Second Look

Worried and Grumpy But Not Forgetting to Celebrate

Unknown  August 26th is Women’s Equality Day. It will mark the 94th anniversary of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women in the United States the right to vote. Lately anti-woman political rhetoric, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and various state and national legislative proposals that would turn back the clock on women’s rights have left me pretty glum.

Even the awarding of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, to a woman for the first time in the entire 78 years the Medal has been given has me grumbling. We should be well past ‘firsts’ of this kind. And what about the fact that the first woman to win the Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, now a professor at Stanford University, received all her early encouragement and education in Iran before coming to Harvard for graduate work? Are we doing enough to encourage and inspire young women in this country to pursue mathematics? No. The data still show that women in the U.S. are far less likely than men to hold professorships in the field. Old dated stereotypes continue to pervade K-12 and even college level environments. As Field Medalist Sir Tim Groves noted “I am thrilled that this day has finally come…I hope that the existence of a female medalist…will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.” Yes, me, too. But it sure is a long time coming.

I’ve been so grumpy that a friend recently suggested I take a break and get a grip. “It’s not as bleak as you feel, Susan. Think back to when women couldn’t even vote.”

And of course, she’s right. Her remark reminded me of my father quoting the old adage, ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’ when attempting to cajole me out of an adolescent funk because girls weren’t allowed to try out for track. It would take more than decade before Title IX began to change sports opportunities for girls, but it did happen.

Women have made major steps toward equality since the passage of the 19th Amendment. But my gloom is not entirely misplaced. Progress is not inevitable; backsliding surrounds us. The depth of inequality confronting Black Americans highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri is but one example of how far our nation has to go before achieving equality for all. Women and girls from every socio-economic level and racial/ethnic background are part of the continuing struggle for full civil and human rights. We can’t forget this. But the anniversary of the 19th amendment is a good time to recall progress, even if we seem smack dab in the middle of a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ phase of the struggle.

Too many women and men, girls and boys have no knowledge of the days when women were denied credit cards; few realize that 2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act giving women the right to credit cards in our own names. Nor are most people aware of a time when dozens of states prevented women from serving on juries. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, while focused primarily on racial discrimination, guaranteed every woman the right to serve on federal juries, but it wasn’t until 1973 that all fifty states permitted women to serve on state juries.

Job listings ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ and the illegality of birth control are often considered the ‘the stuff of feminist urban legends’ as one twenty year old recently informed me. And the very real threats to women’s reproductive rights strike some as far-fetched. After all, the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion long ago, way back in 1973. Yet today’s reality is that this right is being increasingly curtailed by state actions. Even current attempts to limit access to the voting booth are less understood than they should be.

So let’s celebrate and educate. Let’s celebrate Maryam Mirzakhani and the many other women ‘firsts’ who provide young women important role models in a wide range of fields. But let’s also be sure we remember legislative victories, the struggles involved, the decades required. Sometimes grumbling is both appropriate and necessary, but celebrations are important, too. There’s a long road ahead.

Mama w/ Pen

What’s Hot at Girl w/Pen – Late Summer Round Up Edition

imagesSO much to pick from this season, but among our summer highlights for those of you who missed it or are just now dropping in:

Natalie Wilson finds a gender con at comic con.

Virginia Rutter sets us straight on love and lust.

Elline Lipkin looks at the poetry and prose of “real” motherhood.

Susan Bailey cries uncle on Hobby Lobby.

Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe critique the over-thanking of straight male allies.

Adina Nack culls intel from guest Mary Assad on the science behind medical claims around fat and women’s hearts.

Kyla Bender-Baird invites Jocelyn Hollander to weigh in on Miss USA and self-defense.

Heather Hewett curates Emily Bent on what’s missing from girl power discourse in light of #BringBackOurGirls (namely: rights).

And I sound off on empowerment, tampon ads, and the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.

