Ch-ch-ch-changes

// 8 December 2008

CHEM Trust logoTwo related articles in The Independent this weekend making a good point (the effects of chemical pollutants in the environment on sex/gender) in a bad way (sexism, misogyny, you name it). I’m not sure which is the most offensive, but Decline of the real man is no joke may just have the edge with such neo-tabloid journalism – with just a hint of hysteria – as this:

Do we really want a world where everyone is from Venus and no one is from Mars? Where Frenchmen no longer have any différence to vivre? A land where the man of the house is more Mrs Doubtfire than Mr Atlas? Where pubs no longer echo to loud-mouthed arguing over the merits of back fours and deep-lying strikers, but where, instead, hair-netted old men clack their knitting needles over glasses of lukewarm sherry? Boating accidents where the cry goes up: “Hermaphrodites and children first!” Editions of Top Gear fronted by Jemima Clarkson

…So much FAIL in one short paragraph…

And from the other article, It’s official: Men really are the weaker sex, there are gems like The male gender is in danger… and – complete with scare quotes – …”gender-bending”…

It would be so easy to rip to shreds what seems like nothing more than junk journalism, but really, what would be the point? Well, apart from a certain sense of grim satisfaction in demolishing – yet again – a string of wrong-headed gender stereotypes. Although, given my particular interest in the ways that gender is used to oppress those who don’t conform, I really can’t let the use of the term ‘hermaphrodites’ go unchallenged. As a friend of mine says: “Flowers are hermaphrodite, humans are intersex”.

Despite my concerns about the gender bias, both articles are, in fact, pointing out a comprehensive report, Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Male Vertebrate Wildlife – Males Under Threat, published by CHEM Trust, which suggests that the huge number of commonly-used chemicals in the environment is feminising males of every class of vertebrates, from fish to mammals, including people.

In this light, both newspaper articles do actually contain some useful facts – which makes their dressing up in heavy-handed and offensive gender stereotypes even more mystifying, as well as plain unnecessary.

The 3-page press release (direct link to PDF file) announcing the report includes the following thought-provoking findings:

In mammals, genital disruption in males has been widely reported, including: intersex features (such as egg tissue in the testes of the male); small phallus; small testes; undescended testes; abnormal testes; or ambiguous genitals.

[…]

The males of egg-laying species including fish, amphibians, birds, and reptiles have also been feminised by exposure to sex hormone disrupting chemicals and have been found to be abnormally making egg yolk protein, normally made by females.

[…]

There are various ways that man-made hormone disrupting chemicals can undermine the sexual health of male wildlife. For example, chemicals which block the male hormone androgen, the so-called anti-androgenic chemicals, can cause un-descended testes and can feminise males. Similarly, some sex hormone disrupting chemicals can mimic oestrogen, the female hormone, and also feminise males.

Many man-made chemicals can block androgen action, and these include several pesticides and some phthalates, used in consumer products to make plastics flexible. Worryingly, a study of effluents from UK sewage works has found that around three quarters of these discharges have considerable anti-androgenic activity, and investigations are underway to identify the chemicals to blame.

Given that humans are just one part of a huge and complex eco-system, it makes me wonder whether similar adverse effects are to be seen in the human population. I don’t think one needs to be a scientist or an academic to figure out the answer to that one; but I do think there’s another equally important question which hasn’t been asked here, and I can only hope that a sister report will soon be forthcoming, titled Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Female Vertebrate Wildlife – Females Under Threat.

————

The report Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Male Vertebrate Wildlife – Males Under Threat is available for download from CHEM Trust (link here) or here:

ETA: Talk about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things – if nothing else, this piece in the Sunday Times should give an insight into the likely extent of the problem. Nothing’s been proven either way, but I do wonder where these PCBs have come from – are they, too, environmental pollutants? If they’ve come from the food chain, how did they get there?

Deadly contaminant found in Irish pork

CONSUMERS were warned last night to check the origin of all pork products after high levels of toxins were found in pigs slaughtered in Ireland.

[…]

The Irish authorities found that pork products on several farms had levels of dioxin poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) between 80 and 200 times more than the recognised safe limit.

(Cross-posted from bird of paradox)

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Comments From You

Steph // Posted 8 December 2008 at 11:29 am

Well, everything starts off as female technically anyway in biological terms. Although, forgive me, I personally feel that issues of ‘feminising of males’ are probably more of concern to Men’s Right’s Activists than Feminists?

