Psychologist stresses likenesses of men, women

March 27, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Author Carol Tavris likes to sprinkle her lectures with a few mind teasers:

If women have PMS (premenstrual syndrome), why don't men have HTS (hypertestosterone syndrome)?

Why do women have housewives' syndrome if they stay home -- but superwoman's syndrome if they also work?

Why, oh why, do women get all the symptoms and disorders, she muses.

"I love talking about the question of men and women," said Dr. Tavris, who wrote "The Mismeasure of Woman," a book that attacks society's assumptions about the differences between men and women.

The Los Angeles social psychologist, who has been an editor for Psychology Today and written articles for the Los Angeles Times and Ms. magazine, visited Bel Air on Tuesday to talk to students at Harford Community College about her book.

And while Dr. Tavris' topic -- the battle of the sexes -- was compelling, her stage demeanor was pure Hollywood entertainment.

When Dr. Tavris spoke, she enunciated her words with comic flair -- "luuuuuuuuv" and "premeeenstraaal" -- and often had her audience laughing.

She was also quick to let students know that a social psychologist isn't someone who keeps conversations going at cocktail parties but a professional who looks at people in the context of society.

But while she spiced her talk with jokes, Dr. Tavris stressed that she wanted the group to understand her treatise that men and women aren't opposites.

In fact, the two sexes are far more alike than different, she said. Both have the capacity to be considerate and cruel and aggressive as well as peaceful.

"There are differences," she said.

"These differences are just snapshots, not blueprints, of how ware today."

Asked if testosterone was the reason for male violence, Dr. Tavris said no one thing causes violence.

PTC She said that if the single reason for aggression was the male hormone, all men would be aggressive.

Cultures teach men to be violent, she said. "Let's not attribute it to nature."

Dr. Tavris also discounted two views of women: that they are "the problem because they're the sex that doesn't measure up )) to men" and that women are the better gender.

"Women have told me that in a woman's world there would be no crime and lots of fat, happy women," she said.

As much as she felt attracted to that idea, Dr. Tavris said, it would be replacing one stereotype with another.

"It polarizes the notions that we are opposites and ignores the way we are the same," she said. "We should be talking about us, not them."

Dr. Tavris doesn't discount anatomical differences, of course. But she takes obvious delight in explaining some of the ways the body is described in medical books.

Take, for instance, the uterus and stomach.

The monthly changes in the uterus are described as "shedding and sloughing," she said, emphasizing the words as though she were discussing a slimy vegetable.

But when the stomach, which both sexes have, sheds its lining, the process is called "renewal."

Perhaps Dr. Tavris' biggest complaint, though, is society's attitude toward problems commonly associated with menstruation.

She often referred to the "manufacture of PMS."

"I was born before it was invented, so I never had it," she said with a laugh.

AJill Hawkins, an 18-year-old student, commented, "It's ridiculous that everything becomes a syndrome."

Dr. Tavris couldn't resist offering a little advice when talking about Robert Bly's book, "Iron John," and his message of male bonding: "Guys, I want to tell you one thing: Women aren't interested in Iron John but ironing John."

The students, from sociology, psychology and business classes at the college, left the lecture, sponsored by the school's student life activities office, with some new perspectives, they said.

"There are more similarities [between the sexes] than I thought before," said Mike Schafer, a 26-year-old student.

"To be honest, I thought it was going to be a male-bashing session," he said.

Mr. Schaefer said he found comfort in Dr. Tavris' analysis that depression isn't just a female condition.

"For our society, depression is less manly," he said. "Hey, we go to Friendly's," a reference to finding solace in ice cream and sweets.

"We have problems, too," agreed Tim Donovan, age 29.

So what does Dr. Tavris suggest to end attacks on the opposite sex?

"Good awareness is a good place to begin," she said. "We have much to learn about each other."

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