VSS Post-Show: Emily Willingham, PhD

This week on Virtually Speaking Science, my guest was Dr. Emily Willingham. Emily received both her BA and PhD at the University of Texas, Austin; the former was in English and the latter in Biological Sciences.1 Her dissertation was on the effects of atrazine and temperature on the sex development of red slider turtles; she went on to do a fellowship in pediatric urology at University of California, San Francisco.

On academic achievement alone, Emily is impressive, but she didn’t forget her English background when she wandered into science. Instead, she has written for Scientific American, The Scientist, The New York Times, Slate, and Discover; has a regular column at Forbes called The Science Consumer; and is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of DoubleX Science. firefly_shiny_nathan_fillion_t_shirtShe was a Shorty Award finalist in 2013, as well as being selected for the Open Lab 2013 best in science writing online anthology. She has been blurbed by Steve Silberman and Ed Yong, and even has her own Wikipedia page.

Basically, she is shiny.

Emily sat down to talk with me about her multidisciplinary background, writing books at a precociously young age, and the Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit that was held at MIT last weekend. As you can imagine, we managed to fit a lot into the hour, and it was a fun show. Give it a listen! Below, you’ll find links to the papers, panels, and people we discussed.2

Something I learned about when researching Emily in preparation for the interview was that, long before Ed Yong was talking about zombie parasites, Emily had written about zombie grasshoppers. Or, as I prefer to think of them, creepy worm terrorist zombie hijackers.

One of the main inspirations for the recent summit was a session at NASW 2013 titled The XX Question. You can see the video of this powerful plenary session here.

In December, Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel joined Tom Levenson on Virtually Speaking Science to talk about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.

We spent a good amount of time discussing the results of a survey distributed across several professional writing communities. You can download and review the slides and data at this link.

Towards the end of the show, Emily and I started to talk about the stresses of being a feminist online, and, in particular, how it’s really necessary to know how to take care of yourself. We both referenced spoon theory (saying make sure you have your spoons); if you’re not familiar with that concept, here’s the essay that started it all.

For more information on the summit, you can head to the website, read the Storifies Maryn McKenna pulled together, and check out recaps and coverage page.

  1. You might be seeing a pattern with my guests. []
  2. With thanks to my husband Nicholas, who has not only been live-tweeting my VSS shows, but has been acting as live scribe, gathering links and information real-time. []

Does How We Lose Our Virginity Shape Our Entire Sex Life? In a Word, No.

This morning’s sensationalist headlines are claiming that new research, published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, says that how we lose our virginity will shape our entire sex life.

For more than one of us, I’m sure, that’s the kind of headline that makes eyebrows climb and perhaps a slight whispered “oh, god, no.” And certainly, statements that the authors are making about this study seem to indicate that there’s reason to worry:

“While this study doesn’t prove that a better first time makes for a better sex life in general, a person’s experience of losing their virginity may set the pattern for years to come,” said author Matthew Shaffer, who suggested that thought and behavior patterns may be formed the first time we have sex and then guide future experiences.1

Shudder. But, in her coverage, Lindsay Abrams’ notes that there is one massive flaw in this study: none of the participants had been having sex all that long, and all of them were between the ages of 18-22. And, in fact, that’s enough of a flaw that I went and dug up the rest of the study, to see just how accurate the notion that first sexual experiences do actually influence our future sex life, happiness, pleasure, and so forth.

The good news is, the study is so fundamentally flawed no one should do more than roll eyes at it, and sigh as you watch Jezebel and other pop culture sites cover the study results while sending up some sort of Lena Dunham-esque2 panic flare.

Let’s take a look at the numerous issues in this study. First (and more than one person would argue foremost), the sampling size is horrible: all participants were undergraduates recruited from psychology courses at the school, who were offered both extra course credit for participation and entered into a raffle to win gift cards. For better or worse, students do self-select themselves into courses based on interests, personality types, etc – a lack of hard scientists, for example, may have significantly skewed the data presented, as I’m sure did the promise of extra credit and financial reward. Likewise, the final numbers (206 women and 113 men) may have been more balanced had there been more effort at reaching a more balanced study population.

But balance is off here in more than one way: all study participants were required to have had their first sexual experience (“losing their virginity”) be a heterosexual experience. Was your first time with a same-sex partner? Are you bisexual? Any non-heterosexual students need not apply – apparently how your sex lives are shaped is too complicated.

