Friday, June 14, 2013

Men Caused The Menopause. Today's Funny Research.

I love these weirdo studies, I do!  Now we are told, based on computer simulations and nothing else, that human females have the menopause because "at some point" in our evolutionary history men decided to mate with younger women.  So there was no point in keeping that energy-intensive fertility machine going for older women and the ones who had the menopause mutation (that part is my guesswork) took over.  Here's how one of the researchers explains all this to us:

"This paper is saying that men have played the major or dominant part in choosing mates," said biologist Rama Singh, who is a professor of population genetics and evolution at McMaster University in Canada. "Somewhere along the line in our evolutionary history, males did not mate randomly but preferred young women because they are more attractive."
I like that very scientific-sounding statement in that last sentence.  It's a bit circular, preferring young women because they are more attractive, which is the same as preferring younger women because one prefers them.*

As the study summary states, there are many theories about why menopause exists.  None of them seem to be based on anything but theoretical speculations, however.

But this one elicits a few interesting questions:  We are told that men are the more selective sex.  That goes straight against the usual evolutionary-psychology argument that women are the more selective sex.  It also goes against the usual evolutionary-psychology argument that men can mate with thousands of women, no trouble.

So why would men not mate with older women, too?

Another problem with the study is that the researchers seem to assume nothing bad happens to sperm quality as men age.  Research suggests that this is not correct.  The number of mutations in the sperm grows with age, the motility of the sperm decreases as well.  Ignoring all that may not matter for the arguments in this piece, but it shows a lack of knowledge of the relevant area.

Finally, chimpanzees appear to prefer older females for mating purposes.  Given that we are so often told to look at our closest relatives for guidance about our biology and behavior, that difference might be worth pondering about.

I'm not excluding this theory among the many menopause theories.  But the fact is that we really have no evidence about the origins of the menopause and I wish researchers expressed the usual careful academic skepticism when talking about the meaning of their own research.  That tends to disappear in these kinds of studies, at least when it comes to statements made to the public.
*There's a deeper kind of circularity in these arguments, because usually the male preference for younger females is explained as a consequence of the greater fertile period those females have ahead of them.  That's a reference to menopause, not just to getting older.

Things Which Can Get You Fired: Beauty and Being the Target of Domestic Abuse

Last year it was beauty:

Dental assistant Melissa Nelson was fired for being too attractive, so she sued her employer. But Iowa's Supreme Court has upheld her firing as lawful.
In general, looking good is a positive trait. Attractive people tend to get paid more and get promoted more frequently.
But the opposite was true for dental assistant Melissa Nelson. Her employer viewed her as "irresistible" and a "threat" to his marriage, so he fired her. And according to Iowa's all-male Supreme Court, that was perfectly fine, ABC News reports.
Nelson did nothing wrong.  She didn't try to seduce her employer, she acted professionally and did her job well.  Her firing was declared legal because it was based on an unprotected characteristic of workers, "beauty," and not on her gender or race or age. In a weird way it was her employer who acted unprofessionally.

But the Iowa all-male Supreme Court's argument that this has nothing to do with Nelson's gender is a bit simplistic.  It has quite a bit to do with gender roles and the fact that looks are regarded as much more important for women than for men.   And it seems that at least in Iowa you can now fire someone for how they look.

The more recent case tells us that in some cases it may be acceptable to fire someone because that person is the target of a potentially violent abuser.  The woman with the abusive ex-spouse, Carie Charlesworth, teaches young children and the Catholic Diocese running the school she worked in decided to have her around is too big a risk.  So she was let go:

It’s a story that has domestic violence advocates outraged, fearing it will only reinforce an age-old problem where victims stay silent — but equally concerned are the school's parents, not wanting their kids in the middle of it.
“Basically, we’d had a very bad weekend with him, we’d called the sheriff’s department three times on Sunday with him,” said Charlesworth, referring to an incident in January that put her leave of absence in motion. 
She went to her principal at Holy Trinity School in El Cajon the following morning and told the principal to be on the lookout for her ex-husband.  As many domestic violence cases go, this one has a trail of restraining orders and 911 calls. When Charlesworth’s ex-husband showed up in the school parking lot, the school went into lockdown. 
Charlesworth and her four kids, who also attended Holy Trinity School, have not been back since the January incident. A letter was sent home to parents the following day, explaining the situation and noting Charlesworth and her children were being put "on an indefinite leave.”
While Charlesworth’s husband went to jail on two felony charges, she says she felt like a criminal too.
“And that’s what it felt like, the kids and I were being punished for something we didn’t even do,” she told NBC 7 San Diego.
Three months later, another letter arrived in the mail delivering a crushing blow.  Charlesworth was fired for good, and after 14 years in the district not allowed to teach at any other Diocesan school.

