Getty ImagesKatie Buckleitner
Sexism in pain perception is a well-known and documented problem: men and women complaining of the same type and level of pain are treated differently by health care providers, based only on their gender. Blah blah, “boys don’t cry, women are weak,” bullshit, blah blah.
A new study published in January in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found, disturbingly, that gendered bias about pain tolerance doesn’t just apply to adults, but children as young as five years old.
Researchers asked 274 adults between 18 and 75 years old to watch a video of a child having its finger pricked and becoming upset, and were then asked to rate the child’s pain level on a scale of zero (no pain) to 100 (severe pain). Those who were told the child was a boy? They rated his pain as 50.42, on average. Meanwhile, those who were told the child was a girl rated her pain at 45.90.
So what does that tell us? Well, it suggests that adults take the pain of girls less seriously than that of boys, providing even more evidence of sexism in pain perception—even when those in pain are children.
One finding, highlighted by the study’s authors and the Washington Post, is that women who watched the video were more likely than men to say the pain was less severe when told the child was a girl. Or, in other words, women were more likely to downplay the seriousness of the child’s pain if they thought she was a girl, rather than a boy.
Lead study author Brian D. Earp told the Washington Post that this finding was “a big mystery” to researchers, but Kate Manne, philosopher at Cornell University and author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny isn’t as surprised.
“Since there’s more pressure on women to be appropriately sympathetic to pain, and since we’re biased in the direction of taking male pain more seriously, it makes sense that women are at least as bad if not worse,” Manne told the Washington Post.
Earp says the next study should include the factor of race, which comes with its own set of biases about pain perception—most notably that people of color feel less pain than white people, resulting in lower doses of and longer waits for pain medication. Until then, this current study seems to conclude something already known to be true: if you’d like your pain to be taken as seriously as possible, it’s in your best interest to be a man.
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