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Being Overwhelmed is Way Scarier Than a Paranormal Activity Movie

Want a little lesson in the life of a scientist? On my plate right now:

  • Proposal reviews: OVERDUE
  • Book chapter: OVERDUE
  • Two revise and resubmits: one OVERDUE, one not (yet)
  • Manuscript review: SUBMITTED LATE
  • Proposal revision to mock panel: only a matter of time before OVERDUE
  • New grant proposals: WAY BEHIND SCHEDULE
  • Workouts: NOT HAPPENING with husband out of town and sitters unavailable
  • Kiddo’s Halloween costume: NOT QUITE DONE AND THE CLOCK IS TICKING
  • Blog post: well, at least I got something done.

A number of deadlines and personal difficulties (like single parenting due to husband travel, being in the derby mini off-season and thus unable to hit anyone, teaching and service ridiculousness) have made this an especially scary Halloween. That list frightens me more than any movie.

Here is a very random list of links I’ve enjoyed over the last week or so that helps things look up:

Hot for Obama, But Only When This Smug Married Is Not Ovulating

Figure 1. President Obama (official portrait). Is he the one for me?

You all must forgive me for this blog post. You see, I am in my premenstrual phase, and so with all my insane-o premenstrual symptoms I simply cannot access the part of my brain that makes political decisions. Perhaps when I get through the devastation and physical wreckage we ladies like to think of as menstrual periods I will be able to think again. And when I do, I’ll want to vote for President Obama. I think. Ovulation always makes Romney seem like a big ole’ protective papa fighting for all of America and so, YOU GUYS, I just can’t decide.

Our political attitudes and beliefs are certainly flexible, can change over time, and can be modified by any number of factors. But can they change based on when a woman is more or less fertile during her menstrual cycle? In a manuscript accepted for publication at Psychological Science, Durante et al describe data on political behavior and religious beliefs, and explain how there are reasons to understand these beliefs as flexible and variable. When they begin to talk about reproduction, however, the paper becomes unacceptably flawed and problematic.

So to continue our great tradition, Scicurious and I are tag-teaming on this one. Make sure you read her post for her perspective that addresses more decision-making issues than I do. I’m going to be all about the lady parts.

After you read her, read on here. What’s curious about this manuscript is how at first it takes this relaxed approach that demonstrates a real understanding of the nuances and feedback loops of human nature, then the study authors try to shoehorn it into the usual universalist, reductionist framework we’ve all come to know and love from the worst of evolutionary psychology. Rather than demonstrating how our beliefs may change over time due to changing contexts and experiences, Durante et al would have you believe that women are constantly in flux depending on their time of the month.

I don’t always support gay marriage, but when I do, I am not fertile.

Figure 2. Candidate Romney (public domain image). Or is it this guy I want?

The study authors performed two internet survey studies on 18-34 year old, non-hormonally-contracepting American women (Durante et al. forthcoming). In both, they parsed women into single (not with anyone, casually dating) or in a committed relationship (engaged, living with someone, married) groups. In both studies women in committed relationships were significantly older and more likely to have children; in the second study women in committed relationships also had a significantly higher annual income. They also asked women about the last two dates of their menstrual period in order to classify them as being sampled in their high fertility (days 7-14) or low fertility (17-25) phase.

This means menstruating women were excluded, which they claim are so premenstrual or menstrual symptoms do not interfere with their study. Yet, they included women from days 21-25 of the cycle, which in a regular ovulatory cycle – a cycle all of these women supposedly have – this would be a time of progesterone withdrawal and in the premenstrual phase.

This is a cross-sectional sample. That means each individual was assessed only once, not more than once over her menstrual cycle. For instance, we are not looking at one group of single women assessed at low and high fertility periods, but one group of single women who happened to be in their low fertility period and another group of single women who happened to be in their high fertility period at the time of sampling.

Study 1. The first study by Durante et al looked at interactions between high and low fertility periods and feelings of religiosity. They found low fertility, single women had lower religiosity than high fertility, single women, yet low fertility, committed women had higher religiosity than high fertility, committed women.

