A researcher walks into a lab—and no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke in which you realize by the end that the researcher is not a man, but a woman. Remember the one about the father and son who get in a car accident? The one where the father is killed? When the boy is rushed to the hospital for surgery, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate; this is my son.” This stumps people simply because they can’t imagine a female surgeon. I guess this isn’t a joke exactly, but a riddle that gets at our cultural stereotypes about gender.
Another answer to the riddle: people don’t think about the possibility of, say, two dads.
Anyway, a researcher who happens to be a woman walks into a lab. It’s not her own lab; that’s not the kind of researcher she is. I shouldn’t say she “happens to be a woman”; her gender is far from incidental to her work. Angela Willey, a scholar of feminist science studies, is going to watch scientists who are conducting research on prairie voles—or, I should say, on the “genetically monogamous” prairie vole.
The concept of natureculture, developed by prominent interdisciplinary scholar Donna Haraway, recognizes the inseparability of nature and culture in ecological relationships. In her work, Willey is invested in a “naturecultural shift away from the nature/culture debate and toward an embodied politics wherein the inextricability of desire from context is taken for granted.”
Willey wants to see what these scientists are up to, how they design their research, how they make their claims. She wants to see science in action.
About a decade ago, in Seattle, a friend named Kate and I were out to dinner at an Italian restaurant with our male partners. I should mention that this was three cities ago for me, and two relationships ago—before I met Kelly, before I came out as queer. Over warm bread and olive oil, Kate and I began to speak facetiously, provocatively, in part to see how the men, our partners, would respond. We told them we didn’t particularly believe in science, or we said something to that effect. We didn’t necessarily trust, we told them, the so-called facts that the scientific community purported to be undeniable. Our partners were confused by our statements—after all, the four of us were politically leftist secular urbanites who understood at least some of the science behind climate change—and by our odd, joking tone. Kate and I clinked our glasses of red wine and sipped mischievously. Our partners wanted to know what we really meant.
“Well,” we said, “how invested are you in the idea that we’ve been to the moon? If, for instance, it were proven to be untrue—a hoax—would you be upset?”
Our partners said yes, that they would be upset. “Of course we’ve been to the moon,” they said. They looked at each other, then back at us. We were giggling.
“Well,” we said, “we just wouldn’t be upset.”
Kate and I giggled in the same way whenever we made jokes about the violences—emotional, physical, socio-economic—of living under patriarchy. We belly laughed, keeling over, unable to breathe, when we tried to discuss an article that had come out in the New York Times earlier that year about new scientific research on “the paradoxes of female desire.”
Today Kelly and I are looking at silicone dildos online again. We spent a lot of time looking two years ago, early in our relationship, when I was starting to fuck them regularly using a harness and we needed to find out which toys they liked best. Since they are about to start hormones, we might at some point have to change the way that we have penetrative sex when I’m on the receiving end, although the timeline for physical changes can vary significantly. We talked for a long time last night, and now we’re looking for a cock that they might eventually want to wear. A cock for me. There are short cocks and long cocks, firm cocks and more yielding ones, cocks with balls, curved cocks, cocks with anatomically correct heads and veins, “uncut,” sparkly, velvety, girthy, smooth, and textured cocks.
In the New York Times article Kate and I read, Daniel Bergner, a male journalist, spoke with several women scientists, experts in their fields, psychologists and sexologists conducting high-level studies supported by R1 research universities as well as the Kinsey Institute. In one study, male and female subjects looked at a wide variety of images. Their genitals were connected to a plethysmograph to detect physical arousal; using a keypad, they also reported their conscious level of arousal. Physical arousal was denoted “objective,” while conscious arousal was denoted “subjective.” The basic conclusion: women are objectively bisexual even when they say they’re not.
Another expert Bergner spoke with at length admitted that “lust is infinitely complex and idiosyncratic.”
She told him, “The variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders.” She then went on to divulge her suspicion that what women really want is to be pushed against an alley wall and ravished by a Denzel Washington type.
As I said, Kate and I couldn’t stop laughing. Luckily, we’d chosen to date men who would be relatively sympathetic to our views on this particular article. They, too, thought it was ridiculous, laughable. However, I don’t think their laughter contained rage.
Angela Willey walks into a lab where scientists are conducting studies on the prairie vole, a small rodent that lives in the grasslands of the central United States and Canada. Prairie voles have short ears, and dark fur that fades to yellow on their bellies. The scientists are looking to identify normal, socially healthy voles, as well as atypical voles, ones that exhibit asocial behavior. Monogamy, seen as the marker of healthy sociality in both prairie voles and humans—who are also “genetically monogamous” according to the scientists, although definitions for this are unsurprisingly confusing—is what is being measured with the so-called “partner preference test.”
