There is a misconception that ‘equality’ means pretending everyone is ‘the same’, that everyone has the same needs and the same abilities, and that, for the sake of ‘equality’, society should treat everyone the same. We do not, in reality, for the sake of equality, insist that everyone uses a wheelchair; we also do not, for the sake of equality, deny wheelchairs to the people who need them. ‘Equality’, a meaningful equality, means saying everyone has the same moral worth, and that everyone has the same right to participate fully in society.
The ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, better understood as a misogynistic, male supremacist, movement, started out as the ‘fathers’ rights’ movement, peddling the still-believed myth that family courts disproportionately favoured women (it doesn’t, see here, here and here). It then moved on to claim that violence against women was exaggerated, and that false rape allegations were common (they aren’t), now, the front line of MRA ‘activism’ is pretending that women are just as violent as men (this has not been proven, see below), and that women who do commit violence are treated leniently by the courts (they’re not, see here and here).
This matters. This matters because, as this 2015 US paper from the William & Mary Journal of Woman and the Law shows, MRAs are not powerless and marginalised, as they love to keep claiming, and their activism has real-world consequences:
In 2004, a fathers’ rights group formed in West Virginia to promote “Truth, Justice, and Equality in Family Law.” They created a media campaign including billboards and radio spots warning about the dangers of false allegations of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, even offering a $10,000 award to anyone who could prove false allegations of abuse were used against a parent in a custody case. In 2007, they released a study concluding that seventy-six percent of protection order cases were unnecessary or based on false allegations, and warned that protection orders were often filed to gain leverage in divorce and custody cases. They used their research to propose a new law with language created by a national fathers’ rights group to sanction parents making false allegations of intimate partner violence during custody cases. The Governor signed their bill into law in 2011.
Within the broader context of the fathers’ rights movement, a closer examination of the West Virginia group’s work raises important questions. In spite of its dissemination within and beyond the fathers’ rights movement, their research conclusions bore little rational relationship to the findings. The research was at best misguided and confused, and at worst, a deliberate attempt to mislead the public in order to promote a political agenda. The new law was redundant, as both the domestic relations code and criminal code already provide sanctions for parents who make false allegations of abuse. The law was effectively a solution created to prove a problem by shifting the public policy focus from protecting victims to questioning their motives and potentially silencing them.
I have been in communication with several MRA’s recently (see here, here, and here), who claim that men are more oppressed than women, and that women commit just as much physical and sexual violence against men as men commit against women. Neither of these claims are true. The claims regarding physical violence rely on cherry-picking certain papers; some studies do show that women commit as much violence as men, but others don’t, and other academics criticise the methodology of the studies that show equal rates of violence. the only thing we can conclude, with any certainty, is that there is no definitive proof that women are just as violent as men.
I am educated to a graduate level in a STEM subject, I understand the basics of how research is conducted, but I can’t do a ‘deep dive’ into a social science paper and critique its methodology.
Type ‘intimate partner violence’ into Google Scholar and there are over a million results; no one, even if it was their full-time job, could read all of those, understand them beyond a superficial level, and integrate them into an active body of knowledge.
No single academic paper definitively ‘proves’ anything, and no legitimate academic would claim otherwise. The scientific method is sacrosanct, always, but it is carried out by flawed and fallible human beings; the solution is more and better research.
There is a reproducibility crisis across the sciences, particularly in psychological/behavioural studies, but also in the hard sciences. There is also the issue that only ‘exciting’ results get published; this is why we keep on seeing new Brain Sex! papers – a study showing no meaningful difference between the cognitive functions of men and women is not ‘interesting’ and unlikely to be published. Men’s violence against women is old hat, but women’s violence against men is new and exciting and offers more opportunities for an academic to make a name for themselves.
Academics do not reside on a higher plane of existence, they are flawed, fallible human beings just like the rest of us. Gaining a PhD shows that a person is capable of conducting and writing up research to a professional level, it doesn’t mean they have access to esoteric knowledge, and a PhD is the start of a research career, not its high-point. Academics can be lazy, incompetent, biased, partisan, even criminal. The po-mo gibberish coming out of queer/gender studies departments, shows that academics can also be (fully peer reviewed) charlatans.
