Why don’t we believe women?

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Women tell inconvenient truths.

That leaves us with two choices: we could believe them and deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance or we could ease our discomfort by insisting, without evidence, that they are wrong.

Guess which is easier.

Women tell inconvenient truths.

For years women have been telling inconvenient truths about sexual aggression, harassment and assault. I doubt there is a woman alive who has not been the recipient of unwanted attention, unwanted touching or unwanted attacks. The problem is not rare; it is commonplace and equally commonplace is the response: that didn’t happen; it wasn’t him; you misunderstood; you’re overreacting; boys will be boys.

Thus it is no surprise that Christine Blasey Ford’s recollection of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers has led to the typical accusations against her: it didn’t happen; it wasn’t him; she misunderstood; boys will be boys.

The tendency to ignore women’s incovenient truths is not limited to accusations of sexual assault and it is not limited to men ignoring women. For example, within medicine it is well known that women’s pain is often undertreated. When women complain of severe pain, they are often dismissed in ways that men never are: it’s not that painful; you can tolerate it; you’re overreacting; it’s all in your head.

As Hoffman and Tarzian explain in The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain:

A deeper examination of why women are treated this way is explored by several feminist authors. They attribute it to a long history within our culture of regarding women’s reasoning capacity as limited and of viewing women’s opinions as “unreflective, emotional, or immature.” In particular, in relation to medical decision-making, women’s moral identity is “often not recognized…”

Some researchers have argued that a “bias toward psychogenic causation for disorders in women has occurred even in well defined painful biological processes: ‘Despite the well documented presence of organic etiologic factors, the therapeutic literature is characterized by an unscientific recourse to psychogenesis and a correspondingly inadequate, even derisive approach to their management.'” These findings are consistent with studies reporting that female pain patients are less likely than their male counterparts to be taken seriously or are more likely to receive sedatives than opioids for the treatment of their pain.

Sadly, this tendency to dismiss women’s pain and perceptions about their own bodies is not restricted to paternalistic male doctors. It is widespread among women midwives and lactation consultants.

Women tell inconvenient truths about the agonizing pain of childbirth and the relief they obtain from technology like epidurals. Midwives, who can’t provide epidurals, respond by dismissing women’s agony: it’s not that painful; you can tolerate it; you’re overreacting; it’s all in your head. And my personal favorites: you just need more support; you’ve been socialized to believe that childbirth is painful.

Women tell inconvenient truths about the difficulties of breastfeeding, the pain they experience and the fact that many produce insufficient breastmilk to fully nourish an infant. Lactation consultants, who only make money when they convince women to breastfeed, respond dismissively: you must be doing it wrong; you’re overreacting; it’s all in your head; you’re a victim of formula manufacturers; you just need more support.

Although sexual assault appears to have nothing in common with childbirth and breastfeeding difficulties, they are linked by the fact that they are inconvenient truths. Listeners have two choices: they could believe women and deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance: It is entirely possible for Brett Kavanaugh to be a deeply conservative judge and a man who sexually assaulted a women. It is entirely possible childbirth pain is no different from any other type of pain and worthy of a technological response despite the fact that midwives aren’t capable of providing that technology. It is entirely possible for breastfeeding to be natural and for it to be painful and/or insufficient nourishment for a baby.

It’s easy to see what Brett Kavanaugh and his supporters have to lose by believing Christina Blasey Ford; it’s easy to understand the impetus to dismiss her perceptions as flawed or invalid. So what if it’s both disrepectful and untrue; the ends — conservative beliefs — purportedly justify the means.

It’s harder to see what midwives and lactation consultants have to lose by believing women; they lose autonomy, income and ideological satisfaction; that’s why they have no trouble dismissing women’s perceptions as flawed, invalid or manufactured by doctors or formula companies. So what if it’s both disrespectful and untrue; the ends — midwives and lactation consultants’ beliefs — purportedly justify the means.

But there are no ends that justify disrespecting and refusing to believe women. It’s just misogyny in the service of self-dealing.