Update: Qualitative Research with Asexual Individuals

I have completed the qualitative research portion of my dissertation project – between Jan. 2011 and May 2012, I conducted 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews with individuals who identify as asexual. I decided to take this opportunity to post a little bit of information about my methods and about the demographics of my sample.

Methods: I posted multiple requests for interviewees on the AVEN website. My request for interviewees was also circulated to two local AVEN-related listservs.  The study was open to people 18 years of age or older who live in the United States and identify as asexual or as a member of an asexual community. Interviews were conducted between January of 2011 and May of 2012 using an interview protocol.  All interviewees gave informed consent before the interview. Interviewees also filled out a short demographic questionnaire before the interview. Interviews lasted between 30 minutes and 2.5 hours. On average, the interviews lasted slightly more than 1 hour (median: 1 hr). Interviewees were given a $25 incentive for participating in the research. 25 of the interviews were conducted in-person in the following areas: Atlanta (6); New York (3); Boston (5); Los Angeles (4); San Francisco (1); and Washington, DC (6). The other five interviews were conducted over the phone. The project was approved by the Emory Institutional Review Board (IRB) and by the AVEN Project Team.  Funding for the research was provided by the Emory Graduate School, a dissertation grant from the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association (SEWSA) and a student research grant from the Kinsey Institute.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sex (in the) Machine

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

James BrownI have wanted to write about this issue for a few months now and have finally gotten around to it. Science writer Kayt Sukel created a small splash in the blogosphere in January when she wrote a few blog posts (see here and here) about her experiences orgasming in an MRI machine (or, as she puts it, “coming for science”) as part of a study conducted by Barry Komisaruk and Nan Wise at Rutgers University. Sukel’s posts were intended to serve as teasers for her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships (full disclosure, I haven’t read her book yet). For an earlier account of an attempt to “come for science” see science writer Mary Roach’s highly entertaining book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Read the rest of this entry »

Drug Addiction and Sex Addiction: Are they “real” (brain) diseases?

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

As Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellows, Cyd Cipolla and I designed an interactive discussion-based undergraduate course “Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics,” which we are currently teaching this semester at Emory. In developing our course, we decided to devote one week to examining neuroscientific research on “sex addiction.” In recent years, neuroscientists have started to use imaging technology to explore the neurobiology of “out of control” sexual behavior (sometimes called sex addiction). In addition, some researchers and mental health professionals have argued that the neurobiology of sex addiction is the same as the neurobiology of drug addiction. However, a number of scholars have critiqued the category of sex addiction, arguing that it is a reflection of our cultural anxieties about high rates of sexual activity (Irvine 1995, Moser 2001). We are fortunate to have an engaged and intellectually diverse group of students and our discussions have proven thought-provoking for us and our students. After our in-class discussions, I was still left wondering whether it is appropriate to view “excessive” sexual interest as an addiction (and, specifically, as a “brain disease” or a “mental illness”) or as a socio-cultural construct dependent on sex-negative cultural values.

Thus, I was very excited by Dr. Steve Hyman’s visit to Emory, as Dr. Hyman is a leader in thinking about the neurobiology of drug addiction and in thinking through the ethical implications of neuroscientific research on drug addiction. During his visit, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask Dr. Hyman to share his thoughts about sex addiction. This blog is a “report back” on both his answer and on my further reflections about whether it is appropriate to use a disease model to understand sex addiction.

Read the rest of this entry »

Raging Hormones, Promiscuous Men, and Choosy Women: What Does the Research Say?

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

men are from mars women are from venusA number of potentially problematic themes run throughout public discussions about sexuality in this country. One such potentially problematic theme revolves around innate sex/gender differences in sexuality. I see stories in the media almost every week about how men and women are almost diametric opposites when it comes to sexuality as a result of evolutionary pressures. In these articles, which are often reporting on scientific studies, the men are invariably sex-hungry and desperate to procreate with any available woman, while the women are invariably choosy and determined to find a “good provider” (for examples, see here, here, and here). I suspect these articles (and the studies they draw from) suffer from confirmation bias, developing elaborate evolutionary rationales to justify what seem like outdated stereotypes.

Another such theme revolves around the determinative role of hormones in sexual desire and activity. In a fascinating (although now somewhat out-of-date) study, sociologist Amy Schalet interviewed parents in the U.S. and the Netherlands about adolescent sexuality. She found that American parents were much more likely than Dutch parents to view adolescent sexuality as driven by hormones. In addition (perhaps as a result) American parents, unlike Dutch parents, viewed adolescent desire as potentially dangerous, and they were more likely to adopt an attitude of willful ignorance about the sexual activity engaged in by their children.

