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Aug 14, 2014

Razer's Class Warfare: oh, those crazy cave ladies and their crazy PMS

Since Hippocrates first made observations about the wandering womb, studies have sought to separate the myth of menses from verifiable fact.

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Here is an image of an enraged lady in knitwear:

As it turns out, she’s not angry because she was cruelly fooled into buying a jumper with ugly blouson sleeves. She has the shits because she’s just found out she was used to illustrate a sensationalist press release generated by Macquarie University.

In a statement for the now widely reported article “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?“, the university congratulates its scientist for his courage. Just why Professor of molecular evolution Michael Gillings is “brave” is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because his hypothesis relies on the idea that bitchy women are more likely to put it about — ahem, I mean genetically diversify. Or perhaps it is because he agreed to allow his systematic review to be used as press titillation.

The university has no one to blame but itself for media “analysis” like that at news.com.au, which purports to offer us the “real reason” women are subject to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Which is, apparently, that feminine foulness immediately before menses worked well as a reproductive mechanism in hunter-gatherer societies.

PMS, which is self-reported in up to 80% of women, is widespread. But it is also maladaptive. Therefore, Gillings reasons, it must have once been adaptive.

In Olden Times, PMS developed in cave ladies as an adaptive behaviour. The vestigial bitchiness that now manifests in marital “hostility” (his term) and, we must suppose, purchase of ugly jumpers was, proposes Gillings, initially effective in dousing the ardour of non-fertile men. So cave bros with low sperm count moved on, thereby freeing up the Palaeolithic vagina for more diverse reproductive intrusion.

So if your girlfriend embarks on a Sex and the City viewing binge and screams “shut up, you’re such a Charlotte”, this is not, in Gillings’ reading, the work of a culture that has medicalised the state of PMS into being. It is, in fact, a surviving quirk that turned millennia ago from mutation into widespread trait to do as survival requires and whore it up for the gene pool.

It is very tempting for the lay feminist to get cranky about this assessment of PMS and not least because it presupposes that the thing is a biomedical fact and not, as Professor Jane Ussher of the University of Western Sydney claimed in a 2007 study, a cultural effect felt in the body.

There are other studies, including this one from 2012, which have sought to separate the myth of menses from verifiable fact. Since Hippocrates first made his observations about the wandering womb, there have been relentless attempts in science to explain female behaviour as it is socially observed in the terms of natural law.

Of course, male reproductive behaviour has been medicalised at various times, too. The “nocturnal emissions” of young men were once construed as disorder, and remedial bells were placed on the male organ so that an adult could intervene and stop the harmful onanism. It was male homosexual practice that was most often medically treated from the 19th century up until its decriminalisation and de-medicalisation in the 1970s. But it is fair to say that woman and her reproductive parts have been more codified and punished by medicine.

But in his paper, Gillings seems to be on the side of an emerging contemporary thought as he urges for the de-medicalisation of PMS, which appears, as he says it should not, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

PMS is not a medical condition, he says. It’s far too common to be viewed as a disorder. In this, he is agreed with thinkers from a number of scientific and soft disciplines who urge the de-medicalisation of a range of behaviours. There is robust discussion on the classification of a number of other common disorders, including anxiety and depression. Eminent psychiatrists, including former DSM editor Dr Allen Frances, have lost their patience with a medical orthodoxy that seeks to take even something like occasional overeating and turn it into Binge Eating Disorder.

This is a good instant for public and academic talk on de-medicalisation and the social archaeology of all sorts of normal human behaviours, from drinking to menopause to ADHD, is traced even in medicine. It was in the august New England Journal of Medicine that one thinker published a speculative fiction called “The Last Well Person”. Now, increasingly, we are all unwell.

But Gillings work, amplified by his university, is not taking part in the conversation about the medical habit of making normal human behaviour aberrant. He says that he wants to de-medicalise. But, in place of the practice of medicalisation, we see the beginnings of what has been called “geneticisation”.

It is trying not to see reports like Gillings’ as a bit of a joke. While he appears to be on the side of reproductive choice, he is still building a new kind of reproductive prison with the claim that there may be gene variants related to PMS; although in this lay reading these variants seem to show up in PMS’s more extreme cousin, premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

But. You know. I would say that because I am currently in my luteal phase and therefore thinking only about the purchase of ugly jumpers.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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