Sex educators need to be better science communicators

I have been thinking about the role of effective communication of scientific concepts in the context of providing various kinds of health services. Doctors and nurses have an important responsibility in communicating issues about the status of health to patients in a way that is coherent to the specific niche of patients. This type of communication directly impacts the patient’s understanding and agency over his or her health issues. It could be even be argued that for this exchange to be effective from a health promotion viewpoint, it hinges on some basic science communication skills on the part of the health professionals, that is catered specifically to the needs of the patient.

While doctors and nurses do receive a variety of formal training enabling effective discussion of health-related scientific concepts to patients, there are other professionals in society at large, who may or may not have any formal training in such duties, but whose advice and communication skills also play a crucial role in the wellbeing of large populations, and their individual understandings thereof.

Such a group of professionals are sex educators. Often times, sex educators include persons trained as social workers, nurses, teachers but the ones arguably with national and international influences as individuals, such as Dan Savage and Sandra Daugherty, have no background in the sciences, let alone science communication.

Given the subject matter, and the wide audiences each address, this is not inherently a problem. Indeed, the realm of sexuality and gender is such that scientific opinions alone, divorced from social context, are not something that the average citizen may care about. As sex educators, both Savage and Daugherty have made great strides to destigmatize the cornucopia of practices undertaken by persons of all backgrounds, and have empowered them in making compassionate choices that cater to their unique situations. The world surely can use similarly likeminded folk, who can use humour and empathy and speak to mass audiences about topics that are still largely taboo and private, or otherwise contentious.

Because the likes of Savage and Daugherty enjoy mass popularity, they also have a responsibility to properly address the scientific concepts they gloss over to explain one point or another in their podcasts or columns. No one expects a firm grasp of scientific experimental design or statistics from an average citizen, and thus, when communicating scientific findings, especially when it can potentially deal with the sexual paradigms of many, sex educators need to use caution and resist making sweeping generalizations, using questionable aspects of scientific evidence, that only progress to reaffirm what their own ideologies.

Both Daugherty and Savage, and especially the latter, have used their flawed understanding of science, at times, to illuminate their audiences on cumbersome issues within sexuality.

A topic that has long been debated is the existence of bisexuality, in particular, the issue of male bisexuality. To illustrate the anomalous nature of male bisexuality, and the apparent abundance of female bisexuality, Savage has routinely used the example of study conducted at Northwestern University in 2005 that indicated male bisexuality is something of a unicorn, despite the fact that the study itself received much criticism for its dubious data interpretation method. The uncertainties within the study are never mentioned in context of the point that Savage aims to deliver, which is thus, remains unknown to the general public. By 2012, the theory of male bisexuality essentially being a hoax was subverted using completely new research methodology that used dilated pupils as more reliable indicators for arousal. Somehow, the myth of the unicorn male bisexual, or the bisexual in general, continues to persist, owing no less to the bisexual erasure with apparent scientific evidence committed by Savage and other sex educators who misinterpreted the study.

Similarly, there is the case of the ridiculously popular book for non-monogamy enthusiasts, Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Sex at Dawn uses an appallingly flawed interpretation of evolutionary biology to assert that monogamy is inherently unnatural and less evolved than any other non-monogamous alternative. While it has been quite successful indeed to further the awareness of the notion that monogamy should not be the default and paramount way to conduct relationships, its shoddy understanding of evolutionary biology leaves much to be desired. (It was, in fact, addressed in a book known as Sex at Dusk more recently). Human beings can fall anywhere in the spectrum between commitment to total monogamy to any form of multiple partnerships, but privileging one style of relationships over another, and using flawed views on evolutionary theory to do so, is not the way good scientific reporting works.

