Sexist Bigotry Makes People Dismiss Girls’ Pain

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About once a month I have the dubious honor of feeling my uterus contract in an effort to rid itself of its lining because I have once again shirked my biological imperative in order to spend all my money on a nice apartment and drugs and my dog instead of a crying, shitting human baby. During that time I will inevitably wonder what a man who has never felt that pain would do if suddenly he swapped bodies with me, and it honestly cheers me up a little bit to imagine someone just being completely baffled at how I not only put up with this every month but how I continue to work through it without complaining. I mean, except for now. I’m complaining now, obviously. Having a uterus when you have no real need of it fucking sucks, y’all.

Of course, I’ll never know the pain of getting kicked in the balls, but that doesn’t tend to happen on a monthly schedule. And if it does, you should definitely find new friends to hang out with.

Pain is subjective, so it can be really hard to tell how much pain a person is in. I mean, it’s 2019 and medical professionals are still stuck using a chart of cartoon faces (for kids, at least). And the bad news is that research shows us that we might be bad at telling how much pain another person is in simply because of their gender.

Psychologists at Oxford have just published a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology showing that people tended to think that a child was in less pain when they were told the child is a girl.

This was actually a replication of a previous study done in 2014 (which, as an aside, almost made me not make this video but then I figured fuck it, I didn’t talk about the 2014 study and I’m all about replication, so let’s do it). In both studies, psychologists showed subjects a video of a 5-year old child getting their finger pricked at a doctor’s office. All subjects saw the exact same video, but half of them were told the child’s name was “Samuel” and the other half were told her name was “Samantha.” They were then asked to judge how much pain the kid was in, and the ones who thought the child was a boy thought he was in much more pain than those who thought she was a girl.

Ah, using different pronouns in the same sentence to accurately describe the same child. Somewhere a TERF is crying.

This result was the same as the researchers found in the previous study, but this one had a larger, more diverse group of subjects.

So why would this be? My first guess was that we, as a society, expect boys to be stoic, so when they do express pain we take it more seriously. At the same time, we expect girls to be emotional wimps, and so when they express pain we ignore it as an overreaction.

And it turns out, my guess is probably correct, and we know that because the researchers in this latest study actually thought to control for that kind of sexist thinking. When they controlled for “explicit gender stereotypes” like “boys are more stoic” and “girls are more emotive,” the difference in perceived pain disappeared.

You could argue that due to the influence of society’s gender stereotypes, adult men may actually be more stoic, and adult women may actually be more emotive, but this study was on a 5-year old child. At the very least, we can take from this that parents, teachers, medical professionals, and others need to be more aware that their internal biases might prevent them from accurately understanding a child’s pain simply because of what gender they perceive them to be.

Maybe after some more research on adults, or possibly a “Freaky Friday”-like body swapping incident, I can have someone else confirm for me that despite my gender’s stereotype, women can be stoic as fuck.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Can we discuss how this doubly hurts black women? To the point where SERENA FUCKING WILLIAMS almost died in childbirth because her doctors didn’t believe her about her own body?
    To the point where black mothers have a tragic mortality rate during childbirth, and there was that study that black people are given fewer painkillers by EMTs

    1. In fact, in the 19th century, there was a whole “they don’t feel pain” meme as part of the larger “racial differences in brains” memeplex. Yeah, it’s fucking horrible, so of course the 19th century had it.

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