Monday, May 24, 2010


My mother was a sexually repressed Catholic with effervescent sexuality bubbling off of her at all times and in everything she expressed. She informed my thoughts about women and she assured me men and women were as different as dogs and cats. She also made it very clear that outside of the marital bed, sex was a sin and terribly destructive for the woman. Sex without marriage condemned any woman to a life of prostitution or worse. Even if I hadn’t already been interested in women for purely hormonal reasons, my mother’s perspective on gender would have been enough to stimulate a lifetime of curiosity.

In The Female Thing, an examination of the state of women in the early 21st Century Laura Kipnis informs us: “Whether men and women are more sexually alike or sexually different remains the fundamental question. The answer? It depends on how you tell the story” (67). That being the case, why has our culture, utilizing legal statute and social constraint, beginning at birth, and at great cost to the individual, constructed a dishonest and asymmetrical view of human sexuality? Why does society work so diligently to separate the expectations and functions of our genders? Why is human sexuality so culturally, socially, and personally freighted as a topic of interest and exploration? Could it be that the distorted social-sexual construct that motivates these questions about gender and sexuality is driven by an attempt to control the reproductive process? Kipnis affirms this: “Women’s power inheres in our bodies, our child bearing capabilities, our female sensuality — all of which terrify men and society” (4). By subverting the power of female sexuality, under threat of violence, males attempt to wrest control away from women regarding the creation their progeny.

Male or female, the measure of a successful life is determined by the progeny we leave behind. In the “Natural Selection in Action” chapter of Essentials of Physical Anthropology, we are given a primal biological definition: “Fitness is simply differential reproductive success” (31). Similarly, in Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, the founding text of Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology, God instructs the believer: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Thus the measure of success, sacred, secular or scientific, is strictly biological: Have you left progeny capable of reproducing? Without progeny, our greatest accomplishments have no enduring value and are soon forgotten.

Who remembers Ogg-the-Neandertal’s life-altering discovery of how to control fire? Who still sings the epic songs of Nogg, the celebrated Homo heidelbergensian? Similarly, who, but our heirs, will recall most of us? The unique works we labored so arduously to accomplish within our own lifetimes will most likely vanish into landfills, dusty attics and second-hand shops, often while we’re still here on Earth. In the midst of this 21st Century Information Age few of us know much about our great grandparents’ lives. Nonetheless, they still live as long as their ‘blood’ courses through our blood, their genetic heritage fills our cells. They were ‘fit,’ and we tell their stories in our biology. If we are ‘fit,’ our offspring will tell our stories in their genes. Matt Ridley explains in the Red Queen, Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, “Life is a Sisyphean race, run ever faster toward a finish line that is merely the start of the next race.” (174). Our progeny are our entry tickets into the next race, the race for the future.

Like Australopithecus before us, and like the cockroach that hides underneath our kitchen sink, we live to procreate. Everything we do is means to further those reproductive efforts. Whether we are crafting complex computer programs or carving out empires in the wilderness, we do this to increase our progeny, and our progeny’s chances of survival. When working in our own self-interest, the goal is simple and obvious no matter how emotionally complicated we make it: find a mate, make a child, do your best to see that it survives. We don’t typically think about it in this way, but even when we are working for someone, or something else, we’re still engaged in furthering procreative efforts, simply not our own. Whether the ‘other’ we are working for is local, national or industrial entity, whether we do so voluntarily or are conscripted, we are furthering their power and authority and thus their procreative efforts. Ridley reminds us, “The connection between sex and power is a long one” (174). Throughout most of history, “[if] a man could grow ten times as rich as his neighbor … he could acquire more wives” (194).

Today we substitute mistresses and serial monogamy for wives, but the game remains the same. The mistress who becomes the wife is usually quick to provide her new mate with offspring. She’s more than a little familiar with the shackles of progeny, and she typically wastes little time in staking her genetic claim to the man she’s wooed away from another woman. That said, her goal is the same as the last wife’s goal: Have children, and do her best to see that her genetic contribution survives to have children of its own. If you’re a man, the math is simple, the more wives you have the more progeny you have; the more women you impregnate, the more progeny you leave for destiny. For women, the situation is both similar and more complex; her procreative efforts are restricted by the number of children she, herself, can bear. The more safety, comfort, and nourishment her mate provides, the more likely her offspring will thrive to procreate in turn.

After the baby is conceived, the man’s work it done. Or is it? Culturalists, especially male culturalists, like to promulgate the idea that motherhood is a special task only females are genetically and instinctively equipped to handle. ‘Men hunt. Women take care of babies. That’s nature’s way.’ The evidence does not support this conclusion. Gestation and lactation are restrictive female capabilities, but that is not to say the role we call ‘mothering’ is a strictly for the girls. Men are more than adequately equipped to provide all the nurturing a baby or child requires, sans breastfeeding. Ironically, in modern American culture, the average new mother breastfeeds for less than six months, and a substantial number never breastfeed at all.

Once the baby exits the vagina, in many cases men could provide exactly everything women provide. “What we now like to call an instinct is a culturally specific development … there’s no reason it can’t be invented differently — or invented in men as well — when social priorities dictate” (73) Kipnis tells us. When we object and claim that these roles are fixed in biological amber, she corrects this common misconception: “Over the course of history, cultures have endlessly vacillated when it comes to describing the differences between the sexes… a male characteristic in one society is a female characteristic in another,” (3). Kipnis continues “it’s no use trying to derive the solution from the body, since the body is forever being creatively reimagined in ways that ratify existing social premises about gender, including premises about whether men and women are more alike or different” (67). We each have our fixed roles in procreation but the so-called nurturing mother’s role is a learned and socially dictated response. In concept Ridley agrees: “In humans, everything about behavior is learned, and nothing inherited.” (174).

That said, a woman who is regularly nursing (for up to four years in a traditional culture) and constantly tending to a small and relatively helpless human being is less likely to ovulate, less likely to copulate on a regular basis, and less likely to start the next cycle of procreation. Her mate, on the other hand, has been capable and ready to sire his next offspring the entire time she’s been gravid, and will continue to be capable of creating new progeny for the entire five-year period (including gestation) she’s been ‘mothering.’

To achieve the goal of fruitfully multiplying, women and men have similar approaches, although slightly different equipment. In The Nature of Sex: Architecture & Design of Man & Woman we are informed that women are endowed with as few as 450 viable eggs to devote to reproduction over the course of their limited reproductive life cycle, whereas men produce millions of sperm every hour. Ideally “men can father a child just about every time they copulate with a different woman, whereas women can bear the child of only one man at a time” (179), Ridley claims.

I would suggest this is an irrelevant comparison. Neither men nor women alone are capable (at this moment in the early 21st Century) of turning their solitary gametes into human offspring. No woman has yet converted more than a small fraction of her 450 eggs into babies (Octomom, notwithstanding). No man in recent history has managed to impregnate millions, or even hundreds of women. The former basketball star Wilt Chamberlin claims to have consensually bedded 20,000 women — perhaps it’s telling that he did not impregnate any of them.

On the other hand Ridley informs us, “the sun-king Atahualpa kept fifteen hundred women in each of many ‘houses of virgins’ throughout his kingdom …. Atahualpa and his nobles had, shall we say, a majority holding in the paternity of the next generation. They systematically dispossessed less privileged men of their genetic share of posterity” (173). Remember Atahualpa next time you’re trudging off to ‘work’ for ‘the man.’ One might think that providing a stud service for that many women would wear a fellow out, that there be a lot of ‘down’ time. Not so says Helen Fisher, PhD, Biological Anthropologist, Research Professor and member of the Center for Human Evolution Studies in the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University. In The Nature of Sex: Science of the Sexes Fisher tells us “men and women are in a permanent state of arousal, it’s the brain that acts as a break.” Apparently the brain break is ineffective. “Human beings of both sexes are interested in sex at all times of the menstrual cycle,” Ridley states, “compared with many animals, we are astonishingly hooked on copulation.”

We learn in The Female Thing that the alleged difference between the genders regarding ‘sexual appetite’ is a recent invention. Previous to the late 18th Century (i.e., the Victorian Era) men and women were presumed to have equivalent voracious sexual appetites and responses, hence the bawdy dames of the Georgian Era and earlier. As the Victorian Era began, with its widely discussed ‘Victorian morality,’ so did questions about female sexual desire (68). This change in expectation arose in response to the recognition of our different anatomies. Previously it was assumed that women, and especially their genitals, were simply inverted forms of the more visible male genitalia, thus women must be like men in these regards. When this was discovered not to be strictly true, social expectations changed as well. If women aren’t the mirrors of men, they must be the opposite. If men sought and desired sex, a good woman must find it abhorrent and avoid it at all costs, hence the well-trodden phrase: “Just lie back and think of England.” While the origins of this phrase are unclear, Wikipedia, and other sources tell us this “was an instruction given to brides and women in general in the Victorian Era regarding how to cope with the sexual demands of their husbands. While childbearing was considered a patriotic duty, women were not supposed to enjoy sexual intercourse.” The origin of the phrase is less important than the cultural expectation it represents. Kipnis explains that this is an on-going phenomena, “New cultural narratives about women and their place in the world invariably get mapped back onto the female body and female genitals” (69). Culture is powerful enough to create shame and guilt, but biology always trumps social expectations. Humans are obsessively sexual animals.

Historically men have tended to operate in the external world while women have operated in the familial world of hearth and home. While the men are away, it’s hard to know where the women play. Whether men are hunter-gathers — well-muscled, half-naked fellows wandering the bush looking for wild beasts to kill and bring home for feasting (and occasionally stumbling onto a tasty bit of ‘strange’ to ravish), or Mad Men of the 1950s — well-dressed guys in expensive suits cutting killer deals to put dinner on the table (and occasionally playing hide the salami with their secretaries and clients), men worry about what their lonely wives are up to back at home. Mostly men wonder if their wives are ‘fiddling about’ with other men. Could these concerns about female infidelity, concerns about the parentage of their progeny, motivate the construction of a social order that denies women’s sexuality? Is this just ‘typical male paranoia’ or do men actually have something to worry about?

In “Inside Out: A DNA Diary” published in Discover Magazine, Boonsri Dickinson tells us of the boilerplate warnings disclosed to every participant who seeks DNA analysis: “You may learn information about yourself that you may not anticipate … you may discover your father is not genetically your father” (37). Suddenly, “Who’s Your Daddy?” is more than a song, television show, movie, or sexually suggestive, comedic punch line (although the phrase has been use as all these and much, much more). Paul Farhi tell us in the Washington Post that the question dates to at least 1681.

Robin Baker and Mark Bellis of Liverpool University inform us that it’s more than a rhetorical question: “Roughly one in three of the babies born in Western Europe is the product of an adulterous affair” (The Red Queen, 226). This percentage is based on studies they did in the late 1980s and the percentage held steady in additional studies done in the US and Canada. Such rates of female infidelity are independent and irrespective of education or economic status. Other studies have shown ‘false-paternity’ rates ranging between ten percent and thirty percent. In fact such female adultery is a bane of the medical genealogy field, where it makes all long-term findings suspect.

“Adultery is common wherever it has been looked for,” (229) agrees Ridley. Interestingly enough “roughly one in three” offspring not being fathered by the nominal father seems to be a constant figure across species lines as well. ‘Birds do it, bees do it, even so-called monogamous non-human primates do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fool around with someone other than dad’ could be the theme song of sex.

Some social scientists have suggested the remarkably high percentages of false-paternity progeny could be responsive to the limited availability of ‘quality’ mating choices. Ridley tells us “married females chose to have affairs with males who are dominant, older, more physically attractive, more symmetrical in appearance, and married” (211). Presumably ‘married’ is an incidental quality rather than a selected attribute. When the female ends up mated to a handsome male, Ridley informs us, she gets his genes but not much lot more: “He works less hard and she works harder at bringing up the young. … This increases her incentive to find a mediocre but hardworking husband and cuckold him with the stud next door” (224).

