Measles — a ridiculously contagious viral infection spread by mucus and saliva that can linger in a room for hours and re-infect a dozen or more new victims thanks to a single cough — was eliminated all the way back in 2000 thanks to vigilant vaccination. But now it’s back with a vengeance. In states like Washington, it’s gotten so bad that the governor had to declare a public health emergency in January. Blame permissive laws that let parents opt out of vaccines for non-medical reasons, but also blame anti-vaxxers.
Who are they, anyway? In a word: women. Or so we think.
Quick, picture an anti-vaxxer. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, maybe Jenny McCarthy comes to mind, the goofy Playboy model slash TV hostess who’s generally the most recognizable face of the movement. Who else? Maybe actress Alicia Silverstone pops up in your brain, who’s perpetuated the notion that vaccines cause autism through her website. Maybe you saw that Kat Von D bragged on Instagram this weekend that she’ll be raising a “natural and vegan child, without vaccinations.” And at some point over the years, as celebs ranging from Selma Blair to Juliette Lewis mount headlines about their anti-vaccine, pro-“freedom” stances with regard to protecting children from long-ago killed-off diseases, you start to wonder if there’s something in the water. These are celebrities, many known for their quirky beliefs (star whackers, anyone?). Many of them are Scientologists. But mostly, the thing they all share in their staunch opposition to medical reason is that they’re moms.
But what about the anti-vaxx dads? After all, all parents are not mothers, and fathers have a say in whether their children are immunized.
Some research finds that women may just be more vocal about it. A study in 2017 found that the majority of people who comment, post or share articles about anti-vaxx nonsense on Facebook are women. Researchers combed through two years of posts on six of the most prominent (public) anti-vaxxer Facebook pages and found that they’re heavily female-led networks.
Men share posts on such groups about being pressured to vaccinate, too. The founder of one of the major anti-vaccine Facebook pages is a man. But many of the searchable posts including words like father and dad also involve references to custody disputes where fathers who once agreed with mothers not to vaccinate no longer do, and now that the couple is apart, the women don’t know how to make the fathers comply.
It’s not that no anti-vaxx dads make headlines. In 2016, David Stephan, the father in an anti-vaxx couple, was sentenced by an Alberta judge to four months in jail for the death of his unvaccinated child of meningitis, though technically the sentence was because the parents failed to care for the child after he became sick, Vice reported. Though mother Collet was sentenced to house arrest so she could continue to care for the couple’s three living children, David, in the judge’s view, was more “willfully blind” about how sick the child had gotten, and particularly remorseless.
Last year, a judge ruled against a father in the U.K. who refused to vaccinate his 5-year-old daughter, calling his views “unreliable” and that the “fruits of the father’s untutored and amateur research” were “at odds” with the medical establishment.
Interestingly, dads like this guy are the typical anti-vaxxer, according to some research. A 2015 survey from a consumer firm called CivicInsight found that anti-vaxxers are more often men: some 56 percent compared with 44 percent women. Most often, that man is a dude from the Midwest who earns less than $25,000 a year, feels insignificant in the political system and hasn’t been educated past high school.
He’s not all that conservative, either: Some 60 percent of the men who agreed vaccines were bad news were more likely to be liberal. He’s also not young, cosmopolitan or big on saving the earth. The men ranged in age from 45 to 54, live in rural areas, were not particularly environmental, and most of them (88 percent) hadn’t gone to a doctor in the past year. Not quite the affluent Cali-dwelling celebs who chew their baby’s food before depositing it into their mouth or are harvesting the placenta to turn it into a thumb ring.
But the most interesting tidbit from the survey is that the typical man who holds anti-vaxx views wasn’t even necessarily a father. In other words, a lot of men don’t think vaccines matter, but they aren’t necessarily the ones breeding, much less refusing to haul their children to the doctor.
The parents who don’t vaccinate their children have been found to be somewhat different than this group, however. “Parents who reject some or all vaccines are more likely to be white, college-educated, and married, with higher family income,” Julia Belluz explains at Vox, drawing on research from vaccine researcher Jennifer Reich.
Reich spent a decade interviewing parents about vaccine attitudes, writing that many of them are the “the university-educated ubermoms who favor organic food and have a tendency to avoid gluten and dairy products.”
