More on Gender and Pain.


I’ve been having a spirited back and forth with a reader named Lex via e-mail on my post about gender socialization and pain from a few weeks back.

Lex writes:

1. “If our physicalities are so elemental and inextricable to our identities … then most of us are not even experiencing the same corporeal world.” Which would mean that people are experiencing different levels of pain in response to the same stimulus based on something other than their physiology. While you could make arguments about how perception, relating to identity, actually does have subtle influences on the physiology of pain (ie endorphins), this mechanism is not affected by any of the social categories you name. You also use the word “elemental” which doesn’t actually mean anything specific except to invoke references to supernatural explanations for personality traits. And you utimately conclude it’s reality itself, the stimulus, that is different and not just the perception of that stimulus.

2. “there’s a huge social component to certain … sensations.” But I think I might have misunderstood what you meant by that. I suppose a sensation *is* a percpeption of a stimulus and certainly is affected by socialization.

3. “The arrogance/condescencion in that statement is twofold: it presumes not only that my friends can’t handle physical pain because they’re women…”
I see no reason for this to be considered genderized… maybe YOU genderize it and give you male workout partners a break while picking on your female workout partners. But anyone who doesn’t work out a lot goes through this learning experience and the people that decide to push on through the burn do so only with some kind of encouragement. If I miss my workout or try to leave early my buddies at work call me… a lot of different things that we don’t tell HR about. It’s fairly effective. There are a variety of reasons this approach may not be effective on the average woman that are well worth discussing but they don’t have anything to do with pain.

4. “…but also that my very genderized notion of pain is the only way of understanding and experiencing it.” There is only one way of experiencing pain. It cannot be genderized. The neural pathways for pain are very primitive and the same in both genders. Perhaps you meant your genderized way of understanding and experiencing strenous athletic performance? There certainly are plenty of examples of female atheletes (we have some badass female powerlifters and cross trainers in Seattle, Including an Olympic Gold medalist lifter) though but many of them started sports at a young age and say within female athlete subcultures

Largely based on those 4 statements I interpreted much of the rest of the article to mean that men and women actually do experience pain differently. You did literally say that there was a male way  of “experiencing it(pain)”. I was kind of confused why you gave examples that conflicted with  without addressing that conflict.

Lex seems to be misunderstanding what I was saying while reiterating it at the same time. I do think men and women experience pain differently, but not on some neurological/chemical level. (I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case, though.)

I think the perception of pain is deeply socialized, and influenced by things like gender and culture and any number of subjectivities, even if our biological responses are more or less identical. The threshold of human hearing, for example, occupies the same general range for most hearing people — roughly 16 Hz and 16,384 Hz. That doesn’t mean that we’d necessarily agree on what constituted “loudness.” What determines how we perceive the same sound is informed in large part by what came before it.

In arguing that subjective experience is elemental (which s/he took meant some crunchy, hippie-dippie stuff but by which I meant only “basic”), I  was suggesting  that even the simplest things we take for granted about the way we experience the world should not be assumed to be true for everyone, and that empathy means recognizing why that isn’t just a straight transposition — i.e., “just like me but white/just like me but with breasts.”



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • quadmoniker

    Lex’s ideas about how the brain responds to stimuli are, according to Atul Gawande, old and probably wrong.

    I wouldn’t read “The Itch” from the June 30, 2008 issue of the New Yorker unless you want to scratch all day, but he basically refutes the idea of perception as mere reception through the research scientists are doing now.

    The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.

    It seems to me that socialization would have a lot of room to play in the inferences the brain is making. It at least suggests that these hard and fast neural pathways don’t exist separate from who we are.