Dispatches from the Unlikeliest of Labs

Dispatch #2:

The way you measure gender/sex and sexuality really matters: An “It feels obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time”-style lesson learned

By Zach Schudson

“What is actually happening here?” is something I say fairly often when I’m doing research. Typically, it’s tinged with a little helplessness, a bit of confusion, or feelings of frustration – or a mix of the three. After all, like many aspects of life, parts of doing research are further out of our control than we might prefer. Sometimes we’re scrounging around for research participants, whereas other times we get an inexplicable influx of people who are eager and ready. Sometimes data analysis goes smoothly, and other times we find ourselves pleading with computer programs to please just work oh my gosh why won’t you work??

But “what is actually happening here?” has other less frustrated and more genuinely inquisitive uses, including some that are distinctly feminist. For instance, the feminist tradition of reflexivity involves asking variants of this question that might look like: “How am I, as someone socially situated in particular ways via gender, race, class, education, expertise, and occupational/social prestige, etc., affecting what’s actually happening here?” Feminist reflexivity has been crucial in feminist scholarship for decades, and has been an incisive intervention into mainstream research practices in psychology, other social and natural sciences, and beyond. However, we as researchers are not the only socially situated piece of the puzzle worth reflecting on.

Based on my experiences in recent qualitative work I’ve done in collaboration with Dr. van Anders and a former lab member, I am interested in expanding that “What is actually happening here?” approach to think through how researchers, their/our research tools (e.g., survey measures, interview questions, etc.), and research participants all interact with one another to produce varied research outcomes (Schudson, Dibble, & van Anders, in press). Here are some early-stage thoughts on this.

First, some context. I completed my master’s thesis in Dr. van Anders’ lab on sexual and gender minority individuals’ engagement with sexual configurations theory (SCT). SCT destabilizes common assumptions in sexuality research, including that sexual orientation, typically defined as a stable pattern of erotic interest in partners based on their “gender” (which is generally just used to denote bodily sex, implicitly or sometimes explicitly), is the most scientifically important and personally salient form of sexuality. SCT delineates a range of partnered sexualities, including erotic and nurturant sexualities, partner number sexuality, and gender/sex sexuality, and does not presume universal salience of any single parameter. Further, it allows individuals to map their sexualities, as well as their own gender/sex identities, on 3D diagrams (and Dr. van Anders, my advisor, says that I have to note that they are IN COLOR). My research involved interviewing sexual and gender minority individuals and having them map their own sexualities and gender/sexes using a range of SCT diagrams.

This is an SCT diagram that can map both gender/sex sexuality and individual gender/sex. For more information on its structure, check out Dr. van Anders’ paper on SCT.

The interview process required quite a bit of explaining of the theory itself. In order for people to use a diagram, they had to understand what kind of sexuality we were asking them to describe, especially since participants had never considered their location in some of the parameters SCT delineates (e.g., gender sexuality, which describes sexual interest in partners based on their femininity, masculinity, or gender diversity, or if gender is relevant at all). This led us to a fascinating realization: As participants came to understand SCT, their understanding informed how they articulated their sexualities and gender/sexes. The very process of asking about sexuality and gender/sex affected the sorts of sexualities and gender/sexes that we measured. This is not to say that, for example, learning about how to disentangle gender and sex necessarily changed what bodies participants were attracted to, but it certainly changed how they described who they are and what they’re interested in. (And note: How we measure aspects of who our participants are affecting what we measure isn’t just an “SCT thing” – it’s more of a “literally all measures thing” that we just came to understand through our SCT research. We’ll discuss more in the paper because I’m running out of room in these parentheses.)

What do I mean when I say that SCT “changed” how participants described their interests and identities? Allow me to give an example. One participant, a trans man, described that seeing “sex” represented on a diagram as a matter of degree, rather than purely categorical, changed how he thought of his own sex. Prior to the interview, he had indicated his sex was “female” on a survey measure we administered. After seeing the diagram and thinking through concepts like “sex diversity” and “sex challenge,” which SCT visualizes, he indicated his sex challenged norms for femaleness and maleness, and he said that seeing the way the diagram is structured played into his decision. Of course, his True-with-a-capital-T sex was not what changed, if such a thing can be said to exist (and I’m sure Judith Butler would roll her eyes at the very suggestion). But what certainly did change was the sex that we, as researchers, measured from him.

Engaging with SCT not only affected how participants articulated their sexualities and gender/sexes, but also affected how they relate to those aspects of themselves. Participants described how some of SCT’s concepts helped them sort out conceptual and emotional issues they had been having. One asexual participant described her frustration with the limitations of the terms “romantic” and “sexual,” and described how SCT’s “nurturant” and “erotic” concepts fit her own experiences much better and would be useful for her in the future when describing her sexuality to others. Others described how the process of introspecting so deeply about their sexualities and gender/sexes led them to some “aha!” moments about what they truly prioritize in their sexualities, what is actually meaningful, and what isn’t.

So, what is actually happening here? “Doing” SCT seemed to make real changes in the ways people engaged with their own gender/sex and sexuality. Yet curiously, we didn’t actually set out to do this. We wanted to test whether SCT really accommodates diverse people’s lived experiences of partnered sexuality and gender/sex the way Dr. van Anders theorized, not whether it could change how people understood those experiences. But there is no way to present a theory or measure like SCT, or any means of representing sexuality and gender/sex, for that matter, that doesn’t interact with the people using it. The ways we measure sexuality and gender/sex always tell our participants something about the nature of those constructs and how they ought to be understood. For example, asking a participant to indicate their gender in a survey and providing them two checkboxes for “female” and “male” isn’t neutral either! It tells them that gender is a binary composed of just those two options (which, for the record, it isn’t, so let’s avoid that). So with SCT, we just told our participants something much better and more accurate (and we have empirical data to prove it!).

So the moral of the story: Whoops, we accidentally showed our participants models of sexuality and gender/sex that capture many of the complexities of their lived experiences that other scientific models haven’t, and it affected them! So sorry! Clumsy us! But okay, actually we’re not sorry (obviously). And we’re actually so un-sorry (yes, I know the word “unrepentant” exists and I chose “un-sorry” anyway, and I’m un-sorry about that too) that we encourage you to join us in attending to the ways you conceptualize gender/sex and sexuality in your research and how they might affect your participants. These effects are always present, just sometimes less visible or recorded. If you’re measuring social categories, there’s no way to opt out of the complexities involved in their measurement. So I leave you with a few questions to chew on: How can you identify the ways your research design decisions affect your participants? And how might you work toward making those effects good ones? And these are questions for us too, to work on in our unlikely lab.

Learn More

Schudson, Z. S., Dibble, E. R., & van Anders, S. M. (in press). Gender/sex and sexual diversity via sexual configurations theory: Insights from a qualitative study with gender and sexual minorities. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Advance online publication.

van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theoryArchives of Sexual Behavior44, 1177-1213.

Author Bio

Zach Schudson is a PhD candidate in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on gender/sex and sexual diversity and interrelationships between gender and sexuality. His dissertation explores heterogeneity in people’s essentialist and nonessentialist beliefs about gender/sex, including how gender/sex is structured (e.g., as binary, fluid, spectrum-like or otherwise) and its social significance.

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