Nature vs. Nurture and Sex: Why the Fight?

By Mariah Boyd & Emily Spulak

Numerous stereotypes float around about how men and women act toward sex and how they feel in terms of desire:

• Men are more aggressive and women are more passive.
• Men think about sex more, women don’t.
• Men want sex all the time, women don’t.
• When women have numerous sex partners, they are labeled easy or a slut. When men have numerous sex partners, it is often revered, especially among other men.
• Men desire only women and women desire only men

These stereotypes are exploited in the pop culture movie of the 1990’s, Cruel Intentions (the juicy part starts about 1:50 in):

We see these supposed differences play out in our everyday lives, whether they are portrayed through the media or seen in interactions with others. But, do men and women actually differ biologically in terms of how they feel about sexual desire? Or are these stereotypes the products of socially constructed gender roles?


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Throwing like a girl(‘s brain)

We’ve all read some of the discussions about differences in men’s and women’s brains, but the case of throwing overhand offers a cautionary tale about thinking we’ve found something inherent in being male or female. The danger is that we accept too quickly observed differences without digging a bit deeper into their variation and potential causes. In the United States, most of our readers will have run across the idea that women throw like, well, … girls.

Jennie Finch can strike you out.

Jennie Finch can strike you out.

In fact, the empirical gulf between average throwing ability in men and women is huge (just as it is symbolically important), dwarfing virtually any other measurable difference between the sexes, even things like aggression, frequency of masturbation, attitudes towards casual sex, and spatial abilities on paper-and-pencil tests.

Janet Shibley Hyde, one of the leading proponents of the ‘gender similarity hypothesis,’ concedes that there are some marked differences between men and women, singling out throwing ability as the most pronounced among them (2007: 260; see also 2005).

Thomas and French (1985: 266 & 276), in a meta-analysis reviewing all available research on sex differences in throwing, found that the gap stood at 1.5 standard deviations at three years of age, and increased over time, widening to between three and five standard deviations by puberty. By contrast, the much discussed ‘math gap’ between boys and girls, in Hyde’s meta-analysis of 48 studies, was a +0.08 on problem solving and +0.16 on national math tests (Hyde 2005; 2007: 260). In other words, if you’re impressed by the gap in math scores (I’m not), you should be awestruck at the gap in throwing ability.

I just finished writing the draft of a potential book chapter on throwing ability for a volume Prof. Robert Sands is putting together on biocultural approaches to sports. The chapter steps off from my observations that most of my colleagues in Brazil, men included, ‘threw like girls’ even though they were incredibly talented athletes, some of the most astounding capoeira practitioners I have ever seen. The book chapter is linked to some other work I’ve been doing, so I’ve got notes enough for several chapters – I thought I might put some up on because they were especially related to some of the things we focus on here.

This is probably going to wind up being at least two or three posts, so in this one, I’m only going to discuss the neurological issues surrounding throwing and the likely mechanical or technical issues that make (some) women (and Brazilian men and others) ‘throw like girls.’ At least one more post is going to deal with physiological plasticity beyond the nervous system, such as the way throwing remodels the shoulder, to explore anatomical plasticity more broadly, but you’re going to have to come back later for that one…

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Just a Place to Talk: Women and HIV/AIDS

By Christine, Dorian, Kristine, Tom & Vanessa
Nine months ago, Maria birthed a healthy baby girl. Just two days later, the joyous ecstasy of new life quickly led to a striking reality: Maria’s husband was diagnosed with HIV.

“He thought I was going to leave him, but of course I wouldn’t. We’re in this together.” At the time, she didn’t know quite how personal her statement would become. Just three months later Maria and her newborn daughter were also diagnosed with HIV.

“Initially I was able to handle it in the moment, but then it hits. In time, it’s become much more difficult to deal with.”

Maria certainly feels stigmatized and has refrained from telling her other children. In this Midwestern town, the needs of Maria (a pseudonym) and other women with HIV are ripe with concern and lack of viable opportunity. She told us, “What I, and other women need, is just a place to talk.”

Currently there are HIV/AIDS support groups offered locally through a community center. Our community-based student project, focused on understanding and empowering women suffering from HIV/AIDS locally, brought us to these groups. What we found was a support group for homosexual men that did not offer the support women need.

Through research concerning sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS, we discovered that homosexual men and heterosexual women have different coping mechanisms and symptoms. Women experience more illness as a result to their HIV/AIDS status than homosexual men. They also are more likely to need social support to deal with the pain and fear of being HIV/AIDS positive. (Mosack 2009:137) Although the group that exists can be literally defined as a place to talk, it may not be the best place to be heard and understood as a woman.

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What do these enigmatic women want?

25desire_6002In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’).

In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.

Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves.

The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.

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Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone

mother-and-childBy James J. McKenna Ph.D.
Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Chair in Anthropology
Director, Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory
University of Notre Dame
Author of Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping

Where a baby sleeps is not as simple as current medical discourse and recommendations against cosleeping in some western societies want it to be. And there is good reason why. I write here to explain why the pediatric recommendations on forms of cosleeping such as bedsharing will and should remain mixed. I will also address why the majority of new parents practice intermittent bedsharing despite governmental and medical warnings against it.

Definitions are important here. The term cosleeping refers to any situation in which a committed adult caregiver, usually the mother, sleeps within close enough proximity to her infant so that each, the mother and infant, can respond to each other’s sensory signals and cues. Room sharing is a form of cosleeping, always considered safe and always considered protective. But it is not the room itself that it is protective. It is what goes on between the mother (or father) and the infant that is. Medical authorities seem to forget this fact. This form of cosleeping is not controversial and is recommended by all.

