Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dangerous Strategy

A month or so ago, I referred to men as the “expendable” sex, describing them as essentially reckless, fragile, and potentially dangerous. We are. And we’ve created a lot of problems. Wouldn’t the world be a better place without all these lethal, testosterone-filled humans ruining everything? Yes, I can almost feel female readers giving this possibility some serious consideration. But seriously, why would nature give rise to such a destructive organism in the first place?

Dissident feminist Camille Paglia once quipped “If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts.” This probably seems a bit harsh if you’re a member of the fairer sex, but as with many hyperboles, there’s an underlying element of truth. For good and for ill, men have invented much of the technology that provides the “creature comforts” we now take for granted.

What about women? Yes, women have invented many things, including the modern window frame, Kevlar, windscreen wipers, the automatic drip coffee maker, the first successful anti-herpes drug, and anti-dandruff shampoo, among other things. And women would no doubt have invented many more things if given equal opportunity to do so over the years. But it is a simple empirical fact that most of the technological innovations that changed the course of humanity were invented by men. As I teach my students, necessity isn’t the mother of invention so much as curiosity is the father of invention.

There are downsides to all these male inventions to be sure. Global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, plane crashes, automobile accidents, acid rain, and a punctured ozone layer spring to mind immediately. But let’s be honest, how long do you think you would last in the world circa, say, 1761, before all this technology so obviously ruined the planet? My guess is that many of us would find human existence 250 years ago to be a brutal struggle for survival rather than a chance to live in a pristine, peaceful, utopia uncontaminated by the evil inventions of mankind. On balance, I’ll take the creature comforts and figure out what to do about global warming later.

Indeed, everything about the male character suggests an orientation to explore and modify the environment for the better, albeit from a very short-term perspective. Men, more than women, believe they can master or control their destiny. They are more likely to pursue careers in science, math, technology, and other professions related to mastery over nature. Men will persist in trying to master a difficult task longer than women, and no I’m not just talking about computer games.

Many feminists have argued that none of this is natural; that these kinds of gender differences reflect socialized gender roles rather than any inherently male characteristic. But many of these same underlying patterns can be observed in infants and non-human species. Separate an infant girl from her mother with a glass barrier and she will sit and cry, but a baby boy will crawl to both edges of the barrier and bang on the glass to see if there is a way through. She accepts her unfavourable environment; he struggles against his to try to improve it.

Some species enjoy the advantage of the genetic shuffle provided by sexual reproduction (males and females), while also having access to asexual reproduction at other times. This ability to switch back and forth, called heterogamy, offers a glimpse of some of the benefits males bring to the table. When the environment is stable, asexual reproduction tends to dominate as it allows for very efficient reproduction. Each new organism is an exact replica of its parent, a preety good strategy if that parent has experienced a hospitable environment. However, when the environment changes and becomes potentially lethal, via predation, a lack of food, or a sudden climate change, sexual reproduction abounds, and a need for males arises.

The hydra reproduces asexually when conditions are good. When conditions are bad due to lack of food or an unusually cold winter, then some hydra begin to reproduce sexually. One hydra will develop egg-cells which can be combined with the sperm-cells of another hydra. The hydra interestingly is a hermaphrodite. That means it can be produce male gametes or female gametes or even both. But the male gametes are produced fundamentally when the organism needs to change in response to a hostile environment.

In other species, the emergence of males in tough times is even clearer. Consider aphids, the nasty little green bugs that generally ruin gardens all over the world. During the summer, when the temperature is hospitable, and the food supply abundant, asexual reproduction by females, called parthenogenesis, dominates resulting in a population of all female bugs. However, when autumn rolls around, and the temperature drops and the food supply becomes sparse, our little insect heroes switch to good old fashioned sex. Males start popping up all over the place and mate like mad. The resulting fertilized eggs are better able to survive the harsh winter, until the weather warms, the food supply replenishes, and the aphids begin reproducing asexually once again.

Males are needed when times are tough because sexual reproduction changes the organism to increase survival chances in tough times. Sexual reproduction creates better “survival machines” for potentially lethal environments. Does the human version of maleness, with its frontal lobes, opposing digits, and ability to traverse large distances, react to adversity by changing the environment as well as the organism; and does the emergence of global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, etc., suggest that men have gone too far?

In a 2005 interview, Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist and best-selling author of Are Men Necessary?, read a letter from a man asking that, if indeed men are no longer necessary would the fairer sex be willing to give back and do without all the innovations created by men? She then read his list of male accomplishments, which included physics, the Renaissance, the theory of relativity, the personal computer, the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and Beethoven.

Perhaps Ms. Dowd’s answer to the letter should have been “No, you men may not take your innovations with you. Your very purpose was to create a more livable human environment. Now that you’ve done that, you are free to die out. And by the way, some of your more recent inventions (A-bombs, H-bombs, ICBMs, etc.) no longer strike us women as creating a more livable environment, so we’re going to invent feminism to limit your access to these dangerous toys.”

Can women survive without men? If the world is stable, the answer is almost certainly “yes”. If females continued to create a more stable, livable environment after males have long since passed, then gene shuffling would become irrelevant, even detrimental. Instead, the perfect female would simply be “cloned” over and over via parthenogenesis – a world of identical Eves. But if the world gets nasty, women will once again turn to men. Not in the figurative sense of turning to men for protection or help. Women will literally turn (in)to men.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Advantages of Life Inside the Cave

Men do not, as the ridiculous stereotype suggests, go “into their caves” when they are experiencing negative emotions. Men single-mindedly work their shit out. We don’t need to talk to anybody. We just need to determine for ourselves what went wrong and how to stop this from happening again. When we’ve done this, we’ll return to our normal, happy selves and get on with our busy days. Simple – and very effective.

