Mapping Out a Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 1)

Doing Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders from KT on Vimeo.

Bio: Dr. Sari van Anders is an associate professor of Psychology & Women’s Studies and affiliate faculty member of the Program in Neuroscience; the Reproductive Science Program; and the Science, Technology, and Science Studies Program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She is also the incoming editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research. Dr. van Anders earned her PhD in Biological and Cognitive Psychology at Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab, she conducts feminist-informed research on the social contexts of hormones and intimacy. She has received grants from the National Institute of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Program, the American Institute of Bisexuality, and many others. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Psychology and Sexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. We are very pleased to have her here with us.


KT: What is feminist neuroscience? Methodologically, what would a feminist-informed research program in neuroscience (or psychology) entail?

SVA: It’s a great question, and I get asked it a lot. A key thing is in defining what we mean by feminism. One of the ways I define feminism, which is built off of many feminist scholars, is that feminism pays attention to gender equity and related social identities or social locations. You can ask what that has to do with science, and I think the key is that feminism also argues that most of our cultural infrastructures, our structures, and our endeavors are part-and-parcel rooted in underlying issues, including gender equity. Since science is a human endeavor, one of the issues in doing science is thinking about how gender inequity (and inequity relating to other intersecting identities like race/ethnicity, class, ability, nation, sexuality) may be implicated. Some feminist science scholars have looked at how gender bias or other biases affect how people do science; some have examined how it affects the ideology or rhetoric we use in science, and some people have looked at how they affect the topic choices scientists get to. Although we talk a lot about random selection in science, scientists aren’t randomly assigned to their topics, and we pick things that interest us and resonate with us. In fact, that’s one of the things people think  makes science so successful, because scientists seek out their curiosities (shaped by ethical guidelines, granting agencies and so on.)

What would a feminist neuroscientist look like?

A feminist neuroscience would have us keep in mind gender equity and equity based on intersecting social locations.

How might that play out? We recently saw in the NIH’s call for incorporating females, as well as males, in studies. People had been ignoring females, or not including them. That’s a really basic but fundamental way to think about inequity; if we think females aren’t important, that they’re too different, too variable, or too problematic and messy, then we don’t include them. That’s a very obvious example of what we might call bias in science. But we might also think about the way we communicate our science, what happens at breaks at conferences, how we recruit research assistants, or in underlying ideologies. There have been a lot of assumptions about hormones and gender that has really colored the way we do our research but that might not be rooted in empirical thought.

KT: Given the epistemological differences that may exist between different disciplines/approaches, how might someone not already in a strong feminist science lab begin incorporating such elements into their research while keeping it readable/acceptable by their diverse audiences?

SVA: That’s a good question, and I think there’s two things in there: how do we do feminist neuroscience and how do we communicate feminist neuroscience. One useful way of thinking about doing feminist neuroscience in the lab, particularly if you’re in a lab that isn’t rooted in feminism, is to think about small incremental steps you can do. For instance, when I was doing my graduate work, we asked questions with check boxes; we had maybe two, three options. One of the small incremental changes I made was to make sure there was a way for people to self-identify, that is, making sure people were able to provide their options, to self-name, rather than limiting their choices. For instance, people of color who identify as biracial or multi-racial have articulated their discontent and discomfort with having to choose racial identity categories that don’t match onto their own. So, allowing people to write their answers could go a long way in doing work that maps onto reality, the reality of people who identify as mixed race, for instance, but also can engender good feelings. Small incremental changes can be big changes, and trying to overturn everything in a lab you don’t run is probably not a recipe for success!!

In terms of communicating to other people, I was actually reading a book, Writing Science, and one of the things the author does is really make clear how you need to think about your audience and the schemas they hold; by schemas the author means ideas and beliefs. For instance, if you’re talking to people who know what pre-theory is, you don’t necessarily need to explain it. If you’re talking to people who don’t know that concept, you need to step back and explain it before you go on. As you can imagine, we live in a world that is neutral to feminism at best and generally anti-feminist. I’ve been thinking more about this lately, thinking about whom my audience might be. It’s usually people who are not fluent in feminism and who might actually be hostile. So knowing these are the schemas I’m working with, I can think about how to slowly introduce language that might be less contestable, that might be less trigger-y for a scientist, and which might be more bio-legible.

I want to use language that they’re going to understand and sometimes to bridge what they do understand with what I want to introduce through feminist scholarship because of course, feminist scholarship has its own technical language that is very useful, but that needs to be contextualized to be comprehensible.

KT: I think you’ve achieved such great success with that. You’ve talked to behavioral neuroendocrinology people, psych people, and sociology too!