That’s not to say the anti-vaxxer movement is lacking men, or that fathers aren’t in lockstep with their wives or girlfriends who oppose vaccines. They’re just less visible. They aren’t hiding on Reddit, where many unsavory men find camaraderie. Posting anti-vaxx comments on r/vaccines, for example, can get you banned; r/vaxxhappened, r/vaccinemyths, r/insaneparents and r/shitmomgroupssay are mostly for mocking or refuting the anti-vaxx crowd.
More interestingly, some children of anti-vaxxer parents have taken to Reddit to ask for legal advice on how to get vaccines for themselves without their parents’ permission. One teenage girl in Florida notes that her dad “fell down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole” about vaccines being bad, and her “mom agrees with him.”
And let’s not overlook that there are male celebrity mouthpieces. In a 2015 roundup of the major celebrities who’ve espoused anti-vaxx opinions, we find a couple of men make the list:
- Donald Trump
- Robert DeNiro
- Jim Carrey
- Bill Maher
- Charlie Sheen
- Danny Masterson
- Rob Schneider
- Billy Corgan
We just don’t seem to drag them through the mud so easily and visibly for their opinions on medicine.
The question is why? What’s this discrepancy really about? It’s true men are less likely to share and circulate the information online. But it could also be true that media types might be far less likely to pluck examples of men for their stories because they don’t fit the existing narrative of the mother as the de facto worrier of the family’s health, the primary caregiver, the best decision-maker for her family.
Women, we believe, are the pickiest about what’s right, because they have, we believe, a greater vested interest in their child’s health. “Choosy moms choose Jif” isn’t just a tagline about peanut butter; it’s a general shrewdness we grant mothers alone in the childrearing endeavor. They will choose the food, the healthcare and the particulars of how every booboo is tended to. Dads fall in line, even after trying to protest.
Pew Research from 2018 found that in spite of how much more fathers participate in childrearing and see parenting as central to their identity, most of us still believe women are better equipped to care for children. That’s not just about diapers; it extends to medical decisions as well that range from how to treat coughs and fevers at home to ideological decisions about how they receive care.
To be clear, most people — that is to say, roughly 85 percent of American men and women, regardless of any political affiliation or other designation, believe vaccines are safe. Over 90 percent of American children are vaccinated, too.
But as women are still doing most of the childcare and childrearing, this keeps them on the frontlines of care, exposing a gap where they overstep their ability to make those decisions by granting themselves a level of insight on par with an actual doctor. The researchers of the female-led Facebook networks even note this phenomenon in their work (emphasis mine):
The gender composition of anti-vaccination movement reflects dominant cultural understandings of parenting. That is, that the parenting and care of children is primarily a maternal concern. Women are still more likely to stay at home and care for children (Medved, 2016), and this care includes making decisions about healthcare choices. Historically, vaccination was seen to be “a mother’s question” (Durbach, 2005, p. 60), women’s maternal instincts were to the privileged as forms of knowledge as mothers were argued to be best placed to tell if their children were healthy or not. In the contemporary anti-vaccination movement, our analysis suggests that anti-vaccination, is now, more than ever, “a mother’s question.” The anti-vaccination movement is now primarily lead by women. Notably, one of the most popular anti-vaccination pages on Facebook, “Vaccine Info,” is run by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny. Given the gendered nature of participants on anti-vaccination pages, we can conclude that the anti-vaccination movement is a significantly “feminized” social phenomena, although the issue it addresses is not gender specific.
Weirdly, the fact that we don’t drag men who think vaccines are bad through the mud as much as we do women is itself a perpetuating force in giving women a medical credence they haven’t earned. Even when men have a dumb idea, it’s not just that it’s dumb, it’s that dads aren’t even worth taking to task for having it, since they’re probably largely ineffectual as parents anyway. We still judge mothers the most harshly for their children’s failures.
It’s all a shame, because handling the bulk of childrearing and childcare has normally been simply a burden women bear, usually without thanks. In all the efforts to reverse course and issue a corrective to that balance, the anti-vaxx movement has risen up to give us a bizarre example of what happens when we convince women that their instincts somehow always supersede everyone else’s, even the experts.