Read the rest of this entry »

Illness and Deception? Asexuality on House, MD

Cross-posted with permission by the Kinsey Institute.

AVEN members

Photo: anemoneprojectors

A recent episode of the TV series House, M.D. created quite a stir in the asexual blogosphere. The show, for those of you who don’t know, chronicles the adventures of the irascible diagnostician Dr. House as he solves medical mysteries.

[Spoiler alert] The episode of interest (“Better Half” which aired on 1/23/2012) features a husband and wife who both identify as asexual at the start of the show. The wife consults House’s friend and colleague, Wilson, for a minor medical complaint. Upon learning about the couple, House sets out to prove that the wife’s asexuality is caused by a medical condition. He lures her husband into the hospital and performs a number of tests on him, eventually discovering that he has a brain tumor which is affecting his libido. When Wilson tells the couple about House’s finding, the wife admits that she had been pretending to be asexual in order to remain with her spouse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Radio Documentary: The Medicalization of Sex

The F Word Graphic

In April of 2011, I presented my paper on “sex for health” at the Medicalization of Sex Conference at Simon Fraiser University in Vancouver. Afterward, I was interviewed by Meghan Murphy for The F Word media collective, a feminist media collective based in Vancouver. They produce a weekly syndicated radio show and blog. My interview was included in the first part of their documentary series on the medicalization of sex, which is available online for listening!

Here is a description of the first part of the documentary from the F Word and rabble.ca: “In this first part of a documentary series on the medicalization of sex, your host Meghan Murphy explores the way in which sex has been positioned in popular culture, in medical discourse and in the news media, as something that is not simply healthy at times, but as necessary in the maintenance of good health. How does this kind of discourse impact the way in which women view their own sexuality? How does it play into compulsory sexuality? Is sex necessarily ‘healthy’? This episode includes an edited version of a talk by Judy Segal, recorded at The Medicalization of Sex conference in Vancouver, B.C. on April 29, 2011 called: The (Re)Sexualization of the Medical as well as an interview with Kristina Gupta, who presented a paper at the conference entitled: Sex for Health: Representations of Sex as a Health-Promoting Activity. Referenced several times during this documentary is Thea Cacchioni’s paper: Heterosexuality and ‘the Labour of Love’: A Contribution to Recent Debates on Female Sexual Dysfunction and her concept of ‘sex work.'”

Syllabus: Feminism, Sexuality and Neuroethics

Here is the syllabus for Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics. We have 18 students in the class; about half of the students are Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies majors or minors and about half of the students are Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology (NBB) majors or minors, about have the population wants to get sort of a SkinMD Laser & Cosmetic Group plastic surgery done, either on their face or body, so people go online to find information about how they can improve their body, and he pros and risks, there are sites as the Johnny Franco MD, FACS that put this information out there for the public. So far, the class is going very well. I look forward to reporting more as the semester progresses.

Kinsey Institute Student Research Grant

I’m happy to say that I have been awarded one of the 2012 Kinsey Institute Student Research Grants. I will be using the grant to conduct more interviews with people who identify as asexual. I look forward to reporting on the results of this research!


Almost Ten Years On: Why are we still talking about The Essential Difference?

Cross-posted from The Neuroethics Blog (Center for Ethics, Neuroethics Program at Emory University)

"male" and "female" brains
Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference: The Truth About The Male And Female Brain (2003), is almost a decade old now, but his thesis keeps popping up in various places. For example, in a recent (and truly delightful) book on neuroscience and religion, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (2011), Robert McCauley uses Baron-Cohen’s work to suggest that researchers looking for “hyper-empathetic” subjects might want to check out the local convent.

Baron-Cohen’s main argument is that, on average, men and women have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses: men are more adept at “systematizing” and less adept at “empathizing,” while women are more adept at “empathizing” and less adept at “systematizing.” He goes on to argue that people with autism have “hyper-male” brains (in other words, they are especially good at systemizing and particularly poor at empathizing). According to Baron-Cohen, these differences in cognitive abilities are likely to be the result of genetic differences (both in the case of men and women and in the case of people with autism and people without autism).

Read the rest of this entry »

The Sex-Glutted Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Reducing Their Marriage Libido

vintage sex manuals

photo by Ann Douglas

I am currently working with a collaborator on an article reviewing contemporary sex advice literature. As a result, I have been reading a LOT of sex manuals. They range from the thoughtful, interesting, and potentially helpful to the narrow-minded, prescriptive, and possibly iatrogenic.

I found one manual particularly upsetting: The Sex Starved Marriage (2003) by Michele Weiner-Davis.  Below please find my (somewhat) parodic inversion of her message:

Read the rest of this entry »