Category Archives: Science

It’s Your Turn, Darling! – Whatever Happened to Male Contraceptives?

We’ve been hearing it for years: new methods for male contraception are on the way. Well, where are they?
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Last week some of our hopes were shattered when the news broke that an international trial of a male hormonal injection was cancelled due to its serious side-effects in about 10% of the test persons. A percentage too high to be viable? That depends on the side-effects, one might think, so what are they?
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“One in ten men experienced side-effects including depression, weight gain, increased libido and acne. The older the trial person, the worse the symptoms were.” (Times Live, 2011.)
Hmm, I dunno, but speaking from experience, personal and other, I’d like to venture and say that sounds eerily familiar. The birth control pill for women has had to battle equally annoying side-effects, most of which are still an issue 50 years after it was first sold to the average woman, and not just test persons: Weight gain is typical, so is the loss of libido (increased libido is considered a side-effect these days, really?), not to speak of the increased risk of yeast infections, cancer and thrombosis. Strangely, that never stopped anyone from putting this product on the market.
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mood swings, weight gain, libido changes? clearly, these chicks could take it.

And rightly so. As we all know, the birth control pill had huge effects on the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s, as it promised women’s bodily autonomy and sexual emancipation. Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a price and “being on the pill” is never as simple and self-evident for a woman as many men (doctors and boyfriends) make it out to be. Therefore, sharing this responsibility within a relationship could come as a great relief, ideally for both partners. So why is there so little progress regarding the research of male contraceptives?

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Clearly, side-effects are not the problem here. It’s not too far-fetched to claim that the test persons of the trial might have simply been too whiny and exaggerating their symptoms. I’m not being mean; this is a conclusion that can be drawn from comparing this German trial to a 2009 study in China, which has been considered successful despite some minor side effects. No, something else is cooking here, and it has to do with male sensibilities other than their susceptibility to side-effects:
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“In the next 10 to 15 years there are no market opportunities for this,” said Friederike Lorenzen of Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals in Berlin. (Times Live, 2011.)
In other words: men wouldn’t buy it because they wouldn’t use it. Amanda Marcotte has written an interesting article about this dilemma. Even though she is talking about the male birth control pill, it is even truer for the injection, since it would generate even less money. That is, if men would use it. But why wouldn’t they? There are benefits, after all. Using male contraception in a relationship would take the burden off the shoulders of the female partner, at least for a while. A happy girlfriend makes for a happy relationship, one should think. But even more selfish-minded guys could enjoy the advantages: care-free sex in a relationship in which they can’t trust their partner not to trap them into baby-making (these kinds of relationships are obviously heavily flawed but there seem to be a few guys out there who fear that sort of thing…). But obviously these reasons are not enough. According to Marcotte, the proof can be found in an easy comparison:
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“One way to do this is to look at forms of birth control men do have, and look and see how much responsibility men take towards using these.
One good place to look is rates of sterilization.  Vasectomies are safer, less invasive, and quicker to heal from than tubal ligations, but the rate of female sterilization in the U.S. is twice the rate of vasectomy. (Actually, according to the CDC, women get sterilized at three times the rate of men.)” (Marcotte, Pandagon, 2011.)
What it all boils down to is a stereotype, whose constant reinforcement (by men and women) has made it come true: Women are responsible for contraception, because they are the ones that have the main responsibilities concerning unwanted pregnancies and are more at risk of contracting dangerous STIs. How many times do men pass on using a condom because they simply assume that the woman is on birth control? Sure, some women are negligent as well, but it is rarely in their own interest. In the long run, hormonal contraception is never ideal, neither for men nor women. Alternatively, one could ask why the existing birth control methods for women aren’t being improved, or rather why are some of them not as heavily promoted and encouraged as the pill? The answer lies with doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and I’m afraid it has little to do with reducing health risks and everything to do with money.
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So what’s a girl to do? Do some research, find out what works best for you, or bear the burden until the day you get to say: It’s your turn, darling!

