Asexuality in Non-Human Animals?

It’s obvious that humans are unlike all animals. It’s also obvious that we’re a species of big mammal, down to the minutest details of our anatomy and molecules (Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, 1).

Male Rat

Male Rat
Credit: braindamaged217 on flickr

While at Emory, I earned a graduate certificate in Mind, Brain, and Culture from the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture (CMBC). As part of the certificate program, the CMBC helped me to arrange a directed reading with Dr. Kim Wallen on the “behavioral neuroendocrinology of sex” in the spring of 2011. As part of the directed reading, Dr. Wallen asked me to write a paper reviewing any existing scientific research on “asexuality” in non-human animals. It was interesting for me, as a scholar in the humanities and social sciences, to think about how scientific research on a/sexuality in non-human animals might (or might not) have relevance for the study of human a/sexuality.

As I am not likely to do anything else with the paper, I finally decided to post a (somewhat) shortened version of it as a blog. I hope you enjoy!


Feminist and queer studies scholars have debated the question: can scientific studies investigating the sexuality of non-human animals teach us about human sexuality? Some, including Anne Fausto-Sterling and Jennifer Terry, critique the use of research on non-human animals to answer questions about human sexuality. Others, including Myra Hird and Elizabeth Wilson, argue that research on the sexuality of non-human animals can challenge assumptions about human sexuality in productive ways. This paper explores this question through examining whether scientific research on asexual phenomena (“asexuality”) in non-human animals can shed light on the phenomenon of asexuality in humans. I begin by reviewing the scientific research examining asexuality in non-human animals. Then, I explore three questions suggested by the scholarly debates outlined above: first, what (if any) insights about human asexuality are provided by the scientific research on “asexuality” in non-human animals? Second, how are cultural assumptions about sexuality shaping the research on “asexuality” in non-human animals? Finally, (how) does the research on “asexuality” in non-human animals challenge assumptions about human (a)sexuality?
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A Recommended Sex Manual?

The Guide to Getting It On (6th Edition) Cover

The Guide to Getting It On (6th Edition)

I am happy to report that my co-authored article with Thea Cacchioni, “Sexual improvement as if your health depends on it: An analysis of contemporary sex manuals,” has been published by Feminism & Psychology. In the article, we review seventeen U.S. sex manuals published between 2000 and 2010. We argue that in addition to positioning sexual activity as a biological, essential (albeit gendered) human need, and as the ultimate path to individual fulfillment and empowerment, a new rationale for the importance of sex (and working on sexual improvement) is now prominent in contemporary sex manuals. Reflecting the “healthicization” of sex in the post-Viagra era, authors frame frequent pleasurable sexual activity as an important factor in the maintenance of health and wellness while enjoy harder erections, an argument that gives further weight to the importance of “sex work” as a fundamental aspect of particularly women’s work in heterosexual relationships.

In a previous post, “The Sex-Glutted Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Reducing Their Marriage Libido,” I parodied what I still consider to be one of the worst manuals we reviewed, The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido: A Couple’s Guide by Michele Weiner Davis. This manual was relentless in promoting the idea that if one member of a couple is disinterested in sex, the relationship will inevitably fail; and, therefore, that person must do everything in her or his power to become more interested in sex.

In honor of our article coming out (and in case you are looking for gifts to give this holiday season), I decided to reveal which sex manuals I would actually recommend. The truth is, out of all the ones we reviewed (including several that were explicitly positioned as feminist and/or queer), the only one that I would really recommend is the Guide to Getting It On by Paul Joannides (I read the 6th edition). The reason why I would recommend this manual is, frankly, because it actually doesn’t give much in the way of advice. It’s really more of an encyclopedia of sex and sexuality (and, at 900+ pages, quite an extensive encyclopedia). Rather than implying that there is one right way to be sexual (or not), the book gives information about different sexual desires, practices, identities and other topics, and allows readers to decide what might work for them.
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Crossing Disciplines with the CMBC Certificate Program

In this short clip (filmed in the summer of 2013), I share my experience with the graduate certificate program offered by Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture. The Center’s mission is “to foster inquiry, research, and teaching from multiple explanatory perspectives concerning issues and phenomena associated with mind, brain, and culture and their relations.”

Special Theme Issue: Asexuality

Mark Carrigan, Todd Morrison and I co-edited a special issue of the journal Psychology and Sexuality on asexuality. I am happy to announce that the issue has been published!

Please see the announcement from Routledge (note: the editorial and the “virtual discussion” between all of the contributors are free to read online until May 31, 2013).

A member of the asexual community has written excellent summaries of all of the articles.

Thank you to my co-editors, all of the contributors, and our anonymous reviewers.

Doing Neuroscience, Doing Feminism: Interview with Dr. Sari van Anders

Cross-posted with permission from the Neuroethics Blog.

Sari van Anders

Dr. Sari van Anders

After attending the Neurogenderings Conference in Vienna, where participants debated whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research, I decided it would be useful to interview an actual practicing feminist neuroscientist – and I knew just who to talk to. Dr. Sari van Anders is an Assistant Professor in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological & Cognitive Psychology from Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab at the University of Michigan, she conducts feminist neuroscience research on a variety of topics, with a principle focus on the social modulation of testosterone via sexuality, partnering/pair bonding, and nurturance. She has received grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Institute of Bisexuality and has published articles in Hormones and Behavior, Archives of Sexual Behavior, and Psychoneuroendocrinology, among others.

I asked her to talk about what she sees as feminist about her own behavioral neuroscience research, how she has secured support for her work from other behavioral neuroendocrinologists, and what advice she would give to early career scientists who want to incorporate feminist concerns into their research. Read on for Dr. Van Anders’ thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

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Teaching Intersex, Teaching Interdisciplinarity: Interview with Sara Freeman

Cross-posted with permission from the Neuroethics Blog.

