Sexual Double Standards

Sexual Double Standards

The Bias Against Understanding the Biological Foundations of Women's Behavior
Martie Haselton [5.24.18]

We don’t know enough about important issues that impact women. We don’t know enough about potential side effects of using hormonal contraception. There’s a lot of speculation about it, but most of that speculation is problematic. If you eliminate women’s hormone cycles, what are the implications? That’s an important question. We still don’t know enough about hormone supplements for women later in life. We don’t even know enough about fertility. The data are also problematic. The data on fertility in women’s third, fourth, fifth decades of life are based on ancient records, 200 years old. The statistics that doctors will cite when they are telling women whether they need to see a fertility specialist or not are from a period before modern medicine was really in place, which is outrageous. More recognition of the biological influences on women’s behavior is going to awaken these areas of research, and that will have a positive impact.

MARTIE HASELTON is a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the Institute for Society and Genetics. She is the author of Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones—How They Drive Desire, Shape Relationships, Influence Our Choices, and Make Us Wiser. Martie Haselton's Edge Bio Page


I’m asking myself about double standards a lot lately, in public life and also in science. I’m particularly concerned about double standards in science whereby women’s issues are viewed differently than men’s. We’ve lagged behind in important ways because there is a concern that if we have a biological explanation for women’s behavior, it will smash women up against the glass ceiling, whereas a biological explanation for men’s behavior doesn’t do such a thing. So, we’ve been freer in biomedical science to explore questions about the biological foundations of men’s behavior and less free to explore those questions about women’s behavior. That’s a problem that manifests itself in the lag behind what we understand about men and what we understand about women.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. Men have their bedroom troubles that have been solved, by and large, by pharmaceutical companies, whereas women’s have not. Women’s desires may very well be more complicated than, say, solving a mechanical problem for men, but we just don’t know much. And the options we do have, by way of pharmaceutical interventions, are terrible and nobody wants to use them.

For men, Viagra solved a lot of their bedroom troubles. Woman have something called Flibanserin—a very sexy name. Men can take Viagra within an hour of wanting to have sex, and that will help with erectile dysfunction, whereas Flibanserin, which is supposed to solve some of the problems of women’s sexual desire or lack thereof, has to be taken every day. It makes them lightheaded and prone to passing out, and they can’t drink alcohol when they’re taking it. There’s a real inequality there.                                 

There are a couple of factors to think about here. One involves the bias against understanding the biological factors that underlie women’s behavior because of a sexual double standard, and I can elaborate on that. Another is that males, across animal species, have been viewed as the default and, therefore, the thinking is that if you understand males, you understand females. Even at the cellular level that is not the case. The NIH has now started to recognize that. It is a requirement that clinical trials involve equal numbers of males and females unless there are really good reasons for why a researcher would want to study males to the exclusion of females or females to the exclusion of males.

The question about gender versus sex: What do we call it? This is something I confront at UCLA in the interdisciplinary course that I teach. There are four of us: a geneticist, a physiologist, me—the psychologist—and a feminist sociologist. And this is something that we wrestle with. When do we call it gender versus when do we call it sex? I always call it sex because I’m thinking about male versus female, but I completely recognize and have become more appreciative over time that there is some fluidity, there are grey areas.

One of my co-instructors runs an intersex clinic where he studies babies who are born with genitalia that are neither clearly male nor female, and he studies a variety of other issues. So, there is this fluidity. That’s a case in which we call it gender, but it still has a biological underpinning, whether we call it gender or we call it sex. It’s important to recognize the variation. Not recognizing the biological foundations and sex typicality, where it’s completely appropriate to talk about male versus female and to call that sex, is going to the extreme. I’ve read papers in which guppies have been referred to as having gender. Guppies don’t have gender, as far as I know, not in the way that we think about it with respect to humans.

I’ll just give an example of something that’s come up when I’m teaching this sex and gender course. It’s an interdisciplinary course called Sex from Biology to Gendered Society. It is the so-called "sex cluster" at UCLA because it is a cluster course, meaning, it’s across the entire year that it’s taught. This was before a lot of the political discussion, but I was shocked at the response we got when we asked if there should be gender non-specific bathrooms on campus. We spent forty-five minutes discussing this with our freshmen, and I was surprised that it was as much of a political issue as it is. I understand it better now and I very much appreciate it. It’s become more of a political issue for sure, but at the time I thought, why in the world are we talking about the bathroom issue for forty-five minutes? I totally get it: It’s a matter of discrimination, and it's a matter of making people feel like they can be who they are. It was an eye opener for me.

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I was fascinated by psychology. I thought that I would become a psychologist, which at the time I thought meant being a clinical psychologist, or I would become a lawyer because I liked to argue. Then I realized that I could enjoy arguing as a psychologist because the theories that I was exposed to at the time as an undergraduate, and to some extent as a graduate student, were leaving out important insights that stemmed from biology. This has always been a theme for me.

