Mapping Out a Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 2)

Doing Feminist Bioscience- Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 2) from Kathy Trang 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.


(See Part 1 for more on feminist neuroscience and on Dr. van Ander’s research.)

KT: So far we’ve focused on T, but I know you’ve also written about oxytocin and made the case for why we shouldn’t think OT = good. Why is this?

SVA: That’s a great question. One of the things with the S/P theory of Social Bonds is that we’ve been arguing that oxytocin seems to be related in a lot of ways to closeness or trust. There’s a lot of fascinating work on that from social bonds to attachment to pair bonds, but those things aren’t universally good. I think there are a lot of interesting feminist critiques right now on this. In a world where we think being pair bonded is better than not, we can see that obviously oxytocin would be seen as good because it’s seen as related to pair bonds. However, you could overlay this with political understandings that criticize single women and men for wanting too much sex, which I don’t think are true, but our culture attacks. It privileges coupledom, and it privileges certain types of relationships over others.

One of the things we’ve been arguing in the paper you referred to is a feminist lens would help us realize that trust isn’t always good. Who do you trust and when? For women and men, trusting sexual partners can be good when it’s deserved and a bad thing when it’s not. There’s also some very intriguing evidence that oxytocin might be an emotional amplifier (Jennifer Bartz), and one of the reasons to think about that is that if you feel close to a partner, oxytocin might make you feel closer; but what if you feel dislike of a partner? If oxytocin is an emotional amplifier, it might increase that. Or you could think about one of the ongoing tropes—with the UCSB shooting—we see this play out with this obsessive belief that you have the right to women’s sexual bodies. I know this is a more extreme example, but what does oxytocin do to that? Does it make you feel even more obsessive? Do you feel closer to people you shouldn’t feel closer to or that you have no right to feel close to?

I think there’s all sorts of questions about what oxytocin can do, but because it’s mainly been studied in how can it promote this pair bond or not, as opposed to whether it can promote something negative or not, we end up having a limited view of its potential outcome.

As one more point I want to make, there’s evidence that oxytocin promotes closeness to in-group members. Again, you can think of that as the amplification. It makes you feel closer to people you already feel close to, while promoting this derogation or devaluation of out-group members. So one of the things we’re arguing is that oxytocin may be the love hormone, but it could also be the racism hormone. It sounds sort of out there, but possible if it’s promoting out-group derogation–one of the things that underlines separation, nationalism, and all these other problematic isms. “This group of ours is better; the other is problematic.” Oxytocin seems to be one of the hormones that influences that process.

The idea that we’ll have people be given oxytocin sprays should raise flags for people who understand that closeness is relative, and there are other sides to the closeness coin. There are times when you shouldn’t feel close, times when you shouldn’t feel trust, and times where we want there to be less discriminated closeness. That’s what a lot of research on pair bonds is about; oxytocin promotes selective affiliation. There’s all sort of things to have caution.

One of the reasons I wrote that paper was because I was starting to hear at feminist conferences people talking about oxytocin as this love hormone, kind of tongue in cheek, but still with this kind of “maybe this is the hope that will save us,” and I thought there was so much more about the research that wasn’t making it into others’ toolbox of understanding.

KT: So I have to ask, are there any plans in your lab to do research on oxytocin?

SVA: Right now, oxytocin can only be measured by blood. We’ve tried to develop a salivary assay with no luck, and I know a lot of people have tried. I know a few labs that measure it from urine or saliva, but a lot of us can’t seem to replicate their findings or get it to work in our lab for whatever reason. I know I only had limited money to throw at it, and at some point, I said that’s enough.

I’m also so fascinated by T, and, as I was saying before, scientists don’t get randomly assigned to their studies. You develop an intuition about what you’re studying. By intuition, I mean hunches based on research, and so I feel close to T. I feel like I have a good grasp on it and a good understanding of it. To an extent, I feel this with oxytocin, but less so. Also, we don’t do blood in our lab right now. Saliva works really well for T, and a lot of what we do is field research, meaning people may go home and engage in sex then take saliva samples before and after; blood wouldn’t really work, so methodological limitations are also what’s driving this. If we could measure it reliably in saliva and I could know it for sure, I’d be doing it in a second.

KT: Building on our discussion on oxytocin, what should the clinician or layperson take away from your research? 