There have been many, many academic papers published around the world on the subject of intimate partner violence, over decades, below is a small selection, I would recommend reading the papers in full where they are available:
From the 1999 summer edition of the DVIRC [Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria] Newsletter, Michael Flood’s article Claims about ‘Husband Battering’ says:
Men in fathers’ rights groups and men’s rights groups have been claiming very loudly for a while now that domestic violence is a gender-equal or gender-neutral phenomenon – that men and women assault each other at equal rates and with equal effects. They claim that an epidemic of husband-battering is being ignored if not silenced.
To substantiate their claims, men’s rights and father’s rights groups draw on a body of American studies which use a particular methodology for measuring violence. This is the [Conflict Tactics Scales] (CTS) […] There are four problems with the claims about ‘husband battering’ made by men’s rights advocates. Firstly, they only use these authors’ work selectively, as the authors themselves disagree that women and men are equally the victims of domestic violence. Secondly, they ignore the serious methodological flaws in the CTS. Thirdly, they ignore or dismiss a mountain of other evidence which conflicts with their claims. Finally, their strategies in fact are harmful to men themselves, including to male victims of violence.
The authors of the American CTS studies stress that no matter what the rate of violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate violence than are men (Orman, 1998). Husbands have higher rates of the most dangerous and injurious forms of violence, their violent acts are repeated more often, they are less likely to fear for their own safety, and women are financially and socially locked into marriage to a much greater extent than men. In fact, Straus expresses his concern that ‘the statistics are likely to be misused by misogynists and apologists for male violence’ (cited in Orman, 1998).
The [Conflict Tactics Scales] (CTS) has three key flaws as a way of measuring violence. Firstly, it leaves out important forms of violence, such as sexual assault, choking, suffocating, scratching, stalking, and marital murder. Most importantly, CTS studies exclude incidents of violence that occur after separation and divorce. Yet Australian data, e.g. from the Women’s Safety Survey, shows that women are as likely to experience violence by previous partners as by current partners (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996: 8). And that it is the time around and after separation which is most dangerous for women. International data shows similar patterns. […]
Secondly, CTS studies such as Headley et al.’s treat violent acts out of context. They only count violent acts. They do not tell us whether the acts were in self-defence. They do not distinguish between offensive and defensive acts. They do not tell us whether they were a single incident, or part of a pattern of violence. They do not tell us whether the act was intended to hurt the other person; a joking kick or a slapped hand are counted the same as a violent kick or a blow to the face. Most CTS studies do not tell us whether the victim was injured, or how badly (Dobash et al, 1992). These studies only look at violence in one year, and they don’t consider the history of the violence in the relationship. And, obviously, the murder of partners and ex-partners cannot be measured by self-report surveys.
Headey et al.’s survey did ask about injuries, and they found that men are as likely as women to be victims of domestic assaults that lead to injury and pain (and the need for medical attention). They note that this runs counter to medical and police records, that this is the finding in which they have least confidence, and that these issues need further research (Headey et al. 1999: 60-61).
Most CTS studies also ignore the issue of fear and intimidation. Headey et al.’s survey did ask about threats and intimidation, and it was here that they found the only statistically significant gender difference in domestic violence in the survey. More women (7.6 per cent) than men (4 per cent) said they felt ‘frightened and intimidated’ (Headey et al. 1999: 59).
Rather than seeing domestic violence as referring only to physical acts such as hitting or pushing, we need to recognise that verbal, psychological and emotional abuse is an important aspect of domestic violence.
Thirdly, the CTS depends only on reports either by the husband or the wife despite poor interspousal reliability. Like other CTS studies, Headey et al.’s study only questioned one respondent from each household and did not include people married or partnered to each other (Headey et al. 1999: 57). Other studies show that wives and husbands disagree considerably both about what violence was used and how often it was used, and that wives are more likely than husbands to admit to their own violence (Szinovacz, 1983; Jouriles and O’Leary, 1985).
Take note of the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS) here, it will keep appearing. What this 1999 newsletter tells us (besides the fact that MRA’s have been at it for a long time), is that in order to find parity in violence between men and women, researchers in the 1980’s and 1990’s (the CTS may have been updated since then) used a flawed research method that excluded much male violence against women, and exaggerated female violence against men.
From the December 2002 volume of the journal Violence Against Women, the paper ‘Are Physical Assaults by Wives and Girlfriends a Major Social Problem?: A Review of the Literature’, says in its abstract:
Research that shows approximately equal rates of dating and domestic violence by men and women has been used to challenge the priority given to services for abused women. This article reviews the scientific evidence for gender equality in rates of lethal and nonlethal intimate partner violence. Among the problems noted in studies showing gender equality are the ways in which questions about violence are framed, exclusion of items about sexual abuse and stalking, and exclusion of separated couples. Studies without these problems show much higher rates of violence by men. Furthermore, the physical and psychological consequences of victimization are consistently more severe for women.