Who’s Afraid Of Steven Pinker? – A Brief Analysis Of A Debate

A lot of people who have issues with some of the basic understandings of feminism are strong advocates of evolutionary psychology, because it aims to explain behavior patterns among men and women that they believe to be typical and innate. For those implicit or explicit anti-feminists, Stephen Pinker is somewhat of a hero who is referenced so often, he even made it onto the Evolutionary Psychology Bingo card, which feminists enjoy very much. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Pinker is for fans of evo psych what Judith Butler is for the LGBTQ community. Naturally, I’m intrigued, so I googled around for a bit and came across an interesting debate from 2005 between Pinker and his fellow psychologist Elizabeth Spelke regarding the “science of gender and science”. You can watch the video and read the transcript here.
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Full disclosure: I am no fan of evolutionary psychology, especially not the kind that focusses on sex differences. Which is not to say that I am anti-science or a denier of Darwinian evolution. However, it is not uncommon that different studies on the same subject produce different results, and that these results are often related to the convictions of the persons conducting the study and/or to the current ideology. Scientific evidence is not free from interpretation; therefore it does not hold the key to ultimate truths. It it wasn’t so, there wouldn’t be any scientific debates to begin with. Science can be skewed, too, so a little scepticism is always in order.
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The debate from 2005 that I am commenting on is not so much about whether or not there is scientific evidence for differences between men and women, but why there are so few women who are making careers in the sciences.
So what does Pinker actually say in this debate? First of all, he distinguishes between the extreme “nature” and the extreme “nurture” positions. He positions himself somewhere in between and his colleague Elizabeth Spelke as part of the extreme “nurture” team (which, as it turns out, is the first incorrect statement he makes during the debate). He then goes on to claim to be a feminist, briefly accrediting 1st and 2nd wave feminism and the “effort to increase the representation of women in the sciences”. So far, so acceptable.
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His next step is to prove his point, namely that there are innate differences between men and women that influence the abilities and behavior of the sexes in such a way, that men are naturally more likely to succeed in the sciences than women. However, some of the differences he points out, such as priorities in life, career choices and the likelihood to take risks, can easily be explained by nurture. In fact, Pinker doesn’t even find it necessary to give biological evidence for these claims, only statistics that say nothing about the nature-nurture debate.
The other factors – differences in three-dimensional mental transformation, mathematical reasoning, relation towards objects vs. people – may well be justified, at least according to the scientific evidence that Pinker provides. However, as Elizabeth Spelke will show during her speech, all of this “evidence” can just as well be reinterpreted and debunked. Cordelia Fine has done so as well more recently. I am also confused by Pinker’s refusal to acknowledge any sort of bias from parents and teachers. If he doesn’t even recognize the basic assumptions of the nurture position, why bother with this debate?
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nature or nurture? photos by jeong mee yoon

Needless to say, I find his part of the debate very unconvincing and was quite relieved but also a bit disappointed by Spelke’s comeback. She concentrates on the actual issue, the under-representation of women in science, saying: “Notice that I am not saying the genders are indistinguishable, that men and women are alike in every way, or even that men and women have identical cognitive profiles. I’m saying that when you add up all the things that men are good at, and all the things that women are good at, there is no overall advantage for men that would put them at the top of the fields of math and science.
Differences, yes. Advantages, no. Or, to quote Diane Halpern, as Spelke does: “Differences are not deficiencies.”
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So let’s try and answer the initial question: Why are there so few women making careers in science? Answer: We don’t know. Neither do Pinker and Spelke, apparently. They both have their suspicions, based on their respective findings, but neither of them can give surefire proof. Based on my own views, I am siding more with Spelke’s theory, which blames socialization and discrimination over biological factors, but here is where I disagree with her: “Scientists find things out. The much more difficult questions of how to use that information, live our lives, and structure our societies are not questions that science can answer. Those are questions that everybody must consider.”
The problem I have with this statement is that it seems to absolve scientists from any responsibility. Of course, we have to ask ourselves what conclusions we want to draw from new findings, but scientists have to ask themselves not only what they are trying to find out but also why.
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When Pinker states that there is scientific evidence for the assumption that women are biologically slightly less inclined or capable to be math professors, what does this mean politically? The implication would be that girls should be even less encouraged to get into sciences, because overall they’re less likely to succeed. I do not mean to say that this is Pinker’s intention, but that these are the consequences that can easily be drawn from such claims. Which is why I find studies like The Bell Curve morally reprehensible. By no means do I endorse the censorship of scientists; I’d just like to encourage the questioning of motivations. And I have to point out that Pinker is either negligent or incredibly naive when he states that  “none of this provides grounds for ignoring the biases and barriers that do keep women out of science”, because – unfortunately – for many it does.