Manly Musings

From Pink and Blue to Brown: Gendering the Garden

9780520277779by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

Author, Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens (University of California Press 2014)

___________________________

Are flowers feminine and lawn masculine? Or are gardens, with their domestic allure and food provisioning, feminine altogether?   Thinking about gender as a duality of flowery femininity and masculine mowing doesn’t get us very far. It’s like trying to squish bio-diversity into a binary code.   We know gender is shaped by intersections of race, class and nation, by myriad subcultural groups and by everyday acts of gender bending and deliberate non-compliance.  So what do we see when we look at the residential garden as a project of gender?

The lawn is the obvious place to start. The American suburban lawn once received derisive commentary from urbanites and novelists but now, as the entire western portion of the United States fries after years of drought, anti-lawnism is catching on with many sensible people. But who insisted on front yards of lawn in the first place? Suburban homes set back from the street, with ornamental plants around the foundation of the house and lawn stretching out to the street is a style attributed to Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), the nation’s first popular garden designer, merchant and Martha Stewart-like tastemaker. He loved the lawn. In his 1841 book, he instructed Americans on how to have a garden in good taste: men should tend the lawn, walkways, vegetables and fruit trees, and women, the flowers. Jane Loudon’s Gardening for Ladies, published in England around the same time and widely read in the U.S., cautioned women not to over-exert themselves in the garden. Meanwhile, lawn as a symbol of masculine status and power, was marketed to men by lawn mower companies as early as the 1850s.

As the suburbs expanded in late nineteenth-century America, the man mowing the lawn and the lady as manager of the home and garden defined new gender ideals that reached their apogee when the GI Bill swelled the ranks of suburban home owners. Today, this gendered template of women tending to life in the domestic interiors and men tending to the domestic exteriors still lingers, but it’s now a shadow. Gendered household divisions of labor have loosened and they have also been outsourced to others. In affluent communities around the nation, from Los Angeles to Long Island, it is increasingly Latina/o immigrant women and men doing this work. Latina women are cleaning and caring indoors, and Latino immigrant gardeners are tending to the plant life and the dirty work of mowing lawns and blowing away fallen leaves outdoors.

Paradise4

Photograph by photographer, Nathan Solis

Domesticas and jardineros are gendered mirror images, dual vestiges of nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideals that take shape in new racial, immigrant, and class formations. While men of color undergo surveillance in many public and upscale places, Latino immigrant gardeners freely circulate in white middle-class and upscale neighborhoods and stride through private gates into other people’s backyards. Their tool-laden trucks and mowers and blowers serve as their passports, allowing them to do gendered labor in other people’s private property.

Latino immigrant men are doing the hard work in residential gardens across the nation, but gardening still registers as flowery and feminine, calling to mind images of earth mother. Gardening, like motherhood, is associated with virtue, integrity, and morality and it is something women are supposed to want to do.  In my interviews with homeowners, men were not lusting for a chance to mow the lawn, but women yearned to grow flowers and herbs, to savor a moment of rest on the front porch. The women voiced wistful aspirations of “I should be in the garden” as they listed their many obligations and activities. No one—really, no one!—wished to mow the lawn. That iconic masculine performance of home-ownership has now become a quaint mid-twentieth-century relic in Southern California, and in other regions of the U.S. Professional class men who employ paid gardeners can now focus more on their leisure and relationships, easing their time-binds so they can be more present as fathers and soccer dads, as Hernan Ramirez and I underscore in a book with UK colleagues. It is the domestic labor of Polish immigrant handymen in the UK and Latino immigrant gardeners in the U.S. that make that possible.