This would have been back in the early ‘90s—the theories of the time were heavily biased toward purely social explanations, and I just didn’t find that all that plausible. I had this experience as an undergraduate in a Philosophy of Mind course when the professor explained the difference between dualism and materialism. Dualism was, by his explanation, the mind, and then there is the body, and there is some sort of gremlin driving the motor of the mind. The mind is this sort of ephemeral detached thing. Materialism was all mechanics, and that’s that; it’s all tied to the brain. He asked the students in the class, "Who is a dualist?" Every hand in the room went up except mine, and I looked around and I thought, what is wrong with you guys? And then he asked, "Who is a materialist?" I raised my hand. That was a formative moment.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t say that it’s all one or the other. There’s an interaction and we have to consider social context when we’re trained to explain behavior as well, because we’re taking social input into our minds and processing it via these mechanisms that have evolved over eons. It’s not one or the other, but to ignore biology is a real problem. As a psychologist, I have confronted a lot of resistance to this. People think that if you have a biological explanation for behavior, and this is in particular for women’s behavior, you’re going to undermine women somehow.

There’s a real political backdrop here that I’ve just resisted throughout my entire career. It has gotten me into tons of trouble. In psychology, there are some baby boomer generation feminists—I consider myself a feminist, but I don’t think that we short circuit fully understanding all of the causes of our behavior in order to support women and support equality. In fact, it’s quite backwards to ignore biology, because we end up not having full knowledge of all of the things that would be informative to women as they make choices in their personal lives and as they have access to things that are important technologies for their lives.

There are scientists with an agenda. I often thought throughout my scientific career that I had no agenda, that it was just about the facts, but the more I have progressed in my scientific career, the more I have recognized that I have an agenda to combat these forces of concealment, these forces that make people back off of scientific findings that might be controversial.

I’ve been studying for the last fifteen years the impact of women’s hormones on their behavior, and I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on that. If you study hormones on women’s behavior, the idea is that you’re going to be justifying this notion that women’s hormones make them irrational, whereas you don’t have the same concern about men’s hormones making them irrational. Nobody ever said a male politician was disqualified for office because he had testosterone. That’s one example.

My area is evolutionary social science, broadly construed. A lot of people would probably call me an evolutionary psychologist. I do research in areas within social psychology, including relationships. My early work was mostly on mating relationships, but I’ve become more and more interested in the outcomes of mating relationships, including parenting and what happens during pregnancy and the postpartum period. I work on a variety of things that have to do with intimate relationships.

The work from my lab is best known for doing rigorous studies of changes across women’s ovulatory cycle in their mate preferences and in their social behaviors. One of the first things that caught the attention of other researchers was our finding that women feel more attracted to men other than their primary partners when they’re in the fertile days of their cycle, which suggests that they’re doing some mate shopping. They’re considering mating alternatives. It was very controversial. I’ve never had a paper rejected more times than that first paper we wrote. It took five tries to get it published, but it has since been cited hundreds of times.

Ultimately, it has been an influential paper. There were a variety of findings, but the most noted was that women who were partnered with not particularly sexually attractive men were noticing and flirting with other men on high fertility days of their cycle. This was based on reports of their behaviors across days of their cycle. We had them report every day in a questionnaire form across an entire cycle. The women didn’t know we were tracking their cycles, they just knew that they were reporting to us every day. We’ve found that now several times. But we had a hard time publishing the paper. One of the problems was that people just didn’t want to recognize the animal in the human, that we might have estrous-like behaviors as humans. Indeed, there are things that are very different about human behavior versus animal behavior, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some commonalities.

We had resistance from biological audiences because they wanted us to do the equivalent of rats in cages, as opposed to the observational studies in humans. These researchers are human beings, so they’re seeing very different patterns in humans, as opposed to in their non-human animal models, and they've bought into that idea that humans and animals are vastly different. And then we ran up against this bias against biology in psychology, which is changing. It has definitely gotten better.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m a woman doing this research. If I were a man doing this research, I might encounter more resistance. Our research does get attention in the media. It can be quite obnoxious in the feminist blogosphere, where it often seems as though the paper itself has not been read by whoever is writing about it because they get the facts wrong.

I feel like I’ve gotten a warm reception from most of my psychological colleagues. I definitely have had resistance. When we publish a paper there will sometimes be a series of rebuttals, and then we will have to come back and respond. We’ve been pretty successful in doing so because the responses that we get are often motivated by ideology, so it’s pretty easy to overcome that with data. And we’ve been prepared to do so. In part, it might be because the work is somewhat controversial. It’s fun to have a colleague come in and stir it up a little bit.