Thus the archetype of the typical morally superior, chaste female is very much an incomplete picture. “It is foolish even to talk of humans having a mating system at all. They do what they want, adapting their behavior to the prevailing opportunity” (177), Ridley states. Kipnis concurs, “femininity was never about being some kind of delicate flower; it was tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible” (5).

From a purely biological perspective, Ridley proposes “cuckoldry is an asymmetrical fate. A woman loses no genetic investment if her husband is unfaithful, but a man risks unwittingly raising a bastard” (237). Perhaps the genetic reality of infidelity is exactly the reverse of the perceived social construct of human sexuality. At the very least, a substantial number of women are predatory philanders while their mates, inadvertently, are dutiful dads. Clearly the issue is more complex than most people are willing to acknowledge.

Making matters more interesting, biology has tipped the deck solidly in women’s favor by creating the orgasm. Is it really all that surprising that so many women complain about not having orgasms with their partners when nature has contrived to directly link female orgasms to conception? Kipnis tells us “92% of British women admit to faking an orgasm at least once in their lives” and “75% of women don’t orgasm through penetration” (both 40). Similarly Shere Hite in Women and Love found proportional percentages in her studies of American women: “research extending from 1971 to 1976, and including 3,500 women, found that two-thirds of women do not orgasm through intercourse,” (215), or at least they do not have orgasms through intercourse with their routine partners.

This is a huge problem for conception as Baker and Bellis discovered “the amount of sperm that is retained in a woman’s vagina after sex varies according to whether she had an orgasm … in faithful women about 55 percent of the orgasms were of the high-retention (that is most fertile) type. In unfaithful women, only 40 percent of the copulations with her partner were of this type, but 70 percent of their copulations with her lover were of this fertile type. Moreover, whether deliberate or not, the unfaithful women were having sex with their lovers at times of the month when they were most fertile” (225). The net result of this is that an unfaithful women is much more likely to conceive a child with her lover than her husband.

Human females not having a visible estrus period of obvious fertility gives them an additional leg up, vis-à-vis adultery Ridley informs us, quoting research by L. Benshoof and Randy Thornhill which suggests “concealed ovulation allows a woman to mate with a superior man by stealth without deserting or alerting her husband … she is more likely to know [on an unconscious level] when to have sex with her lover, whereas her husband does not know when she is fertile. … Silent ovulation is a weapon in the adultery game” (232).

Indeed, if it seems as that the typical male-female relationship is more adversarial than cooperative that’s not unexpected. Despite romantic love, on a purely biological level each partner is more motivated to work at enhancing their own genetic contributions over their partner‘s genetic contributions.

In an interview published in the San Francisco Examiner, Candace Bushnell, author of Sex in the City and other novels on modern sexual relations agrees. “It makes more sense for a woman to have children with five different sex partners instead of five children with the same man. It’s exactly the same argument [men have], but tell it to a man, oooooooooh … that’s the secret nature of women and that’s what’s wonderful but you can’t say that.”

To answer Kipnis original question, it appears that sexually men and women are profoundly similar rather than different. In fact it appears that sexually men and women have very similar strategies for perpetuation of their individual lineages and similar motivations and expectations.

Men, through society, attempt to moderate female sexuality (i.e., infidelity) by social censure and the creation of false ideals, but these efforts have limited success despite the horrendous psychological and social burden they place on women.

The marriage bed remains the foundation of shared reproductive efforts but not the limit. Both genders use adultery to enhance the success of their individual reproductive strategies. Men seek quantity, hoping to impregnate as many women as possible and leave a diverse genetic sample in the world. Women seek quality, hoping to improve their own genetic contribution.

We keep our sexuality and our sexual practices private because knowing the actual facts of procreation (especially who’s zooming who) is not necessarily mutually beneficial and the risks of disclosure too high. Distorting the social-sexual construct to assert a more passive, de-sexualize role for women allows women to work in the silence to achieve their own goals and agendas, while similarly allowing men the opportunity to pursue covert sexual liaisons outside the marriage bed without further destabilizing the marital relationship.

As long as there is economic disparity between the genders, marriage allows a women and her offspring limited financial security. Even when men and women achieve economic parity, marriage is likely to remain the standard as raising children is expensive, labor intensive and emotionally and physically taxing. But I would suggest that the explicit current contract of marriage — between one man and one woman, for life — is not a stable platform on which we will build coming generations, but that marriage — the coming together of different people for affection, comfort, sharing, and procreation is an enduring institution.

* In The Question of Lay Analysis, Freud wrote: “We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology” (p. 212).

©May 24, 2010 Fred Dodsworth

Dickinson, Boonsri. “Inside Out: A DNA Diary” Discover Magazine, Sept., 2008, (34-39). Print
Dodsworth, Fred. “Q&A.: Candace Bushnell, author of Sex in the City.” San Francisco Examiner.
July 20, 2001. (A01) Print.
enotes. “Dark Continent: Freud” April 23. 2010. Web.

