Gender and the Hygiene Hypothesis

Social Science and Medicine 72:486-493 (2011)
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Abstract

The hygiene hypothesis offers an explanation for the correlation, well-established in the industrialized nations of North and West, between increased hygiene and sanitation, and increased rates of asthma and allergies. Recent studies have added to the scope of the hypothesis, showing a link between decreased exposure to certain bacteria and parasitic worms, and increased rates of depression and intestinal auto- immune disorders, respectively. What remains less often discussed in the research on these links is that women have higher rates than men of asthma and allergies, as well as many auto-immune disorders, and also depression. The current paper introduces a feminist understanding of gender socialization to the epidemiological and immunological picture. That standards of cleanliness are generally higher for girls than boys, especially under the age of five when children are more likely to be under close adult supervision, is a robust phenomenon in industrialized nations, and some research points to a cross- cultural pattern. I conclude that, insofar as the hygiene hypothesis successfully identifies standards of hygiene and sanitation as mediators of immune health, then attention to the relevant patterns of gender socialization is important. The review also makes clear that adding a feminist analysis of gender socialization to the hygiene hypothesis helps explain variation in morbidity rates not addressed by other sources and responds to a number of outstanding puzzles in current research. Alternative explanations for the sex differences in the relevant morbidity rates are also discussed (e.g., the effects of estrogens). Finally, new sources of evidence for the hygiene hypothesis are suggested in the form of cross-cultural and other natural experiments.

Author's Profile

Sharyn Clough
Oregon State University

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