Friday, September 23, 2011

Gender and the Company We Keep

A recent study cited in the New York Times showed that testosterone in human males dropped after fatherhood. Further, the study noted that the hormone dip accelerated the more time men spent in child-rearing activities. The New York Times editorial mulled over implications of manhood and masculinity as currently debated in these changing times here in America, where more mothers are working and more dads are delving into the diaper-changing, car-pooling, bath-time, bed-time arenas once reserved for stay-at-home moms. But let's take a broader view.

Research conducted by Anna Meigs in the 1970s among the Hua of Papua New Guinea suggest a characterization of masculinity and femininity that mirrors this study of fathers and their changing testosterone levels. I will summarize here, but the whole concept made me think that the Hua, who numbered between 100 and 300 people at the time of the study, were light years ahead of our rigid Western ideas of gender and sex.

The Hua believe that all humans possess a real life-giving force called nu that can be transferred person-to-person. Nu helps people age and mature. As females have lots of nu they are moist and grow fast while males have smaller amounts and are dry and need assistance to grow-up. So one's masculinity and feminity is characterized both by genitalia and by one's amount of nu.

One can get nu from someone's breath, women's bodily secretions, eating particular foods that are high in nu qualities and generally by being married to or hanging around women. Those with little nu include boys getting ready for puberty ceremonies who avoid women and nu rich foods to make themselves dry, hard and fierce. People with high amounts of nu include children of both sexes (because they spend so much time with their mothers), married women with children and - here we hark back to the aforementioned study - old married men! With a lifetime spent having intercourse with women (who are considered polluting) and eating nu rich foods, middle aged and older men become more 'like women.' Conversely, post-menopausal women have lost nu by having children, through menstruation and by handling and preparing food - they are more 'like men,' entitled to live in the men's house. They are no longer a threat.

In thinking of the Hua, I would like to know if pre-menopausal women who spend no time with children, little time with women and more time with men (such as women in corporate or managerial positions with high ratios of men to women) have lower levels of estrogen and progesterone and higher levels of testosterone? I think about women in their thirties and forties who marry then quit their jobs or work part-time in order to start families and then find it difficult to get pregnant. After years of trying, sometimes infertile couples choose to adopt. Once they become mothers, some women then find it possible to have a biological child. Does having a child/hanging around children and other women by participating in play groups, PTO, etc., influence estrogen and progesterone levels? After all, women who cohabit find that their menstrual cycles get somewhat synchronized - maybe hanging around men does the reverse?

I think the Hua are on to something with their concept of nu, just not yet sure how it applies.

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