And oh, hey, were you raped?

Hate to break it to you, but that’s an automatic disqualification from the study – even though all of the headlines you’re going to see about this are going to imply that the fact you were raped is going to irrevocably and forever shape your sex life.

So once the researchers had their voluntary, heterosexual, 18-22-year-old students for this study, where the median length of sexual activity was 2.27 years, the researchers then asked the students to self-report their sexual habits and experiences… for the following two weeks.

Oh. OH. So, you’re going to extrapolate from heterosexual college students who have been sexually active for, on average, slightly more than two years, and then make assumptions about the sexual lives of everyone? For the rest of their entire lives? Based on two weeks?

Well, apparently the researchers behind this study think that’s a perfectly reasonable study goal. Me? I’d like to talk to the editors for the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. We need to talk about study design and worthwhile results to publish. I’m pretty sure we need to start with the fact that when a paper discussion says

this study focused on the role this milestone event may [emphasis mine] play in future sexuality

or asserts that the two-year experience of ethnically homogenous, heterosexual college kids is representative of the entire span of human sexuality, forever, the appropriate response is not “accept,” but something between “revise and resubmit” and “reject.”

  1. Taken from Lindsay Abrams’ coverage inThe Atlantic. []
  2. Hat tip to Lindsay for the cultural reference. My age appears to be catching up to me. []

a sponge must have substance to absorb

I’m reading Barrington Moore’s Moral Purity and Persecution in History, having started it as a bit of “light” nighttime reading a few evening’s back. (Yes, I know, I need to work on my ideas of what constitutes good before bed reading, especially since I find myself getting up to grab copies of various Bibles to check references far too often for this to succeed in being relaxing reading.) It’s been an interesting read, in part because Moore appears to rely relatively heavily on Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. My exposure to Douglas’s work is second-hand, through Elizabeth Grosz, but even then, I feel like I understand enough of Douglas’s theory to be able to answer a question posed by Moore early on in his work. In Chapter One (page eight, so yes, very early), he discusses rules about nakedness in Leviticus. He says

Mixed in with the rules about nakedness are two prohibitions on perversions. One prohibits homosexuality in the strict sense of the word: sexual relations between males. This is an abomination (Lev. 18:22). There is no mention of lesbianism. Two possible explanations for this odd omission come to mind. Conceivably the male religious authorities who created this legislation didn’t even know about its existence. OR else they were so terrified at the prospects of female joys without the male contribution that they did not even call attention to lesbianism by passing ordinance against it. Some variant of the first explanation seems more likely.

Does it really seem likely to anyone that men in the Biblical era had no notion of lesbianism? That while male homosexuality was known of enough to call an abomination, absolutely no male religious authority ever saw or heard of lesbians? Perhaps there was a rampant lack of mental creativity?

I propose a third option: that it wasn’t mentioned because the pollutions of a woman’s body are dealt with in other Jewish rituals, and because a woman cannot be further polluted by a woman; that is, the “dirt” that she absorbs is from a male (semen) rather than any contagion from another woman. As Grosz notes in Volatile Bodies, the female body is coded as “a body which leaks, which bleeds” (203); these environment-polluting contagions that are expressed from the woman’s body are already controlled by Jewish rituals and laws – specifically the mikveh. There are a whole host of regulations surrounding the mikveh, and not being a religious scholar to any degree, I won’t go into them. Suffice that they exist as a way to ritually purify after contagion, and that most feminine fluids, such as menstruation, are covered under this. But, as Grosz goes on to explain, “Women are the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women; …she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’” (197). (This is where the notion of a woman being impure or defiled for sex outside of marriage comes from; as a sponge or conduit of other men’s impurities, she can collect and cross-transmit the contagions.)

But if a woman is not absorbing the “dirt” of men, but instead merely contaminated by that which she already has and is, which is already addressed by the mikveh, then why set up additional legislation? Women and their purity and how to maintain it has already been covered by existing purity laws, therefore there was no need to specifically address lesbianism. This was no oversight on the scholars and writers of Leviticus; it is, instead, an oversight on our part. We modern folks see the rules in Leviticus as being about controlling behaviour or social mores; we’re not looking at them in the “right” light, where that light is about symbolic boundary maintenance and maintaining Jewish cultural identity in hostile lands. That laws governing sex and clothing and food are all discussed together is not some weird coincidence, if you look at them as being laws governing purity and boundaries.