News- and Blogwatch

France’s Burqa Ban
Yesterday, France’s so-called burqa ban went into effect. The decision was made last summer but from now on women wearing the burqa or the niqab in public can actually be fined, can be forced to attend civilization courses and be taken into custody if they refuse to remove their veils. Two women have already been arrested who protested the burqa ban in Paris. I have stated my position on this subject last year here and here. By now it has become fairly obvious that Sarkozy is only trying to gather votes from the right. His policies on immigration and the Roma have made clear that the only women he cares about, if at all, are white and born in France.
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You can blame Feminism for everything
Every now and then scientists come up with these new theories regarding the differences between the sexes, that are somehow considered valuable for society because, duh, they’re scientists, so they must be true. Like this one: Why feminism is the anti-viagra. Neuroscientist Ogi Ogas claims that “gender equality inhibits arousal” because women are hard-wired to be submissive and cannot negotiate this natural urge with their strife towards equality, which therefore limits their libido. Now, I don’t quite understand what one’s personal sexual urges have to do with leading an emancipated life and enjoying equality in one’s relationship. After all, someone with a golden shower fetish is not likely to be urinating on people at work or his or her partner outside of “the bedroom”. But I was interested to find out what this scientist bases his theory on. He references research done on Norwegian rats. Enough said.
Needless to say, homosexual relationships don’t seem to exist in this guy’s universe. According to his theory, homosexuals would have a hard time finding a partner because the men would always want to be dominant and the women always submissive. Unless, of course, this theory doesn’t apply to them because homos are weird anyway, right?
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Future Stalkers of America
When I first read about this video, I thought it had to be a joke, possibly even a trolling stunt by men’s rights activists themselves, who enjoy posing as “feminists” in order to ridicule the movement, even though their views of feminism are completely misguided and far from reality. But no, these guys are for real: a couple of new age gurus (they still exist?) thinking they are doing the world a favor by apologizing to women on behalf of all men who have done harm to women throughout centuries of masculine rule. The concept is already flawed in itself, but the execution really takes the cake. While I do agree with perhaps a couple of statements, the overall creepiness and obsolescence of the whole thing is just unbearable. The heyday of ecofeminism was nothing in comparison. If you cannot finish watching the video, for which I don’t blame you, but you still in need of a good critique, David Futrelle over at Manboobz has a great summary:
[...] no matter how earnest all the men in the video are trying to sound, none of them (except perhaps the two ringleaders) seem to really believe the ridiculous things they’re saying. Instead, they seem to be, with varying degrees of insincerity, mouthing a series of essentially meaningless New Age platitudes – in short, simply saying what they think women want to hear.

No one is buying this bullshit, guys. Give it up.

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Book Review: Donna Haraway “Simians, Cyborgs, And Women. The Reinvention Of Nature” (1991)

Haraway’s collection of essays is almost twenty years old, but her views on science and technology and the role of gender within these categories are still valuable and fascinating. The most famous essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, has become a seminal work in postfeminist theory and studies on cyberculture.

Most of her work deals with the critique of nature as a universal category and the totalizing power of natural science. As a biologist and historian of science, Haraway is aware of the importance and significance of scientific research, but also of its shortcomings and abuse. She claims that science cannot be assumed as separate from ideology by default. Research and studies are almost always based on presuppositions which often reflect the dominant ideology, for example:

Theories of animal and human society based on sex and reproduction have been powerful in legitimating beliefs in the natural necessity of aggression, competition, and hierarchy. (p. 21)

Important tools such as renaming and reinterpretation can lead to entirely different results. Everyone can tell the difference between the connotation of “female receptivity” vs. “female choice” (p. 41), a simple change of words which may have a huge impact of how we explain human behavior biologically. Haraway’s example of the reinterpretation of the tool-using adaptation in chimpanzees questions the evolutionary legitimization of (alpha-)male aggressivity and domination while at the same time allowing for more options for development:

[...] evolutionary reconstructions condition understanding of contemporary events and future possibilities. [...] The open future rests on a new past. (p.41)

Haraway warns us “to pretend that science is either only discovery, which erects a fetish of objectivity, or only invention, which rests on crass idealism” (p. 42), and urges feminists to resist expecting final theories for complex and ambiguous issues, such as reproduction and production, which are always affected by the current dominant ideology, politically as well as scientifically.

