Science, despite its efforts to be objective, is easily influenced by social norms and expectations. As science historian Londa Schiebinger points out in Salon, an excellent example of this is the human egg. Once thought to be a passive drifter awaiting a strong swimmer, it was determined in the 70′s to have microvilli on its surface to grab and catch sperm, becoming its own active force in fertilization. The microvilli were actually discovered in the 1890′s, but not considered noteworthy until the 1970′s, as noted by Salon writer Margaret Wertheim in the same article, “a time when women’s roles in society were themselves being reconceived.”
I bring this up because pop science – what I consider the interpretation of scientific studies into soundbite worthy articles for news sites – is so often used to make headlines by using a study to present some (alleged) fact about men, women, and/or sex. These facts may conveniently be “politically incorrect,” which is the polite way of saying they reinforce conservative notions of gender or sex roles. Often, the culprit is my arch nemesis: Evolutionary Psychology (but more on that in another article).
Once you’ve noticed this trend, you’ll find it’s everywhere. Just recently reported in August, a study done at FSU by Roy Baumeister found that “countries with greater gender equality have higher rates of sexual activity.” According to his research, he found that “with [gender] parity comes a greater likelihood of casual sex and more sexual partners.” Study number two, done by John Hopkins University and reported by the Huffington Post in September, finds that “dominant women have less sex.” The study was a survey of African women, and as co-author Carie Muntifering put it, “[u]nderstanding how women’s position in the household influences their sexual activity may be an essential piece in protecting the sexual rights of women and helping them achieve a sexual life that is both safe and pleasurable.”
I’m not interested in the fact that these two studies found such different results; they were done by different researchers with different subjects in different countries, after all. What I find interesting is the conclusions drawn from the information as well as the reporting itself. In study number one, the author uncovered higher rates of sexual activity. He went on to explain that “when women have more access to educational and financial opportunities, they don’t need to hold sex hostage as much, so they relaxed the controls they’ve put on sexuality.” He goes on to state that sex is used by women as an economic force to attain goals and “get what they want from men.” The article describes the prevalence of increased casual sexual partners as a “mathematical, emotionless” characteristic.
In study number two, though the study author seemed to indicate that less sexual partners was a positive sign of increased sexual control for the African women, the writers of the article chose to frame it quite differently. They reported that “empowered women…could be losing out on sex” and that “the more decisions made, the less physical intimacy” they experienced, a decidedly negative-sounding side effect. The important similarity between the two articles is this – both articles placed a negative connotation on women’s sexual freedom. The women who experienced increased sexual activity were mathematical and calculating, the women who experienced decreased sexual activity were missing out. Looks like women can’t win!
Sometimes it’s not just the journalism you must look at with a skeptical eye, but the study itself. The University of West Scotland did a study on the way women walk and their history of orgasms – particularly, vaginal orgasms. 16 subjects were analyzed for their gait and their history of orgasm. (I admit the article already lost me here – I’d never put much faith in a study with such a small sample size anyway.) They found that a “trained sexologist” could tell which women had vaginal orgasms based on the longer stride and increased vertebral rotation. They supposed that women who had vaginal orgasms may “feel more confident in their sexuality, which might be reflected in their gait.” They went on to discuss the studies implications for sexual dysfunction therapies. My issue with this? Lack of vaginal orgasm is not sexual dysfunction. The utter lack of discussion on the clitoral orgasm reinforces the long-standing cultural notion that vaginal orgasms are superior to clitoral ones and frankly seems a little insulting towards women who can only have the clitoral kind.
My point isn’t to judge anyone; they’re all looking for a human interest story, and all they have is their cultural mores and values to draw upon. I just think it’s important to draw attention to how science, no matter how rigorous the method used, is vulnerable to our own cultural perceptions when we try to interpret it. This has huge implications for what we consider true, as well as where we choose to get our information from. The next time you see a study in the news, pay careful attention to the dissonance between the data and the words used to describe it, and above all – stay skeptical.