Step 1: The scientists measure the distance between the voles’ tails and their genitalia, which are indistinguishable from the outside, in order to sex the voles. The voles are placed in sex-segregated cages, but sometimes a vole suddenly has babies, and then the voles have to be remeasured, resexed. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, by the assumption of binary biological sex that the scientists have brought to the study, not to mention the sometimes ineffective measuring process they use to sex the helpless creatures.
In 1998, a German sexologist published a peer-reviewed article in English that used the term cissexual. He’d originally used the term in German articles, earlier in the nineties. By 2013, the word cisgender was in such wide use in English that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Still, even now Kelly and I seem to encounter people unfamiliar with it on a pretty regular basis.
Cisgender is an adjective describing a person whose sense of personal identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. I don’t actually recall the first time I heard the word, or who told me its definition. What I know is that I immediately began using it—aloud, in writing, in my thoughts—regularly; there was a feeling of, of course. Of course this word is necessary; of course this concept has been missing from our collective vocabulary. Cis comes from the Latin, meaning “on this side of,” as opposed to trans, “on the other side of.” I’m not alone in thinking of this word’s existence as a powerful reckoning with the invisible default of the “norm”—the nontrans person, who had before been unmarked by any such label at all.
Bergner never used the word cisgender in his article, though he briefly mentioned that trans women were included in one of the studies he heard about from a sexologist interviewee. The assumptions of the article are binary and essentialist, guided by the question of how to define and understand the “complex terrain” of women’s sexuality and desire. “No one right now has a unifying theory,” an expert told Bergner, as if all women are the same and their collective secret can and will eventually be unlocked.
Was culture acknowledged at all? Yes, but only as an obstacle to understanding: “and here was culture again, undercutting clarity.”
Step 2: A male and a female vole are placed in a cage together for a day, during which they are expected to have sex. “If they are genetically monogamous, the voles will form a pair bond after mating. If they are not, they will fail to form a pair bond,” writes Willey, reporting on the scientists’ process. Reading this, I can’t help imagining—since after all the prairie vole is being compared to the human in behavior and affect—a man and a woman being forcibly trapped together for a brief period of time, and then assumed to have had sex simply because humans are understood as fundamentally sexual creatures. (Not just sexual, but heterosexual.)
Last night, I cried, and Kelly and I didn’t end up having sex, even though they had driven the two hours from St. Louis to Columbia to see me. We’re employed by universities two hours apart, but soon they will move here to write their dissertation while I’m still taking seminars and teaching. I’ve been so busy paying attention to Kelly, trying to be a supportive partner, that I haven’t really been letting myself feel anything else—anything about my own experience of their transition. If they can’t get hard anymore after being on hormones for a while, we’ll both miss it, especially because my body is sensitive in particular ways that mean I don’t enjoy mouths or tongues or hands as much as I enjoy just, you know, being pounded or whatever.
“I’ve been wanting you to talk more about how you’re feeling,” Kelly said when I tensed up and started to cry. “It’s okay. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen.”
In the past several months, every time Kelly has asked what I think, I’ve said I support their choices, that I will love them and feel attracted to them no matter what, that I’m not worried about our sex life changing. These things are true, but truth is complex; it has room for nuance, for contradiction, for exception. Now, Kelly is hoping to start hormones in a week, if the last appointment goes smoothly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I guess I wasn’t letting myself feel these things. I didn’t want you to feel bad, or doubt your decision.”
After talking, we both feel better, though we know there are many more conversations, and changes, to come.
Kelly used the word nonbinary for over a year and recently started using the word trans. They’re thinking about changing their pronouns again, but it’s hard to figure out the right moment.
“I’m writing about you in my essay,” I tell them.
“Are you using my new pronouns?” they ask.
“I haven’t been. Should I?”
“I don’t know.”
Step 3: Here it is, the moment we’ve been waiting for, in which we find out whether the male vole is “normal,” “socially healthy.” The male, the female, and a second female—a “stranger”—are placed in a cage together. The two females are tethered to different sides of the cage while the male roams freely throughout the three chambers of the cage. The movements of the three voles are recorded, tracked by microchips and motion-sensing video cameras. Later, a researcher will look at some screens that show the voles as moving blobs, to see how many minutes the male has spent with each female. If the male spends more than a third of his total time in the cage near the “partner” female, that male is said to be “monogamous.” Only the males really matter in the study.