Unfortunately, the terms cosleeping, bedsharing and a well-known dangerous form of cosleeping, couch or sofa cosleeping, are mostly used interchangeably by medical authorities, even though these terms need to be kept separate. It is absolutely wrong to say, for example, that “cosleeping is dangerous” when roomsharing is a form of cosleeping and this form of cosleeping (as at least three epidemiological studies show) reduce an infant’s chances of dying by one half.

Bedsharing is another form of cosleeping which can be made either safe or unsafe, but it is not intrinsically one nor the other. Couch or sofa cosleeping is, however, intrinsically dangerous as babies can and do all too easily get pushed against the back of the couch by the adult, or flipped face down in the pillows, to suffocate.

Often news stories talk about “another baby dying while cosleeping” but they fail to distinguish between what type of cosleeping was involved and, worse, what specific dangerous factor might have actually been responsible for the baby dying. A specific example is whether the infant was sleeping prone next to their parent, which is an independent risk factor for death regardless of where the infant was sleeping. Such reports inappropriately suggest that all types of cosleeping are the same, dangerous, and all the practices around cosleeping carry the same high risks, and that no cosleeping environment can be made safe.

Nothing can be further from the truth. This is akin to suggesting that because some parents drive drunk with their infants in their cars, unstrapped into car seats, and because some of these babies die in car accidents that nobody can drive with babies in their cars because obviously car transportation for infants is fatal. You see the point.

One of the most important reasons why bedsharing occurs, and the reason why simple declarations against it will not eradicate it, is because sleeping next to one’s baby is biologically appropriate, unlike placing infants prone to sleep or putting an infant in a room to sleep by itself. This is particularly so when bedsharing is associated with breast feeding.

When done safely, mother-infant cosleeping saves infants lives and contributes to infant and maternal health and well being. Merely having an infant sleeping in a room with a committed adult caregiver (cosleeping) reduces the chances of an infant dying from SIDS or from an accident by one half!

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Women on tests update: response to stress

A while ago, I posted an overly-long discussion of recent research on the ‘math gap’ between boys and girls on standardized testing (Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1). That posting discussed several studies published in Science that have shown the gap in average math scores between boys and girls is not set in stone. In one paper, an increase in the test pool brought on by the No Child Left Behind program, with mandatory universal tests instead of exams only for those wishing to go to college, caused the gap in average scores to disappear; in the other paper, a decrease in the ‘math gap’ was found to correlate with other measures of greater gender equality in European states.

As I pointed out in the previous post, however, many commentators suggest that it is not the gap in average test scores that really matters; rather, these critics argue that the different variance in boys’ and girls’ scores explains the disproportionate number of boys who produce exceptional scores (as well as exceptionally bad scores), and thus the marked gap of men and women in PhD math programs, in prestigious prizes for physics and related subjects, and in related fields like engineering. In the earlier post, I argued that even if this greater variance showed up reliably across all testing populations, what exactly was being illuminated was still not clear; that is, many other explanations–other than that men had better ‘math modules’ in their brains, or greater ‘innate’ mathematics ability, or something like that–could explain even very stable differences in math performance. At the time I suggested a number of other possibilities, such as sex differences in stress response during testing, as other possible explanations for even a universal ‘math gap’ (which still had to contend with studies like the two in Science which severely undermined the assertion of universality).

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a video and accompanying article in Science Daily on differences in stress responses among men and women: Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress (but don’t click on that link — keep reading!). Stress is a good candidate to explain a test-taking gap because the observable physiological processes offer abundant evidence that men and women don’t respond to stress in exactly the same way (although there are underlying commonalities). For example, stress causes different diseases in men and women, and some long-term psychological disorders that demonstrate sex-linked disparities seem to emerge from stress.

Unlike the ‘black box’ explanation that boys and simply better at math or evidence greater variability in innate ability, with no observable neural correlate or plausible explanatory mechanism, in variation in stress response we have a clear candidate for male-female difference that plausibly affects their performance and even physiology (for example, in different stress-related diseases).
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Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1

In a January 2005 speech, Harvard President Lawrence Summers provoked the proverbial firestorm by suggesting that women lacked the ‘intrinsic aptitude’ of women for math, science and engineering (story in the Boston Globe on the incident). Summers was merely stating out loud what many people believe: that inherent differences between men and women cause significant inequalities in aptitude for math (and presumably also for art history, Coptic studies, or cultural anthropology, but they usually get a lot less attention…).

A recent report in Science by Janet S. Hyde and colleagues, ‘Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,’ used a mass of standardized testing data generated under the No Child Left Behind program to compare male and female performance and found that the scores were more similar than different. The gap in average performance on math tests has shrunk significantly since the 1970s, disappearing in most states and grades for which the research team could get good data. According to Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the co-authors of the study: ‘Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance. But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.’

From the way that this report has been discussed, it seems clear that the data has not settled this question in many people’s minds. Tamar Lewin of The New York Time covered the story in (‘Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds‘) provoking comments on a wide range of websites, including some who insisted that the team led by Hyde missed entirely the point being made by Summers or that Lewin had misread the study (some accusing her of feminist bias). In contrast, Keith J. Winstein of The Wall Street Journal focused not on the average scores, but on the results at the top end of the bell curve, writing, Boys’ Math Scores Hit Highs and Lows, which highlights the discussion of variance in boys’ scores.

Although I briefly want to go over the study and the way its being interpreted, I’m more interested in the shift in test scores over time because I think that the movements in these numbers, including gaps that disappear over time (or don’t), point to a basic problem in the tests themselves. Well, not a problem in the tests—they’re very sophisticated instruments for assessing certain kinds of performance on selected tasks—but rather with the common assumption about what these tests actually reveal and the nature of ‘math ability.’ For me, this larger point is more important for neuroanthropology because it applies to far more than just the ‘math gap.’

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