Saturday, November 30, 2013

I Feel Bitchy, O So Bitchy: Part Two of The Posts about Women's Intrasex Aggression: The Review Article

This is the second post in the series about how one particular idea became widely publicized when other studies about aggression do not seem to have the same eclat.  The first post sets the stage and can be read here.


This post is about the review article Tracy Vaillancourt wrote.  Though the popularizations decided not to talk about that one but about her 2011 article with Aanchal Sharma (to be covered in the third post of this series), the review article is worth looking at in itself.

To begin with, it's crucial to realize that someone reviewing a particular field may review all articles in it, the articles regarded as most generally accepted or the articles the reviewer believes are the most important.  Things are more complicated when some topic is studied by several different disciplines.  For instance, reviews by evolutionary psychologists may only cover studies by other evolutionary psychologists, not studies carried out about the same topic in a neighboring discipline.

This can bias the impression one gets.   Now, none of this is intended to apply to the particular review article I talk about here.  It is just something readers should keep in mind when reading various reviews.

Bitching as a Sexual Adaptation in Humans (Especially Human Females)

Let's get going.  Vaillancourt's article has a thesis.  It is expressed in the first few paragraphs:

The study of sexual selection among human females has primarily focused on two competition strategies used to attract mates: (i) self-promotion and (ii) the derogation of rivals. Self-promotion involves epigamic displays of physical attractiveness such as wearing make-up or sexy clothing to attract the attention of a potential partner [1–7].
The derogation of competitors involves making a rival seem less attractive or less appealing to members of the opposite sex [7,8], which is typically achieved by disparaging the competitor’s appearance or by spreading rumours that question the fidelity or level of promiscuity of a rival [2]. Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners. Indeed, research on human mate preferences has clearly shown that males have a strong preference for young, attractive females [3,6,9–13] who are not licentious [9,14].
The derogation of rivals bears a striking similarity to what developmental psychologists have termed ‘indirect aggression’ [15–17], which is also known as ‘social aggression’ [18,19] and ‘relational aggression’ [20,21]. Indirect aggression is circuitous in nature and entails actions such as getting others to dislike a person, excluding peers from the group, giving someone the ‘silent treatment’, purposefully divulging secrets to others, and the use of derisive body and facial gestures to make another feel self-conscious. Interestingly, indirect aggression also includes behaviours that have been shown to be used by women around the world when attempting to reduce the mate value of a competitor—criticizing a competitor’s appearance and spreading rumours about her sexual behaviour [9]. Although developmental psychologists have tended to not conceptualize females’ use of indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy, the central thesis of this paper is that it is an effective approach that is used primarily and ubiquitously by girls and women when they are at the peak of their reproductive value.

Note that the article does not begin with general intrasex aggression in women or girls (though the title of the article might suggest it does).  It begins from sexual selection and then moves to indirect aggression (derogatory comments, say) as a sexual strategy.  Thus, the rest of the piece tries to force pretty much all female intrasex aggression into the sexual competition mold, at least among young women.  

I believe this is a mistake, because it makes us not notice that young women can be aggressive not only towards young women but towards young men, old women and old women.  Even towards walls etc, just as is the case with all human being.  And my guess would be that indirect aggression is pretty common in most of that  after age six or so (though not in all cultures).   The reasons for that (assuming my guess is correct) can be debated, but I certainly know very few cultures where girls are encouraged or trained to duke it out, and I have read that girls' direct physical aggression is punished more than boys' direct physical aggression.

Does that make sense?  Professor Vaillancourt argues that bitchiness is a reproductive strategy for women (though she has argued in an earlier paper with Steven Arnocky that bitchiness also seems to be a reproductive strategy for men*).  I'd argue that bitchiness is a human aggressive strategy, used by both men and women, though not perhaps to the same degree, and that this particular aggressive strategy can be turned towards all sorts of objectives.  Only one of those is mate-guarding, i.e. discouraging rivals from attracting or stealing one's sexual partner.  It may well be the case that sexual competition is the salient form of competition for young men and women.  But indirect aggression (bitching) can be used by both at older ages for different uses, such as getting promotions at one's place of work.

I could be wrong, of course.  But it seems premature to assume that indirect aggression is just a sexual strategy when clearly it is being used for zillions of other purposes.

The Drive For Extreme Thinness Is An Evolutionary Adaptation Gone Bad

That is the first point I wanted to make about Vaillancourt's review article.  The second point partially follows from that.  After explaining to us that young heterosexual men rate facial attractiveness and youth very highly in their mates (Indeed, research on human mate preferences has clearly shown that males have a strong preference for young, attractive females [3,6,9–13] who are not licentious [9,14]) she argues that attractive women or girls are more likely to be the objects of bitching by other women or girls, and that this is logical, given that young heterosexual men prefer the babes.

