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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Threshold of Pain

I just did a Google search for “threshold of pain men women.” One result was “Women More Sensitive to Pain than Men”; another was Women are the Hardier Sex…. Funnily enough, both results were from the same news site.

Those findings confirm what I’ve long suspected, though. When people say (and they often do) that women have a “higher pain threshold,” they are often imprecise in their phrasing. It’s important to make a distinction between tolerance and onset when talking about thresholds. What the former article seems to indicate is that women, in fact, have a lower threshold when it comes to the onset of pain. I’ve also found this to be true anecdotally. If I happen to accidentally touch or land upon my wife in the wrong place, she’ll scream out in pain, whereas I would likely just say “ouch” softly if the same were to happen to me. Women get hurt more easily, it seems.

The latter article points to what most people mean when they say women have a “higher pain threshold”—women have, in fact, a higher threshold when it comes to pain tolerance. The onset of pain may come more quickly or easily for women, but women are able to tolerate more pain than a man could. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I have a couple of examples, one from fiction, one from experience.

In the screen adaption of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Gerardo tells his wife that he wouldn’t have survived even a day of torture. He would have given her away right away. He would have told them anything. His wife, on the other hand, was tortured for months and revealed nothing. Now, it’s likely that Gerardo would not have felt certain lighter forms of torture to be painful, yet once the pain came, he would not be able to stand it. Paulina, his wife, however, felt various levels of pain but never cracked.

In my own experience, as a former runner (I ran track for my four years of high school), it seemed to me that the women runners seemed to be in pain (complaining and just looking wretched) after a not-so-strenuous workout. The men, however, could run a decent workout without feeling much pain at all. Being a typical man, though, myself, I found that once the pain came, I could not go any further. Try as I might, I was unable to accelerate and barely able to continue once the pain came on. My pain tolerance was nil.

Let’s be precise in our language. First of all, I should qualify this as we should any generalizations about gender—these are all sweeping statements based on the majority of each group in the sociological context in which we live. Secondly, there are at least two thresholds of pain: the threshold of the onset of pain and the threshold of the intolerance of pain.

Edit: After the years it’s been since I originally wrote this, the links have long since died, so I reGoogled and found what I think were the articles I linked to (but archived on different sites). It’s interesting to see how people can’t believe the first article, since they make no distinction between onset and endurance of pain.

3 replies on “Threshold of Pain”

I was talking to hubby about this recently. I’ve thought about this (and read about it) a lot, and my conclusions is that when it comes to pain we’re wired differently because of our different roles:

You guys need to be able to go out and hack at each other and not feel the small wounds, so you can keep fighting long enough to survive.

We need to be sensitive to small, interior pains, so we know when the baby shifts, etc., and then tolerate a lot of pain, so the baby can come out.

Since you are an English teacher, I will bother you about your English. In the last paragraph, you use the term “Secondly”. Adverbs are formed by addition of an ‘-ly’ suffix. Enumerations are a particular form of the word: first, second, third, etc. A suffix is neither required nor properly added to an enumeration.

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