Thinking Sex: Representing Desire and Difference
A Feminist and Gender Studies Course
Bryn Mawr College, Fall, 2002

Archive 15: Social Science and Science Talk About Sex

For previous postings, see course forum archive

Name:  Anne Dalke
Subject:  Language of Science and Social Science
Date:  2002-10-26 10:07:12
Message Id:  3358
This week you are invited to reflect on what you learned from reading and hearing about sex as it is described by social scientists and scientists. What are you thinking about "Trucking Through the AIDS belt" and Bob Washington's talk, and/or "The Evolutionary Theory of Sexual Attraction" and Paul Grobstein's presentation? What are your reactions to the kinds of language used to talk about these kinds of questions? What are the uses and the limits of each?
Name:  LH
Subject:  political tangents and something about sex i swear
Date:  2002-10-29 17:20:46
Message Id:  3422
I am so happy Prof Washington came and spoke with the class today. It has really filled my need for the class to explore sex in other cultures.

After class I went and spoke with him about contraception, because I feel there are other ways contraception could be approached for women. My guess is if African men can't handle a Trojan, they sure won't be into a female condom. And it doesn't seem like the issue for African women is having babies so much as it is preventing HIV infection. I think my lack of sex ed is coming through here, but diaphragms don't prevent STDs right? If they do, that would solve the problem in a many ways because women could put it in hours before sex and its possible that men wouldn't notice. But I am pretty sure they don't. Please enlighten me. Prof Washington really focused on condoms as being the essential form of contraception. Getting men to use condoms is an issue western sex workers have dealt with before so I think there may be some tricks of the trade they have to offer. I read one account from a book on sex work that the woman said she slid condoms on during oral sex.

The problems Prof Washington spoke about were associated with gender power structures in Africa that I don't know can be overcome. The people of Africa are much farther down the path of female subordination than the west so I don't think there is any short term solution that will empower women enough to be comfortable with and successful with getting men to use condoms. I think the spread of HIV can be overcome through economic adjustment. So much of the spread of HIV and AIDS boils down to economic issues. He cited migrancy as a chief cause of the spread of HIV so what is the cause of migrancy? I don't think he would agree with me, but I think the west has so much to do with the need for workers in Africa to migrate to other areas for a couple years at a time to make money.

Warning. I'm about to go off on politics for a while.. so if they bore you, I suggest you don't read much further.

Ok history. Colonization. That happened in Africa. (note: remember Rwanda? The Hutu and Tutsi conflict – or genocide- where nearly 100,000 Tutsis died in 100 days? The 2 groups had no conflicts before colonization.. seems odd)... State boundaries determined by western powers ignoring cultural/tribal histories. World War II ends. Cold War begins. States decolonized. They are struggling to be independent. Things ought to be extremely unstable. However, such is not quite the case. During the Cold War the US and USSR were in constant competition. The result is that when a country has a civil war or there is a regional conflict, the US and USSR step in, take sides, and said conflict becomes a world issue. Things get artificially stabilized because the USSR and US are giving money and human power to countries. So conflicts are sort of contained. A nice band aid. Cold War ends. (we were in grade school)... Democracy prevails, commies go into hiding. US and Russian interest in third world diminishes. Third world conflicts emerge again. Democratization begins. Globalization here we come. The west sets up democratic institutions in the developing world and via the IMF and World Bank loans (which the US has more power in than any other state) liberalizes the third world economies. [[IMF and World Bank give out loans to nations with struggling economies. These loans have stipulations attached which attempt to move their economies to more industrial export oriented production –western style- * something most of these economies are not ready for* and can force a country to privatize an industry – forcing them to allow western corporations in – this can lead to WATER!!! being privatized. No good for those of us who need water to live.]] The only purposes the developing nations have for developed nations are natural resources (gold, oil, diamonds, etc.) and cheap labor. This is why those miners only got $1 a day. So therefore my solution is that in order to reduce migrancy and poverty (the catalysts for the spread of HIV), western economic reforms and exploitation need to end. And then it won't be as much of an issue for people not to use contraception because there won't be the situations that create the need for women to sleep with men for money or material goods (men away from the house for long periods of time leaving women to fend for themselves in an economy that does not create jobs for them). How do we get westernization out? I don't know yet. Ask me in April after I write my thesis...