This paper reports similar problems as the 1999 newsletter, including use of the CTS, “The critiques of the CTS are very important to consider, given that almost all of the studies in major reviews (e.g., Archer, 2000; Fiebert, 1998) use the scales or very similar scales. A possible effect of the sampling differences and screening biases noted above is that two distinct types of violence are being uncovered, what one team of researchers calls “intimate terrorism” and “common couple violence” (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000).” And again, sexual violence was often not included in studies, “Another problem with most studies is that they neglect to include sexual abuse. Rates of sexual abuse of women by an intimate partner were more than 5 times higher than rates of sexual abuse of men by an intimate partner in a large-scale study of college students (Makepeace, 1986), from 2 to 60 times higher in high-school samples (Molidor & Tolman, 1998; O’Keefe & Treister, 1998), and 20 times higher in a random survey of the U.S. population (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Thus, inclusion of sexual abuse is likely to show clear gender differences. In response to criticism that the CTS did not include sexual coercion items, they were recently added to its latest version (CTS-2) (Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996).”
From the November 2006 volume of Journal of Family Violence, the paper ‘Victim or Offender? Heterogeneity Among Women Arrested for Intimate Partner Violence’ says in its abstract:
Mandatory arrest laws for intimate partner violence (IPV) have increased both the number and proportion of arrests that involve female defendants. Whether these numbers should be as high as they are remains a source of controversy. Most practitioners argue that women are usually arrested for defensive actions used in the face of assaults perpetrated by their spouse/partner. Others believe that these higher arrest rates more accurately reflect the true prevalence of physical aggression perpetrated by women. One way to help clarify this debate is to take a closer look at the women charged with IPV. The present study used self-reported information and criminal justice records on prior aggression to classify 485 women convicted of IPV into four distinct subtypes (i.e., no prior violence, primary victim, primary aggressor, and primary aggressor not identified). Despite the fact that all of these women were arrested for and convicted of IPV, analyses consistently found that few of the women could be considered as the primary aggressor in their relationship. Nor, however, were all of the women classified as primary victims. Methodological issues are discussed as well as the policy, practice, and research implications of this study.
This is a smaller, detailed, study, compared to those referenced above, and does not rely on the CTS; it is a useful contribution towards establishing an overall picture of the nature of male and female interpersonal violence.
From the December 2009 volume of Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the paper ‘Sex Differences in Intimate Partner Violence and the Use of Coercive Control as a Motivational Factor for Intimate Partner Violence’ says it its abstract:
Research argues that coercive control (CC) is a special case of intimate partner violence (IPV). The present study hypothesized that instead CC is the motivator for other types of IPV, with control of the victim as the goal. When CC fails, physical types of IPV are used. This hypothesized relationship was tested using a large matched sample of 762 divorcing couples participating in divorce mediation. Structural equation modeling was used to analyze the data with CC predicting two latent common factors of the overall level of victimization separately for men and women. Significant causal relationships between CC and the latent construct of victimization for both members of the couples were found. In addition, CC, psychological abuse, sexual assault/intimidation/coercion, threats of and severe physical violence were disproportionately reported as perpetrated by men against women whereas reports of physical abuse (e.g., pushing, shoving, scratching) were not.
This, again, appears to be different type of study, not relying on the CTS; its results are another useful contribution towards establishing an overall picture of the nature of male and female interpersonal violence.
From the May 2015 volume of Journal of Family Violence, the paper ‘Men’s and Women’s Experience of Intimate Partner Violence: A Review of Ten Years of Comparative Studies in Clinical Samples; Part I’ says in its abstract:
The present paper reviews literature published between 2002 and 2013 regarding gender differences in the perpetration, motivation, and impact of intimate partner violence (IPV) in clinical samples in order to update and extend a previous review by Hamberger (2005). Results showed that although both women and men are active participants in acts of physical IPV and emotional abuse, women’s physical violence appears to be more in response to violence initiated against them. Although both men and women participate in emotional abuse tactics, the type and quality appears to differ between the sexes. Men tend to use tactics that threaten life and inhibit partner autonomy; women use tactics that consist of yelling and shouting. Men are the predominant perpetrators of sexual abuse. Analysis of patterns of violence and abuse suggests that women are more highly victimized, injured, and fearful than men in clinical samples. Research and clinical implications are discussed.
