clearly a disconnect between how men and women experience the same event, especially as it relates to physical contact and issues of consent. Just look at the testimonies of then Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh and the Professor of Psychology, Christine Blasey Ford. On the surface, both are equally credible individuals, but the common thread in their arguments was that someone had to be lying. Someone was getting it wrong. The focus was on disproving the testimony of one or the other. Is it conceivable that two people could experience the same event and have such radically differing recollections to the point where one wouldn’t remember it at all? The answer is yes, and there are four interconnected reasons why.
Many cultures have very delineated protocols regarding touch between the genders. American culture is an individualistic culture and as such is constantly evolving. To exam this question equitably we need to take a trip back in time to America circa 1980. Early 1980’s could easily be characterized as a time of excesses when it comes to alcohol and drugs. While women were enjoying greater freedoms from judgement regarding their behavior, society at the time still placed the onus for the consequences experienced when under the influence squarely on women. It is important to understand that I am not advocating this understanding. It was the prevailing position of the culture at the time. Why is this significant? Because it directly informs whether an individual is relaxed or cautious and on guard during the same event.
Our family experience is our first school of self-expression. We learn first through modeling our caregivers, second by experience, and afterwards it’s subsequent consequences and rewards. A five-year-old girl falls down at the playground and starts to cry. Common parental responses, “you’re okay” followed by a quick hug and “let me kiss it and make it better.” A little boy falls at the same playground, you may hear the same, but if he continues to cry you can also frequently hear, “Come on little man suck it up, boys don’t cry.” You may even hear “stop acting like a little girl, boys don’t cry! There are several different messages boys learn in that experience: It’s not okay to feel what you’re feeling. Whatever you’re feeling, keep it to yourself. There’s something lesser than, about being a girl. These early messages help boys to learn how to filter and minimize their emotional expression to those considered socially acceptable such as anger and humor.
All humans without fail, experience reality through the filter of perception. Consequently, how perception is impacted is extremely significant. While not an exhaustive list, perception is formed by prior personal experience, societal influencers, family values, peers and education. Again, this is where the paths of men and women diverge. Early 80’s the messages both at the societal and individual levels clearly supported a different value system for boys versus girls. “Boys will be boys.” “A real man can hold his liquor.” Couple those familiar sayings with beliefs of the time that “partying is cool.” “a girl can’t blame anyone but herself for what happens when she’s drunk.” So, males and females attending a high school party in 80’s arrived with a differing sense of responsibility. Girls knew they needed to be cautious and were responsible if they weren’t. Boys are expected to have a good time. Why is the perception so important? Because it’s the foundation for what occurs next.
The Physiological Response
Our body is designed to respond to what we think. As a result of expectations and perceptions, our body in any given set of circumstances, produces neurotransmitters and hormones that can prepare us for pleasure or stress and danger. So how do two people involved in the same interaction experience it so differently? When a contact is invited or welcomed, or we initiate contact, we experience the release of oxytocin which gives us a sense of wellbeing, reduces stress and has an overall soothing affect. This is why being physically comforted, hugged or touched when we are upset, for most people has such a soothing affect.
But what if the recipient is not okay with the contact? If the recipient of the contact does not consent to it, whether stated or not, the chemicals, the hormones and neurotransmitters produced will be different and will include, among others, norepinephrine and epinephrine more commonly known as adrenaline. What role do these chemicals play? They prepare us to flee, fight or freeze. In addition, they impact memory, in particular, the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that stores long-term memory. These chemicals will trigger the long-term memory of an emotionally charged experience.
While we are not saying this is the case in the Blasey-Ford / Kavanaugh case, we are saying that this is how two people in the same experience can have such different recollections. Is it possible that the memories could be so distinct that one individual will not remember it at all? Yes, it’s possible. Neurotransmitters and hormones are not generated by what is intended, they are generated by what is perceived. If the recipient of a physical contact perceives it as unwanted, the mind will process the experience as a threat, and memory will be triggered. If the person initiating the contact is heavily inebriated and experiences blackouts they are primarily focused on their own perceptions and since they perceive no threat the memory is treated the same as any experience included in the blackout period.
How do we bridge the gap? We change the narrative that impacts perception. We need to eliminate those phrases we teach children, that remain ingrained in them, which encourage a better than less than mentality. We also need to accept a new narrative that teaches males that Real Men Talk™. The more men learn to better communicate, especially as it relates to emotions, the better they will be at gauging the responses of those with whom they are engaging and interactions will become more about actual experience and less about perception.