Using a migration lens and intersectional perspective helps us to see the gendered garden in a new light. It’s not pink and blue, but it’s brown, and brown men’s labor allows for a blurred gender division of labor in households privileged by class, race and nation. The outsourcing of domestic exterior mowing, trimming, pruning and cleaning allows for new shifts in gendered household divisions of labor, freeing privileged men from some of their domestic masculine housework, and maybe opening doors to other types of family work.   Global migration is part of the shared landscape now.

image from npr.com - http://tinyurl.com/kfknbsl

image from npr.com – http://tinyurl.com/kfknbsl

Our arguably coolest first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama, symbolically picked up a shovel and dug White House gardens. But of course they too outsourced the hard work of turning soil and making compost. Does that make the efforts of these uber earth mothers of the nation any less significant? I think not. Let’s look beyond the binaries of pink and blue, and strive for a world where environmental sustainability accompanies social justice and a cultural sustainability based on recognition and just remuneration for Latino gardeners.

Nice Work

Gender revolution rebound, but no gender convergence in attitudes

The gender stall is dead. Last week a Council on Contemporary Families online symposium provided new data suggesting that the stall in progress on gender egalitarian attitudes and behaviors has ended. Evidence has accumulated, and a stall in attitudes that started around 1994 may have turned around after 2004.

gender attitudes by sex

From Cotter, Hermsen, and Vanneman’s CCF brief using a composite of gender attitudes from the GSS.

Long live the gender stall. Here’s what gets me. The change in attitudes is not due to men and women becoming more similar in their attitudes. Under gender egalitarianism (ideally) you wouldn’t be able to predict someone’s views based on their gender. But… in the graphs here, there’s no hint of gender convergence. The figure on the left from Cotter et al., shows that people are at a higher level of approving of gender egalitarianism. But, men and women are the same distance apart. For young people, in Joanna Pepin’s figure (right) on youth attitudes, the same pattern appears.

From Pepin's Gender Revolution Rebound - Youth Edition

From Pepin’s Gender Revolution Rebound – Youth Edition

Pepper Schwartz and I have written about this abiding gender gap when we talk about the moving target of the sexual double standard.

Women and men have more sexual partners now than in the past; even so, they have consistently different levels of when they get negative reputation effects for their activity. Indeed, that gender performance issue comes out in Sassler’s brief in the CCF symposium. Yes, there’s no longer a gender-neutral-housework-means-less-frequent-sex for more recently joined couples. But… heterosexual couples in which men do most of the housework (less than 5 percent of the sample) have sex less often. (Who’s counting, anyway?)

Youth stalled too? Younger generations—millenials in particular—are at a much higher level of egalitarian attitudes than others. But… in the Cotter analysis, younger generations’ support for gender equality isn’t increasing—they just started at a higher level. The trend is flat. Like there’s a ceiling or something.

Joanna Pepin, at Representations of Romantic Relationships, wondered about the younger generation, and analyzed similar attitudinal questions in the Monitoring the Future survey of high school seniors from 1976 until 2012. (Her column is cross-posted here at Girlw/Pen, too!) She finds that high school seniors mostly have high levels of the egalitarian attitudes Cotter focused on.

Except for one area. When asked what they think of the statement, “it is better if a man works and a woman takes care of the home,” students disagree with this less and less. In other words, they are not as likely to reject traditional gender roles as young people in the past. They dropped by 10 percent in the past 20 years (from 70 percent disagreeing to 60 percent disagreeing). While they are at 90 percent agreement that women should be considered as seriously for jobs as executives or politicians, Pepin speculates that for millennial “women are viewed as peers in entering the work force, but continue to be responsible for labor at home.”

I’ll stick with my “But…” focus. There are some systematic catches to the whole rebound story: no gender convergence, persistent gender stereotypes on the domestic sphere, and I suspect these are linked. So, like Joanna Pepin, I’ll keep looking. And I won’t confuse change with progress until I see more convergence and fewer signs of sneaky essentialism. (For more background, see David Cotter and colleagues’ brief, “Back on track?” on changing attitudes and my overview of all four pieces in CCF symposium.)

Mama w/ Pen

Five Things I Didn’t Say About Working Motherhood On the Air. But Should.

The other week, I was a guest on the Working Motherhood daily podcast, hosted by Dr. Portia Jackson, aerospace engineer and mother of two. Each week, this savvy host interviews mothers who produce income, be they CEOs, teachers, entrepreneurs, real estate investors, or cashiers. For a taste, check out Portia’s interviews with Rachael Ellison, Gloria Feldt –or any one of 130 more.

I enjoyed this opportunity, very much. Like guests before me and guests after, I shared my family-and-career journey, insights on how I manage the multiple responsibilities, tools that help me, advice I’ve received that has helped me along the way. We only had half an hour. And there’s so much more to say.

The interview kept me thinking long after Portia and I hung up. In the spirit of continuing the conversation, always, here are some of my favorite “things to say about working motherhood” that I didn’t have a chance to share on air.

1. Working fatherhood — say what?

I’d love to see a Working Fatherhood podcast. Period.

2. There’s a conversation behind the conversation here.

Any conversation about working motherhood in the US necessitates a conversation about the embarrassing lack of high quality, universal, subsidized day care. The case is clear. For an investigative analysis of the challenges of finding good care, check out Courtney Martin’s piece in the New York Times last week; Avital Norman Nathman’s recent roundtable on Debra Harrell’s arrest (for leaving her child in a park while working her shift), motherhood, and race at The Frisky; and Alissa Quart’s inside look at the crushing cost of childcare, from last year.

3. Working motherhood — not just about individual solutions, anymore.

In the absence of said high quality, universal, subsidized day care, working mothers are left to seek out our own individual solutions. Again. We experience a political problem as personal, 40 years after the women’s movement re-surged. When things fall apart, we again find the fault in ourselves. (Heartfelt shout-out, and visible recognition here, to all-around assistant Melissa Shoemaker, whose intelligent, compassionate care for my four-year old twins while I work helps me keep it–mostly–afloat.)

3. Non-traditional is where it’s at.

Shout out to the caregivers, but shout out, too, to non-traditional arrangements in marriage. As the Council on Contemporary Families reports, new research suggests that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, men and women are much more happy with non-traditional gender arrangements than in the past.

4. Working motherhood is hot.

Yes, research shows that sex is better and divorce less likely for egalitarian couples. And for more on that, see our own Virginia Rutter’s incredibly informative Psychology Today cover story, Love & Lust. So there.

5. Not a choice.

For so many of us, and in the wake of recession, working motherhood is not a choice. It’s a financial necessity. But even if it weren’t my necessity, I’d choose it—or rather, it would chose me. I come from a long line of working mothers. Because it’s the air that I breathe, pondering how I feel about “working motherhood” is like a fish saying “water, works for me.” At the same time, not a day goes by that I don’t think about what a broken system we live in, filled with inequitable expectations and skewed assumptions based on outdated gender roles.

See again number 1, above.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on my coaching workshops and offerings, writings, and talks.

 

Manly Musings

NPR’s “Men in America” Series

Screen shot 2014-08-05 at 12.25.26 PMThis summer, National Public Radio produced a special series on “Men in America” (#menpr). In it, they attempt to consider what it means to “be a man” in the U.S. today. There are a number of interesting stories on different issues related to contemporary masculinity: from demographic trends, to the meanings of fatherhood to men today, to health concerns, educational dilemmas, depictions of masculinity in popular media, and much more.  I thought I’d use this post to highlight some of the stories in the series that I enjoyed.

