How I became a…Sex Research Fellow

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Part of our "How I Became A . . ." series: Justin Garcia, a Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, tells his story.

Justin Garcia

Photo: Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia

In an interview, Kinsey Institute research fellow Justin Garcia discusses how he came to become professionally involved in his field.

What did you start out studying? How did this evolve to studying sex?

I earned a B.A. in Behavioral Neuroscience, M.S. in Biomedical Anthropology, and my Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology. While I jumped around in different academic disciplines, I remained focused on human behavior. I started out with an interest in the brain, in neuroscience, then shifted to looking at human social relationships from a biological perspective. I first became interested in sex research because of the role of sexual reproduction in the evolutionary process, via natural selection and sexual selection, which then led me to thinking about the nature of human romantic and sexual relationships cross-culturally.

I soon became particularly interested in human romantic relationships and sexual behavior. What started me down that road was a 1989 article I came across (nearly 15 years after it was first published) by Helen Fisher, on the “evolution of human serial pair-bonding” that appeared in American Journal of Physical Anthropology. That then led me to read her 1992 book, “Anatomy of Love.” That book really opened my eyes and helped put together, in my mind, the biological and cultural pieces of romantic love and sexual behavior. It’s funny to think back because in the margin of that article I wrote that I needed to read more of her work – a note I had forgotten I had written, but came across not long ago while moving. And now she is a good friend and collaborator of mine, we are currently working on several exciting research projects.

My favorite book is probably the 1951 classic “Patterns of Sexual Behavior” by Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach, which meticulously surveys sexuality across different species and across 190 different societies. It’s an older book, some 60-years old now, but it truly blew my mind; I frequently refer back to it as an ever-illuminating resource. In fact, it’s on my desk now, as I was using a passage from it the other day.

So would you say it was a university setting that enabled you to pursue these evolving interests?

Yes, it was an academic environment for sure – although, the nice thing about human behavioral sciences is you soon notice that the whole world is a moving experiment to watch unfold!

I was fortunate in graduate school to have supportive mentors and an external fellowship that gave me somewhat more freedom than others to explore my own interests. For my PhD I trained under Dr. David Sloan Wilson, in a lab that spent a lot of time considering how evolution can explain human life, and in some cases help improve the human condition. While at Binghamton University we had an active evolutionary studies program (called EvoS), which included a series of visiting scholars that students were encouraged to interact with. In many ways that broad disciplinary exposure and “junior colleague” model was at the core of my interdisciplinary training and intellectual pursuits.

How did you get to your current sex research position?

I came to The Kinsey Institute as a CTRD Research Fellow. I really admire the work of Alfred Kinsey, and feel a personal connection because he too was a biologist who studied human sexual behavior. The staff at The Kinsey Institute are remarkable in every way, and it’s really a special, intellectually stimulating, place to be!

Before coming to The Kinsey Institute, I taught courses for two years at Binghamton University (where I still hold a faculty appointment). I taught human sexuality from a health perspective, and a seminar I developed titled bioculture of love.

Additionally, since 2010 I’ve been a Scientific Advisor to the online dating site Match.com. We’ve been conducting an annual study called Singles in America, on a nationally representative sample of single Americans. It’s an exciting project because we don’t know much about singles as a demographic – although, with nearly one-third of the U.S. population single at any given time, it’s a group with the collective power to radically impact American culture.

What tips do you have for people interested in pursuing career paths similar to yours? How could they learn from your journey?

Well, everybody here at the [Kinsey] Institute comes from different academic backgrounds and have had very different paths, but I think what we all share is that we are driven by fundamental questions about sex, gender, and/or reproduction. Having that drive, to understand some aspect of the world through research, is what truly makes this worthwhile. In sex research there is such limited funding and positions, and it is, unfortunately, such a controversial field. I guess the best advice is to not give up on what you’re really interested in. All of us in the field have experienced the awkward (and often funny) questions at family reunions, events with friend, and even on dates—you get used to it. I think what many of us have in common is a commitment to knowledge and truth, to working hard, and a relentless desire to understand human sexuality in all its forms.

I think it’s important to have fun, but to also take sex research seriously. There is a lot at stake with what we study and teach. The spectrum of sexual expression is at the core of the human condition. It’s almost ridiculous that this type of research doesn’t get more support. Understanding [the spectrum of sexually-related] things is at the core of the human condition, and should be paramount to the study of the human condition…It’s almost ridiculous that it [sex research] doesn’t get more support…what human experience is more consistent cross-culturally than sex and love?

Do you have anything to say to the next generation of incoming sex researchers?

As a discipline, we need to be very careful not to extend beyond the data—because sex is so close to all our lives, it’s easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. We have an obligation to be rigorous guardians of sexual science.

Dr. Justin R. Garcia is a CTRD Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, at Indiana University, Bloomington. He research focuses on the evolutionary and biological foundation of human behavior, particularly sexual behavior and romantic love.

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