Archive for August 26, 2009

Women’s Equality Day

Since 1971, the 26th August has been designated women’s equality day. It’s a day when women, and some men, reflect on the sexism that is still faced by women around the world.

Perhaps in the West we have made progress towards female equality, some would say not enough. But for great swathes of humanity women continue to be oppressed by men in the most horrific ways. Women are denied an education. The right to vote. To manage their own affairs. To get justice. Even their right to life is brutally repressed in some cultures that ‘honour’ female murder. In countries that prize boys over girls, birth rates show that many female foetuses are electively aborted.

Why am I writing about women’s equality on a men’s well-being blog? Well I suppose the main reason is to set the record straight about a few things.

The first thing is I’m not a ‘male supremacist’. I am interested in men’s experience, but it doesn’t follow that I think men’s experience is somehow ‘better’ or more ‘valid’ than women’s experience. It is not my intention to be sexist when I talk about men and the issues they face.

Second, although I work with men, I always receive supervision from women. All therapists turn to a fellow professional to discuss and receive support for the work they do with clients. Supervision acts as a kind of quality control. It is really important to me that I get a women’s input into my work with men. This helps to counteract any sense of collusion in a ‘boys club’. It also brings a women’s perspective into the room when I work with a man. This is invaluable and many men have benefited from their input.

Third, although I think that men and women are equal, I think this is a political equality. What then becomes difficult to talk about is the real differences that exist in men and women’s psychology. For too long science has been scared off by the feminist critique into reporting gender differences in brains and behaviour. Political equality does not mean that men and women are the same. We are only at the beginning of understanding how and why this is the case.

Finally, I am motivated by the failure of feminism itself. Feminism lets women down by failing to offer a credible model of gender relations. Feminism all too often becomes simply an interest group. What we really need is a political ideology of gender relations that transcends the interest of any one group. My point is that we can’t do that until we really understand men in their own terms. It is this which forms my motivation to working with men.

So on this day which celebrates the ideal of women’s equality, I want to extend my support, and encourage other men to do the same.  Why?  Because it is in supporting the oppressed that we dignify our own humanity.

Who is Male?

The athlete Caster Semenya has recently caused headlines the world over since her gold medal in the Berlin World Athletic Championships caused the IAAF to order tests to ascertain her gender. I personally find it outrageous that the tests could not have been arranged discreetly rather than in the centre of the world media frenzy. The last person this happened to was Santhi Soundarajan who attempted suicide in 2007 after failing a gender test. I hope Caster is able to bear the pressure, and humiliation, that has been put upon her.

But the case does raise interesting questions about who is a man or a woman. I guess the first thing to note is the difference between gender and sex. Gender is a social category bestowed on a child at birth. It is a moral matter. There are great social obstacles for people who want to negotiate a different gender to the one allocated at birth.

Sex, on the other hand, is a biological concept, and surprisingly in human beings, for many individuals it is far from clear cut. The standard line in class room biology is that there are 46 chromosomes including two that determine sex. 46XX and you are a girl, 46XY and you are a boy. But human biology throws up much more variability than this. For example, some men are born with an extra Y chromosome, 47XYY. Such ‘hyper masculine’ men are overrepresented in the prison population due to their extreme aggression. Other variations include 47XXX, 47XXY, 49XXXYY to name but a few. The presentation of people with such genetic makeup can be complicated.

Genetic and biological factors can also interact. For example in one presentation, complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, a biological boy (46XY) is insensitive to the male hormones that trigger the development of male sexual characteristics (foetuses are by default, female). As a result the biological boy develops female sexual characteristics and lives out a life as a woman.

My favourite condition, however, is 5 alpha reductase enzyme deficiency syndrome. In this genetic condition the child has the sexual characteristics of a girl and is brought up as a girl. At puberty, however, male secondary sexual characteristics develop including descended testes and an enlarged phallus. Some individuals even produce serviceable sperm. What is so interesting about this condition is that it is highly prevalent in the Dominical Republic where it affects about 1 in 90 children. The culture is therefore so used to the condition that the children can often very successfully negotiate the transition at puberty from girl to boy.

As you can see, whether you are a boy or a girl is sometimes far from straightforward. In our culture, however, as gender is such a morally layered experience, such inter-sexed children and their families often experience great psychological suffering. My sense is that it is still a matter of ridicule and social ostracism if someone, for whatever reason, tries to realign their gender identity.

Indeed there is a great deal of pressure to be either a man or a women. This in itself is damaging to such inter-sexed persons as, very often, they cannot function convincingly in either role. I can envisage a time in the future where inter-sexed persons are simply allowed to live out their humanity in a way that makes sense for them, rather than in a way that makes sense to us.

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Ban on People with HIV Entering the USA to be lifted

Since 1987 there has been a ban on HIV+ people entering the United States.  The US is one of a minority of countries that took the view that people with HIV posed a public health risk to its citizens. This is in contrast to the vast majority of countries who treat HIV as being neutral regarding whether admission was granted.

It is perhaps worth reflecting on the implications for HIV+ people of this ban.

1.        HIV+ people had to leave their medicines at home when travelling to the United States or face deportation.  Interruptions to treatment will have caused many people long term health consequences including AIDS.

2.       HIV+ people were refused the right to stay in the USA leading to forced deportations which separated families including mothers from their children.

3.       International conferences on HIV/AIDS have been forced to be held outside the USA, a crazy situation since most of the HIV research the world relies upon is US driven.

Its high time this ban, initiated at the height of the AIDS hysteria and moral panic of the 1980’s is removed, and the new Obama administration should be congratulated on moving on this issue.  But it’s also a reminder that it’s easy to legislate unwisely in the eye of a storm, and then the legislation sits causing untold misery, until someone can find the moral fibre necessary to reverse it.

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Conscientious Men Live Longer

It’s a sad fact, but look round the average nursing home and they are full to the rafters … with women.  Men often leave their partners widows but not the other way round.

Research by Howard Friedman and Margaret Kern in California (reported in the New Scientist) suggests a way to confound the statistics – act conscientiously.

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 papers that linked data from nearly 9000 people measuring conscientiousness and longevity.  What they found was quite remarkably.  People who were less conscientious were 50% more likely to die at any given age than those who were more conscientious.  The size of the effect was even greater than high social status and intelligence, both of which increase longevity.

But what is it about being conscientious that improves longevity so dramatically?  That’s still an open question, but I’m going to redouble my efforts to blog every week, without fail!

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Women Go for Smart and Generous Guys

Ever wondered what women go for in a man? Well research by Mark Prokosch and his team and reported in the Journal Evolution and Behaviour suggests that women tend to go for guys with more intelligence.

The researchers filmed guys performing a range of routine tasks then played the films back to women. Not only were the women rating the guys with higher IQ’s as more desirable, they were also pretty smart themselves at rating a guys intelligence.

Maybe men should be better advised to hit the library rather than the gym, at least if they want to maximise their pulling power! But if you are not smart, there is a way round it. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (Miller, 2009) argues that women also go for generous guys. It shows, so he argues, that they have plenty of resources and so are free to share. This makes them an ideal mate, making it more likely that women will shower the man with food and sex by way of encouraging a commitment.

So I guess the best advice is look smart, act generously.

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