April
15th 2011
Seminal developments: entitled sexist a$$holes divide surgeons’ group

Posted under: American history, bad language, Gender, GLBTQ, jobs, the body, wankers, weirdness, women's history

This would actually be a pretty funny story for The Onion, if it weren’t in fact true (h/t to my horrified physician friend KV):

A Valentine’s Day editorial in the official newspaper of the American College of Surgeons has set off a firestorm of controversy that has divided the largest professional organization of surgeons in the country and raised questions about the current leadership and its attitudes toward women and gay and lesbian members.

The editorial, written by Dr. Lazar J. Greenfield, an emeritus professor of surgery at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, extols the mood-enhancing effects of semen on women. It begins with a reference to the mating behaviors of fruit flies, then goes on to discuss studies on the menstrual cycles of heterosexual and lesbian women who live together. Citing the research of evolutionary psychologists at the State University of New York, it describes how female college students who had been exposed to semen were less depressed than their peers who had not, concluding: “So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.”

.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

The organization has more than 75,000 members (I am one). Roughly 10 percent are women. There are five women on the organization’s 22-member governing board; this month, they issued a letter requesting that Dr. Greenfield step down as president-elect. The entire board is set to vote on the issue on Sunday.

Seriously.  Re-read those paragraphs again.  Especially the part about how this was published in the official newspaper of the American College of Surgeons.  And click on the link, too, to be informed by the headline “Sexism charges divide surgeons’ group.”  That’s right:  sexism charges are dividing the group, not the disgusting sexist behavior itself.

The only interesting angle of this story is that the offending author Greenfield is regarded by a few women quoted on the record as an ally of women in the profession:

Dr. Diane M. Simeone, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan who was a co-author of a recent article on barriers faced by women in academic surgery, agrees. “There still is a lot of gender bias in surgery, and I have seen it myself on multiple fronts,” she said. “That was never evident from Dr. Greenfield. I think it’s important to know that this is one event and to weigh it against a long career where he has always been completely above board and a role model for supporting women in surgery.”

It is less clear what attitudes Dr. Greenfield or other leaders of the organization have toward the college’s gay and lesbian members. “I think race and religion have made a lot more progress in the college than women, and particularly gay women or men,” Dr. [Colleen] Brophy said.

Well, I rather think that it’s more important to reflect on why a man who has been regarded by some as an ally of women in the profession can 1) think an article like this is a really terrific idea, and 2) why the profession’s newspaper would find it worthy of publication.  I’m left wondering that if this is something that a so-called ally would do, then what do the enemies of women and gay and lesbian surgeons do–smear their j!zz all over their colleagues’ lockers and mailboxes?

Someone needs a massive shipment of used tampons in his in-box, which is apparently accepting deliveries at Office of the Emeritus Faculty, 1327 Jones Drive – Suite 201, Ann Arbor, MI 48105.  Just a suggestion!  Don’t tell them I sent you.

And while we’re on the subject of sharing, can we talk about the word “seminal?”  I can barely bring myself to use the word “seminar,” let alone the word in the previous sentence.  It’s just so sexist and creepy and corporeal and, well, sticky that I never let a student use it without comment.  I just don’t think we think hard enough about the language we use, but seriously friends–is it that difficult to figure this one out?

30 Comments »

30 Responses to “Seminal developments: entitled sexist a$$holes divide surgeons’ group”

  1. dmj on 16 Apr 2011 at 6:52 am #

    I’m a gay medical student in the conservative South. The Times article horrified me, so I poked around and found the original editorial reprinted here: http://bit.ly/hK9kbt