Study 2. Durante et al asked participants about religiosity, social political attitudes (i.e., abortion, legalizing marijuana, stem cell research) and fiscal political attitudes (i.e., taxes, social security). They were then asked if they would vote on the day of the study for Obama or Romney, and were asked to which campaign they would give a $1 campaign donation. The study authors found the same relationships between religiosity, fertility phase and relationship status as in Study 1.

Figure 3. This is figure 4A of the Durante et al, showing the “not-ovulating” and “ovulating” groups and their voting preferences.

They found single women: less fiscally and socially conservative, more likely to vote for President Obama (79.3% versus 69.4%), and more likely to donate to Obama (79.9% versus 67.9%). All of these findings were tempered by fertile phase: as with religiosity, the single women who were sampled during high fertility were less socially conservative than those sampled during low fertility. Conversely, committed relationship women who were sampled during high fertility were more socially conservative than their low fertility counterparts. The same trends were found for voting and campaign donation choices, with the more liberal choices made by single women sampled during high fertility times, and by committed relationship women who happened to be sampled during low fertility times. Finally, when looking at all women together, women sampled during low fertility did not have significantly different political attitudes, but single women sampled during high fertility were more liberal than women in committed relationships sampled during high fertility.

Organize the data for physiological relevance, not statistical significance.

If the above is worded awkwardly, it’s because I am trying to make clear how important it is to that the reader understand where the data is coming from. In their use of language, the study authors obscured the fact that their dataset is cross-sectional and correlational. The discussion is especially worrying. Just one example:

“Two studies with relatively large and diverse samples of women found that ovulation had different effects on religious and political orientation depending on whether women were single or in committed relationships. Ovulation led single women to become more socially liberal, less religious, and more likely to vote for Barack Obama” (Durante et al, p. 15).

No. We have no way of knowing what ovulation does or doesn’t do because the study authors didn’t measure ovulation. Even with the authors trying to erase this reality by incorrectly categorizing women. Even with labeling all of their figures with ovulating and not-ovulating groups. And even if their methods had reflected ovulatory versus non-ovulatory states, their results show only correlations between these factors, not effects of reproductive state on attitudes, particularly because of the cross-sectional nature of the data. When you realize that each data point in this research is of a single individual sampled once, opportunistically at whatever phase of her cycle she happens to be on, the results lose a lot of their power.

Further, the way they parse the high fertility and low fertility phases of the menstrual cycle doesn’t reflect what we know about conception probabilities.

Figure 4. The second figure of Wilcox et al 2001 which you may remember from my post on “legitimate rape.” Demonstrates chances for conception through the menstrual cycle with, you know, real hormone data from real ladies.

The average chance for conception on any given day is 3.1% (Wilcox et al. 2001). Using the data from Wilcox et al (2001), women with regular menstrual cycles have a greater than average chance of conception from days 9-18, and women with irregular menstrual cycles from days 12-22. And of course, if we wanted to define high fertility more tightly than just “higher than average” those windows would be even smaller. This doesn’t bode well for the high fertility window of 7-14 days used by Durante et al., and they overlap with the 17-25 window they consider low fertility. Changing the high/low fertility grouping criteria by just a day or two may radically change results. I know this is the case when I look at my own hormone data for my research.

If your foundational assumption is false, your conclusions have no foundation.

Unfortunately, a total misrepresentation of female reproductive biology is unsurprising given how they introduce the topic in their paper. To introduce their section on reproduction, they say:

“Women’s reproductive goals are influenced by a universal biological event – the monthly ovulatory cycle” (Durante et al forthcoming, p.5).

The monthly ovulatory cycle is not a universal biological event. It is a phenomenon experienced by non-hormonally-contracepting, non-pregnant, non-lactating adult women in their twenties and thirties who live in environments that don’t have too much energy constraint, and it’s still not a universal in that group. It doesn’t happen for most elite athletes. It doesn’t happen if you are very obese, if you have polycystic ovaries, if you are an adolescent or if you are a more mature woman. Modern women may have as many as 400 menstrual cycles in their lifetime compared to the estimated 50 of our ancestors, but nowhere near all of them are ovulatory.

