Feminism versus bad science

In October, Maria cited this as “bad science” in a link roundup:

Professor Stuart Brody concludes that unprotected heterosexual sex can significantly boost men and women’s mental wellbeing.

Conversely, Mr Brody claims that heterosexual sex with a condom is associated with poorer mental health, problems with dealing with stress and even conditions such as depression.

microscopeA couple of commenters quickly stated that the article hadn’t explained Brody’s methodology enough (and couldn’t be trusted to report accurately) to support the conclusion it was flawed. While I agreed the press might be inaccurate, I took issue with the social context of the question being posed: since condoms reduce sensation for men, it’s hard to imagine any man reporting greater levels of happiness after condom sex, assuming any pregnancy anxieties have been relieved through some other method. I therefore found it hard to interpret the question as anything other than a repeat of the usual: “Is semen actually really healthful for women, wink, nudge?”

Sadly the whole conversation eventually devolved to the point where I was accused of being anti-science. Oh, noes, when have we feminists had that mansplained to us before? Remember girls: science, like religion, must not be questioned by mere females.

Now we do have a bit of clarification on the point of Brody’s study, if not the methodology:

Results. A wide range of better psychological and physiological health indices are associated specifically with penile–vaginal intercourse. Other sexual activities have weaker, no, or (in the cases of masturbation and anal intercourse) inverse associations with health indices. Condom use appears to impair some benefits of penile–vaginal intercourse. Only a few of the research designs allow for causal inferences.

So it’s not just bad news for women who don’t want semen in their vaginas – gays are doomed to a life of less than optimal mental health as well. The paper isn’t available online for free yet, so there’s no way to find out if it relied exclusively on self-reporting (as the Scotsman implied). Self-reporting is tricky enough in the hands of scientists who know how to use it, but even more so when you’re asking people about sex and other topics that tend to inspire lying through one’s teeth:

I have no problem accepting a scientific study that is paradoxical in terms of societal wellbeing. It doesn’t upset me that war helps unite a nation, or that arranged marriages have a much lower divorce rate than those based on love. However, this study rubs me raw on a number of levels.

First of all, mental health is an extremely subjective experience, making it difficult to quantify in a questionnaire. Also, lying about your sex life comes as natural to most guys as lying about your dick size.

Exactly. It’s not just men and sex, though. People lie about sex and happiness quite a bit, in my experience. In fact, we lie to ourselves about these topics. So let’s look at some of Brody’s other studies over the years to get a feel for whether he ever thinks, I dunno, you might want to hook someone up in a lab and actually observe brain and/or hormone activity before you conclude something based on what people say makes them happy.

First, I found this:

“The risk of transmitting HIV through vaginal intercourse is near zero among healthy adults,” medical psychologist Stuart Brody writes in his new book, Sex at Risk: Lifetime Number of Partners, Frequency of Intercourse, and the Low AIDS Risk of Vaginal Intercourse (Transaction Publishers, 1997), which the Wall Street Journal favorably reviewed on page A22 of its December 8 edition.

“I’m not saying that it is impossible for unprotected vaginal intercourse to transmit HIV from a positive to a healthy adult negative partner,” Brody told RA in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles-area home. “Anything’s possible. It’s possible to be struck by lightning. But the two risks share an analogous probability, effectively zero. If healthy, HIV-negative Americans want to worry about unprotected vaginal intercourse, they should worry about the drive over to their encounters. If their partners have never injected drugs or received rectal intercourse or blood therapy, they are more likely to be killed in an automobile accident on the ride over than they are to become HIV-positive.”

*blinks* Huh? I think we’ve stumbled onto Brody’s personal unifying theory: the only kind of sex worth having is unprotected PIV. So let’s see – what kind of data did he use? To support his conclusion that vaginal boinking practically cannot transmit HIV, he’s used “documentation,” self-reporting and… yep, not a mention of anything lab-related. Also:

“Research and experience have shown us that people lie often and for many reasons, and that the content of these lies includes the IV [drug] and anal intercourse risk factors for HIV transmission,” he writes. “Such lying is one of the factors contributing to an inflated estimate of vaginal HIV transmission.”