I'm not convinced that this is true, if forms of verbal bullying and teasing are included in the kind of bitching the article is reviewing.  This is because the most likely targets for bullying are not the attractive cheerleader types or the school athletes (using US stereotypes) but teenagers who are seen as "different" in some important ways.

But suppose it is true.  Then we have a thesis that heterosexual women should compete with other heterosexual women in those characteristics that heterosexual men value.

Remembering that point, let's see what Vaillancourt says next:

Most studies examining links between attractiveness and derogation, discrimination and aggression have focused on facial beauty. Thinness is also a marker of attractiveness in females, in large part because a thin figure is associated with youthfulness [11,35,48], and hence greater reproductive value. Cross-cultural evidence supports the notion that a thin body shape is perceived as attractive, especially by women who reside in high-socioeconomic regions around the world [49]. The fact that girls and women value thinness more than boys and men [49] suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition [48,50 – 55].

Vaillancourt then continues to argue that eating disorders etc. are a consequence of intrasex female competition for the attention of men (for straight people, anyway).  But I don't want to continue with her, because there are three extremely  worrisome points in that quote.

First, note this sentence:

Thinness is also a marker of attractiveness in females, in large part because a thin figure is associated with youthfulness [11,35,48], and hence greater reproductive value.
But this is an odd amalgamation of evolutionary psychology stuff (reproductive value) and something which has shown very clear historical changes:  Thinness** was not a valued characteristic in women (or men) until quite recently.  Think of the women in Rubens' paintings.  Think of the average weight of the winners of the Miss America competition over the years.  Think of the way the old masters painted Jesus as an essentially overweight baby.

My point:  Perhaps thinness now denotes attractiveness in women in certain parts of the world, for certain racial groups and for certain income levels.  But no way could one argue that thinness was a characteristic that signaled reproductive value in some far-distant evolutionary prehistory.

Second, note this sentence:

The fact that girls and women value thinness more than boys and men [49] suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition [48,50 – 55]. 

This makes my brain ache.  We begin by arguing that hetero women compete with other hetero women in the characteristics men desire, to get sexual mates.  But then we are told that a characteristic men don't value as much as women do, thinness, suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition?????

How can this be?  Why compete so hard in something which doesn't provide commensurate nookie benefits? If men care less about women's thinness than women themselves, what reproductive purpose could the drive towards extreme thinness serve?

Third,  cast your eyes over that above quote again.  Vaillancourt seems to argue that the drive to be thin is motivated by intrasexual competition.  But couldn't the motivation be something different than competition with one's closest peers and the competition just follows because, duh, human beings are not only cooperative but also competitive?

Anyway, the article later tells us that

Consistent with the hypothesis that body dissatisfaction and eating pathology arise from intrasexual competition, Faer et al. [52] found links between rivalry for mates and body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness and both bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa among female undergraduate students.
Hmm.  I think those findings could be consistent with many, many other hypotheses than the idea that these female undergraduate students fight for the sexual attention of men by doing something men care less about than women.  For starters, suffering from an eating disorder is draining, and likely to create problems with one's social interactions with others.

The Economic Cartel of Women To Keep Sex Expensive

Vaillancourt then discusses her 2011 study with Sharma which I will address in a separate post.  She argues that this older study proves young women show indirect aggression towards potential rivals who are dressed in revealing outfits, because such dress indicates sexual availability (according to Vaillancourt).  Given that men are supposed to have an evolved preference for partners who are not licentious, why would women care to compete against women who look like they just might be licentious?

Here's how Vaillancourt saves the day:

Considering males’ preference for females as long-term partners with no, or limited, sexual experience [9], it seems curious that females would be biased against ‘promiscuous’ rivals. On balance, should females not be pleased that their competitors are engaging in behaviour that debases their mate value? According to Baumeister & Twenge [73], females are threatened by promiscuous females because ‘sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’ (p. 166). That is, females, not males, suppress the sexuality of other females and they do so by using ‘informal sanctions such as ostracism and derogatory gossip’ (p. 172). In other words, females punish other females who seem to make sex too readily available using indirect aggression [74 – 77].

Our old friend Baumeister!***  But note that we have now left evolutionary psychology!  This is the economic cartel theory:  Women constrain other women's sexuality in order to keep sex a scarce commodity with a high value, so as to charge more for it.  I think a better name for it would be If The Whole World Is A Brothel Why Can't I Get Any?

I earlier spent time going through the evidence Baumeister&Twenge provide**** in their 2002 article to support their thesis that it is other women who police women's sexuality, not men.

A large chunk of the studies they list are about what mothers tell their daughters.  Yet others are about advice by close friends.  Imagine that!  Mothers and sisters and close friends tell a young woman about the dangers (physical and social) of having sex very early or with multiple partners!  No other explanation can possibly pop into our minds to explain such advice than a world-wide gals' sexual cartel.

