By Justin Lehmiller
What is a day in the life of a sex researcher like? In this interview series, I talk to some of the world’s foremost authorities on sex in order to answer this question, but also to provide a glimpse into what they’re currently working on, what the media tends to get wrong about sex, and what they think about some of the most pressing issues facing the field of sex research today.
For this interview, I spoke with Dr. Sari van Anders, who holds a doctoral degree in biological and cognitive psychology from Simon Fraser University and studies a range of topics, including social neuroendocrinology, sexuality, gender/sex, sexual diversity, and feminist and queer science. Dr. van Anders is the newly appointed Canada 150 Research Chair in Social Neuroendocrinology, Sexuality, and Gender/Sex at Queen’s University in Canada. What follows is the transcript of our email conversation.
Lehmiller: Please tell us the story behind how you became a sex researcher. What is it that initially drew you to this field of study?
van Anders: I always think I have the most boring answer to this question! But that won’t keep me from answering! In retrospect, my path to sex research seems quite linear but, in actuality, it was a bit direct, a bit indirect, and a bit random. For example, I taught sex education in grade 12 to students in grades 9 and 10 as the sex ed portion of their gym/health class. Looking back, I’m kind of shocked I was allowed to do this, but I did develop a teaching plan that was approved by the teacher. I remember reading one day in the newspaper that unintended pregnancy and STI rates weren’t going down despite sex ed, and so I thought to myself: “well, then we need better sex ed—and I can do that!” Anyone who knows me now will probably recognize that spirit. J I taught what now is seen as comprehensive sex ed: consent, relationships, sexual and gender diversity, solitary sexuality, as well as the more traditional stuff on contraception, STI prevention, genitals, reproduction, etc. I can’t believe anyone would debate the utility of this approach; that would sort of be like arguing the sexual equivalent of “the earth is flat!” I also taught sex ed during my undergraduate training as part of Western’s Student Health Services. So, in that way, sex research always seemed like a direct and natural place for me!
However, I went into my undergrad planning to be a biological anthropologist and an art critic (!!) and then switched to biologically-oriented psychology. I was really interested in gender and sex, and then hormones, and then came to sexuality because so much research on testosterone (the main hormone I study) was conducted in relation to sexuality. Then I went to grad school to study social modulation of testosterone in humans, with a focus on intimacy, including sexuality. So that was the indirect route. Now, I study when, if, how, and whether testosterone and sexuality are linked, among other things, but at the time when I first started, we all thought that it was pretty clear.
I never thought I’d get academic jobs based on being a sex researcher, though! I thought I’d have to go on the market more as a hormone researcher or someone who studied social behavior. Little did I know that all my academic jobs would come directly as a result of my focus on sexuality; how serendipitous! So, for what it’s worth, I try to tell students that they need to follow their passions while being realistic and pragmatic, of course, because you really can’t know what people will be looking for. And if you’ve followed your passion, you’ll always have that. And maybe even a job, too. J
Lehmiller: What are your main areas of research and what methods do you typically use to answer your research questions?
van Anders: My main areas of research are sex research, social neuroendocrinology, gender and sexuality diversity, and feminist/queer science. I use All The Methods! This includes everything from experiments to thematic analysis to correlational work to interviews to theory building to hypothesis testing, and much more.
In social neuroendocrinology, I ask hormone questions that have both evolution and social construction in their answers, and I see my work as sidestepping nature/nurture debates by really addressing the ways our bodies are shaped by both evolution and social experiences/structures. I explore how social experiences related to sexuality and intimacy affect testosterone and other parameters (like health and immunity), as well as bidirectional associations between testosterone and sexuality. As a result, I’m fascinated by what testosterone is—our cultural narratives of it, and its evolved social function—because we actually know quite little about what it does in humans. And I’m fascinated by the ways our gendered experiences shape our bodies, by which I mean how gender norms, constructions, and socialization get into our hormones. As part of all this, I’ve become so interested in what sexuality is (and isn’t) and how we measure it, what we know and what we don’t know. For example, my research on sexual desire and testosterone has led us to rethink what desire is and how people experience it. I’m interested in the ways we can parse sexuality, including into nurturant and/or erotic phenomena, and how these differentially affect us.