Farhi, Paul. “Conception of a Question: Who’s Your Daddy?” The Washington Post. January 4, 2005 (C01).
Hite, Shere. Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress. New York: A Borzoi Book, 1987. Print.
Jurmain, Robert, Lynn Kilgore and Wenda Trevathan. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Centage Learning, 2006. Print.
Kipnis, Laura. The Female Thing. New York: Pantheon, 2006. Print.
Nature of Sex, Discovery Channel. Five part DVD series, 2008.
Science of the Sexes, Discovery Channel. 2 DVDs, 2008.
Anatomy of Sex, Discovery Channel. DVD, 2008.
Architecture & Design of Man & Woman, Discovery Channel, DVD, 2008.
Biblos. “Genesis.” April 23, 2010. Web.
Ridley, Matt. Red Queen: Sex & the Evolution of Human Nature. New York: McMillan Publishing Company, 1993. Print.
Wikipedia. “Just Lie Back and Think of England.” April 23, 2010. Web.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and The Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper Colophon Books. 1976. Print.
Dowling, Siobhán. Spiegel-Online-International . Oct. 22, 2008, April 23, 2010. Web.
Fortune, Marie Marshall. Sexual Violence, the Unmentionable Sin: An Ethical and Pastoral Perspective. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1983. Print.
Heyn, Dalma. Erotic Silence of the American Wife. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992. Print.
Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Plume, 1992. Print.
Luchetti, Cathy. Children of the West: Family Life on the Frontier. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.
Luchetti, Cathy & Carol Olwell. Women of the West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982. Print.
McKelvey, Tara. One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press. 2007. Print
Nature of Sex, Discovery Channel. Five part DVD series, 2008.
The Journey of Life, Discovery Channel, 2008. DVD, 2008.
Conception to Birth, Discovery Channel. 2008. DVD, 2008.
Newitz, Annalee. “Is Sex Natural?” Bay Guardian Sept 23, 2003. April 23, 2010. Web
Science Daily “Quantity May Determine Quality When Choosing Romantic Partners.”
April 15, 2010. April 23, 2010. Web
Tannen, Deborah. Gender & Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Wolfe, Tom. Hooking Up. New York: Picador, 2000. Print.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is your pussy making you crazy?

Toxoplasmosis — The Bug Rewiring our Brains.

My son’s twenty-something friend is a diagnosed schizophrenic. That’s not to say he is bad or mean or even much of a problem to be around most of the time, but then again, I don’t expect much from him … or most folks in their twenties. A handsome and sweet guy, he is not my first contact with mental illness on life’s meander. I’ve twice had friends commit suicide, and two more played very active roles in their own demises, but my most intimate experience with profound madness was yet closer. When I was but nineteen, my dear and wildly sexy girlfriend had a series of psychotic episodes that resulted in her being involuntarily institutionalized for most of a year, initially at Stanford University Medical Center Hospital, then for a week or so at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, and finally for many months at El Camino Hospital. I didn’t see her mental implosion coming and it was a very devastating experience. We remained together and very close during those difficult times, but she broke up with me shortly after being released from the hospital. I suspect all these experiences have played a role in my on-going interest in the nature of what we call consensual reality, and how easy it is for any of us to wander too far from life’s safe, well-worn mental path, so when on several occasions in the last few years I stumbled across articles linking schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis, my interest was piqued. Before we look at the linkage, let’s look at the lifecycle of the protozoan parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.

Inside an infected host, the protozoan intracellular parasite Toxoplasma forms cysts five to 50 micrometers in diameter, which are found throughout the host animal, but appear to congregate especially in the amygdala and other brain tissues, as well as in major skeletal muscle tissue, cardio-muscular tissue and the eyes! Wikipedia tells us that Toxoplasma exists in two states, a sexual phase and an asexual phase (tachyzoite). Its sexual reproductive activities only occur when the parasite is inside its primary host, members of the cat family (Felidae), while its asexual phase can occur in any warm-blooded animal or bird. Cats typically get infected after eating a rodent or bird that has been colonized by the parasite in its tachyzoitic phase. Once inside the cat the parasite enters its sexual phase, which culminates in ‘spores,’ called oocysts, which get disseminated via the cat’s feces. These oocysts can exist outside host, for example in the soil, for as long as a year. It is by ingesting these mature oocysts that birds, rodents, and other warm-blooded animals including humans, get infected with Toxoplasma.

The most interesting aspect of this parasite’s behavior is the manner in which it overrides the bird or rodent’s fear of its natural predator, cats, to ensure its own propagation. According to Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences and neurology at Stanford’s School of Medicine, “…certain parasites control the brain of their host. They hijack our cells, our energy and our lifestyles so they can thrive. Toxo seems to know how to destroy fear and anxiety circuits … a brain region called the amygdala … and toxo knows how to hijack the sexual reward pathway. It takes over sexual arousal circuitry” (Scientific American. “Bugs in the Brain”)

In mice this makes the mouse become sexually aroused by the scent of cat urine. This is the opposite of a successful mating strategy if you’re a mouse, but it’s a very, very successful reproductive strategy for the parasite as it puts the mouse inside the cat quickly. The big question is how does toxoplasmosis affect its other hosts, specifically, but not exclusively humans? This is a particularly important question, as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20% of the US population is positive for toxoplasmosis — that’s more than 60,000,000 Americans (CDCToxoplasma gondii Infection in the United States, 1999–2000”). Globally the estimated infection rate per country seems to vary from 35% to more than 80%.

Unfortunately, as an intracellular protozoa (i.e. an organism that inserts itself inside the host’s cells) it is very, very difficult, if not impossible to rid any infected animal of the parasite, and it is also difficult to detect, locate, or isolate Toxoplasma during its latency phase. The good news is that for most humans with healthy immune systems, Toxoplasma appears to be relatively benign.

“Infections rarely cause symptoms, but the parasite remains in the body and can reactivate after lying dormant for years,” according to ScienceDaily (“Toxoplasma Infection Increases Risk of Schizophrenia, Study Suggests”), but more recent research suggests Toxoplasma may play a worrisome role in a host of illnesses, including schizophrenia.

“Toxoplasmosis changes some of the chemical messages in the brain,” says Dr Glenn McConkey of University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences. “The parasite infects the brain by forming a cyst within its cells and produces an enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, which is needed to make dopamine. Dopamine’s role in mood, sociability, attention, motivation and sleep patterns are well documented … in addition, the ability of the parasite to make dopamine implies a potential link with (schizophrenia and) other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit disorders” (ScienceDaily “Toxoplasmosis Parasite May Trigger Schizophrenia And Bipolar Disorders”).