And the one study I was able to get hold which looked at men's more encouraging attitudes about sluttitude***** consisted of what boyfriends tell their girlfriends.  As sex in that context was defined as sex with the boyfriend, the conclusions of that study tell us nothing about the general male opinions about slutty women.

Perhaps there are studies which conclusively prove that men highly value sluttiness in women.  Perhaps.  On the other hand, that doesn't seem to be the case on the Internet or in schools I've heard about where quite young boys and girls call girls whores when they want to disrespect them (the children call boys other things). 

In short, I'm not convinced that Vaillancourt makes a good case for women's intrasex aggression towards sexually adventurous women as a sexual strategy.  I believe that much better explanations could be found in theories which cover the uses of social ostracism.  But even in that case we cannot ignore the historical position of women, the role of marriage and prostitution and the general societal norms about what kind of sexual lives are acceptable for women vs. men.

Bitching, Tending or Befriending?

As my last point on the review article, Vaillancourt speculates that indirect aggression is so effective on female victims because they are primed to respond to it:

Females’ pronounced negative reaction to peer victimization, and in particular indirect peer victimization, is consistent with the ‘tend-and-befriend’ hypothesis [70]. Specifically, Taylor and co-workers have argued that females’ biobehavioural response to stress is not one that principally involves ‘fight-or- flight’. Rather, the response involves a pattern of ‘nurturant activities that are designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress’ (i.e. tending) and the ‘creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process’ (i.e. befriending; p. 411).

Perhaps.  Who knows?  But is this really consistent?  The review article is about women's use of aggression,  not about tending-and-befriending.  What if the aggressor responded to stress by indirect aggression?  Then she did not tend-and-befriend.  I'm not saying that the two are mutually exclusive, only that indirect aggression seems to fall under the "fight-or-flight" case which females are not supposed to principally use.  But whatever.

Some Last Words

That's probably enough on the review article.  I want to stress that I'm completely certain that women can be competitive, that women can be aggressive and that women compete for sexual partners.  And so do men.

I also want to stress that doing research in this particular field must be tremendously difficult, because the observational studies (do bitchy people get more sex later on? do targets of bitchiness get less sex later on?) are almost impossible to do without vast problems (based on the three I looked at from Vaillancourt's list).  How do we control for all the other things which tie into being, say, the object of indirect aggression and later sexual choices or outcomes?   What if acting bitchily and having sex early are both indications of some completely different underlying variable (a desire to violate social norms for some reason, say)?

At the same time, laboratory experiments (almost always done with very young psychology undergraduates from North America) cannot properly replicate real-world situations of dating, mating and family formation.  The study subjects are exposed to some short manufactured role-play or are shown a bunch of photographs.  This is supposed to predict the same individuals' much later mate selection.  It is even supposed to provide us information about what our prehistoric ancestors might have found most evolutionarily advantageous.

These difficulties should make my criticisms kinder.  That they do not is because of the certain-sureness of the articles I criticize.  The custom in academic articles is to include something about the limitations of an article and suggestions about how to get around that one in future work.  In my experience far too many evolutionary psychology articles have anorexic sections of that kind, and far too many of them also stipulate, from the beginning, that the evidence they provide can only suggest an evolutionary explanation when so many other candidates rear their eager heads.

*This article gives us a fascinating glimpse about what happens when a hypothesis based on evolutionary adaptations appears to be falsified:

 The authors expected to find a positive correlation between boys' perpetration of direct violence and later success at dating because of an evolutionary hypothesis to that effect (violent men got the prehistoric babes?).  But this is not what they found.  Though indirect aggression (bitching) seemed to work for both boys and girls (bitchy boys and girls had more dates later on, they report, though note my above comments concerning all this in research), direct aggression did not benefit boys.  The reverse was the case.  Then this quote:

In modern human society, direct aggression is negatively sanctioned in order to promote within-group cohesiveness.  This likely represents a drastic shift from the longstanding mammalian trend for aggression to enhance reproductive success.  It seems logical that the evolved tendency to aggress directly for reproductive opportunity has become vestigial in group-based societal living conditions,and is now often counterproductive (as shown by the results of the present study).
 Do you see what was done there?  Had the results been that direct aggression got boys more dates, that would have proven the evolutionary quality of direct aggression as a sexual strategy for males.  But that this was not the result demonstrates-- what?  The same thing.

**By the term "thinness" I mean the sort of fashion model thinness which is regarded as optimal for women today, not the lack of obesity.  As an aside, I was shocked to find that evolutionary psychologists seriously discuss anorexia nervosa as an evolutionary adaptation gone wrong.

***You are gonna love this guy.  For a short introduction, read these three parts of my earlier glance at the economic theory of sex he co-created:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

 ****I should note that I was unable to read all the articles Baumeister&Twenge listed, though I did read most of them.

*****I use "sluttitude" here, because Vaillancourt has chosen to use "bitchiness" in her academic work.  As a total aside, I don't remember bitching being common in my own youth.  This means nothing much, except the possibility that the sanctioned forms of aggression might have stronger cultural differences.  I do remember slamming doors and throwing books on the floor etc.