We don’t know enough about important issues that impact women. We don’t know enough about potential side effects of using hormonal contraception. There’s a lot of speculation about it, but most of that speculation is problematic. If you eliminate women’s hormone cycles, what are the implications? That’s an important question. We still don’t know enough about hormone supplements for women later in life. We don’t even know enough about fertility. The data are also problematic. The data on fertility in women’s third, fourth, fifth decades of life are based on ancient records, 200 years old. The statistics that doctors will cite when they are telling women whether they need to see a fertility specialist or not are from a period before modern medicine was really in place, which is outrageous. More recognition of the biological influences on women’s behavior is going to awaken these areas of research, and that will have a positive impact.

My agenda is not to be applied in that sense. My agenda has always just been scientific curiosity, but as I have progressed in my scientific career, I’ve recognized that there are these implications and I’ve gotten a little bit fired up about it. Most of it is about new questions that we need to ask and fully address, things like, just how important is breastfeeding in a woman’s postpartum psychological health? There’s a lot of debate about that. There’s La Leche League on one side who are pushing an agenda which says that you absolutely must do this, without a lot of scientific evidence behind them. On the other side, there’s the attitude of "you just do whatever works for you." And in the middle is political policy or workplace policies that make it difficult for women to freely choose. That’s a super important issue for us to explore, because postpartum depression is a big deal and infant health is a big deal and we’re not confronting it from a totally authentic biological perspective.

The pill has been so important for women’s ability to control their reproductive destinies and to achieve professionally, but we don’t fully understand all of the psychological side effects. We understand the physical side effects, but we don’t understand all the psychological side effects because we’re not dealing with this issue of how hormones affect women’s behavior. Having a better understanding of women’s hormones has huge implications for bettering their sexual lives, so we need to confront these issues in order to improve women’s well being.

In general, I have asked the dangerous questions about women, and hormones, and mate preferences, and whether it might lead women to consider their mating alternatives. I’ve not steered away entirely from those dangerous ideas. The hormonal contraception question is a pretty dangerous idea. I have said that I have some skepticism about the speculation that exists in the literature about the harmful effects of hormonal contraception. I certainly believe there are beneficial effects of hormonal contraception, but continuing to ask that question about how it might affect women’s ability to choose a mate that they will be satisfied with for the rest of their lives—that’s a pretty dangerous question.

Hormonal contraception would include the pill, it would include implants, it would include the vaginal ring, anything that is using hormones to eliminate ovulation or to otherwise prevent conception. Just asking whether there negative psychological impacts of using hormonal contraception is a pretty dangerous question because there are such clear social benefits to women. We have to be careful about interpreting the research in that area, but I don’t think we should not ask the question.

We continue to get a little bit more "techie" in my lab. One thing that we’ve been looking at is gene activation as a consequence of social behaviors. We have a study, not yet published, which shows that when women start new relationships and say they have fallen in love with their partner, their immune gene transcription profile suggests that they are increasing their anti-viral resistance, which makes sense, right? Viruses are socially transmitted.

We keep pushing the boundaries in terms of understanding the low level biology, but connecting it to our psychology as well. I’ve also gotten more and more interested, at the broader social level, thinking about the sources of inequality amongst men and women. That’s been prompted to some degree by teaching and by my students, and by thinking about the fact that the sex-typed biases that exist are interfering with our ability to do research.

I may become a little bit more active in speaking up about those things even though I never thought of myself as being an activist or being motivated by politics. I would be an activist for giving equal treatment to women’s issues and to promoting the understanding of the biological underpinnings of women’s behavior.

We have done a lot of research on the major histocompatibility complex, which is a series of genes that are involved in immunity. There is a key theory that if you pick a mate that has a different MHC type than you, then you produce an offspring that is more diverse, and therefore, more resistant to various kinds of infections. But we are not finding much evidence for that. We’ve got a couple of papers—one is out and one is on the way—and it’s quite sad because I wanted the hypothesis to be true. It’s one of these things in evolutionary psychology where it’s not just the tens go with the tens, the nines go with the nines, which is a little bit of a depressing story, especially if you might think of yourself as not a ten. Instead, you need to find your other type and then you’ll be well matched, but it doesn’t look like that’s true. It’s true in mice, it’s true in lizards, but it doesn’t look like it’s true for humans.      

We recruited women who were new in relationships and collected blood from them, and then they reported to us over time about what was happening in their relationships. When they reported to us that they felt like they had fallen in love with their partner, or if they’d broken up, we brought them back into the lab and collected more blood. You can do gene transcription profiling to see what immune cells—leukocytes—are doing. They can express increased antibacterial functional, or antiviral functioning, or in our case, it looked like a little bit of both.

We expected that there would be less antibacterial and more antiviral functioning. We found a little bit of both. We thought that it would express more antiviral functioning because if you’re in a relationship with a new person, you’re exchanging bodily fluids, so it would be a good idea to use your body resources to fend off those viruses.

Previous research had shown that there was a reduction in antibacterial functioning if people were in close relationships or an increase if they were, for example, if they’d lost their spouse. That’s why we thought there might be that difference, but we saw a little bit of each. It’s quite fascinating, so maybe it’s something that we’ll pursue in the future.