Careful Analysis Reveals The Gender Bias In Pain Research

A new study is being publicized that seems to show that girls who play soccer are more likely than boys to sustain injuries, but that boys were more likely to require hospitalization for their soccer-related injuries. However, the study was based on data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is a sample of emergency room statistics.

In other words, the study really doesn’t show that girls are injured playing soccer more often than boys, only that adults are taking girls to emergency rooms more often than they take boys, despite the evidence that boys’ injuries tend to be worse than girls’.

The inaccurate conclusions being drawn from this study represent a systemic problem in society’s approach to gender issues. Our perception of male and female suffering is skewed by the differences in the ways we socialize boys and girls, the cues we give them about how important their suffering is, and how their social standing will be affected by their admission of suffering.

It’s a self-fulfilling delusion: we believe men suffer less because men admit it less because boys are taught to admit it less because “real” men don’t suffer.

For example, a panel reviewing pain research for NIMH in 1998 concluded “that women experience more pain than men [and] that women discuss pain more frequently than men” clearly missing the obvious causal connection between women’s readiness to discuss pain and the perception that they experience more pain.

Subsequent research ran with the dubious assumption that men and women assessed and reported their respective pain levels with compatible metrics despite radically different socializing about pain. One study cited as a follow-up to the NIMH panel conclusions noted that, during pain, “the female brain [shows] greater activity in the emotion-based centers called the limbic regions, and the male brains [shows] greater activity in the analytic or cognitive centers” as if this has anything to do with how much pain one feels.

The freelancer who wrote about this pain research for the Washington Post presented a more likely explanation in her introduction when she reported that, although she addressed pain at the first ache, her husband was hesitant to medicate or even admit to feeling pain until it became unbearable. It is far more sensible to assume that men (who are socialized from the time they are little boys to resist complaining about or even admitting to pain) are simply not assessing and reporting the same level of pain as intensely as women assess and report it.

The passive stereotype of the suffering female and non-suffering male also has a more sinister active manifestation. A study at the University of Westminster in the UK found that both men and women reported more pain when the person causing the pain was a man. David Williams, the researcher in charge of the study concluded that the difference “is likely to be a result of what participants subconsciously expect, based on socially acquired gender stereotypes.”

In other words, not only are the reports of male suffering minimized but reports of suffering caused by males are exaggerated due to sexual discrimination.

Significantly, one Canadian researcher dismissed Williams’ conclusion about stereotypes as “generalising” but could not come up with an alternate explanation. Crass prejudices are very stubborn memes indeed. But, the evidence for this social dynamic is abundant everywhere you look:

  • Males are less likely than females to report being “sexually assaulted” even though they report equal rates of “unwanted sex,” the gender-neutral definition of sexual assault.
  • Violence against men, even though it is more common regardless of the gender of the assailant, is less likely to be prosecuted, and less likely to result in harsh sentences. In fact, the gender of the victim is a greater predictor of punishment than race.
  • For the same crimes, male criminals receive harsher punishments and are less likely to be paroled than female criminals. The gender of the criminal is also a greater predictor of punishment than race.
  • Men are far more likely to die on the job than women, but workplace sexual harassment (reported more often by women) receives more attention than workplace safety, indicating that the discomfort of women is more important than the death of men.
  • The absence of a few hundred female executives in upper management is condemned as an intolerable symptom of sexism, but the presence of hundreds of millions more homeless men than women somehow doesn’t lead to the same conclusion.

It’s time to face this prejudice head on, and to stop wallowing in the ignorance that its irrational assumptions perpetuate.


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