Related to all this, I do a lot of research on understanding gender/sex, or phenomena around whole people or parts that are neither just sociocultural nor evolved/innate, but both! And, I’m interested in gender/sex and sexual diversity, which is why I developed “sexual configurations theory” (see below for more on this). And, finally, I’m interested in how we can do all this, including and especially bioscience, in feminist and queer ways that attend to gender inequities and intersecting identities/structures, as well as pluralities, social situatedness, and power. We do a model of bioscience that is biologically expansive (biology opens up new questions and insights), rather than the more common biologically reductionist approaches (incorrectly assuming that biology explains everything and is the root of all social phenomena).
Lehmiller: You have published research on several topics, including—just to name a few—the role of testosterone in human sexual behavior, cuddling, and post-partum sexuality. I know you have several ongoing studies at the moment, but please tell us a little about one of them—perhaps the one you’re most excited about.
van Anders: Well, as you can probably tell, I get just a little bit excited, I mean, come on! All! The! Research! Okay. I’m really excited about some work in our lab led by my graduate student Sara Chadwick. What she’s doing is exploring consensual but unwanted orgasms. I’m fascinated by the way people use pleasure—including orgasm—as a kind of post-experience stamp of approval. For example, if you were willing to engage in sex but didn’t want to or the sex wasn’t enjoyable, but you experienced an orgasm, how does that change the way you make sense of the experience? Sara’s work is so novel and important, and speaks to issues of consent, enjoyment, pleasure, gender, and more. What does it mean to consent but not want? Or feel pleasure but not enjoy? How can we meaningfully engage with that as separate from, but related to, #MeToo and experiences of sexual assault and harassment? And, how does our gender—whether as nonbinary folks, women, or men, whether as cisgender or transgender—and our other social locations shape the ways we might agree to engage in sex that we don’t want, and how do we make sense of orgasm presence in an otherwise negative sex experience? The nuances of this are so rich and important, and I’m so excited for the thoughtful, nuanced, and impactful research Sara is leading in our lab.
Lehmiller: Hormones known to play a role in sexual behavior are often discussed in the popular media, especially oxytocin (which journalists often refer to as “the cuddle drug”) and testosterone (which journalists often refer to as a “male sex hormone”). As an expert in this area, what are the biggest things the media tends to get wrong about how these hormones work?
van Anders: Oxytocin is definitely thought of as the “love hormone” or “cuddle drug,” but that’s a scary mischaracterization. It’s a mischaracterization because oxytocin has many social functions. This includes potentially amplifying whatever emotion you’re feeling (e.g., if you’re loving, it might make you more loving, but if you’re hating, it might make you more hateful!), feeling selective closeness to people you already like or feel are similar to you (meaning more ingroup and less outgroup closeness!), and increasing trust (which might be great but, then again, not everyone is worth trusting, right?). So, as far as we know, and going with the journalists’ (and often scientists’) hyperbole, oxytocin could well be the racism hormone, a date rape drug, or even the out-of-control hormone. That’s part of what makes this mischaracterization scary—but it’s also scary because so many scientists only study its positive potential and then ignore the negative possibilities. If it seems like I have some very specific thoughts about this, it’s because I do—I published a piece on all this a few years back.
Similarly, I’ve published a lot of pieces on the scary mischaracterizations of testosterone. The conflation of testosterone with maleness, masculinity, or men is simply wrong and so counter to the actual empirical data (see here and here) that it’s become almost funny to me (funny as in frustrating/ironic more so than ha-ha funny). Many people, as a result of these testosterone stories circulating in our culture and medical spaces, don’t even know that ovaries produce testosterone and that women have testosterone, too. The mischaracterization is scary because all sorts of supra-governmental entities are using testosterone to define who gets to count as a woman, despite the absence of literally any supportive data and the reality that most of us and our legal structures define womanhood and manhood in ways that increasingly rarely involve hormones. This is being done, again, by sports agencies that want to exclude women with naturally high testosterone from competing as women but can’t find any rigorous or legitimate scientific evidence to do so. So, we see cultural narratives about hormones driving faulty and misleading science and/or even being used to restrict basic human rights. People want to say that science isn’t or shouldn’t be political, but the people saying that tend to be the ones whose lives aren’t affected by that science (so it’s not political to them) or who are trying to use science to support the status quo against marginalized folks. #Truth.
Lehmiller: I’m a big fan of your work for many reasons, but especially because you’re always challenging us to think differently and to check our biases and assumptions. One topic you’ve challenged us to think differently about lately is sexual orientation, which you did by advancing Sexual Configurations Theory (SCT). For the casual reader, what’s the main thing they should know about this theory? In brief, how should they start to think differently about sexual orientation?
van Anders: I love to talk about sexual configurations theory! And, obviously, everything else you ask about! The main thing folks should know about it is that SCT gives everyone (or mostly everyone!) the opportunity to see themselves in theory, whether they are a gender/sex or sexual majority or minority—this has not been the case in past theories, which have almost always centered on normative or majority existences. SCT asks us to think differently about sexual orientation and gender/sex in so many ways. It reminds us that sexual orientation isn’t always about genital match-ups, but that gender and identities matter, too. Moreover, for some people, other aspects of sexuality beyond heterosexuality, bisexuality, or lesbian/gay identities are more important, like whether they want to have no sexual partners (as with asexuality) or many (as with polyamory).
SCT gives us a way to “branch” phenomena, not assuming that there is one natural way for identities, statuses/behaviors, and orientations to line up and anything else is misaligned or discordant. It gives space for the same person to be attracted to, say, men, to want to have sex with people who have penises, and to really get off on people who act in feminine ways all at the same time. It helps us think about nurturance and eroticism, so that, for example, demisexual people can articulate how they need a nurturant connection with someone before feeling erotic. So, with SCT, I’m aiming to provide meaningful ways for people to locate themselves and for researchers to locate participants that reflects and is built with the experiences of gender/sex and sexual minorities. I’m working on a collaboration for a publicly accessible version of SCT in a zine, as well as a whole online platform I hope to go live with in the next 6-9 months! I am doing this because SCT is all about sexual and gender/sex diversity, with space for all of us, and I want to be able to share that broadly and widely.
Lehmiller: As an advocate for inclusive research practices, what practical advice would you offer to others in the field in order to make our work more inclusive?
van Anders: Making our work more inclusive is an issue for better research and science, but also for more just research and science. We can’t be doing science well if we exclude people; “gaps” in our theories are real people! So, we need to be engaging with folks on the sexual/gender margins, understand why they/we are marginalized, and include perspectives from those who are critically engaging with their positions. We need to read writing from these lived-experience-experts, talk with folks, follow organizations, etc. Even if we belong to one marginalized group, we need to do this because none of us can know experiences we haven’t had. I mean, you can only study what you can imagine/conceptualize/know/access, right?! For me, this means reading broadly (literature, social media, news, scholarship), but for others it might include going to non-academic conferences and get-togethers, watching things on YouTube, whatever! “Scientistic” approaches to research mean that science is seen as the only/best approach, and science often teaches us that we (the scientists) are the experts and the things/people we study are the lumps we try to understand. Some of those “lumps” are pretty articulate. Some of those people have thought a lot (more) about the phenomena we’re studying. We also need to be paying attention to our own social location, our participants, the groups that our research impacts, who is being left out, who is being elevated, and more. I think of inclusive research as a process rather than a checklist per se. But a checklist can be part of a process, too. J
Lehmiller: Last question: I’ve often heard you talk about practicing “feminist science.” What does it mean to do feminist science and how can it help us to advance the field of sex research?
van Anders: Part of what feminist and queer science means for me is that we do situated science. So, that means recognizing we as researchers are situated in our own times, places, social locations, and perspectives, and that the science and scholarship we do is also rooted in, reflects, feeds back onto, and has impacts on the cultures we’re situated in. One key of feminist and queer science, for me, is to be skeptical of “getting it right” because “it” is always in flux and subject to what we can see from our necessarily limited perspectives. Plus, “it” is rarely actually one thing, or the same one thing to all people. And we need to be critically engaging with what we mean by right. Right for whom? For science? For the community we’re studying? And we need to be critically engaging with right in terms of “right in what way.” Because it helps to get us to a more just world? Because it’s accurate? All of that might represent traditional feminist approaches to science, but feminist and queer science means not just stopping there—at being skeptical of “getting it right”—but moving to actually “getting it better.” This means doing science with the insights we gain from being skeptical about it. So, feminist and queer science mean, in part, critically engaging with the science we do in ways that completely transcend traditional science while simultaneously making it so much better according to its own tenets, which is why many of us call it a “successor science.”
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.