In “The Modern American Man, Charted,” Sarah Graslie provides a sort of demographic profile of boys and men in the U.S. today. They’re getting married later than they used to, young men are more likely to be living at home, fewer of them are earning Bachelor’s degrees, and in school, they’re getting lower grades—on average—than are girls. Despite this, men’s media income ($33,904) is still over $10,000 higher than women’s ($21,520). And while husbands share of the family income in falling, their participation in the household has not seen the increase we might expect (all things being equal)—though numbers of stay-at-home dads are on the rise. Finally, men are still more likely to die earlier than women, but the life expectancy gap is closing as well.

may-lake-bellTwo stories deal with how masculinity is mediated—how we receive masculinity through the media and what’s changed. In “The Evolution of the ‘Esquire’ Man,” David Granger, the editor-in-chief of Esquire (of 17 years), is interviewed about changing notion of manhood in the U.S.—changes he’s situated as both having witnessed and played a role in shaping. Some of this conversation is less satisfying than it could be, but might offer interesting ways of addressing important points about gender in the media with students. may-hardyFor instance, Granger discusses the two covers they had for the May2014 issue—one with filmmaker Lake Bell and one depicting the actor Tom Hardy (both seen here). Granger stated, “That issue, we happened to have two covers… And on both of them, they were topless. We were trying to be an equal-opportunity objectifier.” Yet, this sidesteps important conversations about what objectification is and how it might be working very differently in these two images.  See, for instance, Caroline Heldman‘s four part series on sexual objectification on Sociological Images (the first in the series is here).

In “Who’s the Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity for Millions,” Bob Mondello discusses transformations over the course of the 20th century in the film industry on the gradual loosening of restrictions that allowed Hollywood to start glorifying anti-heroes along with the heroes. Mondello takes us from John Wayne, to the adultolescents that populate Judd Apatow’s films, to Iron Man. And in the end, he suggests that the mainstays of big screen macho heroes haven’t changed much. I’d suggest that a great deal has changed. Sure, he’s a sort of lone warrior, dealing out his own form of justice, making the “right” decisions outside the law when the law doesn’t seem to work. But, heroes today are super-powered, all-knowing, gravity-defying, and capable of much more than John Wayne. I wish these differences were highlighted, not glossed over. But, stories that trace the history and meaning of boy bands and movies that make men cry certainly complicate the story.

There are a few stories on men navigating issues that might challenge masculinity. While one story discusses one man’s struggle looking for men’s clothing in small sizes (men don’t have extra-small), another says that masculinity can be just as tough in much larger bodies. Noah Berlatsky discusses remaining a virgin through college and another story challenges the mantra “Real men eat meat!” by highlighting the efforts of some men in Brooklyn who attempt to masculinize veganism. I liked these stories if only because they break from the stereotypes and are interesting illustrations of some of the ways that masculinity is probably better thought of as something men navigate than as a status they occupy.

Michael Kimmel played a role in helping put this series together, and he’s featured in a couple of the stories as well. In one story, Kimmel highlights some of the characteristics that helped him identify the population he was interested in when writing Guyland. He draws, in broad strokes, “The Face of the Millennial Man” and addresses some of his struggles, aspirations, and quandaries. And in another, he participates in a conversation with Pedro Noguera about transformations in masculinity—“The New American Man Doesn’t Look Life His Father.”

Collectively, the stories provide a provocative look at some interesting transformations in how boys and men think about what it means to “be a man” today, but also illustrate some of the more insidious ways that they simultaneously seem tethered to ideologies of masculinity that are proving more resistant to change.  It’s an interesting collection.  There were some issues I wish received more coverage (like criminalization of lower-class men of color, the status and stigma of being a boy or man who’s “served time,” gay masculinities, the relationship between masculinity and bullying, among others).  But, the stories are interesting and help illustrate the complex terrain of contemporary masculinities.  Check ‘em out!

Nice Work

Gender Revolution Rebound – Youth Edition

Joanna Pepin is a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland. This column is cross-posted with small revisions from Pepin’s blog Representations of Romantic Relationships. She tweets at @coffeebaseball.

The Council on Contemporary Families published a report last week suggesting the gender revolution has rebounded. Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman provided an update on their 2011 American Journal of Sociology article reviewing trends in public attitudes on gender. This seemed like a great opportunity to try my hand at replicating and extending their sociological research by looking at American high school students’ gender attitudes. This is an important population to investigate in order to catch young people before they’ve spent time confronting (and perhaps therefore justifying) resistant social structures and adulthood realities the way older people have.

