Celebrating a Special Freedom on July 4

Today, Independence Day, let’s take a moment to celebrate one of our culture’s most basic freedoms: the freedom of unrelated men and women to mix in public spaces, virtually without limits.

Since most Americans are brought up with this as a fact of life, it’s hard to remember that this is a very modern, very limited social experiment. Less than two centuries ago, unstructured male-female adult interactions were still very, very rare almost anywhere on Earth. America and Western Europe had some choreographed male-female interaction in the upper classes, and city life required a small amount for some workers and homemakers during the week. Things really started to change in America leading up to World War I. Asia only began to change dramatically about 40 years ago.

Historically, gender segregation has applied—and still applies, in many places—to all important activities, such as commerce, recreation, transportation, and eating.

Traditional societies separate men and women for eating. At a wedding feast I attended in the mountains of Azerbaijan last year (wow, do I love saying that!), the men and women ate in separate rooms, talking and laughing on colorful old cushions. There was simply no reason to mix. It being an enlightened tribe, the men and women ate the same food—prepared jointly, served quite separately.

The idea of mixed-gender relaxation is unknown in many parts of the world. In most of India, unrelated men and women don’t go to the beach or park together without a chaperone. In places like Iran, women have to wear veils or headscarves if they’re allowed to play soccer or basketball, and men do not attend these matches.

The old joke about 19th-century Lutherans (or pick your favorite denomination) prohibiting sex standing up because some voyeur might think the couple was dancing describes how mixed-gender dancing itself has often been viewed with suspicion. Orthodox Jews never do it, not even with their own wives. Neither do conservative or fundamentalist Muslims, or traditional Africans or Chinese.

In contrast, here in America unmarried, unrelated men and women find themselves close to each other in shops, churches, buses, and elevators. Patients undress for physicians, regardless of their respective genders; in tribal Pakistan or rural China, a woman would rather die than have a male doctor see her bare legs. Literally.

Aside from the intellectual stimulation and aesthetic variety offered by cross-gender life, it also helps dilute the idea of gender otherness—that if you’re male, women are alien, and if you’re female, men are alien. It’s bad enough to think of “otherness” in terms of, say, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. But if you don’t marry someone outside your race, ethnicity, or appropriate sexual orientation, this “otherness” is damaging primarily on a social level. When you marry an alien via gender, the “otherness” is part of daily life, and most certainly undermines intimacy and empathy.

Unfortunately, even Americans accept the concept of “the opposite sex,” which is a terrible misnomer (I think “the other sex” works just fine). Too many people relate to each other as “men” or “women” rather than as George or Maria. When George doesn’t ask for directions when lost it isn’t because he’s a man, it’s because he’s a proud jerk. When Maria gossips too much it isn’t because she’s a woman, it’s because she has low-self esteem, or feels unable to express hostility.

If men and women thought of their sexual partners as persons more than as male or female, there’d be less questions about what men or women want in bed, and more questions about what Jose or Jing want. And that would lead to better sex for everyone.

So today, let’s celebrate our freedom of association with the other sex. If you’re in a mixed-gender sexual relationship, ask your partner a question about what s/he likes or wants in bed. Encourage your children to think of girls and boys as people, more similar than different. And give thanks that, with a few exceptions (such as breast-feeding, topless dancing, sterilization, and alimony), our government doesn’t dictate people’s behavior (such as their dress) based on their gender.

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