The nuances and intricacies scientific approaches to sexuality and gender research are often hard to pin down by lay people far removed from the ivory tower methodologies and statistics associated. However, when beliefs held strongly by the masses are supported (or not) by even a speck of real scientific research, it often has salient repercussions on confidence in individual paradigms, and even more so, if it concerns the mental and physical health of many. Since matters of sexuality continue to be such delicate topics, it should follow that sex educators, and researchers alike, have a greater responsibility for outreach and communication, in order to dispel existing myths that continue to cause harm in insidious ways. A forum that discusses sexuality and gender openly is further encouraged, but ensuring scientific evidence is presented accurately and with accountability should also be paramount.

 

Special thanks to Angela Chen and Kameron Hanson for helping me proofread and edit this piece. 

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4 thoughts on “Sex educators need to be better science communicators”

  1. Although I appreciated the blog commentary on science and health promotion, I have to admit I completely disagreed with some of the assumptions made in your post, and perhaps even your fundamental understanding of health promotion as a field itself. Ironically, the proposition that sex education has no evidence base, is itself based on little evidence. A simple Google search for academic articles on sex education over the past 3 years yields results in the hundreds of thousands of results.

    I suspect the author of this blog is less concerned about the scientific foundation of health promotion practice itself, and more suspicious of health promoters as conduits of knowledge for the public’s understanding of sexual health. Having just completed a Master in Health Promotion myself, I have often struggled with defining the field for its ambiguity. The 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion is a consensus document which defines the field as:

    The process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. To reach a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, an individual or group must be able to identify and to realize aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment.

    Rather than a discipline that views itself as a single authority on the topic of health, the public is viewed as an active participant in an interactive and iterative process where social groups, the state, businesses and a diverse range of individuals mediate between different interests in health. Public health knowledge, like any science is rife with contention and health promotion acknowledges this problem of legitimacy.

    Recognizing that the blog author is writing from the perspective of an engineer, it is not surprising how ideology and science can seem like incompatible worlds. In an era where public figures increasingly seeks to define good decision making, a firm evidence base can seem fundamental to rationalizing any decision affecting the public at large. Unfortunately, this paradigm often fails to acknowledge that scientific ‘fact’ is often transient and politically charged. The decades of contention over Tobacco risk is perhaps the most widely apparent examples where ‘truth’ and science can seem obscure cousins, and health educators must traverse a political battlefield where evidence is questionable and the public welfare is at stake. In the case of sexual health, there is no less contention existing over the science of planned parenthood, contraceptive use, and healthy sexuality.

    1. Firstly, thank you Carol for the very well-thought out response. I was hoping someone from your background would chime in on this issue and speak about the legislative and regulatory aspects of health promotion as a profession. I mostly view this post as a starting point for conversation re: the nature of sex education, and the politics behind the way people obtain it, and the issues that can arise through these various mediums.

      I was perhaps not as careful as I should be in my argument and I didn’t mean to invoke the idea that ALL sex educators need better training in scientific communication. I did mention that most sex educators (by numbers) are professionals that have been trained in the area and follow evidence-based approaches to guide people in their choices. That is the type of sex education I can definitely get behind. The aim of this post was to target big-name sex advice columnists and podcast hosts and the like who perpetuate not only scientific misinformation but advice that is even misguided from the evidence-based approach public health professionals aim to exemplify. I am certainly not the first person to point out flaws in the way these outlets for sex education function – in fact, Dan Savage has been under fire many times over his various pseudoscientific claims by the public health professional community.

      I simply think that it is a sad fact, that in spite of the information and research available through professional outlets of sex education, a large amount of it still comes from glorified hobbyists whose voice is louder and more accessible to young people than most professionally trained sex educators. Perhaps concentrating further on that dichotomy would have helped me align this argument better.

  2. Thank you. Carol, your response is very thorough. In both your discourses, I failed to grasp what you mean by sex education. Can someone define for us the parameters?

    1. Hi Morris, I was thinking about sex education as something that is provided in schools, health facilities, doctors, as well as by advice columnists. I realize for the purposes of this post, it should have been better defined. I guess I see sex education has something that affects the landscape of our sexual culture.

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