Martie Haselton in Edge:
I’m asking myself about double standards a lot lately, in public life and also in science. I’m particularly concerned about double standards in science whereby women’s issues are viewed differently than men’s. We’ve lagged behind in important ways because there is a concern that if we have a biological explanation for women’s behavior, it will smash women up against the glass ceiling, whereas a biological explanation for men’s behavior doesn’t do such a thing. So, we’ve been freer in biomedical science to explore questions about the biological foundations of men’s behavior and less free to explore those questions about women’s behavior. That’s a problem that manifests itself in the lag behind what we understand about men and what we understand about women.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Men have their bedroom troubles that have been solved, by and large, by pharmaceutical companies, whereas women’s have not. Women’s desires may very well be more complicated than, say, solving a mechanical problem for men, but we just don’t know much. And the options we do have, by way of pharmaceutical interventions, are terrible and nobody wants to use them.
For men, Viagra solved a lot of their bedroom troubles. Woman have something called Flibanserin—a very sexy name. Men can take Viagra within an hour of wanting to have sex, and that will help with erectile dysfunction, whereas Flibanserin, which is supposed to solve some of the problems of women’s sexual desire or lack thereof, has to be taken every day. It makes them lightheaded and prone to passing out, and they can’t drink alcohol when they’re taking it. There’s a real inequality there.
There are a couple of factors to think about here. One involves the bias against understanding the biological factors that underlie women’s behavior because of a sexual double standard, and I can elaborate on that. Another is that males, across animal species, have been viewed as the default and, therefore, the thinking is that if you understand males, you understand females. Even at the cellular level that is not the case. The NIH has now started to recognize that. It is a requirement that clinical trials involve equal numbers of males and females unless there are really good reasons for why a researcher would want to study males to the exclusion of females or females to the exclusion of males.