What both of these cases share is the innocence of the workers who got fired.  The firings were to protect someone else.  In the domestic abuse case, those are the children at the school, in the beauty case those are the dentist and his wife and their marital harmony.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Forced Fatherhood

Laurie Shrage has written a blog post on the New York Times Opinionator blog on the question whether men now have fewer reproductive rights than women, especially once an "accidental" conception has happened.  This is a topic on which I'm likely to write a very loooooong commentary.  My apologies for that in advance.

What Shrage argues is that once the flock of happy little sperm escapes confinement and one of them (at least) ends up devoured by that omnivorous egg (or eggs), the man has been yoked to fatherhood, whether he wishes it or not,  if  the owner of those eggs decides on motherhood.   What that involuntary fatherhood seems to mean, when viewed in minimal terms, is that the man must pay child maintenance for over a decade.

The impregnated woman (a disgusting term, I think, for some reason) has the choice of abortion (at least in a few states in the US and until the Republicans cut off that option), and she has the choice of completing the pregnancy.  She even has the option of giving the child up for adoption or abandoning it legally.  But Shrage thinks the man has none of those  options.

I think she is mistaken about the latter two alternatives.  A single father, with custody of his child, could give the child up for adoption, in the absence of the mother or any knowledge of her, and a single father could also deposit the child in one of those hospitals which allow it as a legal option.  Thus, it is only the abortion alternative that men who don't want to be fathers are not allowed to enforce.  And that's because the process is taking place inside the woman's body, which gives her some additional rights.

So what do I think about this question of forced fatherhood?  My thoughts are complex, but I can tell right off the bat that until we invent an artificial womb and 100% effective birth control when not using it, the basic setup remains tilted because of the fact that it is the woman's body in which the process takes place. 

And in that sense men do, indeed, have fewer non-reproductive and reproductive rights, in a few privileged places where both contraception and abortions are widely available.  In large parts of this world men probably have better non-reproductive and reproductive rights than women do.

The basic setup would be tilted the other way round if men were like seahorses and performed the pregnancy.  Then they would have extra say in what is going to happen to their bodies.

Historically speaking, a man having sex with a woman he wasn't married to mostly got away scot-free, whether she got pregnant or not.  That's the background against which these developments should be judged.  Getting away scot-free is not what happens with unintended pregnancies.  The woman must undergo pregnancy and birth or an abortion, as a minimum, and it's not realistic to argue that the man should have zero negative consequences from having unprotected sex or a contraceptive fail.

And once the child is born, there are three individuals one must be concerned about.  The rights the parents have at that time must be balanced with the rights and needs of the child.  Child maintenance, for instance, is about the child, not its custodial parent.  If the custodial parent cannot make it on her or his own, then the government (all of us) must chip in.

In short, the question is complicated and doesn't lend itself to easy or flippant answers of the type the pro-lifers or forced-birthers use as advice to women:  If you don't want to be a parent, just keep your legs crossed.  I wonder if they are going to use a related exhortation to men who don't want to become parents, either.

An extreme interpretation of Srage's arguments suggests  to me something utterly impractical:  The idea that a man could simply declare he didn't want to be a father and then escape all consequences of the conception, with the possible exception of paying some of the pregnancy- or abortion-related costs (as Srage proposes).  If such a rule was adopted and applied across the board, the incentives for men to use contraception could be vastly reduced.  And logically that should result in a lot less free-wheeling heterosexual sex in general, once the rules became generally known to all women, too, because such a rule would increase the costs of sex-for-just-fun for women.  Like returning to the old historical rules, eh?

Still, I can see how the current arrangement can be rotten for men who end up becoming fathers when they don't wish that outcome.  Nobody should be forced into that position, or tricked into it and so on.

That's why I wonder why there seems to be no lucrative market for a truly effective male contraceptive pill.  It would solve all these problems in the simplest possible way.  Couples could still use condoms for the prevention of disease but a breaking condom would not be such a calamity.  And men would be in control of their own fertility and could not be forced into fatherhood that easily. 