Robert Yolken, M.D., a neurovirologist at Hopkins Children’s agrees, telling us “findings reveal the strongest association we’ve seen yet between infection with this very common parasite (toxoplasma) and the subsequent development of schizophrenia” (ScienceDailyToxoplasma Infection Increases Risk Of Schizophrenia, Study Suggests”).

Unfortunately, schizophrenia appears not to be curable, per se, at this time. Use of anti-Toxoplasma drugs in conjunction with anti-psychotic drugs have shown some success in ameliorating the disease’s impacts, but schizophrenics, typically suffering from extreme paranoia, are notoriously drug adverse. The disease appears to be lifelong and tremendously expensive with estimates in the US of 300,000 plus victims and costs in the range of $40 billion (Stanley Medical Research Institute. “Toxoplasmosis-Schizophrenia Research”). More promising is a cat vaccine for Toxoplasma (The Medical News “Evidence is mounting to link toxoplasmosis with schizophrenia”).

Also of interest are the proposed cultural impacts of the long association of humans with cats and Toxoplasma. Women with toxoplasmosis show more sexually promiscuous behavior (Wikipedia “Toxoplasmosis”) and men appear to engage more frequently in high risk behavior that can result in violent death (The Edge “A conversation with Robert Sapolsky”).

“Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans. They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women,” Dr. Nicky Boulter, an infectious disease researcher at Sydney University of Technology told Australasian Science magazine . “On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls.”

I would suggest that these behaviors have high selection value for our species. Females who have sex with multiple partners build additional support alliances for both themselves and their progeny (see Essentials of Physical Anthropology. “Chapter 7”). Men who take high risks typically also tend to have high success rates in reproducing and in acquiring ‘wealth and nourishment’ — better providing for their mates, progeny and community. In the event of the male’s likely death, his offspring are more likely to survive due to his mate’s extra-alliances and the questionable paternity of his offspring. Additionally, culture-wide behaviors may be attributable to Toxoplasma’s ability to alter individual behaviors. In 2006, Kevin Lafferty, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made such a claim in his paper, “Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence culture?” published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

“The geographic variation in the latent prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii may explain a substantial proportion of human population differences we see in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work and rules” we’re told in “Cat Parasite May Affect Cultural Traits In Human Populations” published by ScienceDaily.

“Lafferty’s analysis found that countries with high Toxoplasma prevalence had a higher aggregate neuroticism score, and western nations with high prevalence also scored higher in the ‘neurotic’ cultural dimensions of ‘masculine’ sex roles and uncertainty avoidance” claims Afarensis: Anthropology, Evolution and Science “The Effect of Toxoplasma gondii on Human Culture”.

Could it be that America’s longstanding love affair with military adventurism is a direct result of our pussy loving ways? A doctoral dissertation on that topic could be in my future.

So the question that comes immediately to my mind is “Why cats?” Why not just exterminate them, or at least banish them from human habitations? Sure, they’re fluffy and they purr and folks tend to like stroking them; but I’m allergic to their dander, loath the smell of their excrement (probably my rodent roots), dislike their the fish breath, and frankly I am not fond of their tendency to stick their butts in my face. Gross. But I’m not the key decision-maker in this man-cat relationship. The females of the house get ultimate authority over pets, and there’s the answer: mice. In one of those wonderful synergistic epiphanies I recently recalled also reading science articles linking mice, specifically Mus domesticus, to human breast cancer! Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death of women in the US and the world. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1.3 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer annually worldwide and about 465,000 will die from the disease. Personally, in the 1970s, I knew five different women who contracted breast cancer in their late-20s to mid-30s, including one very bright woman who succumbed to the disease. Since then I’ve come to know even more women who have suffered from breast cancer. Could the stereotypical fear women allegedly have against rodents be unconsciously based on a real threat?

The idea that some forms of breast cancer could be virally induced is not new. In the 1930s a biologist named John Bittner suggested exactly such a link. The retrovirus known as Mouse Mammal Tumor Virus (MMTV) now has been identified as the culprit, and it is transmissible to humans (Jones, Dan. “Blame the Mouse” New Scientist). What a better way to keep the mouse population down than cats? So thus we have the complete cat-and-rat rationale for modern civilization. The cats keep the girls easy, the boys hyper-active, and breast cancer at bay. That’s what I call intelligent design.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cross-talking the Opposite Sex.

This is in response to Deborah Tannen's essay: "Sex, Lies, and Conversation."

