Monday, April 17, 2017

My Psychological Research Orientation

I'm not sure of the ethics of posting this material, so I'm going to err on the side of reticence.

This morning I received e-mail from the person who now runs the GLB Speakers Bureau I ran for a quarter-century, announcing a visit to campus by a distinguished academic psychologist who does research on gender, gay youth, and suchlike.  The visitor will be giving two presentations, one tailored for undergraduates and another for graduate students.  Copies of flyers for the events were attached.  Here's the description for the grad students:
Scientists and laypeople have recently taken great interest in sexual orientation, especially if the person is a parent, friend, or romantic partner. Despite the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward, it is a difficult construct to assess. The most traditional method is self-report. Alternative, tech-oriented methods have recently evolved to correct complications: genital arousal, implicit viewing time, fMRI scanning, eye tracking, and pupil dilation. These are briefly reviewed with consensus findings. However, they fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation and to assess the full spectrum of sexuality. Thus, the real lives of individuals are misrepresented. A new sexual identity, mostly straight, is used to illustrate.   
So, "great interest in sexual orientation" is "recent"?  I wonder what timescale he's using; I wouldn't call a century and a half (at least!) "recent" myself.  And that's only if you limit that interest to the modern European medicalization of sex.

The syntax of the first sentence is a trainwreck: where does "the person" come in?  Is a person equivalent to his or her sexual orientation?  Are scientists and laypeople all heterosexual?  By "sexual orientation" he seems to mean homosexuality only, as if heterosexuality were not a sexual orientation.

I wonder about "the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward."  That belief is evidently common among scientists as well as laypeople, given the amount of research that relies on self-report for classifying the sexual orientation of subjects.  Since there is no other way to "assess" a person's sexual orientation, I wonder how "tech-oriented" methods can be any better.  If, for example, someone's pupil dilation appears to be at odds with his or her declared sexual orientation, what does it mean?  Do pupils only dilate because their owner is erotically aroused?  Should a person be required to re-arrange his or her erotic life to conform to such data?  Given the very limited state of knowledge in this area, I'd be very wary of putting too much weight on these methods.  It's odd, at the very least, that scientists should believe (or be said to believe) in the ease of assessing sexuality, almost seventy years after Kinsey demonstrated just how difficult it is.

The visitor seems to have similar reservations: these methods, he says, "fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation".  Unfortunately he misunderstands the term "sexual orientation," which refers to the sex of the people one desires erotically.  Since "romantic" love involves erotic interest and desire anyway, it makes no sense to distinguish it sharply from the erotic.  (Of course, none of these terms are particularly precise, and the professionals who use them generally fail to define them with any clarity for their research or other purposes.)  If a person is "romantically" drawn only to people of his or her own sex, the sexual orientation of his or her "romantic orientation" is homosexual, or same-sex; and so on.

Unluckily, or maybe luckily, this presentation will be taking place while I am at work.  It would be interesting to see if this psychologist makes any more sense in person.