Again, I imagine two women being tied up in a cage while a man—who presumably had sex with one of the women while trapped with her—walks around, also contained in the cage, though not fettered. Willey observed numerous behaviors that were ignored by the study—she watched the actual animals, not just the blobs on the screens—such as the voles trying to escape, and trying to free each other. To assume that these furry little mammals could be observed under these conditions, that their experience of sociality and sexuality could be understood with any depth, is to have extreme disregard for them. It is to treat them as mere projections of our own cultural assumptions, yet without awareness of it.
I’ve spent years thinking about how we develop beliefs—how thinking and feeling and believing are imbricated with whatever authorities we’ve entrusted with the truth of our subjective experience: parents, culture, religion. And, in the secular world, science.
My aunt and uncle once told me that when a family friend asked their five-year-old son if he believed in God, he looked worried. He immediately looked to his parents. “Do you believe in God?” he asked them.
“Well,” my uncle responded to his son hesitantly. “Sure—I mean, yeah, we do. We believe in God.” My aunt nodded. They were not particularly religious people, but they were not particularly not religious.
Their son looked relieved, and he turned back to give the family friend his answer. “Yep,” he said. The three adults looked at one another, amused.
A few years later, when that cousin was a little older, his parents overheard him talking to a friend. “If you believe in God, you’re stupid!” he said. “I believe in science. Don’t you know the universe was created by the Big Bang?” His parents felt sad, and worried that because they hadn’t taken their son to church, they hadn’t given him a chance to have a spiritual life.
“It seems we’re raising a staunch atheist,” my uncle told me. “We’re not religious, but we’re—you know—like, agnostic. We don’t want him going around telling people they’re stupid.”
For most of my life I’ve been a person who argues on behalf of religion and spirituality—and sometimes, therefore, against science when around staunch atheists—and who argues on behalf of science when around the deeply pious. And yet, “argues” is the wrong word; I so badly want to turn away from argument, from debate, from polarity. So I should become a diplomat for the values of compassion and pragmatism, because most of us can find common ground there. And in those moments when we can’t, God or nature help us.
After I first heard the word cisgender, I started using it to describe myself. I said I was a ciswoman, and it felt true at the time. What it meant to me was that I didn’t identify as trans. Over the last two years, as Kelly and I have explored our gender identities together, I’ve realized that I no longer identify as cis. I’ve thought a lot about changing my pronouns to they/them, but I waver, because on many days she/her pronouns do not feel unbearable. Those words usually don’t make me feel dysphoric, even though they do bother me. I identify as gender nonconforming but also, in many ways, as femme, and it’s hard to explain to straight people how being femme is different than being a woman.
Perhaps one way to say it is that I identify with women, even if I don’t identify as a woman.
Sitting in the other room, Kelly sends me a link to a strap-on harness for trans women. It’s the same company that makes my harness, but this one is roomier. A few minutes later, I send back a link to a “dual density” cock—it has a hard inner core with a supple layer on the outside—that comes in many colors: several different “flesh” shades, and a few bright ones, blue and pink and green.
I know that if I had a cock, I wouldn’t want to give it up. When I was younger, I chalked my fantasies up to “the male gaze” and some watered-down, culturally twisted version of the idea of “penis envy.” These days I understand my fantasies as something else—as real aspects of my sexuality. They are, after all, my sexual fantasies. I have always fantasized about being a man, ever since I was quite young. I’m almost always fucking a woman, bending her over a bed or a desk.
Here’s the scientific method, translated into my own words:
- Wonder about something.
- Try a little something.
- Feel curious and surprised at what happened when you tried it.
- Try to figure out what just happened.
- Articulate it.
- Try to repeat it in different ways.
Now I see that it should really be a lot like finding a new sexual partner: Wonder about someone. Try a little something with them (in bed). Feel curious and surprised about what you experienced together (in bed). Try to figure out what just happened (in bed). Articulate it (turn to each other and say, “hi, we just had sex”; or, don’t necessarily do that). Try to repeat it in different ways (experiment!).
The prairie vole study is a translational study, which means that although the scientists are looking at the behavior of monogamy in the prairie voles, they’re actually trying to find out about a different behavior in humans. Nonmonogamy in the prairie vole is a proxy for the behavior they are actually interested in: asocial behavior in autistic individuals. The scientists conducting the study are looking for pharmaceutical treatments for autism, and the study is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, “the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders.”
Step 4: The scientists insert drugs directly into the brains of the nonmonogamous males, figuring that if those males then display “monogamous” behavior—i.e., if they hang out near the fettered woman they were trapped with for a day and presumably fucked—then those drugs might be suitable for treating asociality in autistic individuals.
