Is Ideology Ruining Sex Science ?

Is Ideology Ruining Sex Science ?
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Is Ideology Ruining Sex Science ?
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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On November 10, 2018, a controversy erupted in the field of sex science.

Kevin Hsu, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Northwestern, was on the podium at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) in Montreal. Hsu was being awarded the Ira and Harriet Reiss Theory Award for “the best social science article, chapter, or book published in the previous year in which theoretical explanations of human sexual attitudes and behaviors are developed.” He was in the midst of explaining the research for which he garnered the prize, a study of men attracted to trans-women who have not had vaginoplasty but have penises, when he was interrupted by an attendee, Christine Milrod, a sex therapist and independent researcher from Los Angeles. 

Milrod took umbrage with Hsu's presentation, particularly Hsu's finding that men attracted to trans-women and men with gender dysphoria – distress a person feels due to their birth-assigned sex and gender not matching their gender identity – may be sexually aroused by the notion of being a woman, termed autogynephilia. Many dislike the notion of autogynephilia because they feel it insults and degrades trans-women by suggesting that their transition from male to female was to fulfill a sexual fetish.

Touting this belief, Milrod repeatedly and aggressively shouted down Hsu at the conference, despite being urged by the moderator and audience members to let Hsu speak.

This alone would have been a minor incident, but it was what the SSSS did next that sparked the real controversy. Five days later, the organization issued a statement that expressed concern, not about Milrod's behavior, but about Hsu’s presentation:

The SSSS Executive Committee is aware of past and more recent incidents of language and behavior that has [sic] made transgender persons and other attendees feel unwelcome, unsupported, marginalized, or attacked at our Annual Meetings. We apologize. We want to assure all Members and attendees that we fully support you and stand with you. We are trans-allies.

The SSSS's actions enraged John Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and one of Hsu's co-authors on the paper. In an editorial published on February 21 to the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, he chastised the organization and their statement, calling it "poorly reasoned, cowardly, and exactly opposite of what it should have been."

"SSSS is headed toward ruin, or at least ruin as an organization ostensibly supportive of scientific sex research," he wrote.

In Bailey's opinion, advocacy and ideology are starting to supplant the search for truth in sex research. He cited the following trends as fueling this movement: blindly advocating for marginalized groups, refusing to question people's identities and narratives, insisting on political correctness, following gender studies' preference for theory over empiricism, censoring science for the sake of "sensitivity", and discouraging the discussion of controversial ideas.

To avoid ruining sex research, Bailey recommends remaining as ideologically neutral as possible.

"Do sex research, and do it well. The goal of sex research should be to discover things about sex, broadly construed, that are true and important. Anyone engaged in this kind of sex research cannot be making the world worse."

Bailey's critique was recently challenged by Florence Ashley, an O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University, who argued that Bailey's analysis of the controversy is a straw man argument, characterizing his opponents as ideological and himself as unbiased.

"Though not all science is advocacy, all science is rooted in ideology," Ashley wrote.

Bailey is being a hypocrite, Ashley argues. There are numerous other equally plausible hypotheses besides autogynephilia that fit the data in Hsu's research, yet Bailey and Hsu seem completely certain that their explanation is correct.

"[They] are silent on the serious methodological and interpretive critiques levied against autogynephilia, choosing to instead focus on the fact that opponents of the hypothesis think it is harmful. This casts opponents as irrational and ideologically driven, while they cast themselves as guardians of the objectivity of science."

But that is a cloak of ignorance, Ashley says.

"It is better to know that we’re all biased than to deceive ourselves."

On the original incident at the SSSS conference, Ashley had this to say:

"Disrupting scientific presentations is typically frowned upon. I agree that it was an unfortunate event. But when hypotheses continue to be published and parroted despite having been severely undermined, reflecting ideological biases... disruption becomes a reasonable course of action." 

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