I’ve become dissapointed with the Independent though, I used to likes its leftish progressiveness but it’s becoming very tabloid of late. So, back to the Guardian/Observer which aren’t perfect themselves but about the only national newspapers I can stomach!

Jess // Posted 8 December 2008 at 11:42 am

I am really suspicious of the way that the media seizes on stories of “gender-bending” environmental pollutants. Although, sure, it’s undoubtedly evidence that humans are fucking up the world, I feel like it’s tapping into a sort of gender-panic.

Like, ecosystems are failing, species are dying out, we’re poisoning ourselves and everything else on the planet – everything is fucked up, but why latch onto these stories about ‘feminisation’ of some organisms? I’m not arguing it’s a good thing per se, but why is that considered particularly sensational and worrying?

Helen G // Posted 8 December 2008 at 11:49 am

Steph:

Well, everything starts off as female technically anyway in biological terms.

Which may be true in a sense – but I think the report is more concerned about the effects of environmental pollutants on existing (not embryonic) wildlife.

Although, forgive me, I personally feel that issues of ‘feminising of males’ are probably more of concern to Men’s Right’s Activists than Feminists?

No, I don’t agree. For one thing – and although I feel it’s perhaps moving off-topic – I think it would be a mistake for feminists to ignore MRAs.

For another, if these changes are happening to male wildlife, seemingly regardless of species, then is it not a reasonable assumption that there’s a corresponding change in females? As I said, I would be interested to know if similar changes are occurring in humans.

Also, I’ve already pointed out my concerns about the apparent gender stereotyping in the newspaper articles – and I agree with Jess’ view that there is a definite gender panic going on. And I think that, too, may be a subject of concern for some feminists.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:01 pm

Definitely another scaremongering article which of course once again focuses on supposed male crises. This pseudo piece of supposedly objective journalist has one agenda only and that is to promote claims it is men once again who are in danger of dare I say it? Extinction. Instead read the scientific evidence not journalist male hysteria. Also read Caryl Rivers’ book Slick spins and Fractured Facts because Rivers delineates exactly how the male-dominant media distorts the news and promotes a one-sided agenda, namely women are responsible for all the ills on this planet.

Question? Who is responsible for causing so much eco damage to our environment? Is it women who are in positions of power both within scientific research and political power or is it men who have these positions of power. Womens’ Environmental Network have been raising the issue of man-made (yes it is man-made not woman-made) chemicals which do directly or indirectly affect women’s health. Do I read mainstream articles focusing on these issues. No of course not because only male-centered subjects are supposedly of concern to male controlled media.

Helen G // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:07 pm

Jess:

… why latch onto these stories about ‘feminisation’ of some organisms?

I just thought it was an interesting piece of research, which may possibly have implications for humans.

…why is that considered particularly sensational and worrying?

I guess sensationalism helps to sell newspapers, for one.

As to why it’s considered worrying, well, to me, the fact that so many species are apparently being physically affected by chemicals that humans are putting into the environment just is worrying. I’m worried about what else these pollutants may be doing, too.

Helen G // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:09 pm

JENNIFER DREW:

…read the scientific evidence…

Well, quite.

Steph // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:10 pm

I agree Helen about the dreadful gender stereotyping and language used, sorry, should have referred to that in my first comment.

I don’t think there would be the same changes happening in females, precisely because of my understanding that much of wildlife starts off biologically as female, and then androgen receptivity starts to masculine them into males. I’ve always considered this to be why there might be a higher prevalence of male-to-female transsexuals than female-to-male?

Helen G // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:16 pm

Steph:

I don’t think there would be the same changes happening in females, precisely because of my understanding that much of wildlife starts off biologically as female, and then androgen receptivity starts to masculine them into males.

Point is, we just don’t know if these changes are happening across the board. As I said in my post, I’d very much like to see a similar study carried out on female wildlife. Humans too, for that matter, male and female.

Lea // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:16 pm

Good cod, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fail in one paragraph before.

Steph // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:25 pm

Well, I thought it was reasonably accepted (and proven?) that naturally occurring oestrogens in all manner of foodstuffs and chemicals were capable of affecting males – causing lower fertility, gynaecomastia, etc. I don’t think I’ve read of any studies that shows similar affects of ‘masculinising’ females.

