Debra W. Soh is a neuroscientist at York University, Toronto (Canada) specialized in human sexuality and also works as scientific journalist writing to The Globe and Mail and Scientific American. She is active on Twitter and also writes for Playboy. Below, the interview taken on 08/23/2017, covering the neuroscientific knowledge about human sexuality, pronography, pedophily and what science can tell us about differences between men and women.
Debra — I hold a PhD in sexual neuroscience and I work as a science journalist. Sexology, or the scientific study of sex, is critically important because understanding human sexuality helps us better understand a crucial part of who we are. The field of neuroscience has also advanced in enormous ways in recent years and we are able to investigate the brain in new ways we couldn’t before.
LiHS — Currently, in public discourse female sexuality is an ideological battlefield; yet, little about it is known by the general public, and much ignorance is spread within ideological echo-chambers. What can the neurosciences teach us about it?
Debra — Female and male sexual systems differ, and brain imaging studies have offered evidence for this; for example, when we look at how the brain activates during sexual arousal. I’ve written previously about how I don’t think sex differences are inherently sexist and that we shouldn’t have to pretend that men and women are identical in order to achieve gender equity. By denying these differences, we are hampering our ability, from a scientific perspective, to truly understand why we are the way we are.
LiHS — Sex work is especially polemical. Regarding pornography, what can be said about women who consume it and women who produce it? Regarding prostitution, should we say it is invariably bad?
Debra — Like any issue, especially those pertaining to policy, an evidence-based approach should always be taken. Regarding pornography and sex work, so long as they are ethically sourced and consensual, this is what I believe should determine the outcome.
LiHS — Recent studies suggest a link between pedophilia and cerebral structure and function. How can this knowledge help us prevent child abuse and treat people suffering from pedophilic interests?
Debra — It’s important to differentiate between pedophilia and child molestation. Pedophilia refers to the sexual interest in prepubescent children (kids who are under the age of 11). Child molestation refers to the abuse of a child. Not all pedophiles are child molesters, just as not all child molesters are pedophiles.
The most current research, including brain studies I have worked on, suggests that pedophilia (the interest) is a biological phenