what if 'the latest science' isn't what you need to read about?

I’m at a Green Dot training in anticipation of adapting it to my campus as part of our compliance with the Camps SaVE Act.

I chose Green Dot for a variety of a reasons, not least the “Zero Personal Growth Required” approach, which essentially means: I don’t give a flaming rat’s ass whether or not you respect anyone’s pronouns or blame the victim or perpetuate patriarchy, if you’re willing to step forward and DO SOMETHING to prevent a sexual assault when you see something not okay. You don’t have to have any insight, you don’t have to understand gender dynamics, you don’t have to know anything about consent or even how to support a survivor; all you have to do is SOMETHING.

I want to write about a thing happened yesterday that I just can’t let go of. I want to get y’all’s take on it.

So imagine an anonymous hotel conference room with 40 professionals sitting at round tables, two trainers, and a PPT presentation – anyone with a white collar job has had an experience like this. The trainers are reviewing the diverse bodies of research that inform Green Dot, including Diffusion of Innovation theory. We’re following along in our manuals, which lists research references.

And this guy one raised his hand and asked a perfectly reasonable question that completely stunned me:

“These references… Rogers, 1983? Stuff from the 60s? Is there any NEW RESEARCH?”

The implication in his voice was that stuff from 1983 was Out of Date and not to be taken seriously. Not relevant. Certainly not persuasive. Not… trustworthy. “There’s something about NEWNESS,” his voice said, “That would persuade me.”

I get that. The new science represents the best available truth of the moment. And yet, an idea that has multiple decades of research behind it is an idea with enough meat to it to sustain that much investigation. Age isn’t necessarily a sign of of quality, but it’s a POWERFUL resoure. And when decades of research exists, it’s really important to me to dig into the historical antecedents of an idea. (PS – I finally read Love at Goon Park about Harry Harlow and his research and HOLY CRAP. It renewed and deepened my understanding of that work and the work that followed.)

Right, so here we are: new science is persuasive on the one hand, but the OLD science is profoundly enriching on the other.

Add to this guy’s comment the four hour, beer-soaked conversation I had a couple weeks ago with my former dissertation advisor. He said to me, “The New York Times has published an article about female sexual desire and arousal every few years for three decades, and they all say basically the same thing, and they all say it like it’s new. It’s not new.”

When I got home, I looked this up, and he’s not exaggerating. Here’s is an article (PDF) from 1976. Toward the end it says,

Woman’s sexual desire and response is particularly responsive to psychic factors, and it is also more flexible than the male’s. It is easier to suppress, but when inhibiting forces are removed, its potential is boundless.

Which is more or less what I teach in my class now. And then here’s a 1988 article about how testosterone doesn’t seem to have any clear relationship with women’s sexual desire – there’s some painfully, embarassingly out-of-date and wrong stuff in that article (‘Desire and arousal are two entirely different processes’ – oooh, ouch), but the gist about testosterone still holds true. And here is a 1995 article with SEX RESEARCH SUPERHERO Ellen Laan, talking about arousal non-concordance. Which is what Bergner’s 2009 article was about, too.

So it’s not that the research is BRAND NEW and REVELATORY, it’s that it was forgotten.

Which means the question is not “What’s new?” it’s “What have we forgotten?”

And the next question, eventually, must be, “Why do we keep forgetting?”

I’ve mentioned that when I read to my students from a sex guide published in 1926, it sounds to them like, ya know, what they learned growing up, and when I read them science from 1976 (The Hite Report), it sounds to them like a twenty-first century sexual manifesto.

Why do we keep forgetting?

When will it not be news that women’s sexual response is context dependent, not hormone dependent, and non-concordant, in the same way it’s (FINALLY) generally known that women can want sex, feel sexual pleasure, and have orgasms?

Here’s the big insight that I think I had, but I want to get your thoughts:

I think that, in the same way you don’t have to have a big deep insight into the nature of gender dynamics and oppression in order to decide to contribute to preventing sexual violence (“zero personal growth required”), you also don’t have to understand the thirty years of science that shows that women’s sexuality is context dependent and non-concordant. The shift can – and possibly MUST – happen at a more surface level. By engaging people with a bite size chunk of manageable change that fits well with where they already are, and allowing their internal narrative to rewrite itself to accommodate this small change.

And then follow that with another one.

And then another one.

And then another one.

Bite size change. Without the whole research story. Let their narrative rewrite itself.

People don’t need to know about the decades of stuff that led to the new idea, just as they don’t need to understand patriarchy in order to prevent violence. They just need one new idea, which is maybe three quarters of a step ahead of where they already are. A comfortable, easy step forward, but a step in the right direction.

We’ll stop forgetting when people like me stop trying to explain the decades of science and just find a way to fit the science into the existing cultural architecture. A fragment of new reality that the cultural psyche absorbs easily.

Diffusion of innovation.

Am I underestimating people with this? Overestimating them? Overanalyzing?