Boys and girls are different Deborah Tannen tells us in “Sex, Lies, and Conversation.” Boys have the boy-communication thing going and girls have nothing like it (that whole ‘what they don’t have-thing’), so no wonder boys and girls are unfit company for each other, except for the whole sex thing, which is way over rated! Or let’s share a story about how boys are all Attention Deficit Disordered and incapable of intimacy while girls are so focused on their feelings they can spend hours talking about how hurt they are (Depressed). Or maybe it’s just that sports, video games, and the evening news is more important than hearing what some woman has to say after you’ve been working all day, presuming you (the older male reader) still have a job. My wife is a woman. I say this because I want to make it clear she’s female. It seems that bearing two children sired by me (or so we are to believe, but you know, as a male, you never really know unless you do the DNA test and who’s ready for that dash of icy cold water?) may not be hearsay evidence enough, so let me state it clearly and firmly and insistently — but not argumentatively, because even though I’m a man, I don’t want to obstruct our clear communication processes. (Did that hurt your feelings? I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings but I must warn you in advance, humans often hurt each other during the act of trans-sexual communications.) Any rate, what I’m trying to say — by the by, my wife shared a very interesting story with me this morning: Breast milk is Best!: “Use your titty and your kids go to the head of the class; use infant formula and it’s a life on the short bus!” Something about manganese? See it seems manganese is found in much lower concentrations in breast milk than in soy-based, or cow-milk-based infant ‘milk’ products. Excess manganese has been indicated in learning disability issues! Too much huh? I wonder if too much manganese increases muscle mass? Maybe there’s an inverse correlation between muscle mass and intellect that’s actually manganese-based. Could lead to (will you stop looking directly at me, it creeps me out! You wanna fight, Goddam it?!) a whole new field of study! We could breed (or at least nurture/develop) the ideal sports franchise, big muscley kids with learning disabilities. Get them right after they pop out and start force-feeding them Enfamil! Kinda like the pâté de foie gras we had when we were in France. Jesus Christ. Literally, they fed us pâté de foie gras several times a day! I began to feel like a goose, myself. Anyway, I was talking about my wife and how she doesn’t talk to me. See, it seems she says I’m too confrontational. She told me years ago she just gave up. I just wasn’t going to be the person she was going to talk to. Anyway, she tells me she just wants me to listen. She doesn’t want me to solve her problems. Hell, that’s nice, but I’m a problem solver. Give me a problem, any problem, and I’ll do my damnedest to fix what ails ya. I can fix your sink, your stove, your toilet, your sewer. I’m the poop specialist and I can build your house. I built mine! (Rebuilt it, anyway, but that’s another story.) Like I said, I’ve been out of work for two years now, (I told you that didn’t I?) not that I don’t work, Hell, I work non-stop, dusk to dawn, an (unemployed) man’s work is never done — and then she wants me to take all the initiative in bed! That’s asking a lot, don’t you think? I clean (sometimes). I cook (sometimes). I watch the kids (granddaughter, anyway). I get tired. At the end of the day, I just want to sleep! Is that asking too much?! …and there’s that whole ‘pleasing her’ bit, with her multiple orgasms and oral stimulation and 45 minutes of foreplay — that’s a lot of work and by the time I’ve spent all that energy and effort what I get? BUPKIS! A little squirt, if I’m lucky. It’s not fair, women get it all, and men get nada! Sometimes I think God is just another femme-Nazi man-hater! It’s not like it used to be, you know, where I got paid for the work I do!? So now my wife brings home the ‘bacon,’ and I read in the newspaper yesterday that that’s the new meme. Women work, men loaf. Up 77 percent they say! …anyway, the wife, she busts her hump all day, yammering away at up to 60 subordinates, five clinics, 22,000 clients, and way too many supervisors, vendors, what-have-you, and when she gets home I ask her: “How was your day, honey?” And she fuckin’ grunts at me and turns on the boob tube! It’s not fair! She just won’t communicate with me anymore and I feel horrible. I’m thinking about divorce! I guess men and women are plain different that way. Women just can’t express their feelings.

©May 10, 2010 Fred Dodsworth

If you missed my note on top, for context, here's Deborah Tannen's original essay: "Sex, Lies, and Conversation." or

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lit Crit: Typical American by Gish Jen

“The Husband Would Command, The Wife Obey”

Ostensibly Jen Gish’s Typical American is a typical immigrant’s tale: Shortly after World War II, Yifeng Chang journeys around the world from China to America, the land of golden opportunity, to become Ralph Chang and uncover his true destiny — but no one’s life is so simple, including Ralph’s. He leaves his natal lands behind but brings Yifeng’s traditional values and gender illusions with him to this adopted American home. It is not the cross-cultural traveler’s travails that wreck Ralph’s life so much as his obdurate, oppressive sexist nature toward the very women who love, nurture and repeatedly save him. In the face of their persistent largess Ralph methodically elects to destroy everything he has rather than embrace a life that might include sexual equality in this allegedly egalitarian new homeland.
Ralph Chang’s eventual moral, familial, and financial collapse, and the physical injuries he inflicts his wife and the more the even serious injuries he subsequently inflicts on Theresa, his accomplished ‘Older Sister,’ reflects the female author’s depiction of a male world that is pathological, irrational, violent, and sexist. In the scenes Ms. Jen creates, men are important and empowered, irrespective of their flaws, and women are not, irrespective of their attributes. Women must subordinate their goals and lives to appease their men, which inevitably results in terrible destructive and avoidable ‘life lessons.’ More so than her characters’ status as naïve strangers in a strange land, there is an underlying, pregnant male violence that infuses Jen’s narrative.

Early in this novel we are warned women are temptresses — treacherous, duplicitous, overtly sexual creatures whose sole purpose is to destroy men’s lives. For example, the author has Yifeng, ‘Intent on the Peak,’ tell us almost immediately: “Girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.” (Jen. 7). While this is not an atypical pre-adolescent perspective on male-female relations, we are told Yifeng is “more or less grown up” (4), and this tone and these warnings are repeated throughout the novel.
Consider yet another example, the first female non-familial character described by the older, Americanized Ralph, speaking in retrospect: “‘She was some — what you call? — tart,’ he said” (8). On the surface he is simply regaling his young daughters with tales of the life he experienced upon first reaching the storied shores of the New World, but the covert and clear message he attempts to inculcate upon his impressionable young daughters is one of caution: ‘If you’re not very careful, you, too, could be judged as both wanton and wanting by any insignificant man you might meet!’ Lest we take this passage too lightly, examine the definition of ‘tart’ from “a prostitute, or a woman considered to be sexually promiscuous.” Note that even in our current culture, linguistically, this usage informs us that a prostitute and a ‘sexually promiscuous’ woman are one and the same! This judgment, identifying ‘Cammy’ as a ‘tart,’ comes from a man who was at the time powerless and insignificant — a ‘foreign’ student who lacked housing, income, status, and even basic communication skills; yet he was a man, thus entitled to make such a sweeping thoughtless and casual denunciation.
Within weeks of meeting Cammy, the college’s Foreign Student Affairs secretary and a co-participant in the most modest and seemly of flirtations, Ralph elevates her from mere tart to mythological man-eater/destroyer, referring to her as “Yang Guifei incarnate —a Tang Dynasty courtesan for whom an emperor went to ruin” (Jen. 16).
But translating his Asian sexual archetypes to America required a conscious confirmation process, Ralph found his necessary emotional translator one day in a random unnamed older man at a luncheonette who instilled him with the perceived wisdom of the New World; everything wrong could be blamed on ‘Dames.’ This fellow informs us “what was wrong with politics (dames); what was wrong with the Yankees (dames); and what was wrong with America”(17). Ralph reveres these ‘truths’ and uses this power to condemn his accomplished older sister when he discovers she is having an affair with ‘Uncle Henry’ Chao, a married family friend.
Ralph repeatedly humiliates his sister in public, including in front of her young nieces for this failing, while ignoring the numerous faults of males, including his own. At one point, during a family dinner Ralph tells his daughters that their aunt is a ‘Rotten Egg.’ His sister explains: “‘Chinese expression,’ said Theresa evenly. ‘Meaning a woman of no virtue.” It is not ‘Uncle’ Henry who has violated the social trust, but their aunt who is held accountable. Theresa is even held up for public ridicule when Ralph’s immoral friend Grover Ding ‘mashes’ Theresa, forcing a kiss upon her. ‘Uncle’ Grover gets a pass for his egregious behavior while Theresa becomes scornable. At this point in the story Ralph doesn’t know that his own wife has been an enthralled recipient of ‘Uncle’ Glover’s sexual overtures as well. Even after Ralph discovers evidence of his wife’s affair, Grover is not held accountable for this sexual indiscretion, only Ralph’s wife. Thus we are repeatedly instructed that the distaff half of our nation’s population is the source of our sexual failings, and of all else that ails us.

