gender


I came across this article on sex-selective abortion on The Rational Optimist (via Jad Abumrad‘s tweet), about the skewing of sex-ratios as access to wealth, abortions, and ultrasound technology increases. This, for example, is a map of China showing sex ratios by region. White areas have naturally-occurring ratios. The darker the red, the higher the skew towards males (and the richer the region). This kind of thing is happening in about half of the world’s countries, not just China, and it’s likely to increase as we get better at sperm-sorting and genetic manipulation.

This is a map of “son preference” by country:

I was caught off guard by one of the comments on the article. I realized that I had breezed past this section:

“Policy seems largely powerless to fight this problem. Sex-selective abortion is illegal in virtually all countries. China’s authoritarian “one-child policy” is in marked contrast with India’s more laissez-faire attitude to family planning, yet both have produced widespread killing of female fetuses.”

I read this focused on their point that different policies on family size were producing similar results in terms of sex-selective abortion. The part about sex-selective abortion being illegal did not catch my attention at all. And if it had really  caught my attention, I probably would have thought something like, “Oh, good for them. I wouldn’t have expected that in highly sexist cultures.” Then I read the comment:

“If a society permits abortion on demand (which many do), then it permits abortion on demand. Permitting abortion on demand *except* when this is used to achieve sex selection seems peculiarly inconsistent.”

Whenever I think seriously about abortion I am impressed by how difficult the ethics are to untangle. The simple, clearcut answers that my inner idealist wants are offered only by heavy duty idealogs, and those answers don’t make sense to me. And opinions tend to be so impassioned that it can be difficult–scary, even–to carry on a sustained conversation about it. I notice, even as I’m writing and editing this little piece, that I am tending to say less and less as time goes on…

I vote pro-choice, but that does not get to the complexities of the issue for me. My votes are acts of passing the buck to the individual women making those decisions, letting myself off the hook as best I can. At the same time, I  believe that fetal life has moral import, and feel myself getting more squeamish about abortion the more aesthetic the reasons for it. When I think about its use by people who have value-structures very different from my own to further their own cause, it is troubling. Sex-selective abortion is one clear example. Another is the rumors that the conservative support of Planned Parenthood has been a kind of race-selective abortion, because women of color are having more abortions than white women. Shudder.

Maybe I just want to avoid this discomfort, but I wish only women could vote on this issue, and let me the rest of the way off the hook about it.

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This was from the lecture “The Mismeasure of Man” by Ralph Horwitz at Stanford. It’s a nice way to distinguish between a few different ideas about our relationship to reality.

1) “I call them how they are.” This umpire believes that he has direct access to reality. In his mind, he just watches what happens and makes the call appropriately.

2) “I call them the way I see them.” This umpire acknowledges the limitation of his senses. He knows he may make a call that doesn’t reflect reality accurately because of his lack of direct access to reality.

3) “They ain’t nothing til I call them.” This umpire thinks he defines reality. Horwitz paints this one as the most arrogant, and he probably is. Whether or not this umpire thinks he has direct access to reality, he knows that he is the person who can say what we call a particular human/bat/ball interaction.

It shows a certain amount of self-awareness to be able to say what the third umpire said, which I admire. It is a kind of awareness that is necessary (though not nearly sufficient) for those of us with the inappropriate power to define the situations of others to give up that power. That is, no matter whether our power comes from race, gender, money, or whatever, we can’t give it up until we understand that we have it.

A note on gender in this post: Horwitz used the title of his lecture as a way to get in an apology about how much more research is done on men than women. He also used male pronouns for his umpires. Thinking that there are probably umpires of all genders, I tried to use “they” instead of “he,” “she,” or variations on “he/she.” It felt like bad writing so I went back to “he.” No offense meant, and if you want to take a crack at it, send me what you come up with.

One of the ways that John Gottman says people talk themselves out of their marriages is “rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions” in between arguments. That is, instead of making up stories about how their troubles are passing and circumstantial, they make up stories about how their troubles have to do with permanent flaws in their partner’s character. Over time, this version of the story solidifies and they reinterpret the entire history of the relationship using that filter.

This is another of Gottman’s gendered findings; it is mostly a problem because the men (in heterosexual marriages, at least) do it. It’s a problem when women do it, too, they just don’t tend to as much.

The alternative to rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions is rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions, and this is exactly what Gottman found that the people in marriages that ended up happy and stable did. It’s probably a good idea, then, to practice rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions if you can. Try thinking about the strengths of your relationship, good times, things you are proud of, ways that current conflict is passing and circumstantial. If that is difficult to do, think instead about couples counseling.  If you want to keep your relationship, you probably need help.

John Gottman’s research show evidence that one of the most important things in making a heterosexual relationship is that the male “accept influence” from the female. That is, the male listens to and is influenced by the ideas and opinions of the female. He shares power with her. If he does not do this, they will end up divorced 80% of the time.

One of the reasons Gottman is such a famous couples researcher is that he finds effects that strong. Your average couples researcher would love to find something that predicted anything about a couple’s future with 30% accuracy, but Gottman’s work is rife with 80% and up findings. 80% is huge. At 80%, you’ve left the realm of “more likely” behind and have solidly entered “probably.” If you are a man who has trouble conceding a point to your wife, you should take note. You will probably be much better off if you spend your energy scouring your conversations for ways to agree with your  wife than ways to disagree. If that is difficult, get some help with it.

And it does not go the other way. Gottman found that while wives tend to be good at accepting influence, whether they are or not did not correlate with anything he measured.

Which, of course, brings up the question of same-sex relationships. How does accepting influence influence things there? The answer, as is usually the case in couples research, is that we have no idea, which hip researchers are often apologizing for but rarely doing anything about. My advice is to notice and accept influence regardless of your gender or sexual orientation–better to lose arguments than  your relationship.