They throw out any data that is anomalous—data where the numbers are too high or too low. They throw out a lot of data. They throw out a lot of dead voles. After forcing them to have sex, tying them up, and administering drugs to them, they kill them.
This research is exorbitantly funded, and then publicized by articles in which many of the details of the research are obfuscated. Some of the titles of these articles: “Learning About Love From Prairie Vole Bonding,” “Why Prairie Voles Fall in Love: A Chemical Romance,” “What Can Rodents Tell Us About Why Humans Love?”
Willey points out the tendency to call any science we disbelieve “pseudoscience,” as if those poorly designed studies that so obviously reflect the scientists’ cultural assumptions are not part of what science has always been.
This is a striking observation. And yet, in a moment when vast global catastrophe is already underway, I find myself asking: can we pick and choose our science? Can I reject the results of neurobiological studies on prairie voles, for example, while embracing the science of climate change? I must believe the answer is yes.
Almost ten years after reading Bergner’s article, I’m reading another article about gender in the New York Times, just published: “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.”
The Department of Human and Health Services is trying to establish a legal definition of sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” Apparently HHS has been planning to unveil this effort for a year. Its argument is that “the term ‘sex’ was never meant to include gender identity or even homosexuality…the lack of clarity allowed the Obama administration to wrongfully extend civil rights protections to people who should not have them” (emphasis mine).
I can’t even joke anymore, and neither can my friend Kate, who still lives in Seattle and now has an eight-year-old trans daughter.
Actually, wait—we still joke all the time. The worse things get, the harder we laugh.
Such a legal definition would effectively erase nonbinary, trans, and intersex people from federal law, despite the fact that scientists now tell us that binary biological sex doesn’t even exist as such. A neuroscientist who studies the development of sex at Pomona College says the HHS proposal is “highly inaccurate and just an insult to science. Basic science.”
Kelly and I speak to each other about all of this in shorthand. We don’t need to say: I wish it weren’t all about the science, but can’t the science help? Can’t the scientists do something?
There are those who deny that gender can be anything other than binary, who insist that gender is unequivocally tied to the genitalia with which an individual is born. There are those who deny that sexism plays a role in society because women can put on slacks, go to work, vote. There are those who deny the historical events that killed many of my ancestors in Eastern Europe less than a century ago. There are those who deny that racism still exists because slavery legally ended. There are those who deny that there is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, because it’s all just theories and debates anyway, and doesn’t the climate just vary over time?
What can I say to these people? That they are stupid?
What kind of epistemological intervention is that?
I’m looking at sciency graphs, and charts filled in with some kind of data. I’m on a website made by climate change deniers. I don’t often visit sites like this, and I find it somewhat surreal. I scroll down a list of “experts” and their credentials. I read articles that say there isn’t actually consensus on human-made climate change. Information has been skewed, these articles claim, to make it seem like a large number of scientists agree when it’s only a fraction. With sources like this existing, I wonder how people are supposed to learn to discern the truth, especially when education funding is being slashed so severely.
Trump recently said, “I don’t know that it’s man-made” and that “scientists also have a political agenda.”
Science has never not been political. No, I won’t scream at people that they’re being stupid not to trust science, because science has often been wrong, or horrifyingly misguided. The issue is so much more complicated than believing or not believing in science, and there isn’t an endpoint in sight—unless we consider melting glaciers, intense heat waves and droughts, rising sea levels, and stronger hurricanes to be an endpoint. People will die, animal and plant species will be wiped out, infrastructures will be destroyed. The suffering will be unevenly distributed. It’s already happened. It’s happening.
I wish we could, each of us, see the evidence for ourselves, with our own eyes. Touch the evidence with our hands.
I wish each individual could go into the lab, and see both the possibilities and the dangers of scientific—human—processes. I wish we could each see and touch the long cold cylinder of an ice core, the rough texture of tree rings, the different densities of coral skeletons. The earth can tell us so much. We’re not perfect at interpreting its messages, at translating them into language, representation, understanding. As we know, things get lost in translation. But we do learn. We do know things about what’s happening to the planet. We do know things about the complexity of the human body. And we keep trying to learn more, to understand, to experiment.
A week has passed, and Kelly sends me a photo of three little pills in her palm. One is a white circle, one a light blue smaller circle, and the last a pale teal oval. These will be added each day to the three medications she takes to manage bipolar disorder.
Pharmaceutical companies are terrible, insidious, immoral.
And yet my life with my partner is made livable by these medications, these objects produced by scientific knowledge.
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