Mind you, this is not the same as avoiding or repressing negative emotions. That would be a psychological catastrophe. But not communicating about emotions and not dealing with them are two different things. Men deal with negative emotions by internalizing them. They become part of our life experiences, and therefore, contain important lessons about how to avoid screwing things up in the future.

Contrary to the prevailing political landscape of the day, it is women who do not handle their negative emotions particularly well. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out the medical evidence. Women experience more fear, more sadness, more worry, more stress, more guilt, more shame, and more disgust than men. About the only negative emotions where men prevail are boredom and anger (though even this depends on the target of the anger).

And when it comes to chronic negative emotions, the numbers aren’t even close. Women are more likely to diagnose themselves as being depressed from adolescence all the way into old age. Clinical diagnoses of unipolar depression are far more prevalent for women compared to men, and women are more likely to think about and attempt suicide, though men are more likely to actually get the job done.

Now I’m perfectly willing to accept the argument that many of these “diagnoses” reflect a biased, patriarchical psychiatric profession just looking for a reason to classify women as fragile, emotional weaklings. We covered that earlier in Why Men Stigmatize Menstruation (February) and That’s Hysterical! (February), and I’ll be the first to suggest that it applies here as well. But much of the research involves self-diagnosis. No psychiatric patriarchy to blame for these results. This is women describing their own state of affairs.

When we look at research addressing how men and women react to negative emotions we get an even clearer picture of which gender struggles the most. Research indicates that women ruminate over negative emotional experiences longer than men. Rumination reflects the inability to stop thinking about something troubling, and is viewed as a precursor to clinical depression. This suggests why women need to communicate their negative emotions – they can’t stop thinking about them! By contrast, men do not ruminate. They get over it. That cave is starting to look pretty good after all.

We’ve heard an awful lot about how important it is to communicate negative emotions to others, and of course, about how much better women are at doing this. But why communicate? What’s the point? Women talk about their negative emotions with those close to them (more often than not with other women) because they want sympathy. Now let’s closely consider what sympathy is.

When you sympathize with somebody who’s feeling bad you are essentially communicating that “I know just how you feel!” That’s the catch phrase for sympathy isn’t it? But if that other person is feeling bad to start with, then knowing just how they feel entails feeling kind of bad about the same thing, though perhaps not to the same degree. And the net effect of all this sympathising is that the person who initially felt bad feels a little better, as if some of the negative emotion has been passed along to the sympathizer.

Women don’t deal with their negative emotions so much as pass them off to the people they feel close to. How does this constitute a more sophisticated and noble approach to handling negative emotions? I’ll take the man cave every time. And when it comes to romantic relationships, things get even worse. Women detest when their men give them the “silent treatment”. How many men have heard something like “Can’t we just talk about it?”

But men don’t want to talk about it; they want to determine, by themselves, what went wrong and how to fix it. And contrary to what to women might think, once men have worked out a decent solution, we’ll be more than happy to chat all day long about it, even welcoming your input to improve the remedy further. We just don’t want to talk while we’re feeling bad. There’s no point because we haven’t worked out what to do about it.

Moreover, some women (and let me emphasize the word some), view their romantic partners in terms of the very simple principles: (a) I’m unhappy, (b) it is his fault, and (c) he has to change so I can be happy again. Let’s get this straight. The person in the relationship who is unhappy is the one with the problem. They are the one who needs to change, presuming of course, that they want to be happy, an assumption many married men have no doubt questioned from time to time.

Requiring your partner to change because you’re unhappy is the ultimate example of denying responsibility for your negative emotions. It’s passing the responsibility for how you feel to your partner! So, once again, give me the cave every time, provided of course, that a nice, pleasant conversation will eventually ensue about how to prevent all the unhappiness in the future.

Just to reiterate the point about not all women being the same, when my partner is upset about something, including something I said or did, she often goes days without speaking to me. Though not a word is spoken, I understand her completely. Women, you can use our cave any time you like.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Men: The "Expendable" Sex

One gender difference that has not received much attention, perhaps due to the political landscape of the last half century, is that it is harder to be a man than it is to be a woman, at least in terms of existence and survival, the very basics of the game of life. Male foetuses are more likely to spontaneously abort, die at birth, die in childhood, die as young adults, die at – well males are more likely to die than females at virtually any age – at least in rich, Western democracies.

Sadly, more insidious cultural, political, and social factors influence the gender ratio in other parts of the world, often to the detriment of women. But in the absence of any deliberate attempt to alter nature, males have a higher mortality than females at all ages. Then how does nature ensure that there are enough males? Well, in actual fact, males are more likely to be conceived than females, and more males are born than females. So, nature corrects for the vulnerability of men by making more of them.

