10 July 2013

Atypical sex and atypical sex researchers:
Who thinks what of whom?

The mainstream media have been remarkable in challenging several of the public (mis-)conceptions about pedophilia. (If nothing else, the public emotionality and the potential implications of pedophilia being a brain phenomenon keep this a very popular, attention-getting topic for the media.) Even more interesting than the public reactions, I think, have been the reactions I’ve received from the actual groups I get to study. I almost wanted to title this post Hate Mail/Fan Mail.

The feedback I receive from pedophilic folks has, in general, fit into two camps. Indeed, the feedback I receive from all the atypical sexuality communities I've done research with has generally fit into two camps: People either love it or hate it, usually depending on whether the findings seem to support what they already believed before they saw the research and on whether they think the findings are flattering or politically useful.

Among pedophiles, I receive either hate mail (because the IQ findings, etc. seem unflattering on their surface) or fan mail (because the handedness and MRI findings strongly support statements like I did not choose to be pedophilic). Relatively few people (at least, few of the people I hear from) evaluate the science appropriately: according to the methods used instead of according to the results and their perceived implications. Very many criticisms contain little awareness of the actual content of the study, and instead provide mostly emotional reactions asserting that the methods must have been bad, because the results challenged the critic's beliefs (rightly or wrongly).

Among male-to-female transsexuals, I receive either hate mail (because the research indicates something other than the woman-trapped-in-a-man's-body idea) or fan mail (because the research also indicates why so many transwomen and other gender-atypicals feel something other than what many of their peers describe). 

Among gay/lesbian folks, there's been a shift over time. (Bisexuality is a different story, for another time.) In the 80s/90s, the hate mail came mostly from the lesbian activists (but not gay male activists)—They disliked the research because it supported the "essentialist" side of the debate about the causes of sexual orientation, whereas radical feminists tended (strongly) to prefer social constructionist theories (i.e., that gender is learned rather than inborn). The gay men, interestingly, never really opposed the research (except, often, in deference to lesbian and radical feminist colleagues). The fan mail was mostly
from gay men who were curious about what made them different; these folks were already keenly of the belief that they simply were born gay, and the research was merely confirmatory. Nowadays, the current research suggests that male sexuality (both gay and straight) is extremely focused, whereas female sexuality can indeed be fluid and non-specific, which explains the contradiction between the G and L reactions in the G&L communities. There is much less opposition now to the idea of a biological basis to sexual orientation, as people become more familiar with the findings (although I think it's still the meat of many undergraduate philosophy-of-gender classes).

As E. M. Forster put it, "One grows accustomed to being praised, or being blamed, or being advised, but it is unusual to be understood."  Oddly, both the sex researcher and the sex researched are after the same thing: Being understood.