The title of a recent New York Times blog post reads “In Reporting Pain, Women the More Sensitive Sex”. The article discusses the results of a Stanford University study that were published this week, comparing women’s and men’s reports of pain for identical medical ailments. What is mysteriously absent from the article in all of its hand wringing about women reporting “more pain” is a very obvious answer for the discrepancy: men simply underreport pain.
The entire article frames the issue as stemming from women, and that it is women who are differing from the default persons, males.
Do women feel more pain than men? […]
Over all, [women’s] pain levels were about 20 percent higher than men’s.
[…] why women report higher pain levels.
[…] why women’s brains process pain differently than men.
There is no reason to posit the topic this way, unless you think women are the anomaly and that women must be investigated for this differential. The headlines of many other publications talking about this research used similar formulas, considering male experience the baseline human experience. San Francisco Chronicle, “Women found to report much more pain than men” . . . Wall Street Journal blog, “Is Pain More Painful for Women?”. . . CBS News, “Women feel more pain than men, study finds.” You get the picture.
This particular study is not evidence that women and men’s brains do process pain differently, yet it is presumed that they do and that this is solely due to ‘nature’ of some sort. The lead author of the study, a professor at Stanford’s medical school, Dr. Atul Butte, swiftly dismisses the idea that men’s social conditioning has anything to do with their underreporting of pain:
“While you can imagine such a bias,” he said, “across studies, across thousands of patients, it’s hard to believe men are like this. You have to think about biological causes for the difference.”
Nope, it can’t be due to gender socialization that tells men that they must not be “weak”, i.e. “like a woman”. It must be biology! Because the good doctor says so. (And what a succinct example of patriarchal reasoning there too: “You’re imagining it. Men aren’t like that, but if they are it isn’t their fault.”)
Besides this glaring omission in interpreting the results, many other potential explanations are left out. Might women feel compelled to report more pain because doctors won’t take them seriously unless they do so? In the NYT comment section alone, two women wrote that their doctors didn’t take their menstrual pain seriously until they mentioned how they had actually passed out from the pain.
Perhaps women are better (or more honest) in communicating?
What about the role of mental health and the physical manifestations certain disorders take on (e.g. depression and pain)? Could a preexisting chronic pain disorder amplify other pain that a woman experiences? All of the stress and trauma experienced by females add up to a whole lot of “unexplained” physical ailments, which are likely to be the physical symptoms of PTSD or anxiety disorders brought about by male violence. Besides women having made this connection for themselves, there’s also a good deal of research connecting trauma and chronic pain. Last month, the CDC released results of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
[The] findings indicate female victims of violence had a significantly higher prevalence of long-term health problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, frequent headaches, chronic pain, and difficulty sleeping. And nearly twice as many women who were victims of violence reported having asthma, compared to women who did not report violence victimization.
And chronic pain after childbirth is surprisingly common; the Institute of Medicine recently found that 18 percent of women who have Caesarean deliveries and 10 percent who have vaginal deliveries report still being in pain a year later.
Nah, but I’m sure it’s just that women are more whiny and like to complain. Because biology. Yup, that’s it.