Men are far more likely to suffer from 290 X-linked recessive maladies, because they only have one chance of receiving the dominant (non-disease causing) gene. The Y chromosome doesn’t give them the second chance that women have. Some of the potentially fatal conditions are Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, agammaglobulinemia, adrenoleukodystrophy, and severe combined immunodeficiency, but there are many, many others in the list of 290 that are exceedingly unpleasant if not lethal. And if genetically-based diseases don’t kill a male, microbe-based diseases are more likely to be lethal. The female immune system fights more pathogens more effectively than the male immune system. This is true in humans and in rats.

Indeed, being male is a deadly gamble in a variety of species. In the animal kingdom females generally outlive males. This is true of arachnids (where she often eats him for supper!), many species of birds, crustaceans, various invertebrates, seals, sheep, and cattle. Only in certain species of fish and bird does research provide an example of males outliving females; but the rule is that she will outlive him.

Over the course of the 20th century, as overall life expectancy has dramatically increased in rich Western democracies, the gender gap in longevity has also increased. Women have benefited more than men, because the gains in longevity have largely been due to the eradication of diseases (i.e., internal factors) and birthing of children. This suggests that it is the external factors which remain and have a strong influence on the gender difference in terms of health and mortality.

Women outlive men in rich countries because men do things that have lethal consequences. Men disproportionately die from accidents (automobile, military, occupational, etc.) and destructive behaviours (smoking, alcohol, drugs, etc.). The very act of survival seems to be more of a challenge for men. Indeed, men take more risks than women in general, something we’ll discuss in greater detail when we examine which sex is indeed lousier at driving. Men also perceive less danger and risk in a given circumstance, suggesting that not only are men willing to take greater risks than women, but they are also less aware of the risks they do take. Even the use of drugs reflects the male tendency to take risks. She takes legal drugs prescribed by doctors; he takes illegal drugs prescribed by pushers.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s reasonably easy to see why nature would create such fragile, risk-prone men. Let’s start with a population of 1000 males and 1000 females in some hypothetical culture. If 999 males died for some reason, 1000 new babies could be added to the population in the next year, greatly increasing the species’ survival prospects (and what a lucky boy he would be!) But if 999 women died for some reason, only 1 new person could be added to the population in the next year (and how many men would die or be seriously maimed fighting for the opportunity to be the father!) One little accident or deadly microbe and the whole species would be wiped out, regardless of how many men were left. Nature seems to have made men the “expendable sex”, providing them with an mortality-prone biology and a deadly behavioural repertoire. So what’s the benefit of having all these fragile but dangerous men around? You’ll have to check back next month for the answer! How’s that for a cheap teaser?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

PMS Is a Double-Edged Sword

Is PMS a real, relatively severe, physiologically-driven condition, a psychosomatic malady socially constructed by the medical profession, or simply the figment of stressed out women's imaginations? Perhaps men should not be blamed for wanting a definite answer to the question of whether PMS exists, when, exactly, it occurs, and what, exactly, the symptoms are. There may indeed be a fine line between completely denying the existence of PMS and demanding its existence to explain the experiences and behaviours of women, but there is plenty of space for any given woman to manoeuvre. If she commits an indefensible act at work, she can put the blame on PMS as a medical condition. No challenging a medical condition. But if PMS is later cited by management as a possible contributory factor in her low level of productivity during certain weeks, she can sue for sexual discrimination. This doesn’t seem fair.

But even if men have their way, there’s no simple way out of the conundrum that either “solution” is likely to cut in both directions. If PMS is a figment of unhappy women’s imagination, than men can ignore the complaints and proceed as usual, but this also means that an angry wife has a legitimate gripe that can’t be explained away as “that time of the month”. Yet if PMS really does create dramatic mood swings in women, then men can continue to dismiss “unreasonable” female behaviour on this basis, but the price is that it becomes accepted as a “real” phenomenon capable of seriously altering women’s moods, even to the point of “causing” them to kill men.

That’s right. PMS has successfully been used as a defence in murder trials.
In the first, Sandie Smith stabbed a fellow employee to death in the tavern where they both worked. During the trial, Katharina Dalton was brought in as an expert witness for the defence after Ms. Smith’s dad noted that she got particularly, though not always homicidally, bitchy just prior to menstruation. Dr. Dalton’s solution? Heavy doses of progesterone, of course. And Ms. Smith’s behaviour improved, so much so that the judge sentenced her to 3 years probation. Now we have already established that placebos in drug trials often attenuate the symptoms of PMS. And in this case, Ms. Smith had an obvious incentive to “get well”. It strengthened her PMS defence and allowed her to avoid life imprisonment. Is it possible, just possible, that she fakes it?

Roughly one year later, Ms. Smith was back in court charged with threatening to murder a police officer. Her defence? Dance with the boy who brought you, as they say. PMS had returned, her lawyer argued, because Dr. Dalton had cut back the dosage of progesterone. Katharina Dalton was once again called in to testify that indeed she did cut back Ms. Smith’s dosage. Once the dosage was increased, Ms. Smith’s violent behaviour subsided again. Miracle drug that progesterone! Ms. Smith once again received 3 years probation. Ouch!

But it gets better, or worse depending on your perspective. (Yes, I know I used that one already). Christine English murdered her lover Barry Kitson by slamming her car into him and crushing him against a utility pole. Once again Dr. Dalton’s testimony was critical in getting the defendant off the hook completely. Well, not completely. Ms. English was not required to undergo medical treatment or even put on probation, but she did have her driver’s licence suspended for one year. Apparently, the court took precaution in case she was planning to murder another boyfriend, by requiring her to find a new murder weapon.