    With all due respect to most of Dr. Chen’s writing, she has poorly characterized the content and tone of Dr. Greenfield’s article. By opening her description with “extols the mood-enhancing effects of semen on women”, she implies that this comprises his main idea. In fact the thesis is that “[romantic attraction] might have a physiologic basis”. Two paragraphs on Drosophila follow, with no mention of sex or gender. Then one paragraph on rotifer, which reproduced asexually in stable environments but sexually in heterogeneous ones. Next, the controversial part: a straightforward description of one study’s findings (cohabiting straight women’s menstrual cycles sync) leading to another’s (lesbian women’s don’t), culminating in a paper supporting the hypothesis that exposure to semen may have beneficial neurobiochemical effects. By the way, while one could feasibly argue that there is not yet consensus, Dr. Brophy’s assertion that “[the science] is erroneous” does not follow based on my review of the literature. Last of all, a fair summary–St. Valentine had no knowledge of the aforementioned science–and the attempt at cutesy with the chocolate line.

    Where is the sexism? Where is the homophobia? I ask this not to raise rabble or to provoke, but as a genuinely concerned individual. After all, Dr. Greenfield’s ?lighthearted? prescription for semen intake as a means for improved psychological health stands just as well for men as women. (I found no published studies contradicting or supporting this extension of the notion.)

    Finally, the OED says that “semen”, “seminal”, and “seminar” all derive from the Latin meaning seed of a plant OR animal. (This IS meant to poke fun at you:) Should you be letting the superficial similarities among these words obscure their non-sticky root?

  2. Historiann on 16 Apr 2011 at 7:05 am #

    If Chen has “poorly characterized” the article, then so have a bunch of other members of the College of Surgeons.

    I’m trying to think of another professional newsletter in which it would be considered appropriate to write about semen. . . maybe a urologist’s newsletter? . . . otherwise, I’m still thinking.

    You’re free to be unoffended. I’m free to take offense at the culture of surgeons.

  3. Historiann on 16 Apr 2011 at 7:20 am #

    p.s. And I should add: pointing out the Latin masculinist/sexist roots of our language hardly absolves us of thinking about those roots now. Because it’s been sexist to gender “seed” as male for thousands of years makes it OK now?

  4. Ruth on 16 Apr 2011 at 7:32 am #

    While I have never gone so far as to call a seminar an “ovular,” I do make a point of using “fertile” when speaking of ideas rather than “seminal.” It’s actually not the same metaphor: “seminal” implies that one person planted the idea and everything else grew from there, whereas “fertile” implies that someone prepared a ground on which ideas from a variety of sources could grow. That has always seemed to me like a better metaphor for how ideas work anyway.

  5. kevinmlowe on 16 Apr 2011 at 7:38 am #

    Not to be overly pedantic since I agree with the point about the gendering of language, but the word semen in Latin (seed, stock) is actually of neuter gender. Incidentally, some Roman doctors at least thought that both men and women had sperm.

  6. shaz on 16 Apr 2011 at 8:37 am #

    You’ve ruined seminar for me. Never made that connection before, duh.

    I use foundational in lieu of the sticky seminal. Usually works.

  7. Notorious Ph.D. on 16 Apr 2011 at 9:02 am #

    I like Ruth’s formulation and its rationale. Stealing both.

  8. quixote on 16 Apr 2011 at 9:07 am #

    I dunno, Historiann. Maybe this is partly a biosciences thing. I read the quoted part and thought, “Ah, yes. A rather tone deaf elderly gent trying to be lighthearted. It’s the thought that counts.”

    As dmj points out, the piece doesn’t misrepresent the research (which is unusual in itself!), and the research itself is not some old canard, long disproved. It’s only prejudice that can be sexist (or racist or homophobic). The truth, that is, the whole truth, is postjudice.

    Does that make it sensible to bring all this up in an attempt at humor? No. It’s not funny. And until we know the whole truth (I don’t know how many studies there have been on, ahem, seminal effects, but there’s a great deal we still don’t know), it belongs in research papers, not editorials.

    Does it imply the elderly gent shouldn’t be prez of the association? Yes, I think so. Tone deafness is a primary disqualification, or should be.

