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Sex and science stuff – 01/09/09

September 1st, 2009

Dr Petra

Pinch, punch, first of the month. What’s happening in sex and science at the start of September?

Last weekend I attended the Science Online conference at the Royal Institution, London. I presented a joint session with blogger Jack of Kent about the legal and ethical aspects of science blogging. We’ll be sharing notes from our session shortly. Conference organiser Martin Fenner has posted a very thorough summary of the event and roundup of all the blogs covering it, which you can read here.

I enjoyed the conference, although feel there still needs to be greater reflection about why we’re blogging (and tweeting) science. I wouldn’t want future events to dissolve into naval gazing, but a bit more theoretical underpinning and critical pedagogy wouldn’t go amiss. I’d also like to see a shift from what seems to be the majority current view that’s still pretty top-down and operates on a science-blogs-are-a-good-thing and really all we need to think about is how to maximise our audiences – rather than reflecting on why we blog, diverse blogging formats, and what science blogs are for.

Following the Science Online conference I had a quick dash across London to get to the Landmark Hotel for the 30th Anniversary celebrations for Outsiders – a charity which supports people with physical and social disabilities. I made it just in time for the cake and a trip to Pleasure Island – a roomful of treats which involved compliments, card tricks, massage, dress up and tickling with feathers. Outsiders members talked about what they’d got from the charity and it was great to hear about the friendships, social lives and relationships formed. And everyone gave a big thank you Tuppy Owens for setting up Outsiders – and keeping it going. Here’s to the next 30 years!

Gender and hormones (particularly testosterone) have been big in the news of late – here’s a few stories that I found interesting (and frequently pretty annoying).

The Caster Semenya story continues to rumble on in the press. To help you cut through the (frequently prejudiced) coverage there’s a few resources worth checking out. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine have very kindly made open access a previously published paper about Intersex and the Olympic Games. This may not directly link to the Semenya case, but is worth reading for a thorough discussion about the issues of sex and sport. I was particularly struck by the closing comments for this report:

“Sport has struggled with the issue of gender anomalies for years and the controversy regarding how to ‘test’ for DSD remains. Chromosomes can be tested but sex is not so easily determined – our upbringing and society’s attitude towards us plays a crucial role in defining sex. For those female athletes with DSD, it seems far more likely that they are doing their best to compete as the sex chosen for them at birth rather than attempting to attain unfair advantage through masquerading their gender. As such, compulsory gender verification seems unfair, humiliating and unproductive in the majority of situations, although vigilance must remain to identify those whose aim is to win no matter what the cost”.

Feel free to share this paper/link (remember a hat tip to JRSM when you do so). I’d also recommend checking out Aunty Sarah’s (always excellent) blog where the Semenya case is discussed with Sarah’s trademark clarity and humanity (the comments are well worth reading too). Meanwhile, a new campaign XX Why? is being run by the National Sexuality Resource Centre and calls for us to stay out of Caster Semenya’s pants.

Following on from discussions about gender and testosterone, away from the sports field last week the papers were all keen to report on how higher testosterone levels in women leads to increased risk taking. A study (and subsequent media coverage) critiqued very nicely over at Vagina Dentata.

Although the testosterone/risk wasn’t specifically about female sexual functioning a number of papers brought up the usual testosterone deficit = unsexy ladies. I was particularly disappointed (but not really surprised) that opportunities were missed by the Daily Mail who spoke to a lot of people about this issue (including me). And were told how testosterone is not recommended as a ‘treatment’ for low sexual desire in women. Instead all we got was the usual rehearsal of desire problems presented in a body vs. brain debate, and reinforcing the men and women are sooooo different sexually argument. Ignoring, of course, that women and men can both experience sexual problems – and these can be equally distressing in either gender.

Last week saw the Butch Voices Conference in the US, which is well worth checking out – particularly the feature stories and videos from those discussing an often hidden sexuality. If this area is new to you I definitely recommend a search through the site, not least to familiarise yourself with a whole new gender vocabulary she, he, hy, ze, zie and hir.

Website Mindhacks links to Culture Matters blog and the tale of the gold penis enlarger, which highlights how views of sex differ globally.

Meanwhile at London Zoo, female gorillas got a photo preview of a potential new mate Yeboah who’s heading their way – oooh la la! We were particularly keen to see this story in the press since the Zoo’s one of our favourite places to go as a family mainly because my little one is completely in love with Zaire – one of the gorgeous gorillas. She likes to blow kisses and wave. Let’s hope she’s as welcoming to Yeboah when he arrives.

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