All posts filed under: Sex

Sex and the Seductions of Social Explanation

A review of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini. Beacon Press (May 30 2017) 224 pages. I saw a funny cartoon: a man lies hopelessly drunk in a gutter while, slumped next door, his bulbous-nosed friend utters the punchline: “He’s been celebrating not having the alcoholism gene again.” This was a long time ago, when I was a researcher in a university psychology department, and the cartoon was pinned to the door of a senior colleague working on the social psychology of alcoholism. He was a man, it’s safe to say, who didn’t like genetic explanations for human behaviour. Over the years I’d largely forgotten about the cartoon, as well as most of what I once knew about psychology. The memory came back to me in recent months, however, as the long-simmering question of what kind of explanations we should give when we turn our attention to ourselves, to questions of human behaviour, has boiled over. Once again there is a partisanship for certain types …

Misunderstanding a New Kind of Gender Dysphoria

A year ago, as a result of a blog post I wrote, I began offering consultations to parents of teens who had announced “out of the blue” that they were transgender. Each week, several new families made contact with me, and their stories are remarkably similar to one another. Most have 14 or 15-year-old daughters who are smart, quirky, and struggling socially. Many of these kids are on the autism spectrum. And they are often asking for medical interventions – hormones and surgery – that may render them sterile, affect their liver, or lead to high blood pressure, among other possible side effects. The parents are bewildered and terrified, careful to let me know that they love their child and would support any interventions that were truly necessary. They speak to me of dealing with their fear for their child in terrible isolation, as friends and family blithely celebrate their child’s “bravery.” I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of parents who call me. I find it difficult to listen to their stories – each …

Is Sex a Dirty Word?

In Birka, Sweden, Viking bones from grave B581 until recently were categorized as “anomalous” where “…the gender of the skeleton appeared at odds with the martial objects buried with it.” (emphasis added).5,12 Contemporaneously, in Lewes, East Sussex, England, the Priory school has ordered girls to don trousers in order to make the school uniform gender neutral. Piers Morgan, prominent UK TV figure, and Priory school sixth form “Old Boy,” has said, “Let boys be boys and girls be girls, and stop confusing them in this ridiculous way.”30 Commenting upon gendered language, Arwa Mahdawi stated, “We are more aware of the problems of gendered language than ever and, as the use of the singular they demonstrates, we are taking steps to fix it. At the same time, however, we seem to be creating a gendering of language as the popularity of words such as mansplain and girlboss demonstrate.”19 The term “gender” is misapplied, gender neutrality questioned, and “gendered language” on the rise. So what does all of this have to do with sex? This paper will …

Reviving “Essentialism” and Other Scientific Straw Men

Cordelia Fine’s latest attempt at human exceptionalism and biology denial Testosterone Rex has drawn rave reviews from (almost) everyone, from the popular press to Nature. Happy to go against this grain, I would like to suggest that these much-circulated rumours of the death of human nature have been somewhat exaggerated. Most of Fine’s targets are probably quite well deserved chunks of popular science, male chauvinism, and journalistic overreach. However, when she turns her sights on serious science she makes some rather egregious blunders. This is a pity—because there is much in the public understanding of sex differences that could really use some popular explication and myth busting. Let’s start with what is positive about the book. Many will find her anecdotal approach to be engaging and charming. I didn’t, but I’m a miserable old curmudgeon who wants to get to grips with the facts, not be reassured via an anecdote about kangaroo testicles that that the writer “doesn’t hate men really”. On this point: I’m always a little unsettled by people who feel the need …

What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

Like all good husbands, I took my wife to see the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series—Fifty Shades Darker­­—on Valentine’s Day weekend. Admittedly, this romantic gesture was not entirely altruistic. As it happens, I am currently doing research on the role of dominance and submission in human sexuality. Although neither of us is in the “scene,” we are nonetheless swept up in the current cultural fascination with consensual sadomasochism, albeit for different reasons. My fascination stems from my general interest in human sexuality and its evolution. My field, evolutionary psychology, has been at the forefront of exploring human behavior through the evolutionary lens for more than two decades, and has made immense advances over the years. Although its greatest accomplishments are in the realm of sex differences and mating behavior, it is not confined to the sexual realm, as is evidenced by the increasing output of research on the evolution of morality,1 religion,2 and politics.3 Indeed, E. O. Wilson’s dream of a consilience of knowledge across the biological sciences and humanities is …

Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” — A Review

A review of Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton and Company (January 2017) 272 pages.  “Scientism”. “Orientalism”. “Historicism”. The trouble with inventing a belief system and ascribing it to your opponents is that you might inadvertently have built a straw man. After all, nobody actively signs up to these supposed philosophies: they’re terms of criticism or abuse. One such nebulous belief system is the topic of psychologist Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex. Unconcerned by the straw-manning risk, Fine introduces the eponymous “Testosterone Rex” as the “story of sex and society” that holds that there are male brains and there are female brains, programmed by evolution to be irreconcilably different, with testosterone explaining males’ greater risk-taking, promiscuity, competitiveness, and dominance. Fine argues that modern science is the asteroid that wiped out this T-Rex, revealing subtler cultural—not biological—explanations for the sex differences we see in society. Fine’s first target is the ‘Bateman Gradient’, a seminal (excuse the pun) finding on sexual selection from 1940s experiments on fruit flies. Geneticist Angus Bateman found that the link …

How Social Constructionism Created the Sex Addiction Model

Imagine it is the year 1965, in frozen Winnipeg, Manitoba. Two twin boys are scheduled for routine circumcisions. Using an unconventional practice known as cauterization, one of the boy’s penises was accidentally burned beyond repair. Dispirited and confused, the boys’ parents were watching late night television one evening when a charming, well-spoken psychologist appeared on the air.  Sexologist John Money claimed he had discovered, through his “theory of gender neutrality,” that gender was a complete social construct, created entirely through social learning. Emboldened, the parents contacted Dr. Money, who ordered sex reassignment surgery for the injured boy, and instructed his parents to raise him as a girl. Because this surgery occurred at such as young age, the (now) girl would never realize she had once been a boy and would live her life as a normal female. Money touted the success of his work, publishing extensively on his triumphant results. However, eventually the truth came out. The young boy never acclimated to being a girl, and eventually as an adult sought to transition back to being a …