It's Been All Bad News for the Woman Panic Industry

The Atlantic
It's Been All Bad News for the Woman Panic Industry
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It's Been All Bad News for the Woman Panic Industry

It is no longer fashionable to to claim that women should wash dishes, all day long, forever and ever, because of God. Instead, it is now fashionable to say women's lives have to be lamer than men's lives because of science. "Mother Nature is sexist," The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto wrote in May, claiming that women should find their husbands at "peak nubility" in college. "Or, if you prefer, God is sexist, or natural selection if you don't go in for anthropomorphism." But the last few weeks have been terrible for the women-doing-dishes-is-just-nature's-plan crowd. It turns out that a lot of "Sorry, ladies" science — the basis for the massive industry dedicated to getting women to panic that they're not good at being women — is bad science. Here are three slices of woman panic we are not sad to leave behind.

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Baby Panic. At The Atlantic, Jean Twenge explains that baby panic — the widely-cited finding that women have a tiny chance of having babies after 35 — is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. (Life expectancy in France climbed from 28 years in 1790 to a whole 39 years in 1820.) Twenge writes:

Surprisingly few well-designed studies of female age and natural fertility include women born in the 20th century — but those that do tend to paint a more optimistic picture. One study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 and headed by David Dunson (now of Duke University), examined the chances of pregnancy among 770 European women. It found that with sex at least twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds. (The fertility of women in their late 20s and early 30s was almost identical—news in and of itself.) Another study, released this March in Fertility and Sterility and led by Kenneth Rothman of Boston University, followed 2,820 Danish women as they tried to get pregnant. Among women having sex during their fertile times, 78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds. A study headed by Anne Steiner, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, the results of which were presented in June, found that among 38- and 39-year-olds who had been pregnant before, 80 percent of white women of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months (although that percentage was lower among other races and among the overweight).

The idea that after 30, women's ovaries shrivel into raisins is ubiquitous. A New York magazine feature in 2002 -- that was actually titled "Baby Panic" -- cited the very same statistics that Twenge demolishes. "Now I'm getting the message to reevaluate my life as a woman," a tormented 29-year-old said back then. "Meaning that if I want to have children, which I do, I need to have them when I'm younger and worry about my career later." A 2010 article in the same magazine suggested women had forgotten to have babies until it was too late. And here's The Wall Street Journal earlier this month:

"I hear many people say 40 is the new 30. But not reproductively, it's not the new 30," says Cynthia Austin, medical director of in vitro fertilization at the Cleveland Clinic. "Our ovaries are aging at the same rate they did 50 years ago."

According to the studies Twenge cites, Austin is right — 40 is not the new 30 for ovaries. However, 39 pretty much is. Maybe our ovaries age like they did 50 years ago, but we might want to reconsider assumptions that they age like they did 400 years ago. (When it comes to life expectancy, at least, 78 is the new 39!) But it makes sense that an IVF doctor would make that claim — older women's bodies don't respond as well to IVF drugs as young women's bodies. But only 1 percent of babies are born via IVF, and 80 percent of IVF patients are under 40. Twenge notes that we tend to overrely on IVF data because regular women's fertility is harder to study.

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Sex Panic. A new book by Daniel Berger, titled What Do Women Want?, explains that the old consensus that men have evolved to be philanderers while women only want commitment and emotional fulfillment and Lifetime movies is being challenged by new research. "When it comes to the study of female sexuality, scientists have tended to see what they expect, or want, to see, and there are fewer established facts than you would think," The New York Times' Elaine Blaire writes in her review of the book. New research shows that women, like men, are prone to promiscuity. They struggle with sexual boredom: low levels of sex drive in women is correlated with the number of years they'be been in a monamagous relationship. The old evolutionary pop psychology held that since men make a lot of sperm, but women just a few eggs, men evolved to spread their DNA among lots of mates, while women evolved to hold on to Mr. Right. But that might not be the case. Females could be built anatomically to encourage multiple partners in one sexual episode. Berger says of the female orgasm, "Its delay, its need of protracted sensation... was evolution’s method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulation of the next, building toward climax." 

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Working Moms Panic. A couple weeks ago, the conservative blogger Erick Erickson claimed that it was a bad thing that more women are the breadwinners in their families, because "When you look at biology — when you look at the natural world — the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role." He was just citing science! 

"It is a matter of fact that children in a household with a mother who spends more time at home than out of the home, with a father who is earning the bulk of the income for the home, are the most well-adjusted youth in society. You may not like it. You may not like me saying it. But it's a fact."

But that isn't a fact. According to a paper published in Psychological Bulletin, an meta-analysis of 69 studies conducted from 1969 to 2010 found that when moms worked outside the home before their kids were 3 years old, the kids were no worse off academically or behaviorally than kids whose moms stayed at home. No, this research wasn't new this month, but it was something new to see him confronted with reality on Fox News, when Megyn Kelly used that data to carve out Erickson's heart with a spoon.

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(Top photo by Tomas Rebro via Shutterstock, inset photos by Christian Rauh, David Saddler, bradleyolin via Flickr.)

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