  9. Indyanna on 16 Apr 2011 at 10:22 am #

    I’ve never understood the concept, linguistic or functional, of “editorials” in scholarly journals anyway, other than that they mean the editor or some foundational figure in the field had something to say that month and didn’t want to run it out to “readers” before putting it before hir actual readers. In most media that departmentalize editorials, there’s something of a rhetorical at least firewall between “news” (or content) and “editorial.” This kind of stuff seems at most op-ed. This one is tacky enough, to be sure, to be “lightheartedly” run out there for Valentine’s Day–and what the hell does it have to do with surgery, anyway? What the underlying “science” is who knows? One could well imagine this kind of “new knowledge” being tacked up in every frat house in the country.

    I also like Ruth’s rationale for a new metaphoric for productive idea-making.

  10. Ethel Louise on 16 Apr 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    My adviser, [a man] who doesn’t exactly have the best track record on gender issues, commented to me last year that, “We don’t say seminal anymore! Now we say ‘generative’ or ‘cross-pollinating!’” It’s a start, I guess!

  11. truffula on 16 Apr 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    It seems to me that Dr. Greenfield went to an awful lot of effort writing an entire editorial just so that he could pass off what he must have thought was a very witty remark: and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

    Right. Because we all knew the best gift a dude can give a lady is his d!ck and now there is some kind of “proof.” Gag me. (But not with that.)

  12. Comrade PhysioProf on 16 Apr 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    There is no question that the medical profession has a continuing problem with misogyny and paternalism, and surgeons are the worst of the lot. I posted about this some time ago:

    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2008/07/23/more-on-medical-battery/

  13. Historiann on 16 Apr 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    Surgeons are the worst, no question about it. It’s no longer a brand-new book, but for women medical students and physicians or anyone interested in sex/gender issues in medicine, I strongly recommend Dr. Frances Conley’s Walking out on the Boys Sadly, I don’t think the overwhelming culture of male entitlement has changed much if at all since Conley resigned from her position in Neurosurgery at Stanford in the 1990s.

    IIRC, among Fratguy’s med school classmates, it always seemed like the biggest jerks were either going into surgery, or if they didn’t have the academic chops for surgery, they were going into fields where women were the majority of their patients or their ONLY patients: psychiatry and OB/GYN.

    ((Shudder))

  14. Comrade PhysioProf on 16 Apr 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I’m just a basic science professor who teaches physiology to first-year medical students, but I can see these attitudes developing already. And the difference between the male and female students is palpable. It’s sad and disturbing. But there is no reason to think that the usual patriarchy shitte wouldn’t be instantiated in the medical profession, regardles of how much some of us love it.

  15. Anonymous on 16 Apr 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    As a latin-wielding botanist, I always think of *that word* as neuter, and referring to an individual of the next generation, not the gametes (sperm or eggs). At least when I consciously think about it. The other day in lecture, I referred to a female scientist’s work as “seminal” — as soon as I heard the word out of my mouth, I shuddered. It just sounded so wrong.

    I am so tired of old duffers getting a pass for their obnoxious, offensive behavior. If it is so difficult for them to keep up with changing standards of acceptable professional behavior, why do we assume that they are keeping up with changing standards in research or SURGERY?!

    And seriously. Evolutionary psychology? What a load of cherry-picked bullshit.

  16. Historiann on 16 Apr 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    I am so tired of old duffers getting a pass for their obnoxious, offensive behavior. If it is so difficult for them to keep up with changing standards of acceptable professional behavior, why do we assume that they are keeping up with changing standards in research or SURGERY?!

    Awesome point. But, the culture of training surgeons is intentionally and proudly antediluvian, so it’s really difficult to imagine how a profession that’s only 10% female can effect feminist change. We know how difficult this is even in academic fields that are 20-40% female, and even in the face of acknowledged goodwill among men and women alike. Surgical residencies are like time travel to the 1950s or 1960s.