Did you follow that? When it comes to self-reporting, people are lying when they say things that contradict Brody’s conclusion, but they’re telling the truth when they say things that support his conclusion. I thought the scientific method was usually more rigid than that, but what do I know? Let’s keep going. Next up, this:

people with sexological training were able to deduce a woman’s “history of vaginal orgasm” from her walk about 80 percent of the time.

Forget self-reporting – he’s moved onto third parties placing bets on what the first parties self-reported. The study goes on to claim that women who have orgasms from PIV sex are more “confident” than other women:

The authors say that “confidence might also be related to the relationship(s) that a woman has had, given the finding that specifically penile-vaginal orgasm is associated with indices of better relationship quality.” That study is online (subscription-only), and it was conducted on 30 Portuguese women who “were all undergraduate psychology students, workers in a facility for the mentally retarded, or performing artists” (a follow-up study will no doubt consider the relationship quality of cowgirls, aquarium workers, and rodeo clowns). These women rated their relationships more highly if they experienced penile-vaginal orgasms, but not orgasms from anal, oral, or masturbation. Again no data on whether in those P-V orgasms included vibrator or finger assistance. Do sexologists not get that this is important?

And are men more confident after orgasming in a vagina as opposed to another orifice? No data. In fact, Brody’s research never talks about the benefits of PIV sex for men. It’s all about women and how we would all be much more sane and healthy if we’d let men squirt into our vaginas regularly. From one of the commenters on that article:

I’m an academic, and so I can’t resist doing a little research of my own. This Dr. Brody asshat (can I say that?) has several “studies” about vaginal-penile intercourse under his, uh, belt. To sum up, Dr. Brody has discovered that VPI orgasms indicate that a woman has better “psychological function,” that she has greater finger sensitivity than women who do it for themselves, that VPI helps her lose weight, that skinny women have more VPI, that VPI contributes to heart health, and– hurrah!–you can’t get HIV from VPI. Also, evidently, condom use also means women are emotionally immature.

My favorite journal article title: “Penile-Vaginal Intercourse Is Better: Evidence Trumps Ideology” (2006).

Here’s a set of links that takedown pretty much Brody’s entire body of work by Dr. Petra Boynton:

You may remember Prof Brody from previous research such as:
You can tell whether a woman has vaginal orgasms based on the way she walks

Penis/vagina intercourse is 400% better than any other kind of sex

Condoms are bad for your mental health


And heterosexual sex is superior to any other kind of sexual activity

She details how Brody characteristically fails to detail his methods and adequately defend his conclusions. If you want in-depth scientific criticism, I’m recommending those links.

And check out this little treasure:

“Educators, practitioners, feminists and others who are interested in the goal of elevating women (as opposed to diminishing men), would be supportive of vaginal orgasm as an aspect of women’s psychosexual health,” Prof. Brody wrote in an e-mail.

Translation: “If you bitchez were real feminists who support women, instead of the man-hating man-destroyers we both know you really are, you would love my findings that women need wieners to achieve the sort of orgasms that make you people halfway sane!”

See, it’s not that feminists hate or don’t get science. It’s that our asshat radars are very well-honed, and science is not an asshat-free zone. Unfortunately, my asshat radar operates on an intuitive level and sometimes I struggle to articulate what’s tripped it. It wasn’t just the study or the questionable science, all of which certainly might have been reported inaccurately, as was suggested. It was this quote:

“Evolution is not politically correct, so of the very broad range of potential sexual behaviour, there is actually only one that is consistently associated with better physical and mental health and that is the one sexual behaviour that would be favoured by evolution. That is not accidental.”

It’s never a good sign when someone begins by explaining (crowing?) why he can’t possibly be expected to deliver something politically correct. Even when it’s true, it’s just not the phrasing a quality mind, aware of science’s esteemed place in a biased society, chooses. Then he follows it up with the conclusion there is One True Sex Act To Bind Them All, which (A) suggests he missed the memo where evolutionists figured out that sex isn’t solely about reproduction, so its evolutionary value can’t be reduced to that and (B) strikes me as a bit of a homophobic agenda, especially after reading about how you can only contract AIDS by doing the sort of nasty sex acts those gays get up to.

