Let’s Blame It On Our Hormones!

It’s often argues that hormones make men and women behave in radically different ways. It’s interesting that it’s part of the male gender stereotype that men sulk and this is blamed on their ‘male hormones’. By contrast, the female gender stereotype is that women ‘give the silent treatment’ and this is blamed on ‘female hormones’. Now don’t you think that these seem pretty similar outcomes for radically different hormones?

Fortunately, for us, our hormones don’t know they are supposed to be boys and girls. They just get on and do their jobs. Men and women have the same hormones. Women have testosterone and men have also have progesterone and oestrogens. In fact the old label of progesterone’ as a ‘female hormone’ actually got in the way of research into the hormone and its implication for the health of both women and men.

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Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz

Pic: Dr Gary Wood - Author of Sex, Lies & StereoypesWe have many taken-for-granted assumptions about the biology of men and women. So, I offer this, provocative, human anatomy quiz to help explore and unpack some of those assumptions.

The Questions:

  1. True of false? Women are biologically the weaker sex.
  2. True or false? Men have male hormones and women have female hormones.
  3. True of false? Women have testosterone.
  4. True of false? The anus has an erotic capacity for both men and women.
  5. True of false? The anus has an erotic capacity irrespective of sexual orientation.
  6. True or false? The correct name for the female genitals is the vagina.
  7. True of false? A clitoris is like a tiny penis.
  8. True or false? The clitoris is the only organ in the human body with the sole function of sexual pleasure.
  9. True of false? The ovaries and the testes are formed from the same embryonic tissue.
  10. True or false? Biologically, the ‘default’ value of humans is female.
  11. True or false? Women are incomplete men.
  12. True or false? Men and women are so different that they may as well be from different planets.

The Answers:

  1. False. Men are biologically the weaker sex  (on account of the Y chromosome which means it doesn’t protect the male so well from hereditary diseases)
  2. False. Men and women have the same hormones; it is only the relative levels that differ. Furthermore, men differ from other men and women differ from other women in terms of hormone levels.
  3. True. Women have testosterone. Men also have progesterone and oestrogens.
  4. True. The anus has an erotic capacity for both men and women. As the genitals and the anus share much of the same musculature and nerve endings, it is often difficult to tell where an impulse originates.
  5. True. The anus has an erotic capacity irrespective of sexual orientation (gay, straight, bi or indifferent).
  6. False. The vagina is the birth canal; the collective term for the female genitals is ‘vulva’.
  7. False. A penis is an enlarged clitoris. See also answer 8.
  8. True. The clitoris is the only organ in the human body with the sole function of sexual pleasure.
  9. True. The ovaries and the testes are formed from the same embryonic tissue.
  10. True. Biologically, the ‘default’ value of humans is female. That is why the penis is an enlarged clitoris and also why men have nipples.
  11. False. More accurately, men are women who made a bit of a detour (in the earlier stages of development)
  12. False. From biological evidence, the similarities between men and women are greater than the differences.

So where does this take us?

Well, in the direction of a twelve point personal research plan to check out the answers and then consider how these facts impact on our social interpretation of biological sex, that is our gender roles (and our attitudes to sexuality).

[Material adapted from Sex, Lies and Stereotypes, by Gary Wood]

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Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

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Flirting & the ‘Golden’ Age of Gender

In examining flirting tips from the various main stream pop-psychology books on body language I’m struck by the prevalence of gender stereotypes and the absence of the acknowledgement that not everyone is heterosexual and not everyone wants to have children. Surely flirting need not depend on these.

Many tips involve ‘men making themselves more masculine to attract ‘delicate’ women’ and ‘women making themselves more ‘delicate’ to attract ‘big strong, rugged, men’. This all presupposes that we all want the same thing. Some women like ‘skinny’ men who wear glasses and hate football. Some men, small in stature, like full-bodied, amply curvaceous women. Some, delicate, petite, perfectly made-up women, may prefer women in sensible shoes to a hunk in football boots. Some rough and tough, deep voiced, sporty men don’t necessarily fancy women at all. Yes I know it’s all very obvious, so why the hell don’t the pop-psychology books acknowledge it? One reason is that the classic body language books are from ‘the golden age of gender’ when the world was a very different place and, sadly, gender stereotypes do sell.

Different people are attracted to different things and gender roles have moved on enormously since the 1950s. So telling every women to become like a 1950s housewife or a screen siren from the golden age of Hollywood is hardly like to work for all. Telling every man that he needs to ‘butch-up’ and take up forestry  is hardly like to work either, unless of course you know someone who’s into that sort of thing.

Flirting is about having fun. Flirting is about putting yourself across in a ‘good light’. It’s not about aping outdated stereotypes and it’s open to all! So the best advice I can give is:

  • Relax
  • Be yourself but be your best
  • Smile and have fun
  • Avoid any flirting tips that get you to act out a stereotype unless that’s what you are really into.

Links (to other ‘gender-based’ posts):

Poem: The Anatomy of Doubt

(Thoughts on sexual and gender diversity)

Hoo-hoos, minkies, willies and winkies,
Who are the normals and who are the kinkies?
Are you heroic Brad or homely Janet,
Or a sweet transvestite from a diff-er-ent planet?
Is is straight down the line, or simply confusing?
Is it all in our genes or just something we’re choosing?
Is it just variation or unholy perversion?
Propagating the species or a fun diversion?
Are you bound by tradition or torn by the doubt,
That we’re the ones our parents warned us about?

