Saturday, October 30, 2010

How sexism gave men a "woman's disease"

There is a slogan that pops up in feminist discourse from time to time: sexism hurts men too. And while I don’t know that it’s an argument most men find so persuasive they then choose to abandon the patriarchy, I couldn’t help but think of the refrain while reading the discussion in the comments section to this post by Cort Johnson. In his post, Johnson details the connection between disorders predominately/exclusively affecting women and the remarkable chance it’s a disorder at the bottom of the NIH research funding barrel -- ME/CFS included. A number of men took offense at Johnson labeling their illness a "woman's disease."

Do you realize how demeaning that label is for a male CFS sufferer? People generally operate from their own areas of interest, and don't consider their impact on other people- but frankly, I'd personally rather be thought of as crazy- then as having a women's disease. And it's not because I'm sexist. It's because the label is emasculating.

Now this obvious if likely unintended sexist sentiment aside (i.e. even being crazy is preferable to being a woman!), I do have a great deal of sympathy for the male readers who feel dickless with the label. Frankly, we women aren't too keen on the “woman’s disease” label either, which for a woman (perhaps breast cancer, notwithstanding)* is also like having someone remove the organ that defines us -- in our case, the head on our shoulders rather than the one men carry in their trousers. It’s not just being deemed “crazy” that’s the problem for women. It’s that having a "woman's disease" generally implies we don't have the intellectual capacity to understand something as complex as our own bodies. That only men get to say when something is really wrong and until they do, we're supposed to shut up and let them get on with real medicine.

So when it became clear that the majority of the people with a mysterious, debilitating disorder were women, it was men at the NIH and the CDC who wanted nothing to do with the disease that was so obviously nothing, leaving it to a handful of bureaucrats to research either because they were determined to prove it was a form of psychopathology (Straus, Reeves) or because it was their misfortune to be stuck with the job in order to placate Congress (Heineine, Mahy). It was men who labeled the disease “hysteria” (from the Greek word hystera or “uterus”) -- a term the American Psychiatric Association considered to be so sexist they had dropped it as a psychiatric diagnosis (or rather, renamed it “somatoform disorder”). It was men who described the condition they decided to call “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” to other men with slides of Victorian women, hand to forehead, fainting. It was men at the NIH who moved the disease to the “Office of Research on Women’s Health,” which they knew to be a purgatory of chronic underfunding and dubious science. Sure there have been a couple of women involved here and there (oppressors always have their collaborators from among the oppressed). But it has overwhelmingly been as testosterone-driven a good old boys club as it gets.

If women had been equal members of the process, it would never have been called a “woman’s disease” because “woman’s disease” has too often meant “hysteria,” which in turn has historically been man talk for women being "difficult.” It is not we women who have cut your dick off, gentlemen, by pointing out how those with a "woman's disease" are treated. You can thank your fellow blokes for taking it, along with your other head. We women had our heads taken by the medical establishment a long time ago.

Sexism, as they say, hurts men too. And the 30-40% of ME/CFS patients with a penis rotting away in beds all over the world right now have the grave misfortune of appreciating that this isn’t just a feminist proverb; it’s an all too painful reality.

*While doctors take cancer seriously, the contemporary phenomenon that breast cancer has become is a uniquely peculiar combination of crass capitalism, titillation (what straight man prefers ovaries to boobies?), and reinforced gender roles. However, ask those same breast cancer patients how seriously doctors take them after the cancer is gone and they are left in a semi-ME/CFS-like state from chemotherapy.