Second panel — Science and Sexual Politics
Afternoon – August 24, 2009
In the panel that followed, these points were further examined from rather distinct angles. The session was coordinated by Rogério Diniz Junqueira, researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira (INEP- Brazilian Ministry of Eduaction). Commentators were Tamara Adrian (Venezuela), vice-president of the International Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Law Association (ILGLAW), and Berenice Bento, professor of the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) in Brazil.
Juan Carlos Jorge, associate professor of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico, shared reflections about the Corpus Sexual (Sexual Body) that emerged from the discursive constructs developed by science to define sex difference, which constantly creates and recreates sex binaries (male and female). Jorge explained that since the discovery of chromosomes in 1910 this binary logic has prevailed as the only criteria to determine the sex of individuals. Throughout the 20th century, genetic research has been complemented by embryology, the studies of gonad tissues and more recently, brain function research. But even so, by and large, these scientific efforts have tended to deepen and crystallize the binary descriptions of the Sexual Body. Although various threads of research have developed in recent decades that demonstrate that the processes of sexual differentiation are much more complex and occur later than dominant scientific streams suggest, these studies and findings have not gained major visibility, neither in academia nor in public debates:
“…the Portuguese embryologist, Clara Pinto—Correia affirmed that: ‘The sexual determination in the case of mammals continues to be a gigantic puzzle that has not yet been resolved’ (Pinto Correia, 1997, p. 261). The scientific data available, even within the biomedical paradigm itself, permits today to contest the notion that what is a female is merely the absence of what produces a male and that becoming feminine is a passive biologic process (Manolakau et al, 2006). It is, therefore, worth asking if this ideological dislocation is not exactly what explains why the findings of molecular biology studies, available for more than 20 years, are not cited in any medical or molecular biology textbook.”
In addition, Juan Carlos Jorge underlined that North American dominant scientific institutions and professional associations are the main producers of norms and parameters to guide research of sexual determination—as in the case of the American Association of Psychiatry and the American Association of Pediatrics. More importantly their influence and power is rarely contested in the countries of the economic south.
Carlos Cáceres shared some reflections about transformations underway in the discourse about the HIV as a sexual epidemic. Cárceres reconstructed the trajectory of how the HIV/AIDS epidemic radically altered priorities and investments in research on sexuality and emphasized the relative weight of biomedicine in this particular field. He recaptured main HIV conferences, political actors and agencies that played key roles in the construction of the global response to the epidemic. His presentation also mapped the tensions between biomedical approaches and social science, which have marked the epidemics trajectory since its beginning in the 1980s and that still persists today. He explained that one key moment in this trajectory was the discovery and provision of anti-retrovirals (ARVs). If on the one hand ARVs helped contain the epidemic, on the other, it also led to the unequivocal revival of biomedical approaches as privileged responses to the AIDS crisis. Today these tensions are evidently manifested in the debates and proposals in relation to prevention policies, or to be more precise, the new emphasis in methods based on scientific evidence, such as circumcision and the prophylactic use of low ARV dosage in the case of groups exposed to greater vulnerabilities. Cárceres concluded his presentation suggesting that the path towards the hegemony of new biomedical technologies of prevention has been dangerously open. This implies, among others, the urgent challenge to “re-sexualize” global and national debates about the public response to the epidemic.
Jane Russo, professor at IMS/UERJ and researcher at CLAM, presented a paper entitled “The field of sexology and its effects on sexual politics,” in which she retraced the creation and evolution of sexology and mapped out contemporary trends observed in sexology. At each stage she highlighted relevant connections with and effects on sexual politics. The analysis emphasizes how at the very inception of sexology in the 19th century, virtuous and not so virtuous connections can be identified with sexual politics. While studies of Kraft-Ebbing focused strictly on “perversions” being clearly located within the biomedical or psychiatric field, the efforts developed by Karl Ulrich and Magnus Hirshfeld, the inventor of homosexuality, developed within a “sexual reform,” framework. These later authors aimed at dislocating homosexuality from the realm of criminal law to the terrain of medical science, which was seen as progressive at that point in time to contest German “sodomy law.”
Russo also recalled that sexology was born in Europe, specifically Germany, and that it was swept away from the scientific and political scene under the impact of the Nazi regime. The second wave of sexology emerged in the United States after World War II and has implied significant dislocations in terms of methods, approaches and research objectives. The first sexology was concerned both with “clinical” approaches and the politics of sexual reform, mainly focusing on the variability of sexual conduct “at the margins.” The North American sexology shifted the focus to research of sexual behavior of “normal individuals” and privileged quantitative methods of investigation of sexual behavior, as exemplified by the Alfred Kinsey studies, which would become the icon of sexuality research in the second half of 20th century. His successors were the couple Masters and Johnson that further “normalized” sexology, privileging laboratory research on the sexual response of heterosexual couples.
According to Russo, having the first wave as a background, the North American trajectory has meant not only mainstreaming but also a trend towards depoliticizing the field. However, as she explained, in the 1970’s, a new wave of sexual politicization inspired by the cultural revolution would open spaces for the contestation of biomedical discourses, in particular, the pathologization of homosexuality, which would also impact sexology.
Currently, new developments characterize the sexology landscape. One clear example is the eruption of “sexual medicine” and its rapid expansion since the 1980’s that is portrayed by Russo as a third wave of sexology:
“…[ It emerged] as a new branch of urology, triggered by the market success of medical products launched to treat [male] erectile dysfunction. This current of sexology is deeply intertwined with the pharmaceutical industry and it deepens, in many ways, to some core characteristics of modern sexuality–its autonomy in relation to reproduction and the consequent quest for pleasure. The emphasis on the performance and behavior, already present in the Masters and Johnson research, is taken to its ultimate consequence, totally voiding the relational aspects of sexual activity.”
The displacement towards sexual medicine implies, among others, a revival of the “medicalization of sex” that reifies the centrality of the coitus and the dominance of masculine genitalia as icon of sexual pleasure. But Russo’s analysis also shows that concurrently, a contrasting politicizing movement is underway within mainstream sexology. This is illustrated by various dynamics and initiatives at play since the mid 1990’s, within the World Association of Sexology and its regional ramifications. Two glaring examples are the change of its name to World Association for Sexual Health and the adoption in 1999 of a Sexual Rights Declaration–a text that was clearly inspired by the agenda and terminology advocated by feminists and LGBT movements in the last twenty years. To summarize Russo, research efforts remind us that neither in the past nor today can sexology be described as a homogeneous field of research and advocacy. Principally it indicates that despite many tensions, ideas have always circulated across boundaries defining the limits between sexology, on the one hand, and sexual politics on the other.
:: COMMENTS ::
Tamara Adrian made the first comment observing that in the domain of science, dominant discourses have always tended to deny sexual diversity. In her assessment, scientific literature and the many other orders of power – legal, religious, political and social—aim at denying the freedom of human beings to fully experience sexuality, and principally, try to fit persons into the mold of binary categories that do not allow for “borders to be crossed.” She commented that while male-female binary schemes, crystallized by biology, medicine and the Bible, are being openly contested in the real world, they are constantly reified by scientific discourse.
In her comments, Berenice Bento tried to establish bridges with the discussion of the first morning session recalling that “doing science” necessarily means “doing politics.” Our reflections on sexuality and geopolitics, she explains, can not avoid the discussion of biomedicine (in particular psychiatry and psychology) as one definer of the heterosexual matrix that sustains state logic. Because of this, all research on sexuality, either in biomedicine or social sciences, must be seen as “political.”
Raising few questions in respect to the paper presented by Juan Carlos Jorge, she observed how in his analysis it becomes clear that dominant research on transexuality is dislocating the focus from the genitals to hormones and tissues and then to brain cells, in order to deepen these markers as to ensure that they gain precedence in the determination of sexual identities. She also recalled that while Jorge has concentrated attention on the effects of protocols of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and other scientific associations such as the Harry Benjamin Institute in Amsterdam, which are also investing in research experiments aimed at proving the biological determination of sexuality, such as the investigation of the role played by the hypothalamus.
Bento appraised the analyses connecting sexology, science and the market developed by Jane Russo. She asked if it would be possible to think of the first wave of sexology as a moment in which sexual identities have been produced, while the last wave would be more directly oriented to the medical “treatment” of these identities. Lastly, she called attention to the language shift at play under the impact of sexual medicine, which substitutes “impotence” by “erectile dysfunction” and suggested that this may be aimed at sharply distinguishing medical discourse from popular sexual jargons as to make it more “secret.”
Moving towards Carlos Cáceres presentation, Bento questioned if today’s official HIV/AIDS policies are openly naming travestities and trangender persons as vulnerable groups, or if these groups are clustered under the highly problematic rubric of MSM. She also suggested Cáceres to further explore the analysis announced in the paper about the tensions between the social science approach to HIV prevention and the biomedical perspectives now prevailing. She wondered whether there is communication and circulation between social science, biomedical approaches and policy formulation in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention. She reminded that anthropological research has shown that quite often many transvestites and sex workers do not use condoms because they may get better pay or even because unprotected sex is a key element of the sexual pleasure scene. The question, she explains, must therefore ask if HIV prevention policies are seriously taking into account these social science research findings.