And on that cynical note, the quote of the day comes from the last-linked article:

Despite the authors’ assertion that women have been “inculcated” to believe vaginal orgasms don’t exist, experts say it’s the opposite: pop culture often depicts women climaxing upon penetration.

“When you read a romance novel, inevitably when it comes to the sex scene, when the guy’s rock-hard python enters her steaming love lava or whatever, she instantaneously orgasms,” said Trina Read, a Calgary-based author and sex coach.

“Steaming love lava” must enter general use immediately if not sooner.

Comments

  1. Mel says

    I think the part that staggers me about that is the assertion that masturbation has an inverse correlation with (mental?) health.

    REALLY? Delightful orgasms with no risk of pregnancy or STIs are BAD for us? I mean, yeah, they don’t have that contact-with-another-human aspect that’s important to most people, but that’s like saying a snack is bad because it isn’t a meal, or a short story is bad because it isn’t a novel.

    Everything about that research looks like a pile of crap. Personally, I’m happier about sex when I don’t have to worry about STIs or pregnancy (and at this point, we use only condoms to prevent pregnancy because the other alternatives are ones that either won’t work for me or that give me yeast infections and destroy my sex drive, which is not good for happiness, either).

  2. Maria says

    I love you. Seriously. I remember being all SIGH IF ONLY I WEREN’T SO BUH??? ABOUT SCIENCE AND COULD DEFEND WHY THIS IS BAD!! when I originally posted that. Now I feel vindicated. :D

  3. says

    He sounds incredibly Freudian. “GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR FEMININITY TODAY! TRY PENIS, AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE.”

    That HIV thing just reminds me of how my grandma thinks you can only get colorectal cancer from doing it up the pooper. SCIENCE WEEPS!

  4. says

    @Mel, I too find it hard to fathom how masturbation could simply be bad for one’s health. What does it harm, exactly? HOW does it cause this harm? How did he determine it wasn’t something else causing that harm?

    @Jha, that was my reaction. ;)

    @The Other Patrick, your scientific method rocks! :D

    @Maria, it was, like, so totally hard for me to write this article, being as my having a vagina makes me, like, no good at abstract reasoning and math and science and stuff.

    @nijireiki, ROFL! This link (the one on the anchor word “treasure”) talks about the Freudianism:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/family-and-relationships/the-elusive-orgasm/article1300640/

    Mr. McKay and other critics have accused the researchers of holding antiquated – and potentially destructive – Freudian views. Freud contended that the clitoral orgasm was adolescent, while the vaginal orgasm was psychologically mature – the one women have with men after reaching puberty.

    “To suggest that a vaginally induced orgasm is somehow superior from a mental-health perspective certainly seems to harken back to the ideas of Freud,” Mr. McKay said.

    The views can be damaging to a woman’s confidence, said Lori Brotto, assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia.

    “By stating that you should be reaching orgasm through vaginal stimulation, it leads to a pathologizing of probably the vast majority of women who don’t reach orgasm in that way. That has clinical implications for diagnosing an orgasm disorder, it has relational implications, it has psychological implications for the woman herself,” said Prof. Brotto, who is also director of the school’s Sexual Health Laboratory.

  5. Patrick says

    “One True Sex Act To Bind Them All”

    I got Dr Pepper into my sinuses on that one.

    Overall, a most excellent guide to how Brody’s science is really quite bad.

  6. meerkat says

    I wonder if there might be a correlation but with the causation going the other way around: people who engage in the kind of sex that can cause pregnancy might be more likely to be people who have the money and support that having a child or other consequences would not be something they couldn’t handle, and therefore likely to be happier and in better health (as opposed to their happiness being caused by the sex itself).

    • Attackfish says

      There’s also my theory that depressed people are less likely to be in a relationship, because a) depression is hell on relationships, and b) does not motivate going out and getting new ones. Plus, I give myself a good time much more often when I’m depressed. It helps cheer me up. And as far as non PVI sex, mow many of those respondents could tell from the questions if they were dealing with a judgmental asshole? That might color my answers, If I were a subject.