Thursday, November 28, 2013

When is Gender Segregation Acceptable in British Universities? Answer: When an External Speaker Asks For It.

The voice of the British Universities, Universities UK, has produced an information guide (pdf) about external speakers at universities.  The kind of speakers who don't teach full courses but who come to give a speech or a small number of speeches.  Page 27 of that guidebook offers a case study of a religious speaker who wants the audience for his (the pronoun used there) speech to be segregated by gender.  The setting is a university with an active feminist group (why does this matter?) and the planned speech is near the International Women's Day in time (why does that matter?)

Universities are given the following advice:

...under the Equality Act 2010, the first
question is whether the segregation is discriminatory
on the grounds of a protected characteristic within
the definition of the Act. Segregation in the context of
the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory
on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable
treatment’ of either female or male attendees.

It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider
the seating plan for any segregation. For example,
if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that
may well make it harder for the participants at the
back to ask questions or participate in debate, and
therefore is potentially discriminatory against those
attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming
the room can be segregated left and right, rather than
front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate
arrangements are made for those with disabilities).

Consideration will also need to be given to whether
imposing segregation on everyone attending the
event is required (see below). If it is required, this
may amount to less favourable treatment of other
attendees because of a protected characteristic. On
the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side
segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there
does not appear to be any discrimination on gender
grounds merely by imposing segregated seating.
Both men and women are being treated equally, as
they are both being segregated in the same way.
However, one cannot rule out the possibility that
discrimination claims will be made on other grounds.
For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing
in mind the views of the feminist society referred to
in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom
of choice or freedom of association, could fall withi
the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This
would in turn mean that applying a segregated
seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a non-
segregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’
basis with the gender segregated areas) might be
discriminatory against those (men or women) who
hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether
such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear
without a court ruling. Further, an act of indirect
discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a
proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim,
meaning the institution should also have regard to
its other obligations under the Equality Act and the
s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.

It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account
of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human
Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances,
concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of
those opposed to segregation should not result in a
religious group being prevented from having a debate
in accordance with its belief system.
Ultimately, if
imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition
to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-
held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event,
or those of the speaker, the institution should be
mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the
religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.
Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage
in lawful protest against segregation, and could
be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the
issues, but their views do not require an institution
to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate
where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held
religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution
to secure freedom of speech within the law.

I have bolded the part which contains the main conclusions here:  British Universities can have outside religious speakers (most likely Muslim or ultra-orthodox Jews) and the university must abide by their religious beliefs, irrespective of the religious beliefs of those who come to the event!

The whole thing is fascinating, and so are reactions to it.  Polly Toynbee in the Guardian:

Separate but equal; where have we heard that before? Apartheid South Africa is no metaphor for anything else, but women of my generation and all those before were told over and over again that the sexes are different "but equal", as an excuse for excluding them from places they didn't belong: they should be doing "separate but equal" in the kitchen, bedroom and nursery. Whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal.
Universities once barred women altogether. Now they strive to be emblems of enlightenment, temples to reason, equality, free speech and freedom of thought. But it's not easy to balance conflicting freedoms. Universities UK, their representative body, has just published 40 pages of guidelines on External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions, wriggling and writhing over competing freedoms for women versus not causing religious offence: it ends up with excruciating nonsense.

Here is the opinion piece of Sara Khan, a British Muslim,  who disagrees with the idea:

Malcolm X once said; “America preaches integration and practices segregation.” I believe Universities UK preaches equality but promotes segregation.  
As a university student I once recall walking down the street when I noticed the president of my Islamic society (Isoc) walking towards me.  When he saw me, a look of panic glazed over his eyes and he hurriedly crossed the road and continued walking.  That was 13 years ago, yet little has changed.  This week, a student told me how wanting to pray Friday prayers, she approached one of the “brothers” at her Isoc to ask which room prayers were being held in.  His response?  He turned his back to her and faced the wall.  These experiences of misogyny stem from the belief that women are immoral and the ‘solution’ to this is gender segregation as proponents advocate. 
There has been much controversy about the legal status of university events allowing gender segregated events.  Universities UK’s new published guidelines suggest side to side segregated seating is acceptable as “both men and women are being treated equally” and therefore women would not experience “less favourable treatment.”
Universities UK clearly cannot see the wood for the trees. The idea that both men and women are equally segregated and therefore treated equally is highly erroneous.  Perhaps one could argue such a point if so many Isocs weren’t such patriarchal constructions; shaped, structured and led by men.
In ordinary comments about this recommendation the vast majority of reactions were unhappy.  I read that old-time feminists would turn in their graves (rise up like frightening zombies?) if they were told that the battles they once fought and won in Britain must now be fought all over again.  I read that the privileging of religion in public spaces (such as in British universities which get government funding) violates the rights of non-believers.  I read that this is multiculturalism in a form where beliefs held by a small minority are now allowed to influence the lives of the majority, not cultures living peacefully side-by-side (the British model).