Here we have another paper showing a disparity in intimate partner violence between men and women.
From the 2016 volume of Psychology of Violence, the paper ‘Self-report measures that do not produce gender parity in intimate partner violence: A multi-study investigation’ says it its abstract:
Objective: Gender patterns in intimate partner violence (IPV) remain a controversial topic. Some self-report measures produce gender “parity” in IPV rates. However, other self-report surveys do not produce gender parity, nor do arrests, reports to law enforcement, homicide data, helpseeking data, or witness reports. This methodological inconsistency is still poorly understood. The objective of these studies is to explore the effects of item wording on gender patterns for victimization reports in a range of samples. Method: In Study 1, 238 undergraduates were randomly assigned either the standard Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS) physical victimization items or a version which changed the partner-specific wording to generic wording (“Someone” instead of “My partner”), with perpetrator information collected in follow-up. Studies 2 and 3 compared the standard approach to items with stems intended to reduce false positives (either “Not including horseplay or joking around . . .” or “When my partner was angry . . .”), among 251 college students and 98 agency-involved women, respectively. Study 4 implemented the “not joking” alternative from Study 3 in a large rural community sample (n = 1,207). Results: In Studies 1 and 2, significant Wording × Gender analyses indicated that some item wordings yielded higher rates of female than male victimization. Study 3 showed similar patterns across forms for highly victimized women. Study 4 found higher female than male victimization for a new scale and every item. Conclusion: The CTS and similar behavioral checklists are unusual in their inattention to false positives. Self-report measures designed to minimize false positives produce results consistent with other IPV methodologies; that is, they do not demonstrate gender parity. The Partner Victimization Scale, described here, can be used when a scale that has multimethod convergence with other IPV methodologies is desired.
Here we have the reappearance of the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS), still with the same criticisms against it. This study adjusted the wording of the CTS, and found that there was no longer parity in intimate partner violence between men and women.
My conclusion, from this admittedly small sample of papers, is that studies that show parity of violence between men and women, rely on a flawed methodology, the CTS, which has been criticised by academics for decades.
The specific type of sexual violence against men called ‘made to penetrate’ (which is sometimes referred to by more hysterical MRA types as ‘envelopment’, as if the vagina were some kind of Giger monster that can detach itself from the female body and go hunting for penises), is another MRA obsession. The claim that men are ‘made to penetrate’ as frequently as women are raped, comes from an amateur interpretation of a 2010 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an interpretation rejected by the CDC.
MTP is a form of sexual violence that some in the practice field consider similar to rape. CDC measures rape and MTP as separate concepts and views the two as distinct types of violence with potentially different consequences. Given the burden of these forms of violence in the lives of Americans, it is important to understand the difference in order to raise awareness.
Sexual violence is common. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape and 1 in 14 men was made to penetrate someone (completed or attempted) during his lifetime.
1 in 14 men have been ‘made to penetrate’ (completed or attempted) and nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped (completed or attempted), therefore almost 3x as many women have been raped as men have been ‘made to penetrate’, and of those men, 21%, over a 5th, reported male perpetrators, so it is not true to say that women are committing sexual violence against men at the same rate as men are committing sexual violence against women.
The only fields where men unequivocally outperform women are physical and sexual violence. There have been “almost 50 deaths […] linked to incels across North America in recent years” with the latest killing in Canada being treated as a terrorist attack.
There is not a single case in all of recorded human history of a woman going on a killing spree because she couldn’t get laid; the number of female serial killers and spree killers is tiny compared to the number of men, even tinier when you look at women who weren’t acting with/for a male partner.
I will conclude with the challenge I give to all MRA’s who insist women are just as violent as men: show me the bodies! Show me the two men a week in England and Wales murdered by a current or former partner; show me the three men a week in the USA murdered by a current or former partner; show me which country in the global south has an epidemic of ‘androcide’ (men being murdered by women).
Join us in Leeds for a U.K. Launch of The Declaration of Sex Based Rights.
Academic, author and activist Dr. Sheila Jeffreys, sociologist and author Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans, and lawyer and legal academic Maureen O’Hara will be presenting The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, for the first time in the U.K.