Indeed, creating pressure on a male contraceptive pill seems the obvious answer here.  It would much reduce the magnitude of the problem, given comparable data from the female contraceptive pill.

The Man-Brain in Maine

This is just a delicious story abut a Maine Republican telling us that man-brains get that health care costs money, woman-brains think it's free and want it:

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-ME) invoked the classic gender-stereotyping book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to explain how he is struggling to reconcile his rational male consideration of costs with Democrats’ apparently female desire for free things.
The Maine People’s Alliance flagged the sexist speech:
As I listen to the debate today and earlier debate on this bill, I can’t help but think of a title of a book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. And it’s a book about the fact that men sort of think one way in their own brain, in their own world. And women think another way in their own brain and in their own world. And it really talks about the way that men and women can do a better job at communicating. Because if you listen to the debate today, in my mind — a man’s mind — I hear two fundamental issues. From the other side of the aisle, I hear the conversation being about: free. ‘This is free, we need to take it, and it’s free. And we need to do it now.’ And that’s the fundamental message that my brain receives. Now, my brain, being a man’s brain, sort of thinks differently, because I say, well, it’s not — if it’s free, is it really free? Because I say, in my brain, there’s a cost to this.

Bolds are in the original.  I think Mr. Fredette is just a Bear of Very Little Brain.   What he does isn't terribly unusual, that labeling the opposition as stupid and as not thinking very clearly.  I've done that myself in some sudden rage.  What's less usual is to loudly state that woman-brains don't understand money.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

David Brooks: The Ties That Bind....And Chafe

David Brooks  laments the loss of all those social ties and regards Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower/leaker, as a major example of what happens when our intimate ties fray and break:

According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
I bolded the most interesting sentence in that quote.  Brooks is an authoritarian, though heavily disguised.  Like a lone wolf pretending to be one of the sheep, telling the sheep how good the various ties are that bind them, and lamenting the awful fate of a solitary sheep lost from the flock.

I'm not disagreeing with Brooks on the importance of social ties, but pointing out that he never questions the nature of those traditional ties he so adores.  He offers us his alternatives:  Either suffer alone or live your life in the place the "gently gradated authoritative structures" give you.

But those traditional ties are not equally protective or equally demanding for all, and many of the most powerful in the society appear not to be too bothered about the ties supposedly binding them, unless it's to a very close and small group of like-thinking and similarly positioned individuals.

This post is about a small sliver of Brooks' arguments.  For a very good take on the whole of it, read Amy Davidson's take in the New Yorker.

Speed-Blogging, June 12, 2013: On Market Information, Wingnut Beliefs About Pregnancy And Other Stuff

1. This bit about some traders paying for advance government information matters quite a bit, because the economists' market models require that information be available for all for competition to work properly.  Besides, the high price of getting the early warnings benefits the wealthier market players.

2.  Yet another wingnut politician, Trent Franks,  who knows  that one cannot really get pregnant from rape.  The reason for these arguments is to pave the road for banning abortion even in the case of rape.  Other forced-birthers tell us that abortion is never necessary to save the pregnant woman's life, and that argument is used to pave the road for banning abortion in all cases.  That's what El Salvador has, by the way...

3.  Even feminists need to be hot to get their point across.  Except that it doesn't work that way, because the imagined causality, among the opposing camp,  assumes that a woman becomes a feminist because she is ugly.  Therefore, all feminists are ugly, QED.   The other crap that link mentions is much worse, of course.

4.  Americans disapprove of the government surveillance programs.  But there's the predictable party-based difference.  The disapproval probably increases if the party you oppose is in power.

The Slut-Or-Madonna Culture: Who Is The Goalkeeper?

Contents:  Sexual violence.

The story I link to from here is a distressing one, about child molestation and alleged rape and what the consequences of it are for a young pregnant girl:

Now, a 14-year-old in Elwood, Indiana who is eight months pregnant faces ongoing harassment simply because her neighborhood sees her as a very young pregnant girl. But a reporter at the Indianapolis Star writes that her town does not know the full story of the 17-year-old boy who physically overpowered her after she told him “no.” On Tuesday, he faces sentencing for three counts of child molestation.
At the same time the girl has encountered vicious public shaming from her community, she and her mother Kristy Green have spoken out because they worry her assailant will walk free in juvenile court:
“I can’t walk out the door without someone calling me a whore or slut,” the girl said. “I used to have a lot of friends, or people I thought were my friends, but as soon as this happened I just isolated myself.”