The far fewer comments supporting the idea of letting the speakers decide where men and women are to sit in the room consisted of the following types of comments:  Britain already has gender-segregated toilets, sports facilities and hospitals, so how is this situation any different?  Or:  This matter is trivial, the universities are going down the corporate toilet and you wussies can only moan about where men and women sit.  Or:  If these events are not gender-segregated, then devout Muslim women and men cannot attend.

The most interesting argument in this camp was probably the one which explained the Islamic rules about gender segregation:  Segregating men and women is supposed to protect women from sexual harassment and men from getting sexually aroused by the proximity of women.  Peace is held by keeping the sexes separate.

I'm in the camp which dislikes the whole idea and sees it as a clear step backwards in a European country.  My reasons are several, but the gist of them was expressed by Sara Khan in the above quote.  My take on it is this:
Separate Cannot Be Equal If The Sexes Already Aren't Completely Equal.

By "completely equal" in that sentence I mean as if we were two countries, side-by-side, one for women and one for men, each with its own leaders, own institutions and own laws, and no power differences between the rulers of the countries.  If one country is the vassal of the other country, separate can never be equal.  And that is the case in (extreme interpretations of) Islam and also, in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

To give you a very simple example of the problems the segregation of genders can cause, consider a story I once read about the customer waiting lines in an Iranian bakery.  These lines were segregated by gender.  When the lines were long, the men's line moved much faster than the women's line. 

The reasons are pretty obvious:  Complaints by men would have much more power in a system where men have more power, and gender norms would also prioritize men's needs for faster service.

For a second (trivial) example, the times at the ice rink at my school were not allocated equally between boys and girls.  Boys got the best times and the rink was never repaired until right before their game times.  I learned to skate on horrible cracked ice and have the scars to prove it.

More generally, whenever resources or spaces cannot be absolutely equally divided it is pretty likely that the dominant gender  gets the better deal.

All that is based on the idea that what this proposal is about is like giving the devil the little finger (followed by him taking the whole hand) or like the camel's nose under the tent's wall (followed by the camel standing inside the tent).  In short, if this is the first tentative feeler to see how much gender segregation might be acceptable in the UK universities, I'm all for squashing it in the bud.  Because wide-spread gender segregation, just as  wide-spread racial segregation, always harms the less powerful group by depriving it of equal resources.

But suppose that this is about something much more minor, about letting, say, a radical Jewish, Christian or Islamic preacher speak to the general population of students at a British University, and suppose that this practice will get no more prevalent than that. 

I would still have theoretical problems with it.  It seems odd to me, as an outsider, to think that the speaker can demand that the audience in a room behaves according to his or her religious views.  If this is about religious rights, it seems to privilege the speaker's rights over everybody else's rights in the room.  It's as if an invited guest at the dinner would not only demand a vegan or halal or kosher meal for himself or herself but would refuse the invitation unless everyone else at the dinner consent to eat what the speaker eats.

The guide notes that the justification for this is freedom of speech, the idea that the speaker will refuse the invitation if he or she cannot have a gender segregated audience, and that this refusal reduces meaningful speech at the university.  But by removing the hurdle of gender-integrated audiences from the speaker, a reverse hurdle will face all students who find gender segregation obnoxious:  For them to participate in the speech they must accept the speaker's rule.  Indeed, they must enter the speaker's culture.

All this is an application of the problems which appear when multicultural values or religious values conflict with equality values.  In every possible configuration of the room someone's beliefs could be insulted.  I have some sympathy with the argument I read that very devout Muslim women and men could not attend an event without gender-segregated seating  Or I would have had, were they not living in a gender-integrated country, where they might arrive at the event via public transportation or at least by walking down a busy side-walk in close proximity to both women and men.

Ultimately this case is about symbolic segregation of men and women.  I'm not sure whether it would satisfy a speaker bent on a particular world-view.  For example, side-by-side segregation still lets men see the women, and the option of having a third, integrated section is unlikely to be acceptable to a fervent segregationist.

One final question concerns the nature of the event itself.  An event organized by one religious group to only its own members might choose to have segregated seating to stop any sexual harassment or lewd thoughts the mingling of the sexes is believed to cause.  But I don't find anything in the Universities guide which limits the audience in such a manner, and I'm not sure why the British universities would subsidize such private-seeming religious group events.  Perhaps they do?


For Thanksgiving

A US festival.  I give thanks to all of you.  Here's a fun video about a street musician who plays while his dog sings.  My dogs used to do that when the music pleased them.  I have the recording somewhere.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Question, in the Context Of My Ten-Year Blogoversary

This question has to do with the value of my research-related posts.  Are they read? 

