I had a wonderful conversation with a friend the other night who works at a sexual health research laboratory about the topic of vulvodynia, which is defined as “vulvar discomfort, most often described as burning pain, occurring in the absence of relevant visible findings or a specific, clinically identifiable, neurologic disorder.” Why do I bring this up here? Because this information is another one of the casualties of a research world that cares more about “erectile dysfunction” than it does about other sexual health issues. What little information there is tends also to be erased by sex-ed system that believes in explaining only the basics of sexual health and sexuality from the specific viewpoint of sex-negative cis-heterosexuality that is endorsed by the political elite. I’m not speaking here of all forms of teaching or of the many well-meaning teachers working for change out there. I’m talking about the official agenda being pushed by characters like the ones in the Funny Or Die satire Kelsey posted recently.
Says the website of my friend’s lab: “Provoked vestibulodynia [pain caused by pressure at the vestibule, or vaginal entrance] is the most common cause of dyspareunia (i.e., painful intercourse) in women of child-bearing age.” Generalized vestibulodynia “is present on a constant or almost constant basis and affects the entire vulvar region.” This lab estimates that vulvodynia affects “16% of women in the general population,” though the National Vulvodynia Association’s website estimates that “one in four women experience chronic vulvar pain at some point in their lives.” I know I lived with this condition, mostly in shamed silence amidst a culture of glorifying sexual pleasure, in the absence of any educational materials, and enduring doctors telling me I “should just relax,” for about nine years before I finally found a research lab that was running a treatment study. There are no words to express what a relief it was to finally be taken seriously and how grateful I am today to be pain-free.
Despite the good work of facilities like Queen’s University’s Sexual Health Research Lab, PVD and GVD are incredibly underreported and under-researched health conditions. But the common conflation of “person who has a vagina” with “woman” further hurts the way these afflictions are reported and understood. Friends of mine who practice and study clinical psychology have explained to me many times why heterosexual cisgendered people, usually also affluent and white, are virtually the only populations that get studied: this demographic makes up the majority of undergraduate populations and for this and other reasons, it is the easiest for university-based researchers to recruit.
Furthermore, many clinical studies build off previous studies and require the researcher to match subjects on a range of identifiers, like age, sex, sexual orientation, etc. This conception of empiricism—what it means to do “good,” “reliable,” and “valid” science—constrains what work can be done in the future. The exclusions “necessitated” by these models of research aren’t an accident either—broadly speaking, the conception of rationalism underpinning the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment came out of white, Western, bourgeois and aristocratic thought. Also, the scientific and social scientific paradigm that reigns in university research (and in much of the private, state-sanctioned research programs) says that many types of studies require a certain-sized subject population in order to claim statistical validity. So studies about, say, queer people or trans people, or queer trans people, are often thwarted by the comparatively smaller numbers of folks who a) feel comfortable being out to a group of strangers in a clinical environment, b) feel comfortable exploring potentially sensitive issues in the context of their unequal status as a research subject, c) even believe in this type of research, and d) are targeted by researchers’ advertisements or happen to see such adverts. (I’m sure there are also many more factors, and certainly way more possible “subject” identities to mention here, but in the interest of minimizing my run-on sentences…). Anyway, it boggles my mind to think about the politics that researchers face when they want to explore (and may even identify with) non-normative genders and sexualities. As someone involved in knowledge production, I know you’re always potentially up against your supervisor’s, boss’, or mentor’s agenda, you’re limited by what proposals federal and other granting agencies will agree to fund, and your work can stagnate in anonymity depending on what kinds of publications will agree to publish your results. There’s a lot of red tape.
There’s also lots of research about non-normative genders and sexualities that’s used to support deeply problematical conclusions like, say, the “natural bisexuality” of women, or that trans kids can be “rehabilitated” by playing in their “appropriate gender roles.” And none of this is to say that all research by people of non-normative genders and sexualities about people of non-normative genders and sexualities would be or is problem-free—none of us is perfect, but a measure of self-determination is at least a start. (I often have to remind myself that nothing ever appears fully formed. Every current of change has to build on previous, incremental changes). Plus, to return to point c) above, those who are committed to anti-oppressive politics and who are also privileged enough to pursue post-secondary education may not want to focus their work on a clinical research path. They may want to refuse the culture of the expert. These conflicts and priorities are understandable, and valid, but the unfortunate side effect may be that the educational materials that young people receive will continue to reflect the research agendas of people who find it uninteresting, unnecessary, or impossible to attend to different genders and sexualities.
What are your thoughts on the links between research and education?
Previously: Family Matters: Lessons from Reconciling Radical Politics with Not-So-Radical Loved Ones, What *Does* a Feminist Look Like? Teaching Boys About Feminism