The media coverage of the trial largely missed the fact that menstruation had been used as a defence for violent and non-violent crime for decades. In 1845, a domestic servant named Martha Brixey was acquitted of murdering one of her employer’s children on the grounds of “insanity probably arising from obstructed menstruation”. In that same year, Ann Shepherd was acquitted of stealing a fur boa due to suppressed menstruation, a condition ironically described by the presiding magistrate as making her “periodically erratic”.

What is interesting is that no attorney yet has successfully argued for a male client’s innocence on the basis of unusually high levels of testosterone, yet the link between the dominant male hormone and violent crime is far more direct and scientifically established than any connection between menstrual cycles and violent crime among women. And which forensic phenomenon is more worthy of scientific and legal attention? Men commit the vast majority of violent crimes; 85 – 90% of all murders, 85 – 90% of all aggravated assaults, 90 – 95% of all assaults with a deadly weapon. Why are we focusing on her hormones? And yet, just try to imagine a man who has just killed his girlfriend after a quarrel about her (suspected) infidelity, pleading his innocence in court because his behaviour was due to unusually high levels of testosterone – and having the judge suspend his driver’s licence for one year!

Friday, April 15, 2011

On the Persistence of Gender Stereotypes in Society

Gender stereotypes are essentially implicit theories about how the world works, and it takes time and effort to develop these theories. One must observe the many characteristics of hundreds of men and women to formulate stereotypes. They represent cognitive “investments” to guide future behaviour, and like with any other kinds of investment, we are often reluctant to admit we’ve made a mistake. Business schools often warn about the irrationality of a “sunk cost” mentality (i.e., “I’ve invested so much, I can’t walk away now”). Often times, walking away is the best thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. How does this relate to inaccurate gender stereotypes? Once the cognitive investment in a stereotype is made, we tend to ignore information that would prove it wrong, and retain information that confirms it. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias. It’s our little way of following a sunk cost mentality with our theories of the world.

So, with respect to the woman as nurturing mother stereotype, the confirmation bias suggests that people will take note of nurturing mothers, and hopelessly incompetent fathers as confirming the stereotype, but discount or completely ignore incompetent mothers and nurturing fathers. It is fascinating to see these kinds of biases in operation in everyday life. My son had been invited to the birthday party of a school mate. You know how these things usually work. The parents drop off the kids and then have the option of staying for wine, nibblies, and other grown up activities while, in another room, the kids eat chocolate cake and other sweets that will keep them up until 3 am the next morning. As a general empirical observation, more mums drop off kids than dads, and mums are far more likely to stay for wine and nibblies than dads. All of this makes sense given the prominence of the “nurturer” concept in the female stereotype. I decided to stay. I was the only dad.

As per standard protocol the wine did, indeed, flow, and the mums got progressively less reticent in conversation. While I talked about wine tourism at one end of the table I couldn’t help tuning in to the conversation at the other end, where 3 or 4 mums were discussing how inadequate their husbands were in the parenting department. Men can’t do this. Men can’t do that. I was gradually withdrawing from my conversation at the other end of the table to listen to what increasingly sounded like unbridled ranting. Finally, one of the mums said that men are simply not equipped to spend more than 2 or 3 hours at a time with young children. At this point the entire table went silent, as it was apparent that I was listening intently to the conversation at the other end of the table, and that I was not entirely in agreement with the general sentiment of the forum.

I’ve raised my two children alone more than half the time since my daughter was 2. I consider that pretty young, and I can assure you that it requires spending more than 2 or 3 hours at a time with her and her brother. The mums were, of course, also aware of this fact, and so the one making the last unfounded generalisation brushed it off by saying “Oh you don’t count. You’re not like our men!” I didn’t say anything at the time, not wanting to ruin the festive occasion that had prevailed to that point. But I did mention this to a female colleague the following Monday. This colleague is highly intelligent, has a Ph.D., has published in a number of high-ranking journals, and would certainly consider herself a feminist. Her reply was that I had been “paid the highest compliment” by the birthday party mums. “They considered you one of them,” she smiled. In other words, in order to preserve the stereotype of women as nurturer, it was necessary to turn a nurturing father into a woman! But you know what? It did feel like a compliment!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

All Men Are Criminals...Until Proven Otherwise

One form of bias or illogical reasoning that perpetuates a lot of gender stereotypes is what might be called the irrelevant conditional, which explains why a lot of men are treated as criminals until proven otherwise. Conditionals are essentially if-then rules specifying a relationship between an antecedent and a consequent. So, with respect to the "man as criminal" stereotype, the conditional if criminal, then male, is a pretty accurate given that 90% of criminals are indeed men. The problem is a rather illogical tendency to reverse the antecedent and consequent and accept the same evidence as “proving” the alternate rule. No matter how gender biased the prison population is, this does not support the if male, then criminal, conditional. The two are independent of one another, yet there is a tendency to reason that the former implies the latter.