SVA: That’s a great question. One of the things is that we tend to think of hormones as static, predetermined, and causal. One of the key things I would love to have people understand is that hormones are responsive, situated, and in a reversed relationship, where hormones can influence behavior, but actually as we’re finding humans, behavior also influences hormones. I’d love for people to understand that.

I’d also love feminist scientists and people all over to stop talking about T as though it were the driving essence of masculinity, as though it were what made men, men. I think it would be great if we could decouple those two because that’s what our evidence tells us. T does the same things in women and men. That’s not to say it doesn’t play out differently depending on socialization, but understanding that T and behavioral masculinity aren’t one-to-one would be really useful.

With clinicians, for example, taking one sample of T, we get some understanding of trait levels, but we also lose the variability that we need to know. I think that there would be two- take-homes: 1) Behavioral masculinity and T are not one-to-one, 2) hormones are responsive, dynamic, and situated, not just causal.

KT: Here at the FPR we’re really interested in understanding that interaction between culture and biology. What insights, if any, do you think a cross-cultural (or anthropological) perspective can provide for social neuroendocrinology? Is collaboration possible? 

SVA: One of the great things about social neuroendocrinology is that it already incorporates biological anthropology. There’s a lot of fascinating research being done by biological anthropologists, for example, Lee Gettler and Peter Gray on fathering and testosterone, or people on competition and status, and they’re doing work cross-culturally, which is great. One of the downfalls of psychology is that its mainstream is not seen as cross-cultural. We don’t get training in cross-cultural methods, and one of the main criticisms of psychology is that it focuses on WEIRD populations (White, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic—and you could add heterosexual, citizen, able-bodied, etc.). I’ve been very fortunate in that there is social neuroendocrinology work being done across the globes. One of the things I add is by doing lab experiments and manipulations, which anthropologists don’t typically do, so it’s a nice mix, actually. We have experiments, manipulations, field studies, observations, cross-cultural insights, and so on. They are all kind of coming together to help us understand a picture that would otherwise be very incomplete or partial.

KT: Within the past few years, I feel like we’ve seen a stronger push to incorporate sex/gender into our studies (e.g., NIH requiring testing of animals of both sexes, Stanford’s Gendered Innovations project), but also a critique of that gendering practice (e.g., Sarah Richardson’s Sex Itself, Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm). I wonder what your thoughts are in the place of feminist neuroscience in keeping balance between engendering our research programs and infusing them with unwarranted pre-theories about sex/gender (whether in favor of biological determinism or cultural relativism)? 

SVA: That’s such a good question, and of course, a timely one, with the NIH’s call.

I’m Canadian originally, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has an Institute of Gender and Health, which does a lot of work around gender and sex, as well. They do a lot of training, and that’s one of the things I’d love to see.

The tricky part is that we want to pay attention to gender/sex, but we don’t want to overestimate its importance and make everything about gender/sex when it’s not.

For example, if we think we need different medical doses for women and men because of their different sizes, what we really need to be paying attention to is different sizes because there are some small men and some big women. We don’t want to over-focus on gender and sex, but we don’t want to under-focus on it and assume it doesn’t matter. I think that lies at the core of your question—how do we pay it the attention it deserves without overestimating it.

I think I really like IGH because they do so much training, and almost no scientist is trained to think about gender or sex. They’re barely trained to think about sex and almost completely not trained to think about gender. The idea that we’ll mandate it and expect it to be accomplished in meaningful and useful ways might be a big ask, without the training to support it and back it up. It’s like if we asked people to pay attention to some variable they don’t know anything about and expect them to self-educate, but we know we live in a world where some are not interested in feminism; and scientists see some feminist scholarship as antithetical to science, so I think training is a big answer.  As a PI myself, I know no one likes to be trained in anything, but I like IGH’s model where they have training modules for students, training opportunities for PIs, and so on. I think that’s really useful. I also think that this issue of constantly paying attention to gender and sex, when it matters, when it doesn’t, needs to be more part of the language.