When we contrast this carefully crafted image of woman as a destructive, sexually rapacious predator with the actual descriptive behaviors of the primary female characters, the reader gets the opportunity to see more clearly the heroic (or should I was heroinic?) diligence and effort each woman exerts to improve her life against nearly insurmountable obstacles. A subtle example of the exemplary role played by these women is contained in Ralph’s never-named father’s instructions early in the tale: “Yifeng will please study his Older Sister. He will please observe everything she does, and simply copy her” (4).
If Ralph had done so Jen’s Typical American might have been more like Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and less a debacle. Instead Ralph reduces his ‘Older Sister’ to Bai Xiao, ‘Know-It-All,’ and bumbles from one self-destructive impulse to the next.
Theresa is more than an idealized role-model, at five foot seven inches she is a large woman, taller than Yifeng, a notable athlete, independent and forthright, yet willing, even eager to sacrifice her life to better the lives of her family and friends.
When Theresa’s younger sister Meimei (which translates as Girlgirl) wishes to marry, Theresa allows herself to be sent to care for an invalid girl in Shanghai rather than embarrass her family with her unwedded-elder-sister-status. This auspicious, self-sacrificing decision introduces Hailan (Helen), Ralph’s future wife, and brings the family, Theresa, Helen and Ralph, together again in America after Theresa rescues Ralph from the desperate circumstances that led him to consider crime and suicide. Penniless, hungry, homeless, and destitute of spirit, Ralph allows Theresa (despite an injured ankle, the result of Ralph’s over enthusiastic welcoming embrace) to nurture him back to physical and emotional health.
Under Theresa and Helen’s tutelage Ralph recovers his self-esteem, gains employment, reenters college, and passively finds ‘love and marriage’ with Helen.
When he begins to flounder again in college and spends all his time in a depressed state, sleeping, Theresa tells him “my scholarship has been cancelled” (80), a lie so that he might not feel so worthless by comparison. The lie works and Helen reports “he’s studying again” (83).
Lan Dong tell us in “Gendered Home and Space for the Diaspora: Gish Jens Typical American” that Theresa’s efforts to both pursue “her career as a doctor and in the meantime attempt to save her brother’s face” is an artifact of her Chinese culture, but the reality of feminine sacrifice is also an artifact of American culture, and perhaps a direct result of hundreds if not thousands of year of nearly global patriarchal domination.
When the heat in their apartment building ceases, it is invalid Helen, not manly Ralph, who descends into the basement and remedies the situation (Jen. 81).
When the new apartment they rent is too small without enough bedrooms for all, Theresa willingly converts a dining area into her semi-private bedroom.
When the family buys a new home, it is Theresa’s income as a doctor that makes it possible.
Again Dong informs us because they are Chinese, “Helen and Theresa continue to compromise in order to ease Ralph’s angst and to confirm for him his patriarchal domination at home and his professional progress in American society,” but these feminine accommodations are also an intrinsic aspect of American culture.
When Ralph’s impetuous decision to resign his secure and reliable job as a professor to open a chicken restaurant reduces their income precipitously, Helen steps up and takes over running the cash register.
When Ralph’s chicken restaurant business collapses, rather than blaming him for the failure, Helen draws herself closer to him.
The author tells us: “If being married was a matter of becoming one, they had finally achieved what in better times they could not (Jen. 249).
When the inevitable reconciliation occurs, it is Theresa’s salary that allows them to make those initial moves toward emotional and financial recovery.