Legible Susan // Posted 8 December 2008 at 12:58 pm

Worrying about the science …

It’s different for humans, because in wildlife we’re concerned about effects at a population level. There could be animal welfare issues, but the big danger is of effects on reproductive health and therefore the next generation … humans are in no danger of going extinct for that reason. Instead, we’d be concerned about the effects at an individual level, like the dangers of cancer when development (sexual or otherwise) is interfered with. None of this is particularly new, by the way.

Complaining about the newspapers …

Yes, they’re focusing on the wrong things as usual. The “feminisation” observed is a physiological phenomenon: a health problem, nothing to do with gender identity. There’s no reason for it to change anybody’s behaviour, unless they want to change anyway! Those “journalists” are panicking over nothing (which is also not news).

Anne Onne // Posted 8 December 2008 at 1:25 pm

Steph: could be because the female system is set up to appropriate excess oestrogens differently. We’d have a similar problem with anabolic androgen hormones, which don’t seem to be released into the environment as much.

It’s true that embryos start off bipotential, (meaning could be both male or female), and that unless signalling from the Y chromosome is detected, the body develops as female. The rest is very complicated, and I’m sure there’s a lot about how gender, sex and sexuality develop that we do not know. This area is important, but it’s also important to be aware of not pathologising the experiences of intersex and transgender people whilst addressing the biological aspects of sex differentiation.

As it happens, the effects of hormones, both androgens (needed for men, also needed in small quantities in women) and oestrogens and progestagens (needed in women, present in small quantities in men) are complex, and as such likely to be grossly oversimplified. In this case, it’s just plain insulting. Seriously, if you can’t write a nuanced article with a jot of scientific integrity, write about something else.

It is postulated that these environmental increases in ‘female’ hormones may be affecting male fertility (my references aren’t the most recent, library books) and the effect the hormones and other substances we are contributing to the environment is having is an important thing to research. The biological systems of male and female organisms are finely calibrated to have a certain hormone balance to function, and it could well be that we are disrupting this for many organisms as well as people.

However, there’s no excuse for shoddy journalism making this all about gender stereotypes. Infertility and gynaecomastia and the other hormonal complications that the male body can have shouldn’t be reduced to inaccurate cliches about manly men. Its an insult to a complicated evolved system. And it kind of insults anyone who is female, and therefore somehow taking over the world with their girly girly oestrogens.

That’s why I HATE the appropriation of the words testosterone and oestrogen to describe anything gendered. If they’re not talking strict endocrinology, they can keep their hands off the biological differences between the sexes, when what they really mean is ‘person wearing pink or blue’.

Leigh // Posted 8 December 2008 at 1:52 pm

Well, Mr Independent, if that’s your definition of male and males are on the verge of extinction then I am quite happy to hunt down the very last specimen and exterminate it personally.

Is that ‘testosterone-charged’ enough for you?

maggie // Posted 8 December 2008 at 3:43 pm

This can also be found in the Daily Mail, or should that be Daily Femail.

The slant seems to be that estrogen products such as the pill and the evil HRT are swamping our rivers and waterways and thus causing men to turn into women – or big girls blouses.

As I see it the problem is bisphenol-A a xenoestrogen that is manufactured for all kinds of things such as plastics which then leech into the waterways. This is bad for the environment as it isn’t tolerated too well.

So if the blame has to lie anywhere then it should rest at the door of big business. Not women.

Jess // Posted 8 December 2008 at 4:48 pm

“I just thought it was an interesting piece of research, which may possibly have implications for humans.”

I meant the media in general, not you Helen :-)

Sabre // Posted 8 December 2008 at 5:20 pm

Perhaps this could help drive the development of male contraceptives?

:-)

Anne Onne // Posted 8 December 2008 at 6:32 pm

Sabre: Fair point. Since male contraception seems to be focused on reducing testosterone to a level that doesn’t harm male secondary sexual characteristics whilst rendering them infertile: the levels of testosterone needed for the latter are much higher than the former, so it’s plausible that you may be able to have both.

Either way, it’s not women’s fault. If we’re playing the blame game, what about all the men not wanting to wear condoms or agitate for male contraception? Where are they in the equation? Somehow I guess an article titled ‘Chaps, not wearing a condom makes you less of a man’ would not sell as well…

Of course the blame game is not helpful, and we need to work out the best compromise we can, with the big polluters (that being industry) working hard to change their output, and finding better ways for women to use contraception, more contraception for men, and maybe better ways of cleaning our waste if the hormones in it affect the environment.

emma // Posted 8 December 2008 at 6:46 pm

the ideology of this is repudiate the feminine. The article also sees feminisation and the masculine as biological concepts rather than cultural constructs.

