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Sex and science stuff – 18/08/09

August 18th, 2009

Dr Petra

Let’s start with something we can all support. A new campaign’s been launched to win a posthumous apology for mathematician Alan Turing. Turing is credited as the founder of computer science and his codebreaking work during World War Two. A homosexual, he was found guilty of ‘indecency’ and subjected to drug therapy to ‘cure’ him. Nowadays we don’t see homosexuality as a mental illness and are aware it cannot be ‘cured‘. Turing sadly lived in an era where homosexuality was both illegal and seen as a sign of mental illness. He committed suicide aged 41. You can sign the petition to award a pardon for Turing here.

The papers have been reporting on the elections in Afghanistan (for a good roundup check out the BBC’s world service coverage). President Hamid Karzai has failed to make good on his promise that laws effectively condoning marital rape would be investigated. While the law recommending a man is permitted sex with his wife every four days appears not to have gone through, Afghan law now states a husband has the right to withhold food from his wife if she does not have sex with him. Women can only work with their husband’s permission. Rapists can escape prosecution if they pay ‘blood money’ to a victim physically injured during a rape. Critics complain this move has been made by Karzai in order to win support in the elections later this week. Women’s groups have protested but have been met with violence.

Thankfully this disgraceful situation has been kept in the public eye within political and world news reports. It goes without saying a country that enshrines within law opportunities for sexual abuse and gender inequality will also have extensive problems with domestic violence, child and elder abuse, and harrassment/abuse of homosexuals. It is sad but not uncommon for sex to be presented as a male right and sexual urge that can and should be taken without female consent. Of course if you’re in a situation where you force your spouse to sleep with you through threats, violence or starvation neither of you will enjoy pleasureable relations.

I’ve been disappointed in the response from the sexological community on this issue. While it is being discussed within feminist, human rights or health blogs and websites, there’s been very little said from those working in sex-related areas. Perhaps this might be a good time to remind ourselves of the World Association for Sexual Health’s declaration for the Millennium which specifically links gender inequality and sex-negative legislation as contributing to psychosexual dysfunctions and other emotional and physical harms. Page 155 of this document sets out WAS’s declaration of Sexual Rights which Afghanistan is majorly in breach of. The declaration states:

Sexuality is an integral part of the personality of every human being. Its full development depends upon the satisfaction of basic human needs such as the desire for contact, intimacy, emotional expression, pleasure, tenderness and love.

Sexuality is constructed through the interaction between the individual and social structures. Full development of sexuality is essential for individual, interpersonal, and societal well being. Sexual rights are universal human rights based on the inherent freedom, dignity, and equality of all human beings. Since health is a fundamental human right, so must sexual health be a basic human right.

In order to assure that human beings and societies develop healthy sexuality, the following sexual rights must be recognized, promoted, respected, and defended by all societies through all means. Sexual health is the result of an environment that recognizes respects and exercises these sexual rights.

Being a ‘sexpert’ does not mean we just get to talk about the fun and frisky stuff. It means standing up and being counted when countries enforce laws that harm people’s sexual rights and wellbeing. I’ll be posting in future blogs about ways we might go about this. And updates on colleagues campaigning in this area.

Ben Goldacre has another excellent but depressing report on PR stories masquerading as news. He highlights how the recession is affecting journalism negatively so there’s even more likelihood of such duff stories being reported uncritically. A big worry for social researchers as the longer this goes on, the less likely the public are to trust survey research. It continues to amaze me that while a small and loyal band of bloggers and writers like Ben, myself and Vaughan (from Mind Hacks) continue to draw attention to this poor practice, other academics – particularly social researchers – are keeping their heads in the sand about it. Indeed one eminent social researcher once told me in front of an assembled conference that I was ‘stupid’ for even thinking the idea of PR-based ‘research’ was a threat to survey research. There’s no way the media are going to alter their approach to using PR based ‘surveys’. It’s down to academics to start a bigger challenge against this practice. No point moaning how hard it is to do social research if you’re not tackling one of the major barriers to public trust in it.

On a more positive note, the fabulous science blogger Carmen noted a distinct lack of female and ethnic minority speakers at London’s Skeptics in the Pub events. Obviously that’s not positive, but Carmen took action by contacting the organiser of SITP who has revealed there is a problem in including female and ethnic minority speakers – but also outlines a plan of action to involve more women and folks of colour in future events. If you’re a scientist or skeptic (or both) who’s female or BME then do get in touch as a possible speaker or simply go along and enjoy one of SITP (London’s) events. Part of me does have a heartsink moment each time a discussion like this comes up since you have to wonder why the hell are we still having to raise this issue? It would be helpful to learn more about why women and BMEs aren’t apparently being included much within science communication/skeptic events.

Blogger Penny Red updates us on a new magazine Filament which promises intelligent reading for women along with pin ups of beautiful men. The magazine has already courted some controversy after being legally prevented from showing erect penises. It takes me back to the early 1990s when magazines like ‘For Women’, ‘Women Only’ and ‘Women On Top’ all aimed to cash in on the popularity of groups like the Chippendales and launch glossy female magazines featuring nude men. They were prevented from showing erect penises also. Plus ca change.

Filament looks interesting, but reading excerpts from the mag on the website suggests it’s not just the legal prevention of showing cocks that’s not altered since the 90s. The magazine features an essay on erotica vs. porn which, although well written, is exactly the same kind of debate we were having over 15 years ago. And the focus on the ‘female gaze’ (very popular in 90s feminism and cultural studies) also seems outdated even though the magazine makes particular mention of following published academic research.

It’s a timely reminder that it’s always good to check your history, and perhaps a more interesting essay might have been to see why exactly we’re still stuck in debates over what’s okay to look at, why porn always has to be ‘vs’ erotica (and can you really differentiate the two), and why you can’t see an erect penis in an adult magazine. I probably sound overly negative about Filament which is unfair of me. It sounds like a brave venture and I do appreciate attempts to try and combine intelligent features with erotica. My only concern might be that modern readers can get these things in many places and with the internet can separate out their choices. You don’t have to justify your need to look at sexy images with a worthy essay served up on the side. Even so, the boys featured do seem rather lovely….

A while back Cory Silverberg blogged about a new piece of research on sex toys which he acknowledged had some limitations but did provide us with more information than we’d previously had about this under-researched area. My colleagues over at Evidence Matters tipped me off to another take on this research which is also interesting. The Skeptical OB doesn’t dismiss the study completely, but does suggest a conflict of interest in the funders of the research (Trojan Condoms) encouraging women to use condoms on their sex toys. Check out both takes on the study to see how two heads are always better than one when blogging about a scientific paper. I have to say I prefer Cory’s as the Skeptic OB suggests the study is sinister when the funders did disclose themselves and the research itself does appear to be more robust than a lot of sex research. I guess the lesson to learn is we should question research, but always ensure we don’t dismiss it just based on one factor. A funder may influence a study, but if the study is robust that’s less of an issue – particularly if funding was disclosed.

And finally, ever wanted reactionary headlines at your fingertips? Well now your wishes have come true with Daily Mail-o-matic. Or enjoy the (new) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project (which aims to separate the DM’s classification of inanimate objects into two types – those that cause or cure cancer). Both created by the marvellous Chris Applegate who also brings you Alastair Campbell’s Wheel of Retribution. Wouldn’t life be easy if you could make all important decisions with such a device?

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