They are a lot of work.  A. Lot. Of. Work.  And if they are not read I have other uses of that time.  I can always put them into my book project (which looks eternal, right now).

Or put in a different way, is there something I could do to make those types of posts better or clearer if they are not read because of my mumbly academic jargon, say?

I Feel Bitchy, Oh So Bitchy! Part One Of Posts About Research Into Women's Intrasex Aggression

What you need to do now is to listen to this song from the West Side Story!  Just replace every "pretty" with "bitchy."  It's hilariously appropriate for my topic.

Women's bitchiness. That's what the talking heads are talking about, including our very good friend John Tierney in the New York Times.   He never tires of his endeavor to find science stories about gender or women which reinforce his own stereotypes (sorta sexist guy he is, our John).  The same stuff:  scientific proofs of women's bitchiness, is also discussed in Business Week and on the Atlantic Monthly website.

And Echidne rolls around in her big (new!) desk chair, laughing sarcastically.  Why?

It's not because she doesn't believe that women compete with other women, including over sexual partners.  Men compete with other men over sexual partners, too.  Or more generally people, with various sexual preferences, compete with other people who share those preferences over potential love or sex partners.

And it's not because it wouldn't be true that women use indirect aggression more than men do (though not all women or all men and not in all social sub-groups), possibly at least partly because girls both get corrected for direct physical aggression more than boys when they are children,  and because physical aggression doesn't work terribly well for those who are not physically stronger than the object of the aggression (especially important for women who are usually not trained to fight, either).

Whether "bitchiness" in women, or female intrasex competition that involves indirect aggression, can be shown to be an evolutionary sexual strategy is a whole different kettle of fish and my second post will talk about that more.  The short answer, right now, is that the studies analyzing this tend not to pay attention to how female intrasex competition works in areas other than the search for sexual partners.  That lack should be easy to fix, you know, by just getting more female psychology undergraduates to look at pictures or stories of  a woman getting a better grade in an exam or a woman having more expensive clothes or a woman getting promoted at work etc.!!!  That old doing-careful-research-stuff.  Right now the studies focus on sex and so they can't say anything much about whether women are bitchy outside the field of sexual competition.

Let's return to the first topic I want to talk about in this series (at least two posts):

Why This Topic Right Now?
So I went to hunt for the explanation.  It turns out that the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society has a special number out on female aggression.  The issue has twelve articles, a preface and an introduction.  Out of those twelve articles (all with at least somewhat interesting contents) one is pulled out to be popularized.  That one talks about bitchiness (the researcher herself uses that term) and about sexy young women Behaving Badly.  The others don't have quite the click-magnetism that might be needed.  For instance, one talks about reproductive competition in both sexes but gives stuff about other animals mostly, duh.

I may have already answered my question, in terms of the selection from that list of twelve articles.  Tracy Vaillancourt's article, the one favored for popularization, is about bitchiness and sex:

Indirect aggression includes behaviours such as criticizing a competitor's appearance, spreading rumours about a person's sexual behaviour and social exclusion. Human females have a particular proclivity for using indirect aggression, which is typically directed at other females, especially attractive and sexually available females, in the context of intrasexual competition for mates. Indirect aggression is an effective intrasexual competition strategy. It is associated with a diminished willingness to compete on the part of victims and with greater dating and sexual behaviour among those who perpetrate the aggression.

More about that in my second post.  For the time being, all that you should know at this point is that Vallancourt's piece is a review article.  It does not report new research.  Some of the other articles do.  So the reason for its wide popularization is not that the article produces brand new evidence.  Indeed, the bits the linked popularizations talk about come from a 2011 article by Vaillancourt and Sharma.  So I will talk about that research paper in my later post, too.

Let's summarize what we have, so far:  An issue about female aggression contains twelve articles, some of them discussing new research.  Out of those twelve, one is plucked for popularization and then used to discuss a 2011 article.

I find all this fascinating!  How the wheels within wheels work.

The second point I find fun about this presentation are statements like this (from the Vaillancourt survey article):

When comparing mean levels of direct forms of aggression, which includes physical aggression, there is a clear and pronounced sex difference favouring males across the lifespan [22,23]. When comparing sex differences in mean levels of indirect aggression, there is a slightly higher rate found among females during childhood, adolescence and adulthood [22,23]. Importantly however, when examining the proportion of engagement in this type of aggression, research demonstrates that females preferentially use indirect aggression (e.g. 52% for girls versus 20% for boys in 15-year olds; [24]) over all other forms of aggression. When girls and women aggress against others, they almost invariably use indirect aggression.

That's from the early parts of the article, and something that it glides over, pretty smoothly, which may be understandable because the point of the article is to talk about women's aggression against women.  But note the first two sentences.  Males have more physical aggression and an almost as high level of indirect aggression.  The way the popularizations of the Vaillancourt piece has been done obscures that setup completely.  It's about Mean Girls.