    Come to think of it, maybe they should invite some historians to enjoy that kind of time travel, or some anthropologists to study how their culture remains so impervious to change (or even to change over time.) It’s kind of a wonder of the modern world, in a perverse way.

  17. Paul S. on 16 Apr 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Off-topic, I tend to think of the word “seed” as vaguely female. It’s probably because I like gardening and plants, and the seeds on a plant always develop from the female part.

    I never liked the word “seminal”, partly because of its origin, but alternatives like “fertile” or “original” or even “foundational” don’t seem to have quite the same shade of meaning.

    Like shaz, I never made the connection with “seminar”.

  18. m Andrea on 16 Apr 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    whoa, how disgusting! And thank you very much for this post. Also:

    In a sample of sexually active college females, condom use, as an indirect measure of the presence of semen in the reproductive tract, was related to scores on the Beck Depression Inventory. Not only were females who were having sex without condoms less depressed, but depressive symptoms and suicide attempts among females who used condoms were proportional to the consistency of condom use. For females who did not use condoms, depression scores went up as the amount of time since their last sexual encounter increased. These data are consistent with the possibility that semen may antagonize depressive symptoms and evidence which shows that the vagina absorbs a number of components of semen that can be detected in the bloodstream within a few hours of administration.

    That’s all that is available to me. However, I suggest that the researchers involved take a logic class. Apparently they’ve never bothered to take any, and it shows. Reseachers notice that women who fuck a lot are less depressed and of course the ONLY reason which occurs to their tiny gnat like brains is that semen is responsible. Duh, duh, and duh. Women who are less depressed are far more likely to be social, and hence engage in all sorts of social activities such as fucking. DUH. And females who feel bad about themselves, feel unworthy etc are far more likely not to insist their fuck buddy use a comdom. Double duh. Logic: making sexist researchers look as stupid as they actually are.

  19. m Andrea on 16 Apr 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Apologies for the rudeness, stupidity always makes me crabby. Anyway, to clarify. The women who have sex without a comdom are less depressed than the women who don’t have sex (though depression is not the only reason people refrain from sex). The women who have sex with a condom are even less depressed than the women who have sex without a condom. Attributing the cause of depression to semen is totally non-logical when other reasons are far more likely.

    The form of the argument they are using looks like this:

    hey we noticed a corelation.

    hey it must be the cause.

    surely I should be a waiter instead of a researcher.

  20. LadyProf on 16 Apr 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    I am so tired of old duffers getting a pass for their obnoxious, offensive behavior. If it is so difficult for them to keep up with changing standards of acceptable professional behavior, why do we assume that they are keeping up with changing standards in research or SURGERY?!

    QFT. Love it. I never heard of Dr. Lazar Greenfield until today–but he seems to have enjoyed a bounteous career. Let’s hold him to high, not low, standards. He can take it.

  21. Sunday Reads: Did you ever see an elephant fly? « Sky Dancing on 17 Apr 2011 at 2:58 am #

    [...] Seminal developments: entitled sexist a$holes divide surgeons’ group : Historiann : History and se… [...]

  22. dmj on 17 Apr 2011 at 3:22 am #

    “it’s really difficult to imagine how a profession that’s only 10% female can effect feminist change”

    There’s good news on that front. As the proportion of female medical students grows, the proportion of females selecting surgical specialties has increased too. A relevant paper in the March issue of JACS: http://bit.ly/hghGFp

    My medical school class is majority female, and that is usual at med schools these days. The surgery clerkship director here is a woman. Our curriculum includes training on women’s and LGBT issues from the first semester.

    Medical and surgical cultures evolve painfully slowly, but they do change.

  23. Susan on 17 Apr 2011 at 8:12 am #

    I love Ruth’s formulation of “generative”. I’ve been careful about “seminal” since I gave one of my first job talks, where I referred to Alice Clark’s book as “seminal”. Some of the faculty took me aside….

