Apr 3 2010

The Male Brain – see how you like it…

Men! Ha! Aren't they stupid!

So, men eh? Always thinking about sex, leer at women, lie, can’t communicate, fall asleep after sex – you’re all the same and it’s hardwired into your brain. It’s like the punchlines from those dull, unfunny ’10 Jokes About Men!!’ emails I get forwarded every-so-often (and then think less of the person who sent it to me). But this is all coming from Dr Louann Brizendine in her new book ‘The Male Brain‘.

This book looks like the perfect example of how lazy, boring gender stereotyping harms men as well as women. Dr Brizendine already targeted women in the imaginately titled ‘The Female Brain‘ back in 2006 where she wrongly claimed that women use an average of 20,000 words a day compared with only 7,000 for men (link to a funny article from The Guardian on this). Indeed, she removed this claim from the paperback version after the journal Nature said that she had failed “to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance”. So its not looking good.

First up, I haven’t read the book and am not sure whether I’m really prepared to stump up £12.99 to read it and, importantly, check out her sources. On the otherhand, I don’t have much of a life…

However, on the basis of what I can glean from the articles about the book (which obviously contain no references), it seems like ‘men’ are portrayed somewhere between an Andy Capp cartoon and a vile concoction from the minds of Loose Women (for Americans; this is like The View but the co-hosts are replaced with all-female gnashing, orange cruise-ship singers and Fox News pundits).

This is probably the most telling two sentences from The Times piece:

“[Brizendine] a US talk-show regular, draws her sweeping conclusions from a wide array of scientific data as well as her 25-year experience as a practising psychiatrist. To make her book palatable for the non-scientific reader she mixes established scientific fact with more recent untested theories.”

And there in lies the problem. Fact mixed in with some bullshit.

I have no doubt that there is variation between male and female brains. At the very least females menstruate and estrogen is critically involved in the sexual differentiation of the brain. The problem I have is the massive, culturally-blind leap that is made from differences in brain morphology and neurochemistry and men shouting while they’re driving or leering at women in public.

This very interesting review study in Biological Psychiatry, looks at sex differences in brain structure, function and chemistry and finds that there are many simiarities but significant differences including regional differences, blood flow and hormone receptors. The significance of these differences is in the treatment of disorders NOT shopping traits:

“These sex-specific differences in the healthy brain highlight the need to evaluate sex differences in neuropsychiatric disorders especially those that differ in prevalence and symptoms between men and women.”

Therefore, it is important to understand sex differences in the brain in order to understand neuropsychiatric disorders better while, as the paper states, taking into account genetic and environmental influences.

But more than anything, I really hope that any self-respecting man reading these articles is dismayed. Those that can communicate, aren’t violent and aren’t ‘pervs’ (according to The Times of India) do exist. I’ve met them. Moreover, I am more than a little unsettled when supposed ‘male’ behaviour is very familiar to me such as when someone tells you they have a problem you try and come up with a solution. Surely that’s just rational?

Also the heady mix of fact and bullshit leads to terrible reporting in the press and headlines such as: ‘Why your man will NEVER understand how you feel‘ and ‘Men Fib, Cheat and are Obsessed with Sex‘. Really not particularly helpful and very far from scientific.

Jun 23 2009

Men, no women, are responsible for rape

The whole ‘she was asking for it’ line has almost become a cliche when talking about rape. Unfortunately, it’s still a prevalent attitude. Back in 2005, Amnesty International launched the results of an attitude survey into rape which found that a third of people felt that a woman was wholly or partially responsible for being raped if she was being flirtatious.

This survey has been replicated by various different organisations including the Scottish Government and the findings are pretty consistent.

It is in this context that you should see if you can spot any differences between the headline from a press release from the University of Leicester:

And the story that resulted in the Daily Telegraph:

Notice any difference? Go on, look really hard.

In the study, psychologists at Leicester Uni asked men to consider themselves in various scenarios with a female acquaintance and find out if or when they were more likely to coerce a woman into sex. The scenarios differed with the acquaintance wearing different clothes, drinking alcohol, being aware of her previous sexual partners or her being assertive.

The main finding was that men who considered themselves sexually experienced were more likely to coerce women into sex. These men found resistance from a woman sexually arousing. Interestingly, alcohol had the opposite effect than expected with men more like to coerce sober women rather than those that were drunk.

Yet Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent, states that alcohol has a bearing on whether men will coerce a woman into having sex. He also says:

Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester said that men showed a “surprising” propensity to coerce women into sex, especially those that were considered promiscuous.

Now, this is not in the press release and may have come from a phone interview. But it does look like he has mixed up women’s promiscuity with men’s. Remember, the Leicester Uni headline was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”.

So what’s going on here? We already know that a large proportion of people will happily admit that under certain circumstances women are responsible for being raped (let alone those who think it but wouldn’t admit it in a survey, it being a rather despicable view). So does Richard Alleyne in the Daily Telegraph just think that maintaining that belief is more palatable for his readership? Is he intentionally playing into our woman-blaming culture? He is the ‘science correspondent’ so you’d think he would know about study design and, you know, the results. So, he seems to have willfully misrepresented this study to again make women feel responsible for their own rape or sexual assault.

This has also been blogged on here, but they seem to have just worked from the Telegraph article rather than the press release or original study. As the headlines show above, that is never a good idea…

[And thanks to @CliveAndrews for sending the articles]

Feb 19 2009

I Can Smell Your Brains

Now of course I’m the first to criticise men. Horrid, despicable men. And I agree that there is a huge problem with the sexual objectification of women which feeds inequality, discrimination and ultimately violence. Yawn, heard it.

However, even I’m not convinced that a brain scan can show that men think of women in the same way as “tools, like spanners and screwdrivers” (note confusion in above pic). Bad science, possibly but definitely badly reported.

Now I’ve criticised psychologists before. And we must remember that a psychologist is neither a radiologist nor a neuroscientist. But it does seem that they are making the fairly unremarkable claim that “When there are sexualised images in the workplace, it’s hard for people not to think about their female colleagues in those terms.”

So yes, girly calendars in the office are inappropriate and are a key signifier of a sexist culture. But there being a “screwdriver” part of a man’s brain? Even I wouldn’t go that far.