This is exactly how society behaves when, for example, airlines automatically separate children travelling alone from men in an airplane. It’s true. Airline policies will generally not allow an unaccompanied minor to be seated next to a man. My brother was on a plane one time, seated in the aisle seat at the very back of the plane. A young boy of about 5 was to be seated at the window seat next to him. The plane was chockers due to a cancelled flight, and a man was assigned a seat between bro and boy. This man was immediately asked to move – without explanation – and a woman was re-seated there. Her husband was seated two seats further down the plane. The airline actually separated a married couple so that an unaccompanied boy did not have to sit next to a man. A flight attendant with an Australian airline has indeed admitted that there is a policy that a man cannot sit next to a young passenger flying alone. Now regardless of the assumptions and good intent on which this policy is, no doubt, based, it is patently absurd. An airline flight is the last place a pervert would be able to molest a child. In a plane?!?! 10,000 meters above the earth?!?! Toilets the size of matchboxes, and uniformed flight attendants endlessly circulating about the cabin?!?! So the policy is asinine on the face of it, but it does reflect the illogical reversal of the conditional if criminal, then male to if male, then criminal.

All men have been exposed to this kind of illogical reasoning from time to time, though we're not always consciously aware of it. As a man who has walked quite a few streets alone at night, I’ve observed many pedestrians travelling in the opposite direction – mostly women – actually cross the street to the other side of the road to avoid any contact with me. Makes sense given the stereotype of the criminal male. Any single man walking near a playground where children are playing runs the risk of being questioned by a passing police car. Fathers who purchase underwear for their daughters may get questioned by store security staff. So what you say? Well, not only do men comprise 90% of all prison inmates, they make up 97% of all wrongful convictions, and the more violent the crime, the higher the percentage of wrongfully convicted men. How many men are still behind bars because of wrongful convictions? We’ll never know because we only have statistics for the cases where the wrongful conviction was discovered and overturned. How many undiscovered cases are there?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Are Men "Naturally" Promiscuous?

Research suggests that – get this – men have a stronger sex drive than women. Good thing we have all those scientists doing research to prove stuff like this! Pretty much common sense you say? It turns out there’s more complexity than meets the eye. Men and women enjoy sex with steady romantic partners about equally. However, when asked about having sex with attractive acquaintances or strangers, most women aren’t all that interested. What about men? You guessed it. Men are just as enthusiastic about having sex with a stranger as they are with a romantic partner; and whereas women tend to report being “in love” with their first sexual partner and with sexual partners in general, men like sex with just about anybody they are attracted to. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing if you’re Tina Turner or the typical male.

It’s hardly surprising then that men express more positive attitudes towards premarital sex, sex with multiple partners, casual sex, and sex of just about any kind, even masturbation. Even when women do have sex, they don’t like to admit it. Women tend to under-report the number of sexual partners they’ve had; men, you guessed it again, tend to over-report. In general then, women have much more stringent criteria for who they will and won’t have sex with. Underlying all this is perhaps the most basic sex difference of all; women can have babies; men can’t. How does this lead to many of the attitudes described above? Because the “cost” of a pregnancy is much higher for a woman.

In addition to having to endure childbirth, women are simply limited in the number of offspring they can produce in their lifetime. The maximum number of babies born to a woman is 69, with 67 surviving infancy. The mother was a Mrs. Vassilyev. This number would seem to be pretty close to the maximum potential. If each birth was a single birth, that’s the equivalent of 52 straight years of being pregnant. In fairness, all of Mrs Vassilyev’s children were born in a series multiple births over a 40 year period (1725-1765). So let’s set the maximum potential for females at 70 children just so we have a nice, round number.

What’s the maximum potential for males? According to multiple sources, the top male in our derby, one Moulay Ishmael the Bloody, the last Sharifan Emperor of Morocco, produced 888 babies, from a harem of over 1000 women. But even this number seems well below a man’s maximum potential. Since a male orgasm only takes a couple of minutes, it represents a minimal amount of work relative to the woman’s nine months gestation. Okay, we have to allow the man some recovery time, but even with recovery time taken into account, a man could produce far more than 888 babies in a lifetime.

Does this basic biological difference make men more promiscuous? Does the potential to produce many offspring still linger in the male psyche as a tendency toward promiscuity? The idea has certainly been around a long time. One academic volume reports the following anecdote. “One day the President and Mrs. Coolidge were visiting a government farm. Soon after their arrival they were taken on separate tours. When Mrs. Coolidge passed the chicken pens, she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulates more than once each day. ‘Dozens of times’ was the reply. ‘Please tell that to the President,’ Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the rooster, he asked ‘Same hen every time?’ ‘Oh no, Mr. President, a different one each time.’ The president nodded slowly, then said, ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge’.

Biological research backs this little parable up. Take married men and show them pictures of their wives in various outfits and ask them to imagine having sex. Then take a sperm count. Now give those same men a copy of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and ask them to imagine having sex with each of the women. You got it…the sperm count is much higher in the latter situation. So nature seems to prepare men for opportunities to impregnate any willing female strangers that happen to wander by. According to this argument, men are more promiscuous than women because it’s in their evolutionary interests. Promiscuous men leave more offspring.

However, there are counterarguments to this explanation – and pretty good ones too. First, while men have the potential to father many offspring, most father very few. Put another way, there are far more Homer Simpsons in the world than Moulay Ishmaels, and without the institution of marriage, the Homer Simpsons simply do not reproduce. In this sense, religious institutions have, among other things, evened out the distribution of reproductive success among men. In support of this interpretation, among married adults, the reproduction percentages by gender are almost even; 85% of married women and 84% of married men are biological parents. However, among unmarried adults, 61% of women, but only 36% of men are the biological parents of at least one child. So getting married is a smart thing to do if you want to ensure becoming a biological father. If this is the case, why would men be so promiscuous? Wouldn’t a happily married man with no impulse to stray have a better chance of being a dad?

