During a Saturday afternoon of beers with a friend, I do not remember exactly how the subject came up. I said, “Science is not objective, it has never been” and he, looking at me with his jaw on the floor, asked me “how dare you to say that? You are an engineer”. I understand the bewilderment because I am contradicting something taken for granted in the first chemistry class. However, there are multiple perspectives from which it can be understood how science is not this apparatus of immutable truth that we generally believe it is, for example, from the perspective of the female body.
While reading a tale written by Adelaida Fernández Ochoa named Pan de vida (Bread of life), a segment in it got stuck in my mind: “Although it is not included in the list of organs of the human body, [the breast] performs the primary function. What is the reason for such exclusion?”. This question made me think of how there are many aspects of my body that science has found irrelevant for years and I realized that bodies outside the cis-male norm have not been taken seriously by science.
The answer to Fernandez’s question is a little obvious, in my opinion. But let’s focus on the fact that she is right in calling breast organs. According to a note from the National Cancer Institute women’s breasts are made of fatty tissue, fibrous connective tissue, and glandular tissue, which specializes in producing milk. Organs are structures of the body that perform specific functions and are “made of several types of tissue and therefore several types of cells”, hence, it is to say that breasts are organs.
While breasts are not defined as organs in medical environments, the clitoris, although an organ, is a forgotten one. It is not a secret that the clitoris has historically been less studied than its possible masculine “equivalent”: the penis. In scholar Google, the results of the keyword penis are 774,000, while in the case of the clitoris, the results are almost 10 times lower (79,700) by the time I’m writing this. Besides, the clitoris anatomy was fully defined and studied until 2005, although the investigator had already warned that the clitoris’ anatomical description was inaccurate in 1998. I’m older than the discovery of the clitoris full structure!
Pharmacological contraceptive methods are also relevant to the discussion. The pill, for example, has several studies showing serious long-term side effects, the same effects for which the pill is not yet marketed for men. For women, periodic injections, implants, and the Intrauterine Device (Copper or Hormonal), among others, are also commercialized. However, there is a method that is hardly talked about: the sympto-thermal method.
While cis-men are fertile every single day, we are fertile only ~6 days every cycle. The reason why we are still the ones carrying pharmacological side effects is the same as Fernandez’s question: patriarchy. But let’s focus on this method that is not taught in school in general despite having studies proving its effectiveness. The symptom-thermal method consists of tracking corporal signs to identify the days on which we are fertile, like basal temperature and cervical flow. These signs change through the cycle in a way women can define when they ovulated approximately, that way they avoid having intercourse without barrier methods or at all. The effectiveness of the method is ~99.4% under the guidelines defined by Frank-Herrmann et al.
The recent Covid-19 epidemic also showed that events like menstruation are almost irrelevant to scientists. After the development and wide application of the vaccine against the virus, many women experienced abnormalities in their menstrual cycle. Emerging studies show that the effects are not long-term, however, the problem, in this case, is that it took a flood of complaints on social media for attention to be paid to the menstrual cycle as a variable for research on vaccines several months after they began to be applied in the world since the researchers did not take it into account in the clinical trials before releasing the vaccine.
I could extend myself with other examples, such as the case of the symptoms of heart attacks, which for years have been disseminated in order to identify them in time, but recently it was discovered that only some are useful in women because they differ, or that of psychiatric medication, which in men with depression is more often preceded by advice such as exercise and going out with friends than in women with the same problem (let’s not forget the origin of hysteria), which show how medicine and science have overlooked bodies that do not belong to the cis-male norm.
When I told my friend that science is not objective, I meant that it is done by people who are born in a place, at a time, and in conditions pierced by class, gender, race, and many other contexts, and this makes it a social construction on which we must constantly reflect because it affects our way of existing in the world, of constructing certainties.