The repeated vandalism incidents at the family’s home — including the words “whore” and “slut” scrawled on the garage doors — were reported to police. But Green said no charges were filed because there were no witnesses to the acts.
I don't know enough about this particular incident to tell whether the vandals are supporters of the boy who is accused of having raped the girl or whether the vandals are from the community in general.  Though the latter seems more likely, given that the court case is not common knowledge in the town.

If it is the latter, what we see here is the gatekeeper methodology in full action:  Women and girls are supposed to be the goalkeepers.  Men and boys are supposed to try to score.  The game is cruel, as we can see, and it is also illogical, both in assigning  the responsibility to stop the goals to young girls but not the power to do so, and also in its underlying assumption that the game is supposed to be adversarial, that the women and girls should not want to score at all and if they do, well, then they are sluts and whores.  The cruelty is at its apex when the girl tried to keep the goal but the puck was rammed through.  As seems to be the case here.

It's that game we need to change.  Sex and love and so on are not a game of hockey or football.  Scoring in such a game is not winning, and encouraging the game scenario is one way of creating rape cultures.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Meet E.W.Jackson, the Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia

The Republican  nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia (Virginia is for lovers, according to tourism promoters), E. W. Jackson, has pretty unusual ideas.  He has written that birth defects are caused by sin.  Whether that is just general free-floating sin of all humans or specific sins of the parents of the child isn't clear to me.

E.W. Jackson has also stated that Planned Parenthood is more lethal to blacks than the KKK ever was.  That's the idea of abortions as intended racial genocide.  But E.W. Jackson must have forgotten about all those pap smears and breast examinations that Planned Parenthood also provides.

And in 2012 the nominee for lieutenant governor in the loving state of Virginia expressed his intense dislike of gays and lesbians, calling them bad names.  He has continued telling us what is wrong with gays and lesbians as well as many other types of Americans.

Mr. Jackson is clearly running as a very fundamentalist preacher.  Whether that's what the state of Virginia really wants remains to be seen.

And a Joke

From here:

Good News on Gender Issues

First, this story about a letter sent fifty years ago to a female Harvard applicant is salutary reading.  The world has changed for the better, at least in some countries.  Much work remains to be done on the global level, however.

Second*,  as a response to those who argue that girls and women just can't do science or at least don't want to do science, well, some, at least, are  good at it.

Third, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologist has (finally) made a statement about all those things the forced-birther politicians require them to do:

The statement specifically denounces several types of laws, including those that tell physicians what to say to women about breast cancer risk and breast density, those that mandate outdated abortion treatment protocols, and those that require women to undergo ultrasounds and view the images before having an abortion.

ACOG in the statement acknowledges that laws can promote public health and help provide for medical services, but it cautions that "laws that veer from these functions and unduly interfere with patient-physician relationships are not appropriate." 

What they are supposed to say about breast cancer risks are untruths.  Or lies, if you prefer a more direct word.  Abortions do not increase the risk of breast cancer, based on all large studies with good data.
*KHBuzzard in the comments noted that this is an old story, from 2011.  My apologies for that.  I have faced this possibility a lot in my blogging career  (because people re-start a discussion about something old without mentioning that it is old),  This is the first time I failed to spot that something wasn't new.  As an aside, I once wrote a really neat and funny post about something and then couldn't use it because the original piece was five years old...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I Don't Write About the NSA And Other Important Topics

Blogging is a weird business (let's pretend that it IS a business), because once a blogger has developed a voice (a gruff one, a whining one), whether that voice is used or not starts to matter to the blogger if to nobody else.

It's like the empty space in paintings.  That matters, too, for the totality of the experience.

Duh.  What I mean is that there are zillions of topics I never write about, however important they are, because they are not within my pay grade.  Others have the years of experience that properly addressing them requires, others have better sources and a better platform, others actually live a particular experience.  Even us divines must specialize in something.

But I still wonder if my silence on certain topics is taken as a statement about something more than the limits of my expertise.  The reality is that on many, many topics I do better as the reader than the writer.

