Saturday, May 02, 2009

News Flash: Women Are Different than Men

A couple recent examples of our willful blindness of the unique nature of women.

There's a provocative article in The Atlantic on "The Case Against Breast-Feeding." Hanna Rosin argues that studies showing the benefits of breast-feeding are exaggerated. It's a challenge to design a study that isolates breast-feeding from other factors accidentally correlated to it.

Nearly all the researchers I talked to pointed me to a series of studies designed by Kramer, published starting in 2001. Kramer followed 17,000 infants born in Belarus throughout their childhoods. He came up with a clever way to randomize his study, at least somewhat, without doing anything unethical. He took mothers who had already started nursing, and then subjected half of them to an intervention strongly encouraging them to nurse exclusively for several months. The intervention worked: many women nursed longer as a result. And extended breast-feeding did reduce the risk of a gastrointestinal infection by 40 percent. This result seems to be consistent with the protection that sIgA provides; in real life, it adds up to about four out of 100 babies having one less incident of diarrhea or vomiting. Kramer also noted some reduction in infant rashes. Otherwise, his studies found very few significant differences: none, for instance, in weight, blood pressure, ear infections, or allergies—some of the most commonly cited benefits in the breast-feeding literature.

Both the Kramer study and the sibling study did turn up one interesting finding: a bump in “cognitive ability” among breast-fed children. But intelligence is tricky to measure, because it’s subjective and affected by so many factors. Other recent studies, particularly those that have factored out the mother’s IQ, have found no difference at all between breast-fed and formula-fed babies. In Kramer’s study, the mean scores varied widely and mysteriously from clinic to clinic. What’s more, the connection he found “could be banal,” he told me—simply the result of “breast-feeding mothers’ interacting more with their babies, rather than of anything in the milk.”

The IQ studies run into the central problem of breast-feeding research: it is impossible to separate a mother’s decision to breast-feed—and everything that goes along with it—from the breast-feeding itself. (68)

What I want to know: why does nature have to be backed-up by science? Why isn't the presumption in favor of nature? Infant formula is the alternative. But why do we think we can synthesize a breast-milk alternative? Assuming we can even know all the components adequately, what makes us think we can put them together in exactly the way that nature has arranged?

Why are we talking about whatever we put in the infant's stomach as if it in itself has got to be the magic elixir? Isn't the whole culture of breast-feeding what should be under consideration? This would mean that benefits of a mother's interaction with her child in breast-feeding would be a legitimate benefit of breast-feeding.

This is human life we're talking about. It has a wholeness whose depths we can only guess at. As members of a consumeristic society, we think we can pick and choose elements of it as would the color of an automobile or the flavor of ice cream.

The underlying agenda becomes clear near the end of the article:

About seven years ago, I met a woman from Montreal, the sister-in-law of a friend, who was young and healthy and normal in every way, except that she refused to breast-feed her children. She wasn’t working at the time. She just felt that breast-feeding would set up an unequal dynamic in her marriage—one in which the mother, who was responsible for the very sustenance of the infant, would naturally become responsible for everything else as well. (69-70, emphasis added)

Again, perhaps the natural dynamic of motherhood is for the one responsible for the infant's sustenance to be closest to the child. But we all know that inequality is the greatest evil in the world. If we don't, we of course need to take more sensitivity courses. So, let's make a point of using our screwdrivers as hammers and vice versa.

The Columbia University alumni magazine has an article about the very real problem women in the military being sexually harassed.

Spranger’s experience [of harassment] is hardly unusual among military women. According to several recent surveys conducted by researchers at veterans centers, nearly a third of female troops are raped by their comrades, while some three-quarters are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed. “The harassment got to be so commonplace that I didn’t even think it was wrong,” Spranger says. “Anyway, it went up so high in the ranks there was nobody to tell.” (14)

It comes as a big surprise only to those wearing ideological blinders that men treat women differently. They treat women differently because they are different. Simply awarding them a different "role" doesn't change their essence. Why did we need a study to tell us this? Look around at the world. From time immemorial, armies have been followed by prostitutes. Sex and war have a natural tendency to go together.

It's well-known that the male hormone, testosterone, increases aggression, and that aggression increases testosterone.1 So why would we ever think that men in combat would behave any better than men in civilian life? Certainly harassment is wrong and the men doing it are wrong. But what else would we expect? These guys are put into extremely tense, life-threatening situations. Men in bad situations have a pronounced tendency to act badly. Can't we consider this an empirical fact without commissioning a study to "scientifically" access it?

In the military, curbing sexual harassment has about as much chance of success as curbing profanity. No matter how many sensitivity courses you force men into, they have natural tendencies (for good or bad) that no one will ever eliminate except by denaturing or killing the patient.

Instead of banging at the square peg to get it into the round hole, perhaps we should look for a square hole.

But putting women in the military is more than just a problem of misunderstanding men. Much more importantly it's a problem of misunderstanding women. A couple later paragraphs are remarkable on this score:

Sergeant Marti Ribeiro, a wife and mother who entered the Air Force to follow family tradition [!], was relentlessly harassed throughout her deployment in 2003. So when she was redeployed in 2006 and sent to Afghanistan as a combat correspondent with the Army’s all-male 10th Mountain Division, she resolved that this time would be different.

“Excuse my language,” says Ribeiro, “but I decided to be a bitch. So I stepped off the plane into my own personal hell. Yes, I was able to put up a wall, but at a price. My wall became thicker and thicker. I’m normally a very bubbly person, but that disappeared behind the wall, and to this day I don’t know if I’ve ever regained that part of my personality.” (15)

We learn later (17) that Ribeiro was trying to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, both officers. I can only wonder how the tradition-minded men in her family could imagine letting a woman fight in combat. Further, why would a mother, with any sense of responsibility to her children voluntarily put herself in harm's way? Out of a sense of family tradition? (Strange family that has a tradition of mothers abandoning their children.) The mind boggles.

In the second paragraph, we see how a woman in the military has to change herself to suit her new role. It would be interesting to compare this to the experience of how men adjust to the military, but it's clear it wouldn't be nearly the same transformation, if only for the reason that very few men aptly describe themselves in terms like "bubbly."

Sexual harassment in the military is a very real problem. But the real question this publication's ideological commitments2 don't allow it to ask: why are we putting women in these situations in the first place? It's as if we feel obliged to deny that there are distinct natures in the world by proving that women have no essential nature.

The politically correct orthodoxy assumes that everyone should be able to step in to any role they want, and then forces everyone else to conform to that choice. The problem, this orthodoxy tells us, is not the institution of women in the military, but with the men who won't accept them.

In our egalitarian, individualistic society, an abundance of choices is held to indicate our freedom. But what if most of those choices lead not to our happiness, but to our misery? Wouldn't elimination of those bad possibilities better enable us to thrive? Highway guardrails are not restrictions on freedom, but better enable us to get where we're going safely.

It is only in acknowledging the distinct natures of men and women that we can help them to excel in the respective roles for which they are naturally suited and that are their natural glory.


1. It seems wisest for children's primary caregivers not to be pumped up with testosterone whether by nature or by profession.

2. Whenever I feel guilty about not donating to my alma mater, a quick look at the alumni magazine cures me.

Helen Benedict, "Betrayal in the Field," Columbia (Spring 2009), 12-17.

Hanna Rosin, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" The Atlantic (April 2009), 64-70.

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