I used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a survey given annually to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students. Three of the four egalitarian attitude variables in the GSS are also available from MTF and are asked in the same manner but with a five-point agreement (rather than four-point) scale: disagree, mostly disagree, neither, mostly agree, and agree. The fourth variable regarding attitudes about female politicians was worded differently than the GSS on the MTF surveys: Women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politicians. I have previously replicated Cotter and colleagues’ original publication, so I feel reasonably confident that methodological differences are not contaminating my results.

What is similar. I charted the averages for the four gender attitude questions below. Noticeably, the item on women in politics is an outlier and remains steadily high over time. Agreement that working moms have warm relationships with kids was consistently higher than average agreement in the GSS by about 10%. Disagreement with the statement that preschoolers suffer when mothers work began at about 30% and has risen to around 65% for both GSS and MTF respondents.

Youth Gender Attitudes_Figure 1Wait, more tolerance for gender stereotypes? Most interestingly, disagreement with the statement that it’s better if a man works and the woman takes care of the home peaked in the 1990s at about 70% and has declined to 60% disagreement by 2012. The question itself sounds so outdated—after all it was written in the 1970s when the GSS and MTF surveys were first begun. And one would expect it to be fully dismissed in a gender egalitarian world, but my results show that fewer young people dismiss it. The pattern is strikingly different than that of the averages for the adult population in the GSS. Today, high school seniors are less likely to disagree with these stereotypical gender roles than the general population. In 2012, 60% of MTF respondents disagreed with the statement compared to about 70% of GSS takers.

Youth Gender Attitudes Scale_Figure 2In the updated report by Cotter and colleagues, the scale of the combined averages stalled out through the 1990s and early 2000s, but started to pick up again by 2006. However, the youth scale presented below shows a continued stall. From the graph above, it’s obvious that attitudes on women in leadership positions has remained high over time and therefore is not accounting for any changes. It appears that the increase in agreement that men should work and women should take care of the home is offsetting the rise in egalitarian attitudes measured by the other two items.

The gender gap is the same. Following Cotter and colleagues’ report, I also graphed the scale by sex.  Similar to that of the adult population, young women persistently show more egalitarian attitudes than young men in the MTF data. These differences also are consistent over time, with both stalling in the early 1990s.Youth Gender Attitudes by Sex_Figure 3

I skipped replicating the gender attitudes scale by political ideology because of the large number of respondents who answered “I don’t know” when identifying their political affiliation. In place of the trends by education (as all of the MTF respondents are currently seniors in high school), I took a look at the scale by their mother’s education. There appear to be no remarkable differences by mothers’ education, and all groups increased their egalitarian ideology over time and showed remarkably similar patterns.

Overall, the high school seniors show some different patterns in gender role attitudes than the greater population. Notably, young people do not show a resurgence in disagreement that it is better for men to work and for women to take care of the home. In fact, they show a reversal. This is especially puzzling given their high agreement that women should be considered for leadership positions. Youth Gender Attitudes by Mom's Education_Figure 4Speculatively, youth express commitment to equality but simultaneously pair these egalitarian attitudes with beliefs about stereotypical gender roles. Women are viewed as peers in entering the work force, but continue to be responsible for labor at home. On the other hand, there does seem to be a persistent increase in youth agreement that working mothers do not harm children.

I will continue to watch the Millennial generation. As noted by Cotter and colleagues, their egalitarianism is high. However, their egalitarian ideology is not consistently increasing over time. I’m not yet convinced that the stall in the gender revolution is over.

Pop Goes Feminism

A Gendered Read on Comic Con

Hey Girl w/Pen readers! Don’t miss Girl w/Pen’s Natalie Wilson great post, now up right over here.