  24. Historiann on 17 Apr 2011 at 8:18 am #

    HA! Good one, Susan.

    dmj, I’m glad you’re optimistic, but the numbers of women med students have been at parity or above for a long time now. What’s happened to medicine is that women are pushed/guided into lower paying primary care specialties, and men still dominate the surgical and procedure-oriented (and thus higher paying) subspecialites like ophalmology, cardiology, and surgery in all forms (with the exception of OB/GYN.)

    Why is it that surgery has such lopsided numbers of men v. women? Do you think that the j!zz jokes might have something to do with it?

    This sorting out is what’s happening in fields that require professional/graduate degrees everywhere. There’s a gendering and sorting that goes on to ensure that male professionals will still make more money and have more prestige than the women.

  25. Bardiac on 18 Apr 2011 at 6:08 am #

    This is slightly off-topic, but every time I see that picture, I can’t help thinking about the one body, the object of the exam, being cut in half to show the parts, while the other body (or disembodied hand) is whole, clothed (or gloved and gowned).

    There’s something there that communicates about empowerment and such, isn’t there?

    Sorry to be so half-thought-out. I need more caffeine.

  26. Does semen work as an antidepressant? — The Good Men Project Magazine on 18 Apr 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    [...] M. Little, a professor at Colorado State University, is convinced of the former. She refers to the likes of Greenfield as “entitled sexist a–holes,” and suggests: “Someone needs a [...]

  27. Bing on 21 Apr 2011 at 6:16 am #

    No, Bardiac. It’s a matter of relevance.

    Sorry, guys, but this one strikes me as a warlock-hunt. (See what I did there? I’m sensitive to sexist language!) Even if there is a correlation, not causation, it’s still there. I don’t think that it is a particularly fantastic op-ed, but then again, I don’t think that surgeons are as squeamish when it comes to bodily functions.

    HJ (deceased)

  28. esculenta on 23 Apr 2011 at 8:29 am #

    As a follow up, the American College of Surgeons now has a brilliant and savvy president who coincidentally is a feminist pioneer in the field. She happened to be next in line as VP.

    http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2011/04/prominent_woman_doctor_to_lead.html

    (Hometown pride! Our journalism, though: not the best.)

    I briefly worked in the Breast Care Center Dr. Numann founded (later renamed to honor her); she is a legend, beatifically praised by her colleagues, staff, and patients. Dr. Numann founded the American Association of Women Surgeons, was the first female surgeon at SUNY Upstate, and served as the first female chair of the American Board of Surgery.

    Dr. Greenfield’s essay was tone-deaf *at best*. It was time for him to go, regardless, when the ACS can tout this treasure instead!

  29. Links, I want to be more than friends. « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured on 30 Apr 2011 at 12:49 am #

    [...] of science:  presented without comment.  (#2 comments:  No links to the big firestorm that Historiann reported on?  Also, why don’t people who do medical science research [...]

  30. JJT on 22 Jun 2012 at 11:36 am #

    “That’s all that is available to me. However, I suggest that the researchers involved take a logic class. Apparently they’ve never bothered to take any, and it shows. Reseachers notice that women who fuck a lot are less depressed and of course the ONLY reason which occurs to their tiny gnat like brains is that semen is responsible. Duh, duh, and duh. Women who are less depressed are far more likely to be social, and hence engage in all sorts of social activities such as fucking. DUH. And females who feel bad about themselves, feel unworthy etc are far more likely not to insist their fuck buddy use a comdom. Double duh. Logic: making sexist researchers look as stupid as they actually are.”

    In response to this, the researchers checked the amount of sex that the participants in the study were having, to ensure that the cause of a lack of depression was not more sex.

    It might be that the cause was *better sex*, but that’s corrected for via random sampling. I don’t think the research is what people are disputing. People are disputing the suggestion the doctor is making about valentines gifts and appropriate jokes.