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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Perspectives from Puerto Rico - toward a more methodologically integrated SSSS

Pulling my attention from the ocean, the sky, the beautiful people out here on the lawn of the Condado Plaza is a difficult task indeed. Nevertheless, I persevere to commit myself to at least one morning with head buried in laptop to share with you a few thoughts from my very first SSSS meeting. One thing that has struck me about this conference is it’s ability to pull together academics and activists from disciplines as disparate as psychology, health promotion, neuroscience, pharmacy, women’s studies, anthropology, and sociology, to name but a few. The common thread amongst us – a commitment to sex research and promoting sexual health and happiness – trumps disciplinary boundaries to an extent that I’ve rarely experienced. I come from sociology, an academic tradition that has had to fiercely defend its epistemological contributions and methodological rigor against criticism from multiple directions. An unfortunate byproduct of this boundary guarding is that this makes transdiscipline collaborations especially difficult. Further, this disciplinary obsession with respectability has put sexuality research on the furthest margins of sociology. So in this regard, I have found SSSS an especially refreshing experience.

At the same time, however, I have found myself somewhat frustrated with the dearth of qualitative contributions represented here. I am an avowed and diehard qualitative researcher, so take this criticism in that context (see, my qualitative commitment to positionality and reflexivity shines through even in blog format!). I do believe that quantitative studies have the ability to make a significant contribution to sexuality research and policy. Without quantitative data, we would be woefully lacking in our understanding of sexual health and behavior. Nonetheless, there are some crucial questions pertaining to sexuality that simply cannot be adequately addressed through quantitative measures alone. Questions of identity, of meaning, of culture – these questions demand attention to the lived experience that a survey or a questionnaire cannot attend to. While this is a claim I would make about the study of virtually any social problem or phenomenon, I argue this is especially true of sexuality. I believe that SSSS and the researchers involved in this organization are really committed to revealing the variety and malleability of gender and sexual experience. Resisting the reification of sex into a system of rights and wrongs, normal and abnormal, healthy and unhealthy seems to me a shared commitment among everyone I’ve heard from here. And yet – understanding gender and sexuality as phenomena that can be reduced to sets of dichotomous variables and then harnessed into easily disciplined scales and models, something I’ve seen a lot of this weekend, seems absolutely antithetical to this goal in many respects.

For this reason, I would love to use this forum to encourage qualitative researchers of sex to become more actively involved in SSSS. Just as we can learn so much from each other across disciplines, we can also learn so much across methodological perspectives. We will not have a holistic understanding of sexuality without bringing in more qualitative investigations of the meanings associated with sex and sexuality, the everyday emotional and interpretive valences of sexual behaviors and identities. Through my work with the NSRC and the many great friendships I’ve made within SFSU’s sexuality studies program, I know that this challenging and critical work is being done. At last week’s first CCSL regional training in San Francisco, I heard a number of fascinating and nuanced analyses of sexuality from qualitative researchers across disciplines. I urge those doing this kind of research to bring their perspectives to SSSS. It’s not just a matter of methodological prejudice, but rather, a real academic imperative.

And with that, I’m off to the beach.

--Cati Connell

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