To say that men really are the weaker sex implies that if men are in any way feminine that they are less than men

Sabre // Posted 8 December 2008 at 8:05 pm

In the Independent article, amongst all the faff and scare was the crucial sentence:

‘Female hormones – largely from the contraceptive pills which pass unaltered through sewage treatment – are partly responsible’

PARTLY! And that was only in relation to fish in British rivers. Most of the effects come from other chemicals that affect endocrine systems.

The bit that made me laugh, purely because of the wording:

“This research shows that the basic male tool kit is under threat”

Oh no! We cannot have any threat to the great penis! Quick, ward off the unseen feminine enemy that’s silently and ominously emasculating men! Lol

As for men being the ‘weaker sex’, genetically one could argue that this is the case, because of the relative weakness of the Y chromosome compared to the X. I’m not sure of the science but I think it links into how males are more susceptible to genetic diseases. Perhaps this also has something to do with a greater susceptibility to endocrine disruptors? Any genetic scientists out there who can enlighten me?

Anne Onne // Posted 8 December 2008 at 8:26 pm

I’m not a genetic scientist, though I can tell you that as far as I know, it’s due to the Y chromosome degenerating. Large portions of it don’t recombine (which is to say, mix genes) with the X chromosome, and this mixing of genes enables problematic mutations to be selected out of the population if they’re detrimental enough.

Many of the genes originally on the Y aren’t needed, since the man will have them working properly on his X chromosome, so the genes accumulate defects because they cannot be selected out by natural selection. About the only important genes on the Y are the ones that specify that the embryo will be male, and genes for sperm synthesis and other things relating to the testes. It has been theorised that the Y chromosome will eventually be degenerated to the point where it disappears or is no use. Cue lots of pearl clutching about men disappearing. though grasshoppers seem to do just fine with males being X-0 which is to say they have no second chromosome. Unless humans evolve asexual reproduction (drawbacks), the species should be able to find some other way of determining sex. After all, the Y chromosome way is not the only way, and I suspect that genes coding for fertility (which is really most of what the Y chromosome functioning genes do) which are degenerated would be highly selected against, because men with that problem would not be able to breed.

Another way people can make the science of sex and gender all about the holy penis and their beloved stereotypes.

Laura // Posted 8 December 2008 at 8:31 pm

I saw this on the front page of the Telegraph earlier today – the headline was “Males becoming feminised” – neatly giving the misleading impression that human males have been affected, so buying into the whole masculinity in crisis panic that’s supposedly been going on ever since gender equality began to loom on the horizon. They also repeatedly used the term “gender bending chemicals” – how very mature.

Rachel // Posted 8 December 2008 at 8:44 pm

Well Roger Alton (Editor of the Independent) is clearly making good headway towards his aim of making the Independent more like the Daily Mail.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 December 2008 at 9:25 pm

Unfortunately, ‘feminisation’ is a scientific term. I’d have coined a different term, since society has appropriated it to mean anything in which a man acts other than super-macho-male-ly.

Fortunately, it refers to physiological changes due to endocrine inbalances whereby men/males have a lack of androgens, or are exposed to too much oestrogens/progestagens, not the behavioural/ gender/culture aspects. Luckily, the textbooks/papers I’ve seen have been mostly respectful of the implications of this language and gender/sex/gender role as a subject, but mainstream science reporting, as usual, falls way below par.

Sabre // Posted 8 December 2008 at 10:08 pm

Thanks Anne Onne!

Re. the term ‘gender bender’, I think it’s so popular because it rhymes. No kidding.

Apparently there is a group called the Reproductive Effects of Environmental Chemicals in Females Consortium (REEF) whose researchers are now starting ‘one of the first studies of the effect of environmental chemicals on female mammals’. See http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/public-affairs/press-releases/index.phtml?menu=pressreleases&code=DOC-106/08&create_date=20-may-2008 for more.

So maybe in a few years time we’ll get some findings on how chemicals affect female fertility. Although the cynic in me suspects it will be packaged by the media as an exercise in condemning women for some lifestyle choice or another.

Ally // Posted 5 April 2010 at 3:22 pm

What has fertility got to do with gender?!

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