The meeting will be Chaired by Sarah Field, Leeds City Councillor for Garforth.
The Declaration re-affirms that women’s human rights are based upon sex.
Our panellists will speak about how the idea of ‘gender identity’ is eroding the notion and practice of women’s rights.
‘Gender identity’ is increasingly being used in an official capacity – for example the ability to change your ‘gender marker’ on the Leeds City Council website, with no checks or documentation.
They’ll explore how the official adoption of gender, as opposed to sex, endangers the rights of women and girl children to safety and dignity, and leads to discrimination against women in areas such as political representation, freedom of speech and association, sports and culture.
Join with women around the world to make a stand to defend our sex based rights, as laid out in the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the U.K. in 1986.
So, as many of you are aware, the high-priestess of genderology [Judith Butler] decided to momentarily descend from her exalted academic plinth and relay her ‘thoughts’ on the ongoing internecine shitshow that she, probably more than anyone else, has helped to create. Except of course that, with her usual intellectual integrity, the thoughts she decided to relay about said shitshow totally ignored what is really going on, in favour of pretending that this is a conflict between the wibbly-wobbly-gender-and-sex-is-fluid-rah-rah-liberation crowd, and, basically, um, the Pope. Despite being entirely predictable, this level of disingenuous erasure, is, nonetheless, pretty staggering. As Judy is actually more than well aware, this is a conflict which turns, fundamentally, on the fault-line in feminism that she, in fact, inaugurated – a fault-line between those of us who think patriarchy is a system of sex-based male dominance enacted through cultural mechanisms which we could call – if we can still stomach the word – ‘gender,’ and those who think that patriarchy is…like, seriously, what the fuck do they even think it is….some kind of free-floating cultural system that has nothing to do with actual bodies or their appropriation and domination, a randomly generated set of signs and signifying practices that shape our subjectivity, a thought which leads, in practice, to staking feminism’s whole liberation project on the epic transcendent power of some spectacularly superficial idea of gender-fucking.
Look, I’m a feminist, and a Prince-fan. I like superficial gender-fucking as much as the next woman. (I actually think Prince’s gender-fucking wasn’t merely superficial, but that’s another story). BUT, and this in some sense points towards the heart of the problem here, superficial gender-fucking has fuck all effect on the fundamental patterns of male dominance. As someone said to me yesterday on Twitter, the wires are currently full of male people running around stanning for the absolute progressive power of gender fluidity, who seem to think they are the living breathing instantiation of ‘smash the patriarchy’ because they dare to pair some nail-varnish with their beards, all while acting like exactly the same entitled, narcissistic, dependency-denying, mind-over-matter, female-erasing assholes that they always were. If gender isn’t just a penchant for gold lamé pocketbooks and lace and is actually something to do with the psychic, material, ontological and economic structures which underpin male dominance, then, lo, it turns out you still need an analysis of male dominance if you’re going to actually do a bloody thing about it. And I’m sorry Judy, I know you were traumatized by Dworkin and MacKinnon trying to ban porn, but having an analysis of male dominance doesn’t actually make me, y’know, the fucking Pope.
This week there’s a conference going on at Brighton University, in which a load of ‘critical thinkers’ will sit around and think very critically. Judith Butler is doing the star turn. I was supposed to go with a friend, and put on my polite academic face, and listen while she is lauded by room full of people, many of them male, who cannot get over how fucking psyched they are that ‘feminism’ no longer asks them to even acknowledge, let alone challenge, male dominance. I cannot and will not do it. At this moment the thought makes me rage. And so what I want to do, instead, is to sit here, and try and channel my rage into a (partial) excavation of how, and why, Judith Butler performed the magical and much-rewarded feat of making patriarchy – and the critique of patriarchy – vanish from feminism.
In case you weren’t able to attend the sold out Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights talk at the Vancouver Public Library, it was, in a word, beautiful. On Thursday, myself, Lee Lakeman, and surprise speaker Fay Blaney spoke truth to power, shutting down any possibility of discrediting the independent, grassroots women’s movement. Blaney challenged the myth of numerous “genders” in Indigenous cultures, wielded by trans activists in order to justify post-modern, academic theories about “gender identity,” and claim them as “non-Western” for identity politics points. Blaney said, “There are people who are talking about how Indigenous nations had five genders. That’s absolute B.S.” Lakeman reminded “those of you who can imagine bullying us into submission, you’re clearly unfamiliar with us.” I argued that it is unnecessary to trample on women’s rights in order to also argue that those who step out of traditional gender stereotypes should not be harassed or discriminated, and indeed, challenging gender stereotypes is always what feminists have encouraged. No one in attendance could argue, with any integrity, that any of the panelists were “hateful” or interested in harming others.