Sara Freeman photo

Sara Freeman
Graduate Student
Department of Neuroscience
Emory University

In this post, I would like to highlight the work of another Emory graduate student, Sara Freeman. Just when Cyd Cipolla and I (in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) were coming up with our plan to teach an interdisciplinary course bringing together gender studies and neuroscience, we found out that Sara (in the Neuroscience Graduate Program) was developing her own interdisciplinary course bringing together developmental biology and the sociology of gender.Sara’s course, which she is teaching this semester, is called “Intersex: Biology & Gender,” and is cross-listed in the departments of Biology, Sociology, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with physical reproductive or sexual characteristics that cannot be easily classified as male or female (for more information, visit the Intersex Society of North America or the American Psychological Association’s page on intersex). FYI: October 26th was Intersex Awareness Day! In Sara’s course, she is teaching about both the developmental biology of intersex in humans and the social, political, legal and ethical issues related to intersex.

I wanted to interview Sara about her course because I see her work as highly relevant to the field of Neuroethics. First, Neuroethics benefits from interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists (especially neuroscientists) and researchers in the social sciences and the humanities, and by including material from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and by bringing together students from all of these fields, Sara’s course is fostering exactly the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that Neuroethics needs. Second, Sara’s course is encouraging her students to grapple with important neuroethical and bioethical questions, including ethical issues related to the medical treatment of intersex individuals (see Dreger for a review) and ethical issues related to the use of intersex individuals as research subjects in scientific studies on sex/gender development. Read on to find out more about Sara’s course!

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Intrepid Grrrl Reporter: A Dispatch from the NeuroGenderings II Conference

Cross-posted from the Neuroethics Blog.

Neurogenderings Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the NeuroCultures – NeuroGenderings II Conference at the University of Vienna. The conference brought together an international group of scholars to discuss brain research on sex and gender from a feminist perspective. The conference was a treat for me, as I was able to meet a number of leading scholars in the field, including some of the people I have mentioned in previous blogs. I presented a poster on the course, “Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics,” which Cyd Cipolla and I co-taught last spring, and also presented a paper reviewing contemporary neuroscience research on transsexuality.

Although it is difficult to summarize two days’ worth of keynote speeches, panels, and poster presentations, I would say that two main themes emerged within the conference: the first was a critique of neurosexism both within scientific research on sex, gender, and brain and in how this research is communicated to the public through the media. The second was an attempt to explore whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research on sex and gender and, if so, what such research would look like.
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Response to “Society Does Not Make Gender” by Dr. Larry Young and Brian Alexander

Cross-posted from the Neuroethics Blog

Queer Gender symbol

“A queer symbol of new gender image”
by Finnish artist Susi Waegelein

At the beginning of August, Ruth Padawer published a piece in the New York Times magazine about gender non-conforming children and parents. Last week, Dr. Larry Young of Emory University and science writer Brian Alexander (who are publishing a book together, The Chemistry Between Us) published a response to the article, in which they argue, essentially, that gender is biologically hardwired into the brains of fetuses by the organizational effects of hormones. They go on to implicitly endorse what has been called the “brain sex theory” of transgender identity/behavior. According to this theory, hormones organize the sex/gender of the brain much later than they organize the sex/gender of the genitals, allowing for a discordance to develop between the two (Bao 2011).

Admirably, Young and Alexander use the brain sex theory to argue for an acceptance of gender non-conforming children. They write, “so rather than seeing threat, we should embrace all shades of gender, whether snips and snails, sugar and spice, or somewhere in between.” However, there are (at least) four major problems with their argument: they essentialize gender; they uncritically embrace human brain organization theory; they uncritically embrace the double-edged sword of essentialism on behalf of transgender people; and they selectively (mis)use evidence about intersex and transgender people to support an ideological claim about the innateness of gender differences.
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Neurosexism and Single-Sex Education (or support your local ACLU)

Cross-posted from The Neuroethics Blog (Emory Center for Ethics) 

N is for Neurosexism

N is for Neurosexism

Twenty or thirty years ago, single-sex education for girls was a feminist clause célèbre. However, beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people began to worry that boys were “underperforming” in school and in life (an idea nicknamed “the boys’ crisis” by the popular press). The media framing of the boys’ crisis has been critiqued on a number of fronts – specifically, critics have pointed out that both girls and boys are performing better in school than in the past and that the difference in educational achievement between white and middle-class students and low-income and minority students is far more pronounced than the difference between female and male students (see a 2008 report from the American Association of University Women).

However, despite these critiques, cultural commentators began to advocate for single-sex education in public schools as a solution to the boys’ crisis. Commentators like Michael Gurian (author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!) and Leonard Sax (founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and author of Why Gender Matters) argued that boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently, so boys and girls should be separated in school and should receive education targeted to their specific neuro-developmental patterns and mental strengths.

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Why Do Voles Fall in Love? Interview with Feminist Science Studies Scholar Angela Willey

Dr. Angela Willey

Dr. Angela Willey

In May I attended a great conference, the 4th biennial conference of the Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS). At the conference, I heard a wonderful plenary talk by Dr. Angela Willey and her colleagues. Dr. Willey is one of our own – a recent (2010) graduate of Emory’s doctoral program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In her work, she examines the cultural assumptions underpinning contemporary neuroscience research on monogamy and the social implications of this research. At the conference, I asked Dr. Willey if she would agree to be interviewed about her work for the Neuroethics Blog, and she graciously agreed. Before sharing what she said, I am just going to give you a little background about Dr. Willey and about the neuroscience research on monogamy that she analyzes.

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