Each step of the way Ralph is carefully chaperoned to his betterment by the women in his life, but as soon as he is on his feet he inevitably begins to chafe at sharing determinative authority. He goads himself with self-deprecatory thoughts: “At home, the husband would command, the wife obey” (69) and gives himself permission to behave badly, “for he was the father, and could do whatever he liked” (113). He does not need nor desire their opinions or involvement in the decision-making process. He will make all the family decisions and they will abide, he decides, but then he struggles with his inner fears, “he felt himself to be, not the head of the family, a scholar, but a child on a high wooden stool, helpless”(72).
“All his life, he’d known he would get married, and yet he’d never stopped to consider what it would be like” (69). His wife and sister are not responsible for his feelings of inadequacy, but Helen tells us “who could take it easy with Ralph home? … Everything he took badly” (77). Inevitably his feelings become intolerable and Ralph proceeds, as is his habit, destructively rather than collaboratively.
The first sign of this coming dénouement appears, as it often does, in the marriage bed or more precisely under their shared marital mattress. Ralph discovers American popular culture women’s magazines Helen has hidden there: “What else might she be keeping from him” (68) he wonders, what were “among the other secrets of her drawers” (72).
The author here subtly infers that what she might be hiding is linked to her gender and genitalia, foreshadowing the infidelities to come.
Distrust begins to poison the husband-and-wife relationship. Soon it is Helen’s very breath that Ralph insists he must control with ‘manly tyranny’(71): “You should breathe this way” (71), he tells Helen and deliberately shows her how he wants her to inhale and exhale. No long thereafter, although she was the acknowledged and beloved family cook, her cooking needed his instructions as well, and his wife begins to fear him: “As he stood in the doorway, homing to her presence, he thought he saw her shoulders rise with apprehension, her elbows draw in. ‘No more, no more,’ she said without turning around” (72). Ralph’s emotional bullying turns, as if often does in life, to battering “Ralph knocked at Helen’s skull … Knocking made Ralph feel fierce, but it made Helen go blank — which made him knock more… until she ran into another room.” (73). This foreshadows the extreme violence to come.
As Jen’s story winds toward its end, Ralph’s business is in ruins and his sister has abandoned him to live apart. Ralph acquires a powerful pit bull dog, which he fears but carefully trains to be even more threatening, allegedly for his daughters, “but the girls are terrified of the dog” (252).
The threat of imminent violence grows as Ralph, now out of work and facing increasing bills related to his failed business, trains and abuses the attack dog, making it ever more dangerous. At one point Helen discovers him swinging the tethered creature around and round by its neck. When she objects, saying that he’s strangling the animal he replies: “‘Yes, I could strangle someone,’ he said simply, continuing to swing. He approached her. ‘I am that cold.’”(259).
At the start of their marriage he worried about Helen’s breathing and instructed her in ‘proper’ breathing technique, now as their relationship has collapsed into hatred and rage he attempts to take her breath away: “Ralph’s thumbs hooked themselves around her windpipe. … he squeezed almost courteously, as if he only meant to be holding her breath for her, and just for a moment” (263).
When his ever forgiving wife negotiates with Henry Chao, the old family friend (and Theresa’s lover) to secure for Ralph his former teaching job at the university, instead of rejoicing and celebrating, he grabs one of Helen’s precious decorative items, and hurls it, “a brass vase out [through] the living room picture window” (260).
Ralph’s male violence is no longer pregnant, but now borne, real, inevitable and life threatening. Not long after the vase, small and delicate Chinese-born Helen herself “went sailing like a human version of their brass vase, out the bedroom window” (262). In “Cheap, On Sale, American Dream: Contemporary Asian American Women Writers’ Response to American Success Mythologies,” Phillipa Kafka tells us “the picture window is Jen’s metaphor for the collapse of the Chang’s ‘picture perfect’ marriage”(Kafka. 119) and alleges Ralph’s violence is in response to intimations of Helen’s adultery, but Jen’s narrative has not yet acknowledged Helen’s adultery, and even if it had, Ralph’s physical violence rises to near murderous proportions. Like physically violent acts of sexuality, Ralph and Helen are now in constant congress, throwing words, items and each other around with the most serious intention of causing each other grievous injury. Despite Ralph’s diminutive stature, Helen is far out of her weight-class, but the words, “a failure, a failure, a failure” (Jen. 263), shouted at Ralph score a direct hit, and his violent physical response puts Helen in the hospital.
Are Kafka and/or Jen condoning murderous rage because it’s motivated by sexual jealousy?
Why is it appropriate to attack Helen and not her lover, Glover Ding?
How is this violence ‘ethnically derived?
Is Henry Chao held to the same standards?
For that matter is Theresa held to the same standards?
In “Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature” Elaine H. Kim tells us “family relationships dominated political and economic activities and served as a primary tool for social control. An individual’s reputation was his family’s reputation and one’s personal affairs could not be strictly one’s own”(Kim, 102)
If this is the case than Ralph Chang is damaged as much by his sister’s extramarital affair as by his wife’s extramarital affair, but he verbal attacks the taller, athletic Theresa, not physically. That said, the novel’s male instigated violence doesn’t end until Theresa’s life itself hangs in the balance in a scene startlingly similar to the car crash scene from John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

The troubles of this family are not the struggles that result from changing cultures from one country to another. These difficulties are typical of an oppressive male culture dependent on violence for authority and control. Rather than negotiating a mutually beneficial relationship that could have easily accommodated their individual needs, the Changs engaged in the ancient war between physically powerful men, of any size and nationality or culture, and less physically powerful women living in a state of oppression.
For the most part, the women in this story were willing to endure almost anything life hurled at them, including infidelity, poverty, dangerous living conditions, relentless work, a near constant state of oppression, and violence, yet they survived admirably.
Ralph Chang did not suffer slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he carefully concocted an unnecessary catastrophe that was doomed to fail, for he depended too dearly on both the good will of strangers and the good luck of the gods. When both went against him, instead of retrenching and reassessing his options, instead of turning to the wisdom of his family he turned on them with blame, anger, and violence.
All of his travails were a direct result of this relentlessly destructively sexist perspective on life. Unfortunately, in light of his response to his previous failures, it seems quite unlikely that he actually learned anything from this, his latest catastrophe.

Dong, Lan. “Gendered Home and Space for the Diaspora: Gish Jen’s Typical American". ThirdSpace: a journal of feminist theory & culture, volume 4 issue 1 November 2004. Web. April 10, 2010.

Jen, Gish. Typical American. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.

Kafka, Phillipa. ‘Cheap, On Sale, American Dream’: Contemporary Asian American Women Writers’ Response to American Success Mythologies, pages 105-126, found in: American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature. Edited by William Blazek and Michael K. Glenday. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2005. Print

Kim, Elaine H. ‘Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature’. Cultural Critique 6 (1987): 87-112 Tart, a definition. Web. April 10, 2010

©May 10, 2010 Fred Dodsworth