But it's true that I pick and choose even among the topics that I know a lot about, and that I often go for the topic I enjoy writing about,  though I do want to cover whatever seems very important to cover.   Feeling that little engine starting to purr away inside me is a sign that one of the tiny windows to our general subconsciousness might be ajar, that I might be able to quickly snatch something of wider significance out of it, that the topic is for me, in some odd way.

On the other hand, I just like certain writing assignments and dread others.  For the latter I need moolah.

Double duh.

All that is a long and self-involved prelude about topics that I think I should write more about (say, guns in the United States and how they make the society polite ("an armed society is a polite society"), if they do,  by removing large numbers from it in neat and polite coffins).

One of those topics is always whatever the current public debate concerns, such as right now the question of government surveillance.

I don't have the expertise to write on the topic, just the kinds of concerns anyone in the audience might have:

The lack of safeguards, the scope of the program and the fact that someone working for a subcontractor, with just a few years of experience, appears to have had access to the data on a very high level.  The question how many terrorist attacks all this surveillance has prevented, the obvious lures it has for whichever party is in power at any particular moment, the fact that once this became entrenched, under the Bush administration, no future head of the state would wish to relinquish such powers and so on.

Then there are the side-issues:  How the conservatives were all for the system under Bush but now opposed to it.  That political game.  And the question what ordinary Americans (and people in other countries) think about this.

My own impressions match with those at Alicu blog, in the sense that I have sorta assumed all this was going on once the floodgates were opened.  And it's not just the government which collects information on us.  The corporations do, too.

Those beliefs of mine don't make what has been revealed any less worrisome or any less important to fix,  but they dull my instant-outrage reflex.

Some of it may be similar to what happened with the airport gropings etc.  Those of us who have been groped for years both for medical reasons and because of street harassment and such have a different background, more time getting accustomed to something and that, too, dampens the instant-outrage reflex.  Similarly, if one has assumed that this crap is happening, then finding out that it IS happening is less shocking. 

It still needs to be fixed, naturally.

Men in Skirts

This is both an interesting piece of news and an opportunity to point out how reporting changes what the reader comes away with.

The story, as it is given at the website of the Finnish public television system (yle), is that some local train services in Sweden  were last year taken over by a company called Arriva.  Whether that is a privatization of services which in the past were not private is unclear.  But in any case Arriva gave the staff on the trains a new dress code:  No shorts, only long pants or skirts.  Shorts were allowed before Arriva took over.

What happened then, according to the yle site?  It has been very hot in Sweden recently, and according to one train driver the temperature inside his compartment rose to over 90 degrees.  More than ten men working the line have chosen to come to work in skirts.  They are cooler in the heat and the dress code allows them.  You can watch a video of a couple of skirt-wearing men at the site.

When I decided to write about this I tried to find an English language source.  The one I found gives a slightly different story:

Male staff on Stockholm’s commuter trains have begun wearing skirts to circumvent a ban on shorts as sweltering heat hit the Swedish capital this week.
Around 15 male train drivers and other staff wore skirts this week on the suburban Roslagsbanan train service, where temperatures inside the carriages can reach 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), transport company Arriva said on Sunday.
“Our policy is that you have to look well dressed and proper when representing Arriva, and that means trousers if you’re a man and a skirt if you’re a woman, but no shorts,” Arriva spokesman Tomas Hedenius told AFP.
“But if there’s a man who is keen to wear women’s clothing, such as a skirt, we have said that’s okay,” he added.
The company could change its policy this autumn after receiving feedback from its employees.
It focuses on the idea that skirts are for women and trousers are for men and then goes on to explaining Swedish gender policies and so on, and it lets Hedenius imply that the men who are doing this want to wear "women's clothing" rather than something cool in the summer.

The differences are subtle in the two interpretations, but it made me think how very easily we can be influenced by that very subtlety.

As far as I can tell, the point the men who wear skirts wanted to make is that skirts are more comfortable in the heat than long pants. 

The reverse point is equally obvious but not stated:  Skirts can be extremely uncomfortable during the long and cold Scandinavian winter and shouldn't be required for either sex because of that.  One engine driver also mentions that the skirts are cumbersome for certain tasks which require climbing, say.  If the company really requires women to wear them all the time, it may keep women out of certain jobs.

Then there's the fact that all this is about what employers can demand from their employees, that dress codes affect the comfort and even the health of the workers.