Friday, August 28, 2009

"Treasure or target?" Quiz

Feministe blog has the review of an abstinence-only curriculum that includes a quiz called "are you a treasure or a target?" They have 6 questions that are interesting situations. For instance, one question asks what to wear now that micro minis are fashionable: a micro mini, cargo shorts, or a skirt a few inches above the knee. And they label the options in that order of preference, which seems pretty arbitrary to me.

Social scientists conduct large long time frame studies to find the optimal answers, so I can't say that I know what the "right" answer is to any of these questions. Amusing to think about conducting a study where some women are randomized to wear different clothing styles to see what the outcome is. Actually that would be a fantastic trial. Five conditions:

1. Covering everything except hands and feet, though maybe not hair?, a la Little Mosque on the Prairie character Rayyan Hamoudi whose style is so admired there are blogs that try to figure out where to find her clothes.

2. Covering knee to elbow, more or less, a la Mayim Biyalik or the Hot Chani style. As far as I can tell, this is roughly the Mormon guidelines as well as the guidelines for those who consider themselves to practice "Authentic Judaism".

3. Regular tomboy style: jeans, cargo shorts, loose t-shirt.

4. Mainstream Evangelical Christian style, so a bit more conservative than normal: no cleavage, no midriff, small number of inches above knee.

5. Standard US fashion style. Whatever is featured by H&M, Zara, etc.

I'd love to see the experiment that would randomize people to different styles to see whether they acted in a way that fit their clothing. Separately, I wonder if you randomized people to dress straight out like a member of a religion (e.g., non-Muslims actually wearing a hijab or non-Mormons actually wearing the secret undergarment), some people would end converting to the religion. Such an experiment would answer a really fundamental question in social science about to what extent behavior is determined by internal cues or social cues. It would also be enormously un-PC.

But that's neither here nor there. Quizzes are arbitrary and we have no way of knowing what the "right" answer in these circumstances.

The general idea of choosing dates who are interested in long-term relationships seems like a valid concern, as shown by Bogle's Hooking Up book and Laura Sessions Stepp's book that late adolescent women who choose dates without knowing (or in denial of) their dates' relationship objectives often end up disappointed and frustrated by a lack of long-term relationships.

Of course asking about claimed objectives isn't enough. I went on a date with a gentleman who professed serious interest in a long-term relationship and eventually marriage, and he seemed considerate and sensitive. On our third date, I asked him about his sexual history (one of the privileges of my profession). He told me that in addition to his 5 relationships that lasted more than a year (in some cases much longer), he had gone out on 3-5 dates with 20-35 women whom he had sex with and he stressed earnestly that at the time he had sex with them he had intended to go out with them again. He trailed off.

I have no idea what gives him only a 12.5-20.0% chance of deciding to initiate a year-long relationship with a woman he has sex with, and perhaps he doesn't either. Going purely on the statistics, this guy seems like an unlikely bet, which honestly didn't surprise me: something about him had led me to keep my distance. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I'm guessing this is what the quiz is trying to get women to be aware of, and that seems reasonable also from a third wave feminist perspective: knowing the prior probabilities can't hurt; if a woman doesn't care for a long-term relationship and just wants a sexual relationship, that's her choice as well.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review of You're Teaching My Child WHAT?

Dr. Miriam Grossman, formerly Anonymous MD, has written another book, entitled You're Teaching My Child WHAT? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child. My thoughts about this book are almost identical to my review of her earlier book, perhaps because the books have nearly identical tone and content. As I stated in that review, "This evident alarmism --- PC is so insidious that the author must remain anonymous or risk Birkenstocks being thrown through her front windows --- that pervades the book may cause parents and aggrieved social conservatives to pick up the book, but it does no good for Dr. Anonymous's arguments and alienates people who might otherwise agree with her." As in her previous book, Dr. Grossman makes valid points in the most invalid ways, alleging cover-ups and duplicity and a single radical academic agenda when none exists.

I have three responses specific to this book.

First, Dr. Grossman refers multiple times to a controversy between parents and experts, for instance saying "The `experts' are wrong, and parents are right." presuming parents are opposed to the allegedly radical agenda of comprehensive sex education. In fact, nearly all parents, even very conservative parents, favor school sex education that teaches birth control: 89% of all parents, more than 80% of Born Again Christian parents, and 51% of parents who call themselves politically very conservative.

Second, Dr. Grossman identifies herself in this book as an Orthodox Jew. I find it strange that she spends an entire chapter lambasting the sex education advocacy group SIECUS for encouraging sexual experimentation rather than abstinence when the only sex education curriculum developed by Orthodox Jewish institutions is based on SIECUS guidelines (Life Values and Intimacy Education sponsored by Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future, published by KTAV, all institutions considered arbiters of "Authentic Judaism"). She does not try to reconcile this discrepancy, I suspect because that would blur the simple dichotomy she is trying to create between religion/parents/tradition (=good) and academia/sex education advocates/SIECUS (=bad).

Third, her chapters on homosexuality and gender identity, the latter entitled "Genderland", are problematic in ways beyond the scope of this review. She cites some legitimate research such as Lisa Diamond's fantastic 10 year longitudinal qualitative study of lesbian and bisexual women published in the 2008 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. Diamond found that nearly all of her women subjects' sexual orientations seemed to change spontaneously. Grossman uses spontaneous sexual orientation change among women to bolster the case for attempting to induce changes in sexual orientation among both men and women. Besides the spontaneous vs. attempted induced changes difference, Diamond looked only at women. Grossman lists many differences between men and women in the realm of sexuality earlier in her book, all of which would imply that a study of women's sexual orientations has no relevance to men's sexual orientations. Of course mentioning NARTH is a total non-starter.

