One hierarchy has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.
To be a husband was to have full control of your wife’s sexuality. To say that a husband “raped” his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet. Such thinking was not confined to the ancient Middle East. As of 2006, there were still 53 countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for rape of his wife.
Some of the cultural, legal, and political disparities between men and women reflect the obvious biological differences between the sexes. Childbearing has always been women’s job, because men don’t have wombs. Yet around this hard universal kernel, every society accumulated layer upon layer of cultural ideas and norms that have little to do with biology. Societies associate a host of attributes with masculinity and femininity that, for the most part, lack a form biological basis.
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is “Biology enables, culture forbids.” Biology is willing to tolerate a wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.