  7. Robin says

    Wow, that’s… something.

    I think my random quote-of-the-day generator says it best:

    The best way to compile inaccurate information that no one wants is to make it up.

    - Scott Adams

  8. says

    Meerkat, in past studies, Brody has claimed he accounted for all that sort of thing, but critics point out, he doesn’t detail how he ruled out other factors that could contribute to happiness. So I think your suggestion is very possible. The Daily Loaf link also suggested people having casual encounters without condoms might feel they’re being risky and get a rush from that.

    Robin, there you go! And on that note, I’ve just released a study proving that misogynists are filled with self-loathing and will never know a moment’s happiness in their sad little lives. ;)

  9. says

    Thanks for this great discussion.

    My scientific self weeps in the face of this willful nose-thumbing. Psychological research is tricky business, and the risk of spurious relationships is very high. To then graft shaky psychological pseudo-research onto physiological phenomena is beyond ridiculous. Even if all of the participants in these “studies” were completely truthful and accurate (yeah, right), and even if Brody were rigorous in his methodology for collecting the data (and, btw, don’t you want to see his questionnaires? Don’t you just know they are filled with leading and/or double-barreled questions?), there is no causal mechanism established here, and no testing that could possibly address a causal mechanism.

    So, even ASSUMING all his data is accurate and his measurement device (survey) is flawless, correlation is not causation.

  10. sbg says

    Now I don’t know if I’m fat because I’m not having enough sex or I’m not having enough sex because I’m fat.

    Either way, I’m screwed! (Figuratively.)

  11. amymccabe says

    Didn’t you know women can’t understand science? Our little brains can’t handle it.

    Grrr…

    I recently had a run in with a patron that was problematic and I think part of it was that I was a girl and he needed help with his physical chemistry assignment. It was too much of a jump for him to grasp that this girl knew what thermodynamics, myogoblin and protein folding was.

  12. SunlessNick says

    It’s never a good sign when someone begins by explaining (crowing?) why he can’t possibly be expected to deliver something politically correct.

    It’s funny how those who say “science isn’t politically correct” are invariably trying to make a political point.

  13. Pipenta says

    Where is this clown publishing?

    I’m sure he’s being crucified in peer review, and rightly so.

    And, no, science isn’t necessarily politically correct. Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world and requires a disciplined way of thinking. As Richard Feynman put it, “The first rule of science is to not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Brody is fooling himself most spectacularly. He has an agenda. He’s a buffoon. One runs into these types in every profession, there’s no reason that you can’t have inept asshole scientists. There are places where you can get a degree just for showing up regularly. What I wonder is, who in hell is funding him? Where did he get his degree? Clown School? Who was his advisor? What was their trip? What did he do his doctoral project on anyway? For someone who fails to see the value of playing with yourself, he seems to spend a lot of time playing with himself, if you know what I mean.

  14. Sally says

    ‘Prof’ Brody is what we in Australia know as a ‘merchant banker’ (googling ‘rhyming slang’ will inform you that ‘merchant banker’ translates to ‘wanker’ = ‘one who spends his (and yes the gendered pronoun is deliberate) time masturbating rather than doing anything useful.’

    Seriously, Freud was, IMO, one of the most malevolent ‘thinkers’ who have lived in the last couple of centuries, his views blighting the lives of millions (ironically, one of my other prizes for this title goes to Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who turned ‘propaganda’ into ‘advertising.’)

  15. Naru says

    I studied psychology at honours level for a time, and if I submitted this article as my research thesis…I reckon the markers would have laughed me out of the university before failing me. I read the article, and it’s terrible. They do not describe the methodology properly, make wild claims without good citations and worst of all, they basically state outright that correlation=causation. They obviously didn’t test their questionnaire before sending it out, because many of the questions are unclear about what they’re asking. These are first year level issues! How an academic psychologist able to publish articles like this with a clear conscience, I have no idea.

  16. says

    Naru: These are first year level issues! How an academic psychologist able to publish articles like this with a clear conscience, I have no idea.

    Not to mention, how he gets support from his peers and the academic community in general.

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