I am sorry for the tangential political thought, but I really needed to write that because I was dying to say it during class, but I wanted him to cover more sex issues and stay away from issues of statehood and westernization. I know I gave too much history, but trust me, if I had more time there would be no stopping me from writing several pages.

Name:  Sarah
Subject:  Today's talk and Praxis work
Date:  2002-10-29 23:18:12
Message Id:  3424
I've been trying to put my finger on what's been missing from this class but haven't had any success, maybe until now. Bob Washington's talk really got me thinking, not about this "What IS sex?" question but "Why sex?" We spent so much time discussing the different acts, the different partners, the different situations and different perceptions but I'd never considered the different reasons/uses for sex. Today we heard about sexuality as an economic resource, as a military strategy (humiliating the opposition by raping their women) and as a ploy to escape one's country by essentially appealing to a foreigner sexually. After all of this talk of sex as a representation of emotion, desire, fantasy, etc. it was rather sobering to be reminded of the ways sex for many people is a weapon for survival—a calculated act that serves a logistical purpose.
Which brings me to my Praxis work. Lauren, Michelle, Katherine and I are working on a project to provide useful information for sex workers in Philadelphia. None of these topics we've decided on to research are meant to discourage sex workers from their work but simply to increase their wealth of information and to promote health and safety within their profession.
Considering Bob Washington's rather bleak portrayal of life in Kenya and description of cycles that seem impossible to break (remember his account of women who were carrying condoms to protect themselves being stopped by police who assumed them prostitutes and only let them go after bribing them) AND then considering this work that the four of us are attempting to do, I feel pretty hopeless. I know that Kenya and Philadelphia are two completely different worlds but I can't help feeling discouraged. Can we bring about change in sexual behavior? And who are we to be responsible for that change? Also, can sex really be described sociologically? When it comes to sex specifically, can we talk about all Kenyan women as if they're interchangeable? Is sexuality too individual to be discussed this way or is that only assuming we're talking about sex as we have been talking about it—as intensely personal?
Name:  Monica Locsin
Subject:  Bob Washington's lecture
Date:  2002-10-30 01:19:46
Message Id:  3425
Today's lecture by Bob Washington was informative and interesting. His lecture did not trigger me as a lecutre informing us about how sex plays a role in the Kenyan culture, but how sex is used as a sense of being free from the poverty and oppression these people experience. Women as a subject seemed to dominate the conversation on sex. Why is it that it has to always be the women who have to deal with the unwanted? What really struck me today was when Mr. Washington commented on how some Kenyan women marry foreigners to leave the country and find a better way of living. This reminded me of how hard life is in my home country and how some individuals in Manila who are from depressed areas turn to prostitution or just look for foreigners to marry thinking that there is a better life ahead of them. In order for me to understand what he was saying, I did not have to look that far, it has been happening in my own backyard.
Name:  Nancy
Subject:  Bob Washington's Lecture
Date:  2002-10-30 15:50:11
Message Id:  3435
I find it the differences beween the language of sex in the US and Kenya so interesting. Bob Washington metioned that although prostitution is legal and is a steady form of income for many women, converstaions about sex are taboo. In the United States, where we have decided that many aspects of sexuality, prostitution being one of them, are deviant from our norms and are therefore unacceptable, we have a constant need for a discourse about sexuality.
I think this goes back to the having/naming discussion we had a few weeks ago-- the Kenyans seem to accept sexuality as a normal aspect of life, comparable to eating or working, while Americans create an obsession with sex by declaring it off limits or wrong. Since we don't have sexual freedom, we are constantly discussing sex, masking our obsession and desires in the form of dirty jokes etc. I get the impression that it's not breaking social code to talk about sex in Kenya, it is just that no one feels the need to release sexual tension through language.
I also find it interesting that in Kenya crime is rarely associated with prostitution. It seems we have relied on the misconception that prostitution breeds criminal activity to keep from ever having to consider legalizing it. It is so bizarre to discover that we actually create murder, rape etc. when we attempt to regulating 'the 'sources' of it.
I also began thinking about the deep roots of sex in our society. In Kenya, women seem to control sexuality. But this doesn't give women more power because sex is not an institution, merely an aspect of life. In the US, many people would argue that men control sexuality, and sexuality is a main focus and powerful idea in our lives.
I found the lecture very interestin and I am really looking forward to the multicultural sex day.
Name:  Jess T
Subject:  biology of sex...
Date:  2002-10-31 12:15:12
Message Id:  3441
Today's readings reminded me of some info I learn while watching educational programs about sexuality and relationships on channels like A&E and the Discovery channel. Unfortunately it's been a while since I saw the shows so I don't remember the exact names of the shows or extreme details but I thought this info and stories might be interesting to share.

One show talking about female attraction to males, discused how when women are more fertile they are attracted to more virile strong males (would produce strong/healthy off spring). And how women can have affairs during these periods, but then go back to the caring, nuturing, protective male who will actually take care of the kids/family.

Also during this show they provide a little senerio which showed that if a women were to have an affair while married she would be more like to become impregnated by her lover than her husband. This had to do partially with the more frequent occurs of masturbation in periods w/ her husband than her lover, because during/after orgasm acids are released through the cervics into the vagina that would help detour/damage sperm. More mastrubation with husband, more acid, less sucessful sperm, and therefore more likely the lovers child.

From another show, they talked about a study on sexual attraction, in which they showed that both men and women are more attracted to people with fuller lips.

From a show on history/importance of kissing. They talked about how one possible origin for kissing is through feeding children. The mother would chew up food and then kiss the food to the child.

They also talked about the importance of kissing your own children. When a baby is born, they done have the antibodies to fight disease. So it's important for both moms and dads to kiss the babies (on lips) to pass the antibodies on to the children. But it's not good for random people to be kissing babies, because they can give them illnesses that baby's body can't deal with very successfully.

just a little FYI

Name:  ngoc
Subject:  Reflection on Tues (10/29) Talk
Date:  2002-10-31 12:53:31
Message Id:  3442
the presentation in class on tues remind me so much of Viet Nam's aids epidemic. i too believe that the root of the problem is in the question of women's economic situation. beyond this i also believe the deeper or the cause of this economic situation is due to the history of discriminations and sterotypes of the role of women in the society, family, communnity. tackling aids epicdemic would mean not only working with the present situation but also mean working with the whole society, with every institution, with human beings. To change attitude and beliefs imposed upon women society must be concious of its power to infect every institutions', every individuals, and even the women themselves with limited, false, stereotypical, and discrimitive ideals, beliefs, and choices.
Name:  Paul Grobstein
Subject:  Biology and Sex
Date:  2002-10-31 12:55:24
Message Id:  3443
Here's some notes in case we don't get to it all, you forget, I forget, or ...

A Biologist's View of Sex

Sex and reproduction are NOT the same thing

Function of sex is to enhance exploration/discovery

Development of human sexuality

Significance of sex as a cultural phenomenon?

Name:  Lauren Friedman
Subject:  Defining sex... let's try this one more time.
Date:  2002-10-31 16:07:18
Message Id:  3444

I came into class today expecting an informative but perhaps dry lecture on the nuts and bolts of sex, a discussion of the anatomical and physiological definitions of sex that would allow little room for interpretation and debate. Presumptiously enough, I wondered what I could possibly learn about sex, biologically at least, that I hadn't already been taught. As it turns out -- a lot.

I never imagined that a biologist would define sex in any terms other than anatomical and chromosomal, but apparently that was very close-minded of me. (Shame on me and my humanities-biased mind.) Professor Grobstein's talk proved thought-provoking, personally ground-breaking, and, dare I say it, truly fascinating. Having a biologist come in and explain that sex itself could be defined, biologically, as a combination of factors that are linked to reproduction and anatomy but not dependent upon either, really opened my eyes. I was especially impressed by the inclusive nature of Professor Grobstein's flexible (yet scientifically exact) definitions. His definition of sex as "a novelty-generating mechanism or an exploratory process" allows for homosexual sex as an act which performs this same function culturally if not genetically. I've never heard the term "sex" used to define the range of individual human sexuality, but Professor Grobstein offered an equation that involved chromosomal sex, sexual preference, and sexual identification. This "equation" produces a practically infinite number of sexes.

A quick foray into the supposed linguistic authorities -- the dictionaries -- reveals that accepted thought is not necessarily in line with the liberating definitions arrived upon in class. A definition from an online medical dictionary states that sex is:
(1) The distinguishing peculiarity of male or female in both animals and plants; the physical difference between male and female; the assemblage of properties or qualities by which male is distinguished from female.
(2) One of the two [two?] divisions of organic beings formed on the distinction of male and female.

These definitions are clearly not in line with those offered by Professor Grobstein, or those that our class (at least me personally) would be likely to agree upon. The first definition of sex offered by The American Heritage Dictionary has two parts:
(a) The property or quality by which organisms are classified as female or male on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions.
(b) Either of the two [again, two?] divisions, designated female and male, of this classification.

Neither the medical definition nor the traditional lexical definition of sex seems even close to adequate. While I don't know whether or not I would argue for the inclusion of Professor Grobstein's ideas about sexual preference and sexual identification into a definition of sex itself, neither of the above dictionaries even allow for the seemingly obvious spectrum of sex -- the practically infinite variations on male and female that occur in our population.

Either way, today's class was very valuable and interesting. I guess science is... cool sometimes.
Name: Michelle McGrath
Subject: thought's on Grobstein (a little late)
Date: 2002-11-05 01:06:07
Message Id: 3530
Comments: I have to say that i was shocked and fascinated by Dr. Grobstien's views form a biological perspective on the role of sex and its possible extention to novelty generation in culture. I had a discussion with my boyfriend where i tried to explain to him what had been discussed in class. The more i tried to explain the more i came to the realization that i'm not sure i understand the point Dr. Grobstien was making.

What i am most unsure about is whether genetics and culutre are analogous in an interesting way, i.e. they are novelty generating, or is it that evolutionarily culture IS a continuation of genetics. These are very different positions and looking back i'm not sure which one was being proposed. The latter seems much stronger and in need of some sort of proof while the former is just an interesting exercise. I would be really interested to read some work that supports the idea that culture is biolocially as important as genetics, or that it is a contiuation of gentics.

While i'm still not perfectly clear about the nuances of the particular view, the initial insight, that culture is novelty generating, is facinating in itself.

I was delighted by thursday's discussion and i feel that it was very benefical to the class, taking us in a direction we had not explored before. Thanks Dr. Grobstien!

Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: sex: biology
Date: 2002-11-08 16:56:18
Message Id: 3622
Thanks to all for an interesting/enjoyable/instructive conversation. And to Lauren and Michelle for their afterthoughts.

I'm inclined to agree that, as Lauren says, "accepted thought is not necessarily in line with the liberating definitions" of sex we discussed together. I'm not particularly troubled by having come to some ideas different from "accepted thought", and hope no one else is either. It is, after all, my business as a scientist/biologist to find "less wrong" ways to think about things. And yours', as a class, to come up with some "less wrong" sex ed curricula. Whether one does or does not want to incorporate "sexual preference and sexual identification into a definition of sex itself", I'm more than content if the possibility has been opened "that sex itself could be defined, biologically, as a combination of factors that are linked to reproduction and anatomy but not dependent upon either", and delighted to have been surprisingly "thought-provoking" to a "humanities-based" mind.

I'm pleased too to have raised the possibility in Michelle's mind that "culture is novelty generating". Let me see if I can be clearer about "whether genetics and culture are analogous in an interesting way, i.e. they are novelty generating, or is it that evolutionarily culture IS a continuation of genetics"?

The first thing to say, as a responsible biology teacher, is that there is a sharp and important distinction between genetics and culture in one way. Genes are material structures which are transmitted sexually (for the most part). Moreover, the biological organization is such as to largely or entirely prevent the experiences that an individual has during their lifetime from affecting their genes. In short, individual experience (including any cultural influences) can influence whether the genes of particular individuals are contributed to the next generation but has little or not influence on the genes themselves. To put it differently, the routes of transmission (and the mechanisms of variation) of inherited and cultural information are largely distinct. The former involves genes and variations of genes and transmission through gametes. The latter involves ... interpersonal contact, social artifacts, and the brain.

Having said that, one might think I am falling back on an anology between genes and culture "which is just an interesting exercise". I AM making an analogy, but I think it is much more than just an interesting exercise, so much so that I'm willing, if carefully understood, to be seen as making the stronger claim that "evolutionarily, culture IS a continuation of genetics" as well.

The argument, basically, is that, despite the difference in mechanism, there is a deep evolutionary continuity between genetics and culture. The continuity is not simply that it is the variability of the former (interacting with the environment) that gave rise to the latter, though this is important. It is further that what genetic evolution gave rise to was not a fixed and invariant culture but rather variable culture. And this makes best sense to me on the presumption that variability is fundamental/desireable for living systems at all levels of organization (up to and including cultures). Both genetic and culture variation serve the same "function": to promote exploration of novelty.

I hope that's clearer (and seems coherent, rather than like trying to have my cake and eat it too). As for some additional reading, there's a brief paper by me on Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective and a note on The Bell Curve, both of which relate to the genetics/culture interface. Language provides some very nice examples both of the influence of genetics on culture and of the generativity of culture itself; Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct is a good introduction to this interplay. And Susan Blakemore's The Meme Machine is an exploration of the usefulness of thinking about culture in terms similar to genetics.

The idea that "culture is biologically as important as genetics" is a little harder for me to attach to a particular literature. It seems obvious to me, along the lines of the continuity argument made above, so long as genes/individuals are not only generative of culture but also influenced by it. And the latter seems so obvious to me as to not require argument (particularly for humanities-based minds", among which, I guess, I have to include myself to some degree). But, there are abundant examples in the biological literature of cultural influences on individuals: for example, stress reactions, allergies to man-made materials, and the like. Moreover, there are striking examples of alterations in human populations stemming largely from cultural factors (see Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, for some of this, as well as the complexity of the bidirectional gene/culture interplay).

This is getting a little long and a little far afield from sex. Hope its useful nonetheless. Thanks again to all for the conversation. I'd be delighted to pursue it further with any of you who are interested.

Name:  Deborah
Subject:  the science of sex
Date:  2002-11-06 18:13:43
Message Id:  3579
I just wanted to quickly comment on last weeks was great to hear the speakers, they did an excellent job...however, it was more fun this tuesday b.c even though we had presenters, we still were able to have class discussion and participation. I really liked that. I think that language, like sex, functions on a HUGE biological impulsion...(is that the right word?) Humans have a gigantic capacity toward language...i've studied it in psychology a lot...practically from the moment that one is born, one is motivated to learn language in any way that one can. Even deaf children create a language using hand motions...and pick up taught sign language like a sponge in water. So it makes since in a scientific way that for creatures so predisposed to learn language to try to articulate another function of their bodily needs, the need for orgasm, if not reproduction!

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