While many protesters shouted unrelated, nonsensical slogans outside, none had the strength of character or intelligence to address the panelists in good faith, inside. The few trans activists who did attend limited their “protests” to giggling at concerns about fascism and cheering when Blaney — a long time Indigenous feminist activist committed to fighting male violence against women — shared that she had been pushed out of the annual Women’s Memorial March, which honours the lives of missing and murdered women lost in the Downtown Eastside. One trans activist who did speak began by insulting another woman’s hair, before launching into a confusing lecture about race.
Three hundred people attended the event — many more wanted to, but could not get tickets, as the event sold out. Thousands more watched online. The vast majority of the audience was in support of either our positions or, simply, the need for an open conversation about the issues. It is clear that Canadian politicians and the Canadian media are failing the general public in their efforts to distort, censor, and ignore that this is a conversation people desperately want to have, and that most in Canada are not on board with gender identity ideology and legislation, nor do they support trans activist tactics, which rely on using bullying, threats, and libel to silence and smear detractors.
Watch the talk and Q&A in its entirety here:
Claudia busts some myths in neuroscience. She meets scientists attending the British Neuroscience Association’s Christmas symposium on Neuromyths. She talks to Professor Chris MacManus about myths around left and right and how we use the different sides of our brain. She discusses with Duncan Astle from Cambridge University about the brain myths that have been used in education in primary schools. Cordelia Fine from Melbourne University discusses the myths about the differences between male and female brains. Anne Cook from the BNA talks about some historical myths which have been busted but why others still persist. Emma Yhnell from Cardiff University talks about whether brain training really works.
A recently released study from the university of Cambridge claims to show that male and female brains are clearly very different. In a huge study of over 600,000 people, the data obtained showed that men tend to be more analytical and ‘systemic’ while women tend to be more emotional and empathetic, thus providing clear evidence for controversial theories about the differences between male and female brains.
I know this, because I was on Sky News being interviewed about it earlier today (at time of writing).
Those who saw my interview will probably have noticed that I am not exactly supportive of the study or its findings.
In fairness, it’s not the first study to conclude that male and female brains are different based on questionable data. Nor is this the first time I’ve argued against such efforts. And yet, here we are, caught in another press cycle that provides needless ammunition to the battle of the sexes.
So, what’s wrong with this particular study? Quite a few things, as it happens. But there are also some major issues with the ways it’s being reported. Here’s a basic rundown, from my perspective.
It doesn’t look at brains, at all
A lot of the coverage states that this study shows clear differences between male and female brains. But… they didn’t even look at anyone’s brain! All the data collected was obtained via questionnaires, usually no longer than ten agree/disagree questions long. That’s hardly the most rigorous assessment. Not to say it’s totally without merit as a method, but to take information from a short list of questions with binary options and declare that this reflects the underlying structure of the brain itself, that’s quite a leap.
It’s tricky to do this with information from intense scanning studies, so to do it with the marks in a few tick-boxes is quite a ballsy move.
Hefty study, minimal applications
A lot has been made about the size of the study. Over 600,000 participants is pretty impressive, and will undoubtedly yield a lot of information to work with. But, as the previous point shows, this information is only as useful as the methods used to collect it, and if those are limited in scope and application, then any conclusions are going to be similarly limited.
Basically, even if you got as many as 100 million men and women to toss a coin, you couldn’t use this data to show one sex is better with financial issues.
Nature vs nurture, again
The researchers in the press release do confirm that the data from their study doesn’t actually reveal what the cause of the sex differences demonstrated. It could be genetic, it could be hormonal, it could be influences and pressures from the culture in which we develop.
However, this admission is rather brief and offhand in all the coverage I’ve seen, which instead focuses on the ‘clear differences’ between male and female brains, despite the whole ‘not actually looking at brains’ aspect.
But the possibility that this is purely a cultural thing cannot be overstated, and is, in my informed opinion, a substantially more likely explanation for any differences in the data. As many have pointed out, the conclusions being declared are based on averages, which is standard practice. But the data itself is all over the place.