Nice Work

What’s all the fuss? Pissed off people on consumerism, sex, and sexism

It is weird. The evidence from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience and history point in the same direction: there’s just not much to the claims of a war between love and lust or that equality in relationships—or even housework—damages sexual desire. Such clarity begs the question, why all the hype and misinformation about sexual disappointments in marriage or committed relationships?

Anxiety about how we are doing sexually is not new! But still creepy after all these years. (1926 Ad from WikiCommons)

Anxiety about how we are doing sexually is not new! But still creepy after all these years. (1926 Ad from WikiCommons)

There’s a quick, cynical answer, and I heard it from most people I spoke to when writing my recent article in Psychology Today on Love and Lust. The sex hype is instrumental in fueling anxiety with “How I’m doing?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Am I keeping up with the Jones’s?”

Why do we keep seeing these claims that long-term relationships mean you aren’t having the “best possible sex”? I discussed this with Vanderbilt University sex researcher Laura Carpenter: She speculated, “Is it some version of late modern capitalism gone crazy? Think about it: We are not good capitalists or good consumers anymore if we are committed to our car, house, brand of yogurt, clothes, shoes—and in a culture all about consumerism and desire—why would you not extend that idea—have that expectation about relationships and sex?” Carpenter continued, “We don’t know what normal is. We really don’t–even if merely in statistical sense, much less in the sense of what is good for you or what people desire.”

Who cares what normal is? People hate the imposition of “normal”—but it definitely absorbs attention. When it is in the air they notice it and respond to it. It is irritating to the mind, the heart, the ego.

One (non-sociologist) friend I talked to—a straight married guy with three kids–rolled his eyes about the recent series of sex-can’t-last-in-marriage articles. “Part of the premise is that ‘happiness’ is a never-ending quest for peak experiences–sexually and romantically. Our society conditions us to believe we can achieve and maintain a state of bliss, to have a peak marriage and a peak sexual relationship for decades. That isn’t the way it is, and if that’s how you set your expectations for a relationship then you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. There are valleys and plateaus, and they are based on other things in your life—career, children.”

A D.C. colleague I met during her busy work day—it started early because it was her day to drive her kids to school—was just pissed off by the claim that career couples don’t have sex. That’s not her normal. “You might be fighting or upset or low, for us it has nothing to do with what’s happening in our sex life. I find that is much safer, there’s no keeping score. Some people would say that’s so unemotional—but I think that is what makes it fun!”

The even more cynical answer—given that stories about disappointments with married sex focus on women’s sexual desire or on women’s careers—is that it fuels anxiety about “what’s wrong with women?” It works like a dog whistle: an argument using code that, in this case, signals that women just can’t get have it all—but they are on the hook for it.

One economist pondered, “Are articles like this a way of telling women ‘don’t expect too much from your husband; settle for what you can get; if you’re accommodating and don’t push on the chores you’ll get rewarded’?” She was making reference in particular to coverage of the ASR study on egalitarianism and housework–you know, the study where sexual frequency was associated with whether the housework you did was gender normative. My PT article takes a few steps to putting the ASR study into perspective–including useful comments from study co-author Julie Brines. But here’s how the dog whistle works: the study doesn’t say that couples have lower sexual satisfaction depending on housework, just a tiny bit of difference on sexual frequency. There is no disappointment. Well, that is sort of not true. I’ve been disappointed that we are still talking about this.

Bedside Manners

“Science” on Saturated Fat, Cholesterol & Heart Disease

This month’s column features a guest-post by Mary K. Assad, Ph.D.: she critiques recent health debates on nutrition and encourages us to question the science behind medical claims being made about heart disease.  Assad is a Lecturer in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University who studies medical rhetoric, with a focus on health communication aimed at the general public.

