Putting It In Perspective: Step 2 to Understanding Sex And Gender

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Sex research takes many perspectives. Understanding the difference between these perspectives is a key step to understanding sex and gender.

New Perspectives

Photo: J. Bradley Blankenship

Glasses sit atop the Handbook for Conducting Research on Human Sexuality

In my last blog I introduced the complexities of language. Today I’m going to dig a little deeper and talk specifically about the languages of sex research. When I say languages of sex research I don’t mean German, French, English, or Urdu. I simply mean the different ways we talk about and perform sex research. In the academic world we call these ‘discourses’.

The 25 cent definition- a discourse is simply a way we talk about something (no worries there won’t be a test at the end).  In sex research we can talk about one idea from a variety of perspectives.  When reading an article or interpreting research it’s helpful to know what perspective it’s coming from. For example, if we return to my example of sexual orientation in my last blog (is it defined by sexual behavior, attraction, or identity), we see quite clearly that we can take three distinct approaches to talking about sexual orientation.  If we broaden those approaches to our academic disciplines you start to see some of our ‘languages’ and ‘perspectives’ of sex research.  Again I’d like to give the disclaimer that this series is an intro to sex, gender, and sex research. As I suggested in part 1 it assumes no prior knowledge about the topic. As we go along the ideas will get more complex and I think, more interesting.  Having given my disclaimer I introduce to you the perspectives of sex research:

Public Health

Public Health is a huge area of sex research.  Public health has a strong focus on behaviors and how these behaviors impact spreading disease, prolonging life, and promoting health.  From a public health perspective we can explore things such as condom usage and effectiveness against HIV, pregnancy prevention, and so forth.  Public health helps us understand a lot of the behavioral aspects of sexuality. An example of a blog posts that takes a public health perspective is Debbie’s recent Q& A He Ejaculated in My Face: Could I Have an STD?

Psychological

The psychological perspective of sex research often deals with the mental functions and behaviors.  Research may deal with motivation, cognition (how we think about things), emotion, and interpersonal relationships.  Psychology may explore the mental health side of things, for example overcoming anxiety about a particular sexual behavior or coming to terms with a sexual identity. Kristen recently wrote about psychological satisfaction in regards to virginity loss (Not to mention acknowledged that pesky language problem I keep talking about in regards to defining virginity!).

Sociological

Where psychology claims the mental world sociology works with the social world. It’s looking for the social factors that influence behavior. Things like economics, race, religion, and political affiliations. How do these things come together to impact the behaviors we make? Sociology is where we start to see the patterns related to groups of folks. Eric will often take a sociological approach to his blog posts. A good example to check out includes his prejudice and attraction blog where he explores the interrelatedness of social class, race, religion, and body size among other social identities.

Biological

While not always a primary perspective on Kinsey Confidential, Biology is an important part of sex research. This deals with the actual anatomical and physiological influences of sexuality. What are the hormones and hormone levels and how are they influencing a particular behavior?  What role do pheromones play in attraction?  What happens to the body during arousal and so on? Kristen’s blog on recent discoveries in the steps towards an HIV vaccine take not only a biological approach but also a public health approach (obviously the two are heavily intertwined).

Gendered

Gender studies is an interdisciplinary approach that explores the phenomena of gender.  It uses multiple approaches (public health, psychological, sociological, biological) to explore the topic at hand but puts Gender as the key focus.  We’re actually going to dive a little deeper into Gender in the upcoming blogs so bare with me. In the mean time, the other Kristen, Kristen Jozkowski, recently took a gender studies perspective in her recent blog Can Women Ever Really Say Yes?

Historical

Pretty self explanatory, history looks at historical perspectives on sex and sexuality. What happened?  When did it happen? How was it talked about? What happened afterwards? How has it changed as compared to today?  To be honest, History is probably one of my favorite perspectives! It will definitely be something I touch upon in the future. Unfortunately, there tends to be a lack of Kinsey Confidential blogs taking historical perspectives. This is something I hope to fix shortly. In the meantime you can check out a piece Eric wrote about a year ago acknowledging Alfred Kinsey’s participation in the Boy Scouts of America.

Everything Else

The perspectives above aren’t the only ones when it comes to sexuality but they do seem to be the primary ones we talk about on Kinsey Confidential. Like most things in life, things are rarely ‘this’ or ‘that’. In reality most of our research and discussions take a little bit from each perspective. We are constantly moving back and forth to gain new insight into a particular topic.  The perspectives I’ve outlined above are interrelated and have to be considered in relation to each other.

It’s also worth noting that these are simply my 25 cent definitions. They are not complete be -all end-all descriptions of each academic field (there are books upon books upon books for that). While they are not exhaustive I do hope that they have been accessible and informative.  While you’re waiting for part 3 of the series, as you go about your week and think about sexuality try to see if you can identify when you’re taking a particular perspective. How does your awareness change and what new insights do you get by taking a different one?

J. Bradley Blankenship (M.S.)

is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University where he is also a project coordinator for the Center for Sexual Health Promotion.
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