Yet this study, along with most studies that try to provide an adaptive explanation for behaviors across the menstrual cycle, requires this assumption in order to move forward and analyze their results. The language of the paper frames the differences they found as being between periods of ovulation versus low fertility, discusses the ovulatory cycle despite not measuring ovulation, and therefore requires that you assume not only that it is normal to have ovulatory cycles, but that all the women of this sample are having ovulatory cycles.

The criteria of simply recruiting women with 25-35 day cycles means you have no way of knowing if your participants ovulated, what their hormone concentrations are, what a normal cycle looks like to them, or even if they had gotten pregnant that cycle.

I do not understand how it is okay to publish papers that are predicated on an assumption about ovulation and hormone concentrations, but not measure ovulation or hormones.

Test your hypothesis, my friend.*

There are two other problems with the ways Durante et al conceived this study. First, in their sample single women were younger, poorer, and had fewer children than women in committed relationships (and remember, they had somewhat loose definitions for both). Age, parent status and socioeconomic status all play roles in political preferences. When you have multiple differences between two groups, but you want to see if only one of those differences is meaningful (in this case, relationship status) there are very easy ways to control for those variables statistically.

Durante et al didn’t do this. So the differences found between the two groups could really be about income or age or being a mom, not relationship status. They didn’t actually test their hypothesis.

Finally, beliefs change over time for many people. But do they change for women over the course of a month, over and over again? And what about pregnant or lactating women? Can they even be trusted to do any important or interesting human behavior with their lack of a menstrual cycle? Or dear god, what about the adolescents? Their cycles are all over the place! It must be because we can’t predict their cycles that they don’t have the right to vote! And don’t even get me started about those postmenopausal grannies with hardly two molecules of estrogen to rub together.

This idea of cyclical political preferences is as ridiculous to me as asking if American men’s religious or political beliefs change every twenty four hours with their very dramatic diurnal pattern of testosterone (which is again, dramatic only if you live in circumstances of low energetic constraint). Just as it was once argued that women should not be world leaders in case they make rash decisions in their premenstrual phase, perhaps the morning glory should be a reason to prohibit male politicians from making policy decisions early in the morning.

An article that relies more on rhetoric and storytelling than evidence, that requires assumptions about human physiology that are patently false, that ignores intra-group differences that better explain their findings than the differences they have decided are important? No big deal, we’re writing this article totes for funzies because it’s presidential election time!


Well, except that the article was accepted for publication in Psychological Science.

I’m voting for Obama, menstrual cycle phase be darned.

*See what I did there?


Durante KM, Arsena AR, and Griskevicius V. forthcoming. The fluctuating female vote: politics, religion, and the ovulatory cycle. Psychological Science.

Wilcox AJ, Dunson DB, Weinberg CR, Trussell J, and Baird DD. 2001. Likelihood of conception with a single act of intercourse: providing benchmark rates for assessment of post-coital contraceptives. Contraception 63(4):211-215.

ETA 10/26, ~5pm EST: I very lightly edited this after noticing some awkward sentence constructions. I took care to not alter the meaning or content.

Personal Agency, My Arse: Policy, Not Agency, Needed to Improve Outcomes for Academic Parents

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting interview with Professors Kelly Ward (Washington State University) and Lisa Wolf-Wendel (University of Kansas) the authors of the new book Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. The whole thing is worth a read, including important points about how liberal arts colleges tend to be less family-friendly than research institutions because of their teaching loads and high expectations for campus involvement. I was glad to see research institutions were often places where structures and policies were in place to support families, and that those who work at community colleges tend to be the most satisfied.

But there is still a long way for all campuses to go, including my own.

Something that troubles me in the academic job rhetoric is how much personal agency matters to success: are you advocating for yourself, are you finding your own mentors, are you contesting a manuscript rejection, are you getting yourself invited for talks, are you negotiating properly for start-up? And in general, the mentoring I have received as a tenure-track professor has been framed as though it’s simply up to me to argue hard for myself and get everything I need. This doesn’t help me navigate identify-specific issues like gendered or racial discrimination, or family duties. This kind of advice ignores the other side of the agency coin, and that’s institution.

