Pain is second nature to female of the species

April 10, 1998

Sociologists gathered in Edinburgh this week. Alison Utley reports.

A SURVEY of patients at a GP's surgery in London revealed that both men and women believed women coped better with pain because it was a fact of nature.

Sociologist Gillian Bendelow told the British Association of Sociologists meeting in Edinburgh this week that medical research suggests that women have lower pain thresholds but "across the sexes, women rather than men are seen to have culturally endowed superior endurance".

Ms Bendelow of Warwick University conducted a questionnaire of a random sample of more than 100 patients. It showed that two-thirds believed women were better equipped to deal with pain. Interviews confirmed the view.

One 33-year-old man said: "It is just something in the make-up of women that's different to men ... a man is supposed to be stronger than a woman but women are stronger emotionally and can stand pain." Childbirth was seen as the ultimate painful experience, especially by men.

A retired journalist said it was the worst pain he could imagine, despite his personal experience of over five years of malignant tumours and amputations.

Again and again the view was expressed by both men and women that a combination of female biology and the reproductive role equipped girls and women with a natural capacity to endure pain not only physically but emotionally.

Ms Bendelow said: "This equation of woman and the 'natural' evokes the well-known distinction between public and private domains."

Women are linked with the family, which is the location of the bodily and "lower" functions, whereas men are more readily associated with cultural, mental and higher processes of the public world of paid work, she said.

One woman said: "They (men) are not really interested in the causes of pain or in seeing themselves in relation to the pain but they think of it as an outside irritant that's got to be dealt with."

Ms Bendelow said that although many explanations for endurance began with a biological basis they often led to role expectations. Women said they did not have the "privilege" of giving in to pain and sickness: "Women tend to put their pain on one side while they get on with being responsible, so in fact the needs of other people override the need to experience your own emotional and physical pain."

The "macho" conditioning of boys was a recurrent theme and its negative effects were acknowledged by both sexes. Men were more likely to see a hierarchy of pain and were more reluctant to consider emotional pain as real. Women, in contrast, tended to fudge the boundaries between physical and emotional pain.

Ms Bendelow concluded that expressing pain may be linked to socialisation and emotion management. One male respondent summed up: "Women have more awareness - a more intimate and responsible instinct to their biology - all we do is shave."

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