Could a Real Man Handle the Pain of Childbirth?

Men are supposed to be stoic, to tough it out. Boys don’t cry and all that other nonsense. This may explain why men don’t seek medical advice as often as women, and why men receive less medical attention than women at accident scenes – women and children first after all. But women like to remind men that even if they could birth a baby physically, they probably wouldn’t be able to cope with the pain. This idea has made it into main stream culture, and women may be paying a price for this bit of dogma. Studies show that, controlling for level of pain reported, women are less likely to receive painkillers in emergency centres. This would make sense, after all, if women were so much better at handling pain.

So both men and women seem to want to own the position of being able to handle more pain, often apparently to their own detriment. So who is right? Research suggests a clear answer. When men and women have their hands subjected to intense heat or pressure, men can endure higher levels of both. What about putting hands in icy water? Once again, men seem to endure it better, indicating the onset of pain later, and waiting longer before removing their hands.

Men are also almost twice as likely to return to playing a sport after joint replacement surgery. Given that pain is the number one reason given for not returning to a sport after this kind of surgery, this result implies that men have a higher tolerance for this kind of pain as well. Women also report higher levels of pain experienced during a variety of illnesses, and for various forms of chronic pain. So, on balance men seem to endure pain better than women. Yet, the idea that women can endure more pain than men seems highly resistant to the accumulating evidence, with particular emphasis given to the experience of giving birth. Yes, we men have no doubt that it is painful. Yes, we understand that we can’t do it. But no, it does not logically follow that you women can endure more pain than us.