This is why I was thrilled to see this portion of the Ward and Wolf-Wendel interview:

Q: What are your top recommendations to institutions that want to be more supportive of academic parents?

“A: Greater transparency! The biggest thing campuses need to do is not just have policies, but to, more importantly, let people know they can use the policies. We refer to this as a “culture of use.” Campuses need to make faculty aware of policies and let faculty know they can use those policies without fear of professional or personal retribution. This requires a cultural shift on behalf of all members of the campus, not just the faculty in need of the policy. Policies have to be known, easy to find, and useable.


“Move away from “making deals” — equitable policy environments grant all faculty access to policies. Success at navigating work and family should not just be a matter of personal agency.”

Agency only gets you halfway to resolving a social problem (like support of families, racial inequality, etc). The other half has to be institution, by which I mean culture – like Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s point about creating a “culture of use” – and policy – like parental leave that understands a parent’s need for more time in order to achieve at work when, for instance, there is a squalling newborn at home (not to mention potential health issues, recovery from childbirth, and other kinds of fun).

Universities need to stop allowing different departments to regulate their own minimums for parental leave and family support, hoping department heads will remember to throw in the occasional stopped clock or semester off from teaching for new parents (oh, the horror stories I have heard), and set a progressive standard. This will have a positive effect not only on faculty with families, but those without: the more support parents have, the less the burden of academic service will get put on those without children.

(The title of this post brought to you by what seemed at the time like a breathlessly funny Twitter conversation between me, Ed Yong, Scicurious, Martin Robbins, and others. Martin was kind enough to provide us Yanks with the proper pronunciation of arse, which turns out to sound nothing like what a pirate would say.)

Under the Influence: Naomi Wolf, Biology, and Why We Are More Than Our Vaginas

A women's symbol with a fist inside, a classic feminist symbol.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Readers of this blog are likely already aware of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography. I’m late to the party, because it just seemed wrong to pile on a feminist more senior to me who, though misguided, is at least working towards equality for women. But the more I read, the harder it has been to stay out of things. So it is with my particular anthropological lens that I bring you my three problems with Wolf’s perspective, and the one thing that is kinda okay.

Problem 1: Universalizing one woman’s experience

The epiphany that partially led to Wolf writing this book came from a spinal surgery that restored her vaginal orgasms and, as Zoe Heller quotes in her review, Wolf’s renewed “sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything alive.” Yet the idea that vaginal orgasms are more spiritual, higher quality, or even categorically different from clitoral orgasms is easily contested. As a feminist raised on Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” and as an anthropologist who has read and taught extensively on the adaptiveness (or not) of female orgasm, I found myself extremely disappointed in Wolf’s interpretation of her experience, and how she took her white, straight, privileged core values and assumed they must be the same for all women.

Not all women have the same orgasms. Not all women get their rocks off from the same things. Not all women like men, or vaginal penetration, or any sex whatsoever. Not all women can have sex or orgasms due to injury. An extension of Wolf’s idea that this profound vagina-brain connection make us more spiritual would be that those who cannot or choose not to have orgasms for various reasons, or those who identify as asexual, are less spiritual and less in touch with, as she states in her introduction, their “female consciousness.”

At the same time it seems as though we are doubling down on princess gear and the color pink, I have a lot more friends, colleagues and students who are exploring what it means to be fully themselves. And being fully themselves means so much more than holding the same beliefs and sexual practices and preferences as Naomi Wolf.

And so it is sad, so very sad, to see a feminist try to reaffirm that being a woman carries a very specific set of conditions.

Problem 2: Alternately reducing women to animals and putting them on pedestals

The trouble with Wolf making the vagina-brain connection into one that is spiritually profound and integral to the experience of being female, is that she ends up clumsily alternating between two claims: women are animals driven by our biology, and are a manifestation of the Divine Feminine.

As Maia Szalavitz points out in her piece for TIME:

Wolf includes a similar oversimplification in her discussion of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which is best known for its involvement in facilitating bonding between lovers and between parents and children. Wolf calls oxytocin “women’s emotional superpower” and, citing research in prairie voles, concludes that it makes women more likely to become emotionally connected with their sexual partners than men are.