However, according to Haraway it is not only science that needs to be reviewed, but our general concept of nature as well. That the universality and holism of nature is also a construction, has been largely ignored by feminists (of the second wave) and the mainstream alike. Consequently, Haraway praises Judith Butler’s move to “‘disqualify’ the  analytic categories, like sex or nature, that lead to univocity” and to “expose the illusion of an interior organizing gender core and produce a field of race and gender difference open to resignification” (p. 135). Like many postmodern feminists, Haraway and Butler have been accused of splitting the feminist movement by doing away with its basis for women’s agency. Haraway answered to this criticism with her vision of  cyberfeminism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century Haraway presents her version of a Marxist feminism in our late capitalist society, which argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (p. 150). To illustrate this vision, she uses the image of the cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (p. 149). According to Haraway, we are all cyborgs in today’s society, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.

The cyborg transcends the boundaries of biology, thereby rejecting universalism and totalizing theory, the foundations of patriarchy. As an animal-human-machine hybrid the cyborg negates organic holism and the Western myth of an origin story. Its most subversive quality is its ambiguity:

Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.

Furthermore, Haraway’s cyborg fits in the anti-essentialist tradition in postmodern feminism. As a post-gender creature it cannot be said to have any specific universal qualities, be they male or female. Escaping these universal categories, of women or other, the cyborg manages to escape patriarchal oppression and creates its own identity. Because the cyborg is as much machine as it is human, technology becomes the determining factor which makes this kind of feminism possible. As the dualisms disappear, they leave room for multiplicity, contradiction and self-development.

As I have mentioned before, Haraway had to face some criticism from certain feminist movements, for aligning women with technology, the tool of patriarchal capitalism, and for eliminating women’s common identity and experience. Haraway challenges those allegations by claiming that feminists should create solidarity and find common ground not based on their mutual identity (as women) but rather on their mutual affinity, affinity being a relation not by blood (race, gender etc.) but by choice. Bearing in my mind how much the internet already influences our everyday lives (not just in the Western world but also progressively in developing nations), I believe this claim to be very much based in our lived reality, the internet being a fantastic source to create and find groups based on affinity.

Finally, as a feminist who has been confronted too often with the allegation that all feminists believe in the superiority of women, I cannot help but close with Haraway’s most famous line:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (p. 181)

[Donna J. Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York 1991.]

Cyborg love for the 21st century:


News- and Blogwatch

A French retiree has to go on trial for physically attacking a Middle Eastern woman because she was wearing a face-covering veil. The attacker defended herself by saying: “I felt it was unacceptable for someone to wear a niqab in (France), the country of human rights. It’s a muzzle, all that’s missing is a leash, it’s the negation of women.” Surely the best way to defend the human rights of someone else is by ”biting, slapping and scratching” that person. Thanks to the recently approved ‘burqa ban’, ‘human rights violations’ of this sort have been outlawed. Perhaps the retiree should join the French police…

More in French news:  gender equality exists on paper, not so much in the heads of the French people.

Raoul Hausmann: Der Geist Unserer Zeit - Mechanischer Kopf

I don’t know much about neuroscience and had to read this text twice, but this strikes me as particularly relevant: “[...] the significance of the Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab paper is really as much political and even legal as it is neuroscientific. If there are demonstrable and functionally relevant features in the brain that underlie beliefs or proclivities that determine a person’s behaviour from an early age, and may be immutable, then the case for a redefinition of gender and for reassignment surgery in transsexuals is strengthened.” (Herbert, 2008)

A great lecture by Tim Jackson on Prosperity Without Growth:

How is it possible for a continually expanding subsystem (let’s call it the economy) of a finite system (let’s call it the planet) to continue to deliver its system goals? [...] How is it that we can consider an economy which, if it grows at the rates that it has done over the last fifty years will be 16 times bigger by the year 2100, or 80 times bigger than it was just five decades ago, and even this 80 times bigger economy won’t be a place which has delivered the poorest nations out of poverty and given them a hope, a chance of a western level of income. If you wanted to achieve that bigger goal, the goal of global equity, you need an economy that is 200 times bigger than it was fifty years ago. The resource implications, the environmental implications of such an economy are barely believable, really, and yet this is the default supposition for the direction of our economy.

Aral Sea Satellite Pictures