And of course there are Mean Girls, just as there are Mean Boys.  But the latter do not attract a lot of attention from the popularizers.  It's weird to read the first sentence of the 2011 Vaillancourt and Sharma article, from that angle

Intrasexual competition among males of various species, including humans, is well-documented [Archer, 2009; Daly and Wilson, 1988; Darwin, 1871; Geary, 2010; Wilson and Daly, 1985].

All that may be well known.  But it is not a topic for popularizations, is it?   I looked at quite a few recent articles on male intrasex competition and couldn't find them discussed in the popular media.

So what's the point of this post:  I hope it showed some of the hidden decision-making that goes into the question what to popularize for the general public.  I also hope that it might show how the popularizers are led to look at the question a bit one-sided.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Miller vs. McKenna. Who Owns The Baby? Do Women Own Their Bodies?

This particular child custody feud is well worth feminist analysis.  Here are the basic facts (which ignore Miller's behavior, however):

When Bode Miller, the Olympic ski star known for daring Alpine racing, met Sara A. McKenna in San Diego last year through the high-end matchmaker Kelleher International, they were both professing interest in finding a marriage partner, she recalls.
The relationship did not last long — but she did become pregnant. And now the skier, 36, and Ms. McKenna, 27, a former Marine and firefighter who is attending Columbia University with G.I. Bill support, are locked in a cross-country custody fight that has become not only tabloid fodder but also a closely watched legal battle over the rights of pregnant women to travel and make life choices.
In December, when she was seven months pregnant and already sparring with Mr. Miller about their future relations, Ms. McKenna moved to New York to start school. Mr. Miller accused her of fleeing to find a sympathetic court, and a New York judge agreed, castigating Ms. McKenna for virtually absconding with her fetus. This allowed a California court to subsequently grant custody of the baby, a boy, to Mr. Miller and also set off alarm bells among advocates for women’s rights.
But on Nov. 14, a five-judge appeals court in New York said Ms. McKenna’s basic rights had been violated, adding, “Putative fathers have neither the right nor the ability to restrict a pregnant woman from her constitutionally protected liberty.”
The appeals court also ruled that jurisdiction belonged in New York.
On Monday, a New York City Family Court will start proceedings that could switch custody of the boy, now nine months old, back to Ms. McKenna.

The bolds are mine.  Note that leaving the fetus behind isn't quite the solution that Ms. McKenna could have employed.  This means that a pregnant woman moving, for whatever reason, was accused by the original New York judge (last spring), Fiordaliza Rodriguez as being roughly the same as kidnapping a child in utero:

Referee Fiordaliza Rodriguez slammed Miller’s ex-girlfriend, Sara McKenna, for moving to New York while pregnant and as custody proceedings were underway in California.
“While (McKenna) did not ‘abduct’ the child, her appropriation of the child while in utero was irresponsible, reprehensible,” wrote Rodriguez.

It doesn't matter, for the point I'm making, that Miller initially didn't want the child to be born at all or that he married someone else very soon after McKenna became pregnant, or that his interest in getting custody of the child soon seemed to include things like changing the child's name.  And it doesn't matter for that point, either, whether McKenna moved for her studies or for getting into a jurisdiction where her chances to keep the child are better.

Because the point worth making is that the original Rodriguez opinion is a clear consequence of the right-wing forced-birthers' attempts to turn the fetus into a separate legal being from conception, one that is perhaps "imprisoned" inside a pregnant woman, or at least one which temporarily lives in a particular aquarium and that aquarium should stay put.  One logical consequence of that is limits based on the pregnant woman's rights to move, to work and so on.

But the case also has a second central point, and that is about the relative parental rights of mothers and fathers.  Rodriguez tried to extend the putative fathers'  rights  to the time of pregnancy.

This is what seems wrong about the parental rights aspect of this case:  If we are going to limit the rights of movement of pregnant women or custodial parents, we should equally limit the rights of movement of putative fathers and non-custodial parents.   After all, the former might want to sue the latter for changes in custody arrangements or something similar, and the latter could move to escape paying child maintenance or (in the cases of putative fathers) to avoid being declared as the biological father of the child or to just find a court more likely to be in their side.

Nuts! Or On What to Eat.

When  I saw the story about the new study on nuts I knew that the "miracle food" of 2013 had been found.  The miracle foods vary from soy, blueberries, cream-and-butter to the Mediterranean diet, the vegan diet etc.  Nothing wrong with the basic idea of trying to find which foods are good for us.  Plenty wrong with the idea that there is this one food which will work like a headache pill and take away all your health problems.

Have you heard about the Paleo Diet?  It's been around a while and based on the idea (familiar from evolutionary psychology) that our guts haven't evolved since some mythical age in prehistory and that we should only eat those things the prehistoric humans ate.  That the prehistoric humans ate all sorts foods, depending on where they happened to live, very much including grains, the evil in the Paleo Diet, is ignored in this theory.  Rather, the assumption is that only meat, fruit and vegetables are OK to eat.  Possibly bloody meat that you tear with your sharp prehistoric predator teeth?

