Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Benevolent sexism (part 1) OR why no one will give me the good drugs

Today, for the first time in my life, a doctor refused to write me a prescription for a medication I actually needed.

It was an interesting decision on her part, one I agreed with actually, but it fit in to some thoughts I've been having lately quite well, so I'm sharing it here.

I mentioned yesterday that I took a nasty tumble down the stairs, and it appears that I've severely bruised my tail bone and have some muscle spasms going on to boot.  I went in to the doctor today to verify that nothing was broken and to see if there was anything I should be doing.  I knew going in to this that any medication options would be limited (I'm an absolute lightweight when it comes to pain meds so I decline most of them anyway, and I'm still nursing to boot).  All was going as expected until she got to the part about the muscle spasms.  At that point she told me that normally she'd write me a prescription for muscle relaxers but she "felt uncomfortable giving them to a new mom".

Now let me be clear:  I agreed with her reasoning.  She knew that I would be holding a small child quite a bit (true), and that I was likely doing a lot of the night time feeding (also true) and that I was unlikely to surrender this duty (once again, true).  Thus, she felt it likely that I would (intentionally or not) end up using the drugs improperly by taking them and then at some point in the next 8 hours holding my child.  Thus, she refused to write me the script.

Now again: she did the right thing.  She was not accusatory, but merely realistic, I told her I understood completely, and we agreed on a different plan that involved ibuprofen and lots of ice.  This is not my regular doctor (she was on vacation) but I thought she did an excellent job of tailoring her medical knowledge around my current life circumstances.  

I bring this up because in the past few months 3 different people have sent me research studies (or commentaries on research studies) around the issue of "benevolent sexism".   Benevolent sexism is the basic concept of sexism that comes in a "positive" form.  I put positive in quotation marks because some would argue that this is a negative disguised as a positive, and others argue that positive is, well, actually positive.

The complicating factors for this research are twofold.  First, almost all of those doing the research are part of the gender studies crowd and believe benevolent sexism is a bad thing.  Second, recent studies suggest it makes people happier.  

I think this is one of those areas of research where definitions are absolutely crucial.  In reading over various articles that study it, I've found definitions that range from the benign (men opening doors and paying for dinner) to the more substantial (refusing to promote women because you assume they would prefer more time with their kids or giving men raises over women because men need to provide for a family).

I've read dozens of these studies in the last couple weeks, and as I drove away today, I was pondering how some of these researchers would have viewed my interaction with my doctor.  What would she have said to my husband if he were in the same circumstance?  Would her actions have been coded as paternalistic or realistic?  Would the conclusions have said she was judging me or assessing me?  I know how I would answer these questions, but it was an interesting thought experiment.  

I'm going to put up a few specific examples in the coming days (this post is getting too long as it is) so if you have any thoughts/studies/etc you would like to see included or addressed, leave it in the comments.


  1. It will be easier to find examples at the age extremes - people treating children or elderly people of different sexes in ways that might seem patronising. Some of these might actually make the juniors or seniors happier and improve the quality of their lives in measurable ways.

    It's got a lot of slippery slope to it though, doesn't it?

    1. Yes indeed.

      I'm not going to do much commenting on if it's good or bad (that's a bit beyond my scope) but some of the questions I've gotten are around how to even understand what these studies are saying, so I'm gonna give it a whirl.