Science of Sex: How Science Got Sex Wrong

Although I’ve dedicated most of this series to the awesome research being done about sexuality as well as those who take the time to study it. In some ways, the field is lagging behind other scientific endeavors, so every little bit counts. However, I am going to make a departure in this post and discuss the missteps science has taken when it comes to sex.

Check out previous Science of Sex posts here.

how science got sex wrong

Science is really a process and scientists as a group does not always agree. But sometimes these mistakes have been costly, traumatic even. As I type those words, the specific error that comes to mind is the listing of homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For years, being gay wasn’t an accepted orientation; rather, it was a mental health condition. It wasn’t until DSM III when homosexuality was removed entirely.

The same edition of the DSM was the one to back off the idea that sadomasochism might not be a red flag for mental health issues, either. Although, it wasn’t until the DSM 5 that BDSM was reorganized as a unusual sexual interest and not a disorder. Since then, studies have shown that kinksters are not more mentally unhealthy than everyone else and may even be healthier in some respescts!

Speaking of disorders that were reclassified with the publication of DSM 5, gender identity disorder has only recently been reclassified as “gender dysphoria.”

The inclusion of homosexuality in the DSM was the very metric by which people were allowed to gaslight and stigmatize anyone who wasn’t straight. People whose sexual orientations and interests could land them in an asylum or potential prison. These inclusions affected whether — and how — medical and mental health professionals treated patients, and some people were reluctant to seek medical help because of that.

You simply can’t treat a human humanely when their natural sexual proclivities are listed in the book that doctors use to diagnose people.

Although the people who created and updated the DSM are more recently guilty of this, it’s not a new occurrence. We all learned about Freud, the Oedipus complex and how people can get stuck in certain development stages never to reach their full potential as adults. However, the more you learn about psychology, the more you realize that Freud was wrong about everything least of all sex.

Freud was the one who championed the idea that women who orgasmed from clitoral stimulation were achieving orgasm in a lesser way because they were stuck in one of those latent phases. In fact, most women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm (and many prefer it even during intercourse). We now know there’s nothing wrong if a woman doesn’t orgasm from penetration alone. This ideology has been repeated for years, and even in 2018, women strive to orgasm the “right’ way, as if their body’s abilities and pleasure are lesser when derived from clitoral stimulation. Did I mention how it contributed to the willful ignorance of female sexuality as a legitimate research subject?

It’s hard to break old habits, but there are hurdles even when researchers are using fact and science to explore sexuality. More recently, for instance, a study concluded that over 2/3 of the improvement in female sexual dysfunction could be attributed to placebo and not to the medications that were being tested. You might recall that both Emily Nagoski and Lori Brotto argue that medication may not be the best treatment for female sexual dysfunction (which is poorly defined, to begin with).

Aside from the efficacy of treatments, researchers must contend with self-reporting: many studies simply ask people about their sex lives and must rely on participants to answer honestly and completely. This has led to some interesting discrepancies. Time after time, men report having more sexual partners than women. A new study suggests that the way men count partners (estimating versus women’s’ actual counting) and qualify sexual activities accounts for much of this discrepancy.

But it goes further than that: people are terrible at remembering how much sex they actually have. One study revealed that people ‘remember’ having sex twice as often as they actually did it!

Even if people were perfectly honest and reliable, it’s important to examine just who is responding to these studies. Are these people more sexual or more willing to discuss sex (you can join a sex study, too)? Does this skew the numbers? And are these studies representative of the actual population? Sex, orientation, and skin color of people in surveys may not correspond to real life. Many researchers statistically analyze their results because of this, but not all surveys are created (or analyzed) the same.

I’m already over 700 words and have yet to mention small sample sizes, lack of control groups, and conclusions that ignore real experiences. Nor have I discussed the click-bait headlines and titles painted with broad strokes when journalists simply want clicks and not true understanding of human sexuality.

Perhaps that’s why when people get it right and reveal something about our inner workings, it matters that much more.

Further Reading

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Dandi Lucas

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