It’s not that gender and sex are not always primary variables, but they should be thought of as potentials. We need room in science for when they don’t matter and have room for when they do. We need a push on both of those. I think often the push, as you say, is this sense of “we need to pay attention to sex differences because we need to pay attention to females because females are so different from males and males are the standard,” and I think that language reifies cultural assumptions that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s a major problem because we end up in this circular process where our science contributes to that belief of, “oh look we have to study them; they’re so different,” then people start thinking about them as so different and we arrive at “look! we have to study them; they’re so different.” I think that balance is important, and the way to that is fraught, but in our communications and in our mandates, articulating that balance and offering training/education so that people can actually be prepared to engage with gender and sex in sophisticated ways is important.

KT: Finally, if you were to envision a conference that really attempts to push at the frontier of sex/gender study or alternatively rethink the direction it should take from an interdisciplinary perspective, what do you think are the key topics that should be addressed at this conference? 

SVA: It’s a great question and as part of some work I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading some interdisciplinary collections that have people talking from multiple levels of analyses and multiple disciplines and who are thinking about how to do this, how to bring together humanist, social, life sciences, medical scientists, and so on. How do we think about talking across these disciplines? I think one of the problems is that when we bring people from multiple disciplines together who don’t know how to talk to each other and who don’t know the differing base assumptions they may have, it kind of pushes them more apart. It’s kind of like some research I read about, how people who go do study abroad experiences and haven’t been prepared appropriately end up feeling very distant from the culture they go to. It’s actually worse! They’re more culturally insensitive (“Argh! Why don’t they have the burgers I want!”), as opposed to understanding what it means to go to that culture. So I think part of the problem or part of the challenge is how to bring people together without that ending up pushing them apart.

I think it’s important to have people who are actually devoted towards not only thinking across disciplines, but also listening across disciplines; people may love to think about their own research, but some may be less interested in listening to what others are saying. I think that is not always the most common factor among scholars and academics.

One could imagine it going in a epistemological level, so what are the base assumptions of our discipline? Science—we believe that we are objective, repeatable, falsifiable, and so on. What are the base assumptions of this and how do those matter for understanding gender and sex?

We could think about epistemic or methodological. What does it look like when we do research and how is gender/sex mattering there, in our labs, in our libraries, in our grants? We can think about the infrastructure separately or in relation to our grants, departments, and tenure-process. It’s funny because I’ve heard people on different sides talk about how we need to actually stop trying to have some sort of grand shared understanding. So, people have been arguing for quite some time that we need to integrate disciplines and have an interdisciplinary understanding, but there are those saying that that’s not working. However, I feel like there are some of us who are coming up, who were trained when people were calling for that, and we heard that call. Our training or our informal training reflected that, so I do feel there’s a new generation of scholars who have been thinking about these issues for longer than when they come to a joint conference.

There’s a part of me now that sees it as a time to bring together people because we have a lots of bridges. Before we were trying to bring together islands and pull these islands together. Now we have bridges, people who have been trained to think across disciplines. Recognizing that and articulating that is useful.

For example, I sometimes say one of my skills is feminist science translation; I’m bilingual, and I think of it as a real skill. Being able to communicate what both groups are saying to each other is not easy, just as translation of real languages is not easy and is a real skill. I think we’re having more of those people.

Making sure a conference has lots of bridges, especially relative to the number of islands. No one thinks of themselves as an island, but very few people are doing work that really transfers out of their disciplines. There are few people doing lab/bench science who are also engaging critically with gendered culture, for example. It’s mostly separate. How to bring them together is key and I do think those bridges, those translators, are useful. To that end, I think, it’s not an answer to you right now, but thinking continually about training people who can speak across disciplines is going to be key to doing good interdisciplinary work in any field, but especially in terms of thinking about gender and sex, which is so inherently interdisciplinary, and especially for thinking about feminist science.

KT: Well, that concludes my interview. Are there other take-home messages or messages you want to add for our viewers?

SVA: I guess the thing I would say is that it’s a very exciting time to do this work, at a time where there’s so much interest in feminist science. I lead a website called GapJunctionScience, which is a site to bring together people interested in feminist science and what that means. Your conference sounds like a great place. There’s so much interest going on. I just came back from a NeuroGenderings conference in Europe, and there are a lot of people interested in feminist science. I think there have always been people who saw the two coming together (Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, etc.). Increasingly, there are more people joining into that perspective and people starting to do work in their lab that is feminist, including me and many others (Patricia Gowaty being the pioneer in this). I think it’s a very exciting time, and I’m very excited about the conference you’re developing.