But Young says there’s no data on gender differences in oxytocin in humans. “Based on what we know from animals, it is likely that when women have sex that they are going to experience more of an oxytocin release than men,” he says, adding, “We don’t know.”

Wolf then jumps from this conjecture to the notion that women’s intense oxytocin release makes them more likely to become literally addicted to sex: “Good sex is, in other words, actually addictive for women biochemically in certain ways that are different from the experience of men — meaning that one experiences discomfort when this stimulus is removed and a craving to secure it again.”

So, despite the evidence, Wolf makes the claim that women get more addicted to the hit of oxytocin (already massively problematic, as Ed Yong will tell you) than men. Yet she also says stuff like this:

“To understand the vaginal properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul….

“[T]he vagina’s experiences… can contribute to a woman’s sense of the joyful interconnectedness of the material and spiritual world….. They can help her experience a state of transcendental mysticism….” (Wolf, pages 4-5)

I hardly need to unpack these sentences for you. I am glad for the women out there who get some extra transcendental mysticism out of using their vaginas. But I am troubled by the way Wolf’s interpretation of the vulgar and spiritual vagina so closely matches the way we’ve been culturally conditioned to view women as, you guessed it, alternately animals and goddesses.

It’s Feminism 101 to notice and disrupt, rather than reinforce, these stereotypes.

Problem 3: Situating women as passive recipients of whatever their environment or biology slings at them

In my own research, I have become interested in the ways we inadvertently situate our research participants as passive reactors to our environment. It’s hard to escape this language: human biologists want to know what produces variation in the body, and so we can frame things as though factors in the environment unidirectionally influence, impact or affect variables like one’s hormones, reproductive success, or mood. Sometimes it’s an inadvertent shorthand. Notice I am very careful not to say this is a universal, and it’s increasingly less common in the research literature. But you still see it in the popular literature.

Humans are so much more than vessels shaped by our environment. We shape our environment, too. We react to it. Sometimes we choose it. Sometimes we make the best of what we have.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that women and people of color have been the research participants more likely to be seen as ravaged by their environments. Racism, discrimination, patriarchy and male sexual strategies are stressors that can become embodied. There are several important scholars, primatologists mostly, who have demonstrated the ways that female sexual strategies can operate against or subvert those of males’ (e.g., Becky Stumpf, Barb Smuts, Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). But the language around discrimination and racism, when it comes to their health effects, still often shows oppression as something that just happens to people of color.

In the last several years, scholars who study resilience, social support, race, health, ethnic identification and related fields have pushed against this (e.g., Carla Hunter, Edna Viruell-Fuentes, Arline Geronimus, Adriana Umaña-Taylor). This research has shown that people react to the environment differently, that they can corral resources, buffer themselves, and that different groups of people have different adaptive responses to the same conditions. And I think those who write on this do so beautifully: they don’t create an anyone-can-pull-themselves-up narrative that ignores the way that institutions constrain individual agency. But they do acknowledge the push and pull between the two.

This kind of nuance is sorely missing from what I’ve read of Wolf’s book and blog post.

Kinda okay thing 1: More people saying “vagina” without giggling

I am glad lots of people are talking about vaginas now (and not “vajayjays,” and not “down there”). Many of my meetings at work and lectures in the classroom have a liberal sprinkling of the word and its variations – in a recent meeting with collaborators who work on the vaginal microbiome, the word “vaginal” became a noun to refer to vaginal samples:

“Have you got the vaginals?”

“Have you extracted the vaginals?”

“How many owl monkey vaginals do we have?”

And there was no giggling at the term. (Okay, I may have smiled inwardly at the last one, I mean COME ON). Not because we are humorless ladies, as there was laughter at other points in our meeting. But because it was just another word to describe the awesome science that was being done.

And perhaps that is the biggest letdown from Wolf’s book. There is so much awesome science on the vagina, so much more to be done, that Wolf could only have gone out of her way to avoid it to come up with the problematic storytelling that resulted.


(I wrote this post because I asked the internets what I should blog about, and this is what David Dobbs requested (he has already written on the topic himself, here and here). And I can’t say no to the author of My Mother’s Lover.)

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