That last sentence was a joke.  But the Paleo Diet, whether good or bad for someone today (and it could be good), cannot be justified by it being the paleolithic diet of all prehistoric humans.  And evolution didn't stop at some mythical point in the past.  For example, lactose tolerance after infancy, is a fairly recent introduction to some human populations.

I don't want to get into arguments about any one particular diet, however.  I want to write about nuts as the new miracle food.  The most recent study argues that those who eat more nuts on a daily or weekly basis live longer than those who do not.  And that is how the story is written up here:

People who regularly eat nuts appear to live longer, according to the largest study of its kind.
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggested the greatest benefit was in those munching on a daily portion.
The US team said nut eaters were likely to also have healthy lifestyles, but the nuts themselves were also contributing to their longer lifespan.
The British Heart Foundation said more research was needed to prove the link.

Why would the British Heart Foundation demand more research?  Because the study we are discussing here was observational.  It followed large groups of nurses and physicians for thirty years and then tried to correlate the death rates among the subjects with only their nut consumption.  Remember that the subjects were not watched under controlled lab circumstances for thirty years, they were not given exactly the same foods other than nuts, they were not given exactly the same amount of exercise, they were not given exactly the same living and working conditions.

This means that it is very difficult to make sure that  the found correlation between death rates and nut eating is actually a causal one from nuts to longer lives.   To give one pretty obvious example, vegetarians are likely to eat a lot more nuts than meat-eaters, on average, because the nuts are used as one substitute for meat in many vegetarian diets.

The study itself is careful about its findings and points out the problems in interpreting them.  But not all the popularizations are.  I came across a Finnish popularization (not on a rubbish website) which states (my translation):

Research:  Eat nuts so you become slim and live long

Later in the summary we learn:

The results also suggest that those who eat a lot of nuts are not fatter than anyone else.  Rather the reverse, the regular nut eaters are slimmer.

It is this that worries me:  The idea that someone not eating any nuts today should just add them to his or her daily diet and not expect a sizable weight gain but more slimness and a long life!  The summary fails to point out that those who eat nuts in the study also differed in other ways:

As compared with participants who consumed nuts less frequently, those who consumed nuts more frequently were leaner, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to use multivitamin supplements; they also consumed more fruits and vegetables and drank more alcohol

If I had to make a wild guess about all that I might look into the question whether the nut-eaters were vegans or vegetarians or very health-conscious in general.  I couldn't find out if the study could control for any of that.  But note the general differences between the nut-eaters and the rest of the study subjects.  Those are many more than the consumption of nuts, and the leanness difference probably had more to do with the greater consumption of fruit and vegetables and the greater exercise levels than the fact that some munched more often on pecans and walnuts and almonds while others munched on bacon and hamburgers.

I'm not trying to disrespect nuts.  They are a great food (pesto!).  But they are high in calories and not something people should just add to their diets without dropping other food items also high in calories.  It might also be a good idea to eat more fruit and vegetables and to exercise more if you wish to live long lean and mean.

My National Dress

I own this one (picture from here)

It is one of the many national dresses Finnish designers created in the last hundred years.  It's not terribly far from the best ("Sunday") dress that Finnish peasant women might have worn in the eighteenth century, though the red would have been rare as it was an expensive dye.  Today its uses are limited to folk dancing etc.  and certain kinds of more dignified celebrations.

The history of the dress is fascinating, having to do with stuff like the powers-that--were in the 18th century using luxury laws which kept silks and so on from the filthy paws of the masses.  There's also a marital status to the dress, because the cap is for married women.  Unmarried women, at least young ones, would wear just ribbons in their hair.

But the reason I want to write about this dress is the way it is made.  The skirt is hand-loomed (ikat) and both it, the vest and the detachable pocket are wool.  The shirt is linen, and the pulled-work in it is hand-made.

Making clothes in the eighteenth century meant making them by hand, possibly even beginning with growing the flax for the linen and shearing the sheep.  The work was so immense that few people could afford several changes of clothing, and once you got your Sunday dress it had to last a very long time.

And this is where things get exciting:  Everything in the outfit is size-adjustable!  For instance, my skirt is sorta doubled over, to fit me, but if a pregnant woman wore it the skirt could be easily taken out, temporarily, and the skirt could also grow in circumference as its owner grew.  Likewise, the shirt is baggy, but because it is thin material it adjusts to even a slim upper body.  The vest is adjustable because of the lacing.

This means that if a woman's weight or circumference changed, the outfit could be changed, too.  I like that idea.  It reduces waste.  I also like the detachable pocket.  You could have something like that for a cell or mobile phone and just wrap it around a different outfit.

The back of the vest has a neat little bird's tail, too.  The apron, on the other hand, duh.  And I'm not terribly fond of skirts in the winter.  They are cold.