Thursday, March 12, 2009


In recent months I've spent a lot of time reading and writing about the study of human sexual behavior. In the course of my research I have encountered two things in great abundance. The first is statistics, the second is arguments about sexual morality.

There's a huge amount that I want to say on these two things, and most importantly on how these two things are often intertwined, but I can't seem to get my thoughts to form into a straight line. I don't have much experience writing to persuade. What little ability I had with persuasive and argumentative language has been eroded by the style of writing I've had to adapt to at work. I can write to explain reasonably well though, so I'll try and put my thoughts into that shape and see if I have any more success expressing myself than with the 2000 words of badly composed argument that I've already written.

Research projects into the subject of human sexuality often struggle to obtain funding (One leading academic had her funding cut after a scientifically ignorant senator mocked her research as worthless government expenditure) and face difficulties obtaining information from a large and representative sample. This means that there haven't been a whole lot of rigorous, large scale studies into general human sexual behavior done in the western world (and buggerall anywhere else). You hear about the findings of sex research in the media all the time, but any experience with the field---or any serious examination of the claims of these survey results---invariably show you that at best, they are based on misinterpretations of rigorous research, and at worst are nothing more than publicity stunts for the respectable commercial fringes of the sex industry.

My recent rediscovery of the awesomeness of science (something I'll write about in more detail at some point) means that I've been throwing myself into the research for this project with rather a lot of enthusiasm. Checking methodology used to obtain figures quoted by writers, analysing existing research, and generally poring over pages and pages of numerical data. It's not exciting, but I do find it interesting, especially when I notice some trend, relevant to my work, that the authors didn't mention in their summary.

I'm currently working on an article which discusses the field of sex research, and the problems associated with it. This means that I've been buried in the numbers rather deeper than usual of late. I've been getting really frustrated with the fierce ongoing debate in the US over the morality of homosexuality - or any other behavior that isn't married couples silently screwing with the lights off. The intrusion of ideological debates into this field makes it very hard to objectively assess the merits of any piece of research. If the findings of a study support one side's agenda then they ring-fence it, and brand anyone who criticises it (not matter how legitimate their criticisms) a godless liberal scumbag, or a reactionary bigot (according to their preference).

The thing that gets on my nerves the most about this situation is that there isn't any sensible reason for these statistics to be such a battleground issue. What causes the most controversy are the figures on the prevalence of homosexuality in the population at large. On the one hand, you have gay rights groups pointing to findings like those of the Kinsey reports (which stated that around 10 percent of men are exclusively homosexual) and saying “look, lots of people are gay, it’s natural, so stop persecuting us” and on the other hand you have the jesus-gang pointing to statistics like the 1993 Guttenmacher institute study (which estimated that only 1-2 percent of adults were exclusively homosexual) and saying “see, hardly anyone does it -- it’s unnatural and therefore wrong.”

There are of course the other Christians who are in a state of denial about the idea of sex research, who believe that if nobody ever enquires about it then 'sinful' behavior sort of doesn't happen. Like a strange 'schrodinger's bedroom' scenario. Those people are a significant minority, but they aren't really relevant to this rant.

This seems to me to be one of the rare ethical debates where the most common arguments on both sides are really fucking stupid. Natural does not mean good, plenty of evil things are natural; similarly unnatural does not mean bad, as there are plenty of good things that aren't natural in the least. Both sides seem to be arguing morals without actually ever debating why the issues in question are right or wrong.

This is a phenomenon I have observed before. I rediscovered a book the other day, called "Sexual Revolutions in Early America" which I recall reading, in part, during my degree. The book essentially takes the same dumb argument over what is natural and what isn't into the field of history, arguing that colonial America was just as sexually open and varied as modern America and therefore (with the exception of some pious ramblings about STDs and prostitution) it's all good.

The defining characteristic of this debate seems to be an unwillingness to make any kind of value judgement based on a rational assessment of the benefits or damages that this tolerance of sexual minorities might have. I expect this from religious groups, as they get their opinions on the subject from ancient texts, but it's annoying coming from those who are aware that the enlightenment took place.

Many of the liberal activists seem to be operating within the distinctly morally relativistic fields of post-modernist thought, in which concepts of good and evil are social constructs, and therefore unpleasant restrictions of natural human behavior.

I've never understood post-modernist critical theory, it seems to me to be what Wolfgang Pauli wonderfully described as "not even wrong". The complete rejection of objectivity and the concept of objective reality undermines any attempt to prove or disprove anything. If the enlightenment has taught us anything, it is that spending ages thinking about ideas that can't be proven either way is a huge waste of everyone's time.

I can't help but think that if liberals dropped the post-modernist stuff, and just argued from pragmatic, humanitarian principles they'd achieve a great deal more in the advancement of gay rights, and scientifically minded people would be able to get on with the serious business of trying to figure out what people like to do with no clothes on without being interfered with.