SVA: I’m actually very excited about that. On the one hand, it’s like I’ve been able to move forward on that in terms of doing interdisciplinary work and speaking to audiences. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s been a lot of work, and I’ve made a lot of missteps along the way. I’m sure I’m going to keep doing that (not on purpose!), but it’s become so much easier the more I try. It’s as though the more I work at it, the more I’m able to speak to different audiences. But one of the pitfalls actually is the more fluent I become in languages, the more I forget how one group will be so enraged at the jargon (and that’s usually scientists at feminist scholarship), and I’ll just forget who knows what. It’s not like I’m trying to assume everyone knows the same thing, but sometimes it’s hard to keep track of; for example, “context doesn’t have a meaning for this group, and it’s entirely loaded with meaning for this other group.” It’s been very exciting to see myself making progress and seeing all the ideas feminist scientist scholars are trying to introduce gaining a foothold. The further I go and the more fluent I get, different challenges come up. That’s exciting.

KT: I noticed in your papers that you occasionally use the term “gender/sex,” as opposed to “sex” or “gender” separately. Can you tell us when and why you this term?

SVA: I’m happy to. I’ve been using gender/sex, or trying to, for quite some time, and editors often won’t allow me to; they’ll get annoyed by it. But the reason I do it is that I’m looking at hormones in adults, and I’m typically looking at a snapshot. I don’t know if what I’m studying has to do with gender or sex. By which I mean if I see a hormone associated in women but not men, I don’t know if that association exists because of innate, evolved, hormonal factors or if it’s socialized, experiential, and culturally specific.

I use gender/sex because I don’t mean gender or sex; I mean some amalgam of both.

I think what’s been interesting is a lot of people use race/ethnicity to mean that we’re talking about a social construct that is sometimes seen as phenotypic or biological, as well, but trying to bring it together so that we’re never just talking about racial differences (which would be really problematic). I want to bring that to gender & sex, so I use gender/sex to remind us that we are usually studying both for any difference that we find, even in biology. If I find a biological difference between women and men, I have no idea whether this is a biological difference that resulted from social experiences or from genetic difference. Gender/sex is shorthand reminder.

That’s not to say that we can’t use sex or gender. Sometimes we do mean one or the other. If we’re talking about XY versus XX, we might be talking about sex, and I think that’s perfectly appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate though when we use sex as shorthand for when we’re talking about differences in neural activation because then we are implying that these are sex differences, that they are inborn or genetic (and the public certainly understands that implication). I do think gender/sex is a nice shorthand to get across that we usually don’t know whether we are studying gender or sex.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.16.42 PM

(Mesquita, B., Barrett, L.F., & Smith, E.R. (Eds.). (2010). The Mind in Context. New York: Guilford Press.)

KT: You have a chapter in The Mind in Context where you talk about the role of social contexts in modulating hormones and the place of evolution in understanding why they do. What is the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds and what paradoxes does it help resolve in sexuality research?

SVA: One of the things I’ve been trying to communicate lately is the importance of involving social construction in our research, even in biological research. Obviously, science is pretty antagonistic towards incorporating social constructions because people see social constructions and biosciences as orthogonal. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is show how paying to social constructions matter.

Some of the arguments I’ve used, for example, are that we need to pay attention to all species specificity. Anything that is specific to a species, we need to pay attention to, even when we’re interested in how it crosses over. For example, if we’re studying an animal model, we need to know what’s specific about it so we can know what trends travel to humans. If we’re doing comparative research, studying all kinds of animals, we need to know what generalizes and what doesn’t. When we study humans, I would say that one of the things that separates humans apart is social constructions. All sorts of animals have social behaviors, social contexts, social groups, social experiences, but social constructions are pretty human-specific. For example, I study human sexual desire. One could think, when I study sexual desire what am I studying and is this the same thing across the people I study? For example, for heterosexual women who have been socialized to think of desire as something for their partners, are they experiencing desire in the same way their heterosexual male partner is experiencing desire?

Another way to think about it—we know that in penis/vagina intercourse, men are much more likely to experience orgasm than women.

Is intercourse the same even when both men and women are engaging in intercourse? Are they having the same sex or are they engaging in a person-specific, gender-specific experience?

Paying attention to the ways in which social experiences and messaging changes those experiences—sexuality, desire—can be useful to understanding how hormones may be related to them. For instance, if we think that testosterone may be linked to pleasure, not all sexual experiences are equally bringing pleasure for heterosexual men and women. We should not expect sex to be associated with testosterone (T) in the same way across genders.

I find that bringing social constructions into my research makes sense of paradoxes. You asked about the paradoxes, so for example, people have found that hearing infant cries increases testosterone, but we tend to think as a culture—and as scientists—that anything to do with parenting should be associated with low T. So we have this schema—this social construction of parenting—that it’s all lovey-dovey and warm, but parenting can also involve challenging behaviors, like defending infants, if we think about it cross-species or even when we see our kids getting threatened by someone else. We would feel not like “I need to hug my kids,” but “I need to go defend my kids.” We can imagine how understanding the ways we envision these behaviors and whether they are really one things or multiple types of things held under the same umbrella but are actually different things, may be associated with hormones in different ways, while this overarching umbrella concept might not be.

Is parenting associated with low T or are certain kinds of nurturant, warm kinds of parenting associated with low T, while infant defense is associated with high T?

Again, thinking about social constructions is really helpful in teasing out hormone-behavior associations, but I would also argue that anytime we’re studying human behavior we need to understand how social constructions are implicated.

KT: Testing this S/P model, you’ve challenged the traditional “pre-theory” association between testosterone (T) and masculinity, providing a more nuanced perspective as to the role of T in parenting behavior, for instance. Can you tell us a little more about these findings?

SVA: With the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds, what I’m trying to do is clarify how the empirical evidence doesn’t suggest that T is linked with behavioral masculinity, but instead suggests T is linked to competition and nurturance, positively with competition and negatively with nurturance. When we looked at maleness and masculinity as the frame, that’s actually resulted in very messy results, like with the parenting studies I talked about and with some things with desires.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.11.07 PM(van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: Testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34(3), 198–210. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2013.07.001)

One of the key things that as scientists we don’t always think about is that we have hypotheses that are derived from theories, but theories need to be built from observation. How do you get observations before you have theories? What comes before the observations? The notion is that it’s pre-theory, which are these cultural/social stereotypes we have about the world. Articulating those can be useful because they push us to realize the biases, the assumptions, that might be driving our science that we haven’t tested. People usually don’t formally test pre-theories; they often use it as assumptions to build other theories.

In the S/P Theory of Social Bonds, I try to articulate the pre-theory that T drives masculinity, so that we can actually show through an alternative theory—which is the S/P theory—that T is linked to competitiveness and nurturance instead, and how empirical evidence actually supports one versus the other.

What I’ve done is to marshal the evidence. I’ve done many of the studies myself. I didn’t really set out to show this; instead, what I kept finding were results that didn’t fit our dogma or pre-theoretical notions about how T and behavior were linked. I kept doing studies teasing it out and making more sense of it, and so the S/P Theory grew out of a lot of studies that I was doing and drives a lot of studies that are ongoing or about to happen in our lab because it makes so much more sense of the findings. I think the interesting thing is that articulating pre-theory can help us make better scientific theories and generate better scientific hypotheses.

KT: What about the role of T in sexual desire and intimacy?

SVA: Sure. I’m focusing more on T right now. We have found that T is positively correlated with solitary sexual desire, which is the desire, for example, to masturbate, and that’s the direction a lot of people would think. But we have found that it is negatively correlated with dyadic desire, or the desire to be with another person. One of the things we’ve been doing to understand this because it replicates a lot of other findings. We’ve been trying to understanding how that could make sense and that relates back to what I was saying before.couple
(Public domain clipart from ClipartPal:

What are women wanting when they say they want to engage in sex with a partner? The assumption is that they want pleasure or orgasm, but as I was saying, heterosexual activity is actually not the greatest way for women to experience orgasm, or at least orgasm is not frequently a part of it. Now of course pleasure and orgasm are not the same thing, and there’s a lot of ways to experience pleasure, but we’ve been interested in this disconnect. We’ve been theorizing that one of the reasons why dyadic desire is negatively correlated with T is that sometimes desire, even sexual desire, is actually meaning desire to feel close to a partner. We don’t think that women naturally only want to feel close to their partners and don’t want orgasm at all, but just that given the limited options (and given that women, like men and all gendered diverse people, are rational beings), what they may be wanting out of intercourse or sexual activity with a partner may actually be what they are getting. This may be the closeness, as opposed as orgasm or as much sexual pleasure as we might expect. That’s one part.

Another part that’s interesting is that bringing in the S/P Theory of Social Bonds and thinking about social constructions is helping us understand that intimacy has many forms, so when we think about sexualities, some form of sexualities are partially erotic, (genital pleasure), some are more nurturant (closeness, warmth), some may be about power.

There’s so much going on when we’re talking about sex that even when we measure sexual desire, which we think of as a very specific construct, we need to be more detailed and operationalized it more to understand what we’re actually measuring and what people are actually answering.

See Part 2 for more on the implications and future of gender/sex research.