Dispatches from the Unlikeliest of Labs

Dispatch #1

Welcome to Our Feminist Science Lab!

By Sari van Anders

It’s not like I try to be a misfit but I have to admit: I don’t even fit with this blog. I mean, I do psychology, I do feminist scholarship, and I even do another blog. But I grew up with feminist science studies and was a latecomer to feminist psychology. Why? Because I do feminist bioscience. Perhaps you read that twice. Perhaps it has the ring of an oxymoron for you. Perhaps it sounds like the most unlikely of research programs. Well, that’s me: doing the unlikeliest of research, leading the unlikeliest of labs.[1]

I’m Sari van Anders, and I’m an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan. I’m jointly appointed in Psychology and Women’s Studies, which is perhaps surprisingly not the unlikely part, since there are scads of faculty here with such an appointment (true story). The unlikelier part is that I’m also in our Neuroscience program and my PhD is in Behavioral Neuroscience (or, to be more accurate, my Ph.D. is in Biology and Cognitive Psychology, which is what we called behavioral and cognitive neuroscience in the olden days) (ergo do not sue me for misrepresenting what my Ph.D. is in) (or for saying “the olden days”). The unlikeliest part is that I do feminist research with biological measures. And the icing on the unlikely cake of doing feminist science, I might suggest, is that I study testosterone.

People blame a lot of things on testosterone that I would like to, um, critically engage with. For example, if we are sitting at a party and you say “blah blah blah testosterone poisoning blah blah blah” I will definitely say that testosterone is not to blame for toxic masculinity and we shouldn’t biologize men’s bad behavior or contribute to biological essentialisms, which is why you should invite me to all your parties. Or, let’s say you are a parent of a kid in a class with either of my two kids and you say “blah blah blah testosterone blah blah blah boys blah blah blah aggressive.” I will definitely want to explain that researchers have tried for decades to demonstrate that testosterone accounts for girls’ and boys’ differing behavior but failed repeatedly so let’s not blame testosterone. But I probably won’t get into it because other parents usually intimidate me with their superior coiffing skills. But probably no one has blamed testosterone for why they never really considered themselves a feminist psychologist and instead fell head over heels for feminist science except me [hair toss!].

Because I study testosterone and physiological processes in the body – or, as fancy feminist theorists might say, biomateriality – feminist psychology wasn’t the go-to community, set of resources, or general thinks-place for me. Instead, it was feminist science studies. Why? Feminist science studies grapples with biomateriality and how (or whether) we can study it in feminist ways. Well, I wanted to study biomateriality in feminist ways or, more accurately, I wanted to do research with biomateriality. I wanted to use hormones in my research. Not use them like a bad one-night stand, but use them like you use a tool. Like you use a house. Like you use a question. I wanted testosterone to be a part of my research program, as the object I study and a tool I study other things with. My graduate students tell me that this is the place where I should give you a few teasers of what we do but I am thinking I’ll save it for a whole nother blog post because I know how to build suspense!

Feminist psychology has become a home for me as well, filled with community, people excited by my work (best!), and ideas that excite me (bester!). I mean, come on! Precarious masculinity? Benevolent sexism? Even as a latecomer to feminist psychology, I’m excited about all the ways it helps us make sense of the world and do even more compelling and fascinating scholarship. I mean, who isn’t excited about seeing the world better with feminist lenses? (Ok, maybe some people aren’t but they are wrong. Sorry for how wrong they are.) So what is it that we do, exactly, with testosterone in my unlikely feminist bioscience lab? How do we do it in feminist ways? What does it mean to run a feminist bioscience lab? Remember that suspense thing? I’M BUILDING IT EVEN MORE.

In the next few months, my superfabulous lab and I will be posting about things we think are interesting about being in a feminist bioscience lab and doing feminist bioscience. And, we’ll discuss queer perspectives, because we also use a queer science perspective. And, though we study testosterone within a social neuroendocrinology frame, we also do sex research, and sexual and gender/sex diversity. That’s because, in part, doing feminist science means taking a critical perspective on what you’re studying; which means not taking the what’s for granted – like, what do we mean by desire? Gender? Sex? Orgasm? etc. Bo-ring!? Who wants to hear about sex, hormones, gender, sexuality, diversity, feminism, queer, etc., AMIRITE?! Well, hopefully someone does, because my five graduate students and I will be posting in the coming months. So, stay tuned for… dispatches from the unlikeliest of labs 🙂

[1] Full disclosure: I haven’t done any empirical research on whether my lab really is the most unlikely of labs. PLEASE ACCEPT MY APOLOGIES.

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Here are some of our papers for the interested reader:

Really accessible! van Anders SM, Schudson ZC, Abed EC, Beischel WJ, Dibble ER, Gunther OD, Kutchko VJ, & Silver ER, 2017. Biological sex, gender, and public policy. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Biological Sciences, 4, 194-201.

Very cool pictures! Goldey KL, Posh AR, Bell SN, & van Anders SM, 2016. Defining pleasure: A focus group study of solitary and partnered sexual pleasure in queer and heterosexual women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 2137-2154.

Short and sweet nature/nurture mashup! van Anders SM, Steiger J, & Goldey KL, 2015. Gendered behavior modulates testosterone in women and men. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 13805-13810.

Award-winning! van Anders SM, 2015. Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities in Sexual Configurations Theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1177-1213.

Author Bio

Dr. Sari van Anders‘ research in social neuroendocrinology provides unique theories and methodologies for feminist and queer bioscience, focusing on social modulation of testosterone via sexuality and socially constructed experiences. Her work also sets out new ways to conceptualize, understand, and map gender/sex, sexual diversity, and sexuality. Dr. van Anders’ work has been recognized with awards for early career contributions, leadership, and theory development, and she has been named a “Scientist to Watch” by The Scientist. Dr. van Anders is Editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research, and involved in transformation efforts across a range of institutions.

One thought on “Dispatches from the Unlikeliest of Labs

  1. Hi Sari, thanks for posting this! I read the article about precarious masculinity and am curious about your take on the tone of the piece. The findings are interesting, but it reads to me like using biology as an excuse for behaviour (for example, provocation of men resulting in aggression). I think that gender socialization was meant to be the main point and it gets lost a bit. What do you think?

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