__________

In The Big Fat Surprise (2014), investigative journalist Nina Teicholz “lays out the scientific case for why our bodies are healthiest on a diet with ample amounts of fat and why this regime necessarily includes meat, eggs, butter, and other animal foods high in saturated fat.” She argues that current medical guidelines are based on unproven hypotheses about dangers of saturated fat.

Teicholz’s book echoes arguments of writers including Gary Taubes, who in a 2002 New York Times essay and subsequent books urges that medical recommendations for a low-fat diet have caused America’s obesity epidemic. Multiple sources have condemned low-fat approaches and urged Americans to consume more fat and fewer carbohydrates: e.g.,  Dr. Peter Attia’s Eating Academy, Mercola Products and PCC Natural Markets.

As a medical rhetorician and writing instructor, I care about how health messages aimed at the general public transform medical information into public knowledge. We learn about our bodies and health through such discourse. However, distinguishing fact from fiction within these conversations is often more challenging than deciphering the original research studies because writers with competing arguments all cite “science” as their evidence.

While researching women’s heart health for my dissertation, my professional and personal worlds collided: I learned I had high cholesterol at age 29 despite a low BMI and regular exercise. Based on my doctor’s advice (which resembled the American Heart Association’s guidelines), I drastically revised my diet and realized that “burning off” calories is not the same as preventing arterial blockages. Yet, what if my doctor’s advice was misguided? What if reducing cholesterol and saturated fat would hurt rather than help me? The Big Fat Surprise and similar texts call into question decades of medical guidelines. They aim to do more than stir controversy: they seek to persuade us to change our approaches to healthy eating and to distrust medical advice that, presumably, was based on faulty science.

However, close inspection of these texts reveals that they often misrepresent medical research when translating it for the general public. For instance, Attia asserts: “Eating cholesterol has very little impact on the cholesterol levels in your body. This is a fact, not my opinion. Anyone who tells you different is, at best, ignorant of this topic. At worst, they are a deliberate charlatan…To see an important reference on this topic, please look here .” The linked abstract states, “the relation between dietary cholesterol and the risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] is not clearly understood.” Nowhere does the source state that ingesting cholesterol has “very little impact.”  Further, this article raises the possibility that 15-25% of the general population are “hyperresponders,” meaning that dietary cholesterol affects their measured LDL cholesterol more than usual. The researchers urge the importance of examining the relationship between dietary cholesterol and CHD among this group. Attia acknowledges none of this information.

By providing a link to a medical journal, Attia points to medical authority to support his argument without acknowledging how this source complicates or contradicts his claims. This tendency to draw on medical evidence by gesturing toward research, rather than actively conversing with it, is problematic: readers may be drawn in by liberating claims (eat as much red meat as you want!) because they believe them to be scientifically supported.

Indeed, the Amazon.com summary for Teicholz’s book proclaims, “science shows that we have needlessly been avoiding meat, cheese, whole milk, and eggs for decades and that we can now, guilt-free, welcome these delicious foods back into our lives.” In a culture where we are conditioned to feel guilty for eating indulgent foods, promises of dietary freedom may be persuasive because they tap into social — and particularly female — anxieties about weight, food, choices, and guilt.

As a woman, I am conscious both of the social pressures to “watch what I eat” and the medical guidelines that advise the same. However, navigating competing claims to scientific truth requires interrogation of not only the claims but also the ‘means of persuasion’.  A rhetorical approach creates a critical distance between health messages and our decision-making processes.  When reading an article, book, or website, we must ask several key questions: What is this text trying to persuade me to believe or do?  How does it go about accomplishing this task? What evidence is offered, and how is it presented?

Over the past year, I’ve read about cholesterol from many sources but have been most persuaded by a friend who told me how a vegan diet reduced his cholesterol. In closing, then, I ask: who or what has persuaded you to make a health-related decision in your life, and what made the claim convincing?  Conversations about health need to include attention to language and persuasion. Only then can we begin to make sense of what we’re being told and determine how to respond.