This book does make some valid points and could be readable if all the alarmist bits were pulled out and the rest toned down. As I stated in my review of her previous book, I don't think that her points are repressed at the level of academic research, but as in many areas perhaps research simply is not adequately disseminated: this certainly wouldn't be the first area where quality of health care suffered because practitioners followed their intuitions instead of evidence-based guidelines or the evidence was never disseminated in the first place.

Cutting out the alarmism would make the book about 20% shorter but would give it a chance of being looked at by those she critiques. It seems like she's not interested in dialogue, just in fomenting alarm among the alarmed. Too bad. It could have been otherwise. She wrote this book while a recipient of a Clara Booth Luce fellowship, a fund that has funded moderate research by journalist Laura Sessions Stepp, also an affiliate of the moderate group National Campaign Against Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

What a wasted opportunity for dialogue.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is the Pill worth it?

Birth control pills are the default contraception method to such an extent that many people use the word "contraceptives" to mean birth control pills to the exclusion of all other methods, not realizing that diaphragms, condoms, sponges, IUDs, and withdrawal, among others, also count as contraceptives.

Birth control pills come with a raft of side-effects including weight gain, depression, and potentially fatal blood clots (such as deep vein thrombosis and strokes), but their popularity seems to improve their perceived safety. A new book looks at the risks of birth control pills, given the big and small health risks of them.

Of course this view is not new at all. The Boston Women's Health Collective famously recommended in Our Bodies Ourselves using barrier methods only: you know exactly what they're doing and their effects end once you remove them from the body. The ultimate transparency. Plus they prevent STDs.

Unfortunately barrier methods besides condoms are rarely used: diaphragms are used by less than 1% of contracepting women and the only company making the cervical cap discontinued it due to lack of demand.

Perhaps this book will convince some of its readers into looking into barrier methods instead. Plus condom plus diaphragm is at least as effective as the pill in typical use. (Here's the math: effectiveness of each alone is 80% in typical use, so effectiveness of both together is 96% (1-(1-.8)^2=.96), which is better than the 94% typical use effectiveness of the pill cited in the article.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Health communication in action

One of the standard anti-tobacco initiatives is to have graphic pictures and statements on cigarette packages to warn consumers. This dialogue shows one effect of the warnings.

Supermarket | London, UK

Me: “Can I help you, sir?”

Customer: “A packet of 20 Marlboro Lights, please.”

(I hand him the cigarettes.)

Customer: “Wait, I don’t want these ones.

Me: “Why? They’re Marlboro Lights. Did you change your mind?”

Customer: “No, I don’t want ones with this health warning about cigarettes causing impotency.”

Me: “Ok. Do you want ’smoking harms those around you,’ or ’smoking causes testicular cancer?’”

Customer: “Give me the ‘harms others’ ones.”

I'm not sure if that dialogue implies that the messages work or not.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bar mitzvahs as the Jewish Rainbow Party?

Brandeis sociologist Shulamit Reinharz writes in 614 magazine, the magazine of the Brandeis women's research institute, that Jewish girls are giving oral sex as a bar mitzvah present, a topic people have been speculating about since at least 2005 (for instance, this 2005 David Brooks column is skeptical of what sound like old rumors even then.) Without better substantiation than the vague assertion from an unnamed Brandeis student that oral sex at bar mitzvahs is "common", it sounds like another rainbow party urban myth.

As head of a research institute, I'm surprised Professor Reinharz couldn't spare even a work study undergrad to investigate whether this claim has any basis whatsoever before raising alarms about it, much less publishing it under the name of an institution that might be considered an authority on "Authentic Judaism."

Early marriage reactions

Dallas TV news story giving reactions to early marriage idea, especially concern that they are pushing women away from education and towards early motherhood. Orthodox Jews have been promoting early marriage for a long time, and anecdotally I know that plenty of Orthodox Jewish women who marry young do go to medical school or other career pursuits they were planning on anyhow. It would be an interesting study to see whether marriage deters any from as extensive a career. My anecdotal impression is that married women get degrees from impressive schools but may be less likely or less interested in reaching the tiptop of their careers. So they will become a psychiatrist or internist or pediatrician with an MD from a top school, but may not become a neurosurgeon or med school professor.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sociologist suggests lowering age of marriage

Mark Regnerus, one of the world experts on the sexual behavior of Evangelical Christians, wrote a long article in Christianity Today that states a few important facts.

1. Evangelicals are only slightly more sexually conservative than other Americans: about 80% have premarital sex by his estimate, and other estimates have higher numbers.

2. On average, like most Americans, Evangelicals have increased their average age at first marriage by 5 years, which goes along with a change in the view of marriage. As Regnerus puts it, "Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed."

3. Women who want to get married have trouble finding men because 60% of evangelical young people are female: 3 women for 2 men.

My addition: recent research from Journal of Evolutionary Psychology indicates that a favorable male:female ratio alone may cause men to dally in making commitment to marriage, as is predictable.

The implications of these facts are not straight-forward because there's little good research on the subject of age of marriage, so conclusions are necessarily speculative. His conclusion is that people should get married earlier. My conclusions are that marriage age among evangelicals will probably stay high until there is an equal gender ratio, but there's unlikely to be an equal gender ratio because across societies women are in general more interested in religion than men, so pronouncements about what should happen aren't useful.

Just stating these facts may help to reframe the abstinence discussion.