Another problem is that the link between sex and reproduction is tenuous at best. Birth control and general knowledge allow humans to enjoy sex without pregnancy. The real question is how long it takes for religion and science to offset the effects of millennia of evolution. Churches, and their monogamous ways, have been around for less than two thousand years, and birth control has been widely available for less than a hundred – mere blips on the evolutionary clock. So perhaps the stronger male sex drive, and the corresponding tendency toward promiscuity, is a remnant of men’s evolutionary past when the competition to be the alpha male still mattered. Today it simply costs multi-millionaire athletes a lot of money in divorce settlements.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Women Multi-Task Better than Men

There's been an awful lot written about why women can multi-task better than men. Two falsehoods, or at least half-truths, run through this discussion. The first is the notion that women can do something "better" than men. This is a value judgement. The debate is rarely framed as men being able to focus on the task at hand better than women. Say that mothers make better parents than fathers because they can multi-task and you're fine, but say that men have won more Nobel prizes than women because they are single-minded and you're up S**t's Creek without a paddle.

The second half-truth is that this gender difference as more to do with "nature" than "nurture". For example, articles are quick to point out that women have a larger corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, thus creating a "natural" advantage for spreading multiple tasks over different regions of the brain. Is this really "nature"? Could it be the case that performing specific behaviours repetitively over time would result in differential development of related parts of the brain? Are we simply reversing cause and effect here?

Here's a "nurture" argument for why women can multi-task and why men are so single-minded. Young children do not understand the notion of waiting. Phrases like “just a sec”, “wait a minute”, “We’ll be there soon” have no meaning whatsoever to a 4 year old. Which means, when one of kids wants something, if I am hopelessly entangled in another task, I have to – you guessed it – fulfil their need at the same time I am doing something else. In contrast, a colleague at work perfectly understands these phrases, and even more formally, the idea that she should (a) make an appointment, (b) ask permission to interrupt, or (c) apologise for barging in before disrupting my ongoing train of thought. If I suggest that I am very busy – on a single task – she will likely understand and come back later or email me about setting a specific meeting time. I don’t have to multi-task.

Now women have generally spent more time caring for young children than men, and men have generally spent more time in the office than women. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just or unfair, sexist or efficient. It just is, and has been. Could this be the influence of nurture, or more precisely gender roles, in the female superiority in multi-tasking? Is this why men are so single-minded? Since becoming a single father I must say I’ve become quite the little multi-tasker, often managing to do the laundry, prepare dinner, help with homework, write parts of books and articles, and supervise children more or less at the same time. I’m not as good as the best mothers I know, but then again, I’ve got much less experience than they do.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gender Myths Can Be a Real Pain Sometimes

There’s an old joke that goes something like this. A man is in the delivery room watching his wife give birth in excruciating pain. In distress, he asks the obstetrician, “Doc, isn’t there anything you can do to alleviate my wife’s pain?” “There sure is” the doctor replies. “We’ve got a device that automatically transfers the mother’s pain to the father. Would you like to give it a go?” The husband nods his head, and the doctor says “we’ll start by transferring 25% of your wife’s pain.” He turns the knob and flicks the switch and the wife immediately stops crying out in pain. The husband hardly feels a thing. “That’s surprising” the doctor says. “Let’s try transferring 50% of the pain.” Once again, the wife immediately feels better, and actually begins to relax. The husband says “This isn’t bad at all, Doc, give me all of my wife’s pain.” The doctor, in almost complete disbelief, turns the knob all the way to 100% and flicks the switch. The husband doesn’t even flinch. “That’s amazing!” the doctor exclaims. “Most men can’t get beyond 50%.” The next day the husband and wife return home with their new baby only to find the milkman dead on their doorstep.

Just how pervasive is the belief that women have a higher tolerance for pain than men? In the popular Discovery Channel program Myth Busters (http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/mythbusters/), hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempt to scientifically test various myths and truisms found in popular culture. It’s a good show. I have my kids watch it with me and generally we learn something about science. In short, if your kids have to watch TV, Myth Busters is a pretty good program for them to watch.

In one episode, Adam and Jamie tested whether women have higher pain thresholds and tolerance levels than men. The methodology was simple, and in many ways comparable to laboratory studies published in medical journals. The participant submerges their right hand into freezing water to just below the elbow. First, they indicate when it becomes painful, which is timed (i.e. the pain threshold); then they tolerate the pain for as long as possible up to a limit of 3 minutes. The submersion of the forearm in freezing water is known as the cold pressor test in the medical literature.

The results indicated that women lasted 16.1 seconds longer (100.4 to 84.3), on average than men, leading Adam to enthusiastically conclude the myth has been “confirmed”, to use the familiar parlance of the Myth Busters host. In other words, it’s true – women do have higher pain thresholds and higher tolerance levels than men. Of course, Adam’s enthusiasm fades quickly as he feigns a sudden recognition that, as a man, he is therefore a member of the weaker sex, at least in this context.

There was no test for the statistical reliability of the results, but even if we assumed that this difference is statistically significant, there are some fairly obvious reasons why this result might differ from the plethora of published research showing that men have higher pain thresholds and higher levels of pain tolerance, even studies specifically examining submersion of the hand in freezing water.

First, limiting participants to 3 minutes is a problem. We tend to think in terms of averages. It is relatively easy to comprehend that men are, on average, better or worse at something than are women. But to understand the whole story, we need to look at the entire distribution of results, or in this case the entire range of possible submersion times. If there are more men than women at the extreme end of the distribution who could have withstood the pain for far more than 3 minutes, than arbitrarily limiting the maximum duration skews the results.

The more obvious problem with the method is, of course, the presence of the television camera. Participants knew they were going to be on a TV program, and perhaps even that the myth being tested was whether or not women withstand pain better than men do. Conforming to perceived interests of the hosts seems a distinct possibility. So this result is questionable on scientific grounds, even though it makes for good television.

It turns out that medical research simply does not support the notion that women can handle pain better than men. Whether it examines pain thresholds, pain tolerance levels, or subjective ratings of painfulness, men seem to handle pain better than women. In fact, this finding is so well established in the literature, that most articles simply assert this as a fact and then report on mediating variables (i.e., the processes which allow men to endure more pain), or moderating variables (i.e., the conditions under which men can endure more pain).

In contrast to the “confirmed” conclusion on Myth Busters, more reliable research published in top medical journals indicates that men can tolerate submerging various body parts in freezing water longer than women; and it turns out that submersion in freezing water is not the only type of pain that men seem to endure better than women. Other cold stimuli produce similar results. For example, attaching an extremely cold “thermode” to various parts of the body yields the same conclusion – men can tolerate colder temperatures than women.

What about when temperatures move to the other extreme? Same result. Women are more sensitive to heat pain on their skin. Research involving electrical shocks to the fingers and other regions of the body also shows that men have a higher level of pain tolerance. Indeed, women seem to have more sensitive fingers than men in general. In another study, pricks to the tips of fingers with pin-like objects produced higher ratings of pain in women compared to men. And finally, men can tolerate greater amounts of pressure applied to their fingers and toes.

Studies also show that women report more post-operative dental pain than men, and choose stronger pain relievers. Women rate cholecystectomies, a procedure for removing cysts from the gall bladder, as more painful, and they require greater doses of pain killers compared to men. One week after cardiac surgery female patients report pain in more regions of their bodies than do male patients. Even the act of administering anaesthesia prior to surgery is more painful for women.

Women seem to get headaches a lot, especially when their male partners want to have sex (another unfortunate gender myth I'm afraid). Well, research indicates that women do get headaches more often than men – twice as often in one study. They also report higher levels of pain while experiencing headaches. The pressure pain threshold is higher for men at virtually any point on the body, with one exception, their arses. When it comes to the old gluteus, there’s no difference between the sexes. Women report being tired and stressed out more often than men. Pre-pubescent, grade school girls report abdominal pain more frequently than boys of the same age.

Some researchers have suggested that one key moderating variable is whether the painful stimulus is short-lived or must be endured over time. The reasoning is that women may have higher levels of endurance because that corresponds more with giving birth, a process that takes hours, even days. However, research doesn’t support such a contention. In one study, a blood pressure device (called a “sphygmomanometer” believe it or not), was used to create pressure around the forearm, then participants were asked to squeeze a grip strength device (called a “dynamometer”) for up to 20 minutes. The use of forearm muscles combined with the pressure around them becomes painful fairly quickly, yet men held out longer than women. Mind you, we’re talking about 20 minutes here. It’s not clear that men would hold out longer when the maximum duration was 20 hours, and many, many women endure deliveries exceeding 20 hours.

Perhaps my favourite study is one that focused an argon laser on the hands of men and women. How, exactly, does one get approval from a university ethics committee to shoot participants with laser beams? Cool! Today I get to go to work and shoot people with lasers! My 10-year old son would be impressed. Anyway, the results were not surprising. Women reported pain at lower levels of laser intensity, and their maximum tolerance levels were also lower than the corresponding levels for men.

Men are also almost twice as likely to return to playing a sport after joint replacement surgery. Given that pain is the number one reason given for not returning to a sport after this kind of surgery, this result implies that men have a higher tolerance for this kind of pain as well. Women also report higher levels of pain experienced during a variety of illnesses, and for various forms of chronic pain. For a given illness, medical records indicate that women are more likely to report being ill, visit a doctor, visit a hospital, and stay longer in hospital than men, again suggesting less tolerance for pain and discomfort.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

That's Hysterical!

We tend to think of the word “hysterical” in terms of humour. Something is “hysterical” if it makes you laugh. This is perhaps the most common contemporary meaning, but it is really derived from another, older definition, that describing uncontrollable emotion; and in this more general definition, the emotion in question needn’t be positive. Indeed, hysteria, the noun from which the adjective is derived, was defined as a psychological disorder affecting only women for many centuries. In other words, hysteria has a long hystery (don’t ask – pun very much intended).

The word derives from the Greek word for the uterus – hyster. The Ancient Greeks thought that wildly emotional behaviour on the part of women stemmed from a movement or displacement of the uterus in the abdomen. Various medicines were prescribed to move the troublesome organ back into place. The association of the overly emotional behaviour in women with the uterus would persist for the next 2500 years or so.

Indeed, the uterus came to be viewed as the main female organ, often presented well out of proportion in graphical depictions of women’s anatomy. The symbolism was unmistakeable. The main purpose of women was to reproduce. In the words of one prominent 19th century physician “it was as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it”. Can’t get any more straightforward than that.

So for a very long time only women could be hysterical. And the remedies for this “disorder” were barbarous even by Caligula’s standards. If a girl was lucky, she’d have leeches attached to her vulva or inserted in her uterus. If that didn’t work various substances were injected into the uterus. Cauterization with nitrate of silver was the most horrific treatment, usually leaving permanent damage. If all else failed, removing the ovaries (called an “ovariotomy”) was the ultimate solution.

Freud attributed many of the psychological conditions of his female patients to hysteria, including the famous case of Emma Eckstein, which resulted in permanent disfigurement due to surgery on her nasal passages. Yes, you read that correctly – the great psychoanalytic mastermind recommended nasal surgery as a cure for hysteria.It is easy to dismiss the “medical condition” hysteria as a remnant of a time when medical research was limited and primitive, but a closer examination of PMS yields similar conclusions about the veracity of the evidence. Despite its inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (as Premenstrual Dysphoria Disorder), there is nothing like an agreed to set of symptoms and diagnosis criteria to identify the “disease”.

Why Men Stigmatize Menstruation

A popular website (http://pms.about.com/od/myths/a/menstrual_myths.htm) lists the following menstruation myths, which have been handed down to girls approaching menarche over the years:

1. You shouldn’t go swimming during your period
2. Don’t wash your hair during your period
3. It’s unhealthy to have sex during your period
4. Don’t use tampons during your first period
5. Girls shouldn’t exercise or engage in strenuous activity during your period
6. You can’t get pregnant having sex during menstruation

All are patently false, yet many are still accepted as reflecting sound medical advice. As we will see below, there are other myths, with much greater economic, political, and social implications for women everywhere. But before we begin let’s examine this brief list more closely. First, 5 of the 6 myths are about what women can’t or shouldn’t do during menstruation. There is a clear element of controlling or limiting the actions of women. Three of the myths (1, 3, 5) refer to the avoidance of strenuous activities. These myths make it sound like menstruation is a rather debilitating condition for women.

The only exception to these themes – myth number 6 – provides an obvious benefit for men; it makes a woman more willing to have sex without requiring the man to wear a condom, assuming of course that she does not want to become pregnant. So these 6 myths, and as we will see below, numerous other myths about menstruation generally cast girls as frail and incapable of doing the rough and tumble things that boys do, but also provide women with an incentive to have unprotected sex. Does anybody want to guess which gender created these myths in the first place?

I’m afraid the answer is not as straightforward as you might think. These myths may sound like old husbands’ tales, but in many cases they were created by women with the intention of improving the well-being of their daughters, granddaughters and nieces. Moreover, they were not invented by men in bars or on the streets discussing their wives “erratic” behaviour, but rather they were created by priests and ministers in churches, scientists and doctors in the medical profession, and spread to the world via a marketing profession that became, and still very much is, tied to the medical profession.

What is menstruation? Karen Houppert offers the following no nonsense explanation:
“Once a month, the lining of the uterus, acting on signals from oestrogen and progesterone hormones, thickens with spongy, blood-filled nutrients. If the woman has had sex and an egg and sperm join, this uterine lining (endometrium) will be used to sustain the developing embryo. If fertilization doesn’t take place, the egg travels down the fallopian tube, through the uterus, past the cervix, and out the vagina. Approximately, twelve days later, when the levels of oestrogen and progesterone have dropped and the uterus has gotten the message that no pregnancy has occurred, the uterine lining – blood and mucus – simply flows out.”

That’s it. Simple. Not exactly rocket science, is it? This process usually begins at the age of 12 – 13 and ends somewhere between the ages of (average age or menopause). And we’re only talking about 4 – 6 tablespoons of menstrual fluid per period. This is not Niagara Falls, so much as a sink with a slow drip.

So why all the fuss? And there has been fuss over the centuries. Lot’s of it. Mainly by men. Karen Horney, a feminist psychologist, developed a theory of why men have tended to demonize menstruation in religious and medical doctrine over the ages. Borrowing from Jung’s notions of a “collective unconscious”, a store of accumulated knowledge existing outside of conscious awareness, and Adler’s discovery of the “inferiority complex”, wherein a person who unconsciously feels inferior and inadequate compensates by acting arrogant and superior, she postulated that all men unconsciously realize that reproduction is the only true purpose in life, and that women play the central role by way of giving birth.

Men, by contrast, play a peripheral role by donating a single gamete, and not much of a gamete at that. Hence, men have constantly acted arrogantly and condescendingly toward women to compensate for this unconscious feeling of inferiority. Since it would be difficult for men to deny the wonders and awe of giving birth, why not focus on a related part of reproductive cycle to denigrate women? Menstruation, with its primal symbolism of profuse bleeding, proved the perfect target for male insecurity and misogynistic scorn. Sadly, not much has changed over the millennia.

But in a deliciously ironic twist on the notion of “penis envy”, some anthropologists have argued that the circumcision ritual to celebrate male puberty is nothing more than a cheap, plastic, replica of menarche; a deluded attempt by men to simulate the ability to menstruate, and hence, to give birth. It is the ultimate cubic zirconia of pubescent processes. The idea of men wanting to emulate menstruation is taken to an absurd, farcical extreme on the Little Red Book website (http://www.mylittleredbook.net/) where men relay “first period” stories with straight faces. The acting is surprisingly good.