As Professor Cordelia Fine (author of Testosterone Rex) pointed out; “sex differences are such that were you to choose a man and woman at random, their scores would be counter to expectations, with the man scoring higher than the woman on empathy about four times in ten”.
Basically, if men and women’s brains were fundamentally, structurally different in the ways argued here, you’d surely expect to see a much more even tendency towards being analytical and systemic? Same with women and empathy. But you don’t.
A much more realistic explanation is that we live in a society with a strong gender divide which is reinforced from day one, so all the adults in the study have developed in such a context and unavoidably internalised, to varying degrees, many of these cultural norms, i.e. women report being more emotional because they’re so often told by the world that they’re supposed to be, despite this being bollocks.
This also further highlights how the vast size of the study is of limited use and doesn’t automatically make the findings more valid. If I were to run a study 10 times this size in, say, India, and then declare that everyone has a Hindu brain, I’d be laughed out of the room.
But that’s not really that different to what’s going on here.
In a week of dismaying news, there was a ray of sunshine: a scientific breakthrough with the potential to change lives. Men and women’s brains have finally been proved, by actual scientists, in a massive study, to be completely different! This, you gathered, was the substance of a prominently reported new study that made the front page of the Times: “Men and women really do think differently, say scientists.”
In another paper, the headline specified how: “The sex divide: female empathy vs male logic”. Dr Varun Warrier, of the research team, was widely quoted, saying: “These sex differences in the typical population are very clear.”
Rarely, if ever, since social impact was added to official measurements of academic excellence, can a psychology study have enjoyed a reception as extensive, and thus far as warm, as this new contribution, from four Cambridge researchers, to the scholarly literature on sex difference. Perhaps discouragingly for their colleagues, it appears that the findings, rather than the field itself, account for the paper’s remarkable appeal. To date, no equivalent headlines – Men and women’s thinking can be surprisingly similar! – have welcomed contradictory work, such as Cordelia Fine’s, on the destructive fallacies of gendered minds.
Admittedly, the new study had its critics: Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, had reservations about its reliance on self-reporting (to a Channel 4 online questionnaire, in which subjects identified, or not, with statements such as “I am good at predicting how someone will feel”). Rippon noted that the respondents, aged between 16 and 89, would have had “plenty of time to have absorbed the gendered messages to which they will have been exposed”.
Elsewhere, the neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett pointed out, in a comprehensive demolition, that the study of sexed brain difference “doesn’t look at brains, at all”.
Broadly, however, the reported message remained, like the original research, supportive of pink/blue thinking on human behaviour and, incidentally, of the employment status quo. In fact, given the prominent and, for the most part, respectful coverage of this research, its cultural impact could surely go beyond news headlines and broadcasts, to the point of shaping thinking on fixed behavioural traits, even to influencing policymaking, or employment, especially if the study’s “very clear” sex differences can be aligned with covert sex discrimination. You can imagine, for instance, the utility of the Cambridge research at the BBC, where women have long been diagnosed as temperamentally unsuited for some journalistic work; yet more so in the City, where companies are currently defending themselves against findings of the Hampton-Alexander review. It has just revealed a decline, last year, in the number of women CEOs in the FTSE 350, from 15 to 12.
The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs [this evening], marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.
Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.
That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.
Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.
In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.
The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.
But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.
This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.
As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.
The UK government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act closes on the 19th of October.
This consultation is run by the government (it’s not some zombie petition), filling it in is important and does make a difference.
If you are not sure why this matters, have a read back through the ‘trans issues’ category of posts on this blog, or look at the rest of Fair Play for Women’s website, or A Woman’s Place, or Transgender Trend, or Gender Trender, or 4th Wave Now.
New Year’s Day 2015 was a bad one. My main memory of it is the moment when my husband essentially scraped me off the bed, where I was lying face-down, crying, because I’d seen a tweet from someone I thought was a friend – someone I’d worked with, someone whose kid I’d babysat for – denouncing me as a “terf”. The occasion for the denunciation was a piece by me published earlier that day. My editor had double-checked that I wanted to go ahead with it – there would be, she said, a lot of flak, which I knew anyway but one of the reasons I like writing for her is that she asks that kind of thing. The piece was worth doing, regardless of flak, because it was about something important: the way suicide is reported, and the potential for harm when it’s done badly.
Sarah Ditum has written a really great summery of her past six years as a radical feminist, and the ongoing state of trans activism; I would really recommend reading the whole thing.