From: Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men and Relationships, by Gary Wood, 2005. Published by New Holland (out of print).

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Gender & the Social Consruction of the Sewing Machine

Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (and other power tools).

All attempts at theorizing social life are, at the same time, works of autobiography

– William Simon, 1996

As we read a text. . . we produce something different, another text which is a translation

– Ian Parker, 1999

Pic: Sewing Machine - GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

Pic: Sewing Machine – GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

I was watching a re-run of the Australian version of Changing Rooms, one of the many home improvement shows conveniently gathered together on one Cable channel. An ‘expert’ was initiating his acolyte into the mysteries of the jig-saw. The expert explained ‘It’s like a sewing machine only a bit more manly’. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the sewing machine and the ‘more manly’ jigsaw. However, both are essentially power tools.

Thinking about the arbitrary nature of gender labels I recalled two questions from performance artist Laurie Anderson‘s film of her show Home of the Brave. In it she asks ‘Which is more macho: Pineapple or knife? Which is more macho: Light bulb or school bus? I’ll let you ponder those questions for a while. Read on. . .

At about the age of four or four and a half I was watching my mother on her sewing machine. It all looked a little space age to me, like something from a science fiction film. I was enthralled by this alien contraption with its roaring engine,and the sense of danger and excitement it evoked, and the little spotlight on the side. I remember saying to my mother ‘When I’m a girl, I’m going to have a sewing machine’ to which she replied quite flatly ‘You’re never going to be a girl’. Boy! She sure knew how to spoil the fun. I took this to mean that I would never own a sewing machine of my own. I was destined to a be one of life’s spectators. Now I cherished this little story for my years as early evidence of my gender transgression. It helped to explain why I never liked football. As Oscar Wilde says’ It’s a game for rough girls not delicate boys’.

Fast-forward fifteen years and I found myself drawn to Yoko Ono‘s ‘Painting for a Broken Sewing Machine’ in her book Grapefruit:

Place a broken sewing machine in a glass tank ten or twenty times larger than the machine. Once a year on a snowy evening. place the tank in the town square and have everyone throw stones at it

At the time I was working in a very dull insurance office and decided to impart the sagely wisdom from Grapefruit. One person got very annoyed trying to understand the ‘sewing machine piece’, of course, fuelled by me re-reading it and placing the emphasis on a different word each time and nodding in a ‘knowing way’. Eventually I was told ‘just get on with your work’. I suppose with the ‘sewing machine piece’ you either get it or you don’t. The people who did get it at the time were perhaps the ones who realized there wasn’t really anything to get. Writing this now, I’m struck by how the work I get on with and the time-wasting have in many ways traded places.

Over the years I’ve told my ‘gender transgression sewing machine story’ countless times. However, it wasn’t until I realised that it might be read as ‘text’ and therefore capable of translation that made me begin to question my interpretation.  My original translation was based on my prior conviction that my behaviour was somehow inconsistent with my assigned gender. It was time to take my sewing machine story out from under the glass (gender lens) or at least throw a few stones at it.

Having studied gender in great depth I realized how the concept ofgender constancyputs a very different spin on things. It’s not until about 5 to 7 years that children realize that they are stuck in a particular gender for life. Up until then they think it’s possible to cross back and forth.

I tried to remember what I liked about my mother’s sewing machine and I realized it was all about the speed. I liked the foot pedal and how it revved the engine. I remembered shouting ‘go faster, go faster’ and getting very excited by it all. Hey I was four and we didn’t have a car, so what’s a boy to do? So, far from being evidence of my gender transgression, the story could equally be one of gender conformity. Boys like fast cars, don’t they?

Still glued to the home improvements channel, a guy referred to the sewing machine foot pedal as ‘the accelerator’ and then another asked ‘where’s the clutch?’ In an episode of Naked Chef, ‘new lad’, Jamie Oliver justified his preference for his turbo-charged six-burner cooker over his mother’s ‘old-world range’ on account of  ‘being a boy’.

The need to ‘re-gender’ our power tools says a great deal about the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes. Such attempts re-iterate the deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of binary gender and are, to a degree, apologies for gender transgression. Part of gender conformity is to learn the art of knowing what is macho and what is not. According to Laurie Anderson, a pineapple is more macho than a knife and a school bus is more macho than a light bulb. Of course they are arbitrary distinctions and I have tried these questions with students. The ‘correct’ answers are usually met with an indignant ‘who says so’? Invariably when attempting to ‘gender; objects, the discussion most often centres on the similarities to the penis. So that long, sharp, pointy powerful thing must be a boy. This exposes the societal blueprint that objects and emotions are gendered by ‘virtue’ of their similarity to the shape of genitals. Think about it: men are seeing as more ‘outgoing’, and women are seen as more’ inward looking’ or men wield and women yield, according to the stereotype. Are we just trying to live our lives according to the contents of our pants?

So, given that both the sewing machine and jigsaw are both power tools, which is more macho?

To this day I have never owned a sewing machine nor a car, nor a jigsaw. Furthermore, I’m happy to say that I still don’t like football!

The fabric often tears along ragged, often hastily sutured seams

– William Simon, 1996

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Gender & Seven Deadly Sins