“Our sexuality is becoming digital,” notes Dr. Justin Garcia, a leading expert in modern human mating. While new modes of sexuality and romance bring benefits, they also invite ethical questions. Take the phenomenon of “sexting,” the transmission of sexual images and messages via mobile phone or other electronic media. After discovering that sexts are shared on average with more than 3 friends—and at even higher rates by men than women—Garcia and his colleagues wondered: How does consent work when an intimate message can be both unsolicited and then widely shared? How do the risks of non-consensual sharing differ for women versus men?
“Sexting” is just one of many sexual practices studied by the Ruth N. Halls Endowed Associate Professor of Gender Studies, who is also Research Director at the Kinsey Institute. Garcia’s approach combines evolutionary biology with feminist and queer theory to study human sexual behaviors, such as “hookup” culture and female orgasm. At first just an evolutionary biologist, he recounts how he “stumbled into doing a sex study.” While working in an evolutionary genetics lab as an undergraduate at Binghamton University, he began studying genetic markers associated with risk-taking and pleasure-seeking in men. He wouldn’t use the same moralizing language of “promiscuity” today, but these projects piqued his intellectual interest in sexual behavior. They even launched his career as a science communicator on the national circuit. One evening, on the Don Lemon show, he fielded zany questions about whether this so-called “promiscuity gene” might be a “Tiger Woods gene,” referring to the buzz around the professional golfer’s extramarital affair.
Switching from neuroscience to anthropology for his MS, and then to biology for his PhD, Garcia worked with the renowned biologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson on his dissertation, The Behavioral Ecology of Contemporary Human Sexual Behavior. He left the Big Apple for IU when the Kinsey Institute director at the time, Dr. Julia Heiman, offered him a post-doctoral fellowship, and he stayed for his current joint-appointment. At the Kinsey Institute, Garcia was the first biologist on the core faculty since its founder Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who had similarly stumbled from studying variation in gall wasps to cataloging variation in human sexual behavior.
The Kinsey Institute was a perfect place for someone who “intermingles feminist and evolutionary theories.” While often taken to be in conflict, evolutionary biology and feminist approaches share many principles and often generate similar predictions. As Garcia often tells skeptics in gender studies,
My bread and butter as an evolutionist is variation in traits. Diversity is implicit in everything I do.
Rather than looking at just physiology or culture, he investigates the ways that nature and nurture interact to produce human behavior. While studying those intersections has become more mainstream, Garcia retains a critical approach to studying human behavior. Feminist scientists, he emphasizes, make sure to ask “the female question.” While evolutionists have typically neglected women or relegated them to passivity, feminist scientists look for the active roles of women in the evolutionary process. Feminists also bring a critical lens to designing research, such as probing the (lack of) diversity in samples. When recruiting men and women participants, Garcia asks, “Who are those men and women? What are their race, gender, sexuality, and age?” Without these capturing differences, he worries that our knowledge will continue to ignore and exclude marginalized groups and their unique experiences.
Garcia’s research on female orgasm is paradigmatic of this feminist approach. As he understands it, “female orgasm is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon.” While the orgasm response is physiological, getting there involves psychological and social factors. As social hierarchies create a gender wage gap, so too do patriarchal social structures create an “orgasm gap” between men and women, where male pleasure remains central and women’s sexuality is neglected. Garcia and his colleagues documented that women have fewer orgasms than men regardless of sexual orientation.
And yet, lesbian women have more orgasms than do bisexual and heterosexual women, suggesting to them that the disparity would be alterable with better understanding of female anatomy and pleasure. Their team discovered that, in fact, by focusing more on female pleasure in committed relationships, couples can increase women’s frequency of orgasm. Strategies for improvement (try these at home!) include better communication and non-penetrative sex, like deep kissing, manual genital stimulation, and oral sex.
Funding this kind of sexual science, Garcia reflects, involves different difficulties than other research. On the one hand, government-based funding has increasingly lower rates of success. Furthermore, for public funding, sex research often has to be packaged more delicately, as focused on reproduction, relationships, or public health issues, like HIV. On the other hand, “sex sells,” and businesses don’t have the same moral and political restrictions. Like sexologists, they are keen to learn more about their clientele, the general sexually active population. Yet, Garcia carefully notes, there are sometimes difficulties with the limited freedom industry funders allot researchers, and the contracts they impose sometimes entail extra labor, such as producing press releases.
Nevertheless, successful partnerships can provide additional contacts through business networks. For instance, after collaborating with K-Y Brand (a lubricant and sex product company), Garcia was approached by the pharmaceutical company Teva Women’s Health to conduct surveys about its morning-after pill Plan B. He’s also worked with Match.com (the world’s largest online dating company) as a Scientific Adviser. Garcia often enjoys working with these businesses for the faster pace, the high degree of financial support, and the applied prospects. To help scientists monitor their rights in commercial collaborations, IU Office of Research Administration offers contract advisers, and IU Communications provides media training—both of which Garcia highly recommends.
We have an obligation to get our work out of the lab and into the public, and industry is often willing and very able to help us do that.
Garcia combines the comprehensiveness of interdisciplinary research with a resourcefulness in funding and the critical acumen of feminism. Melding these together, he provides a compelling portrait for how to study crucial aspects of human behavior in a rigorous and socially responsible manner. To learn more, visit his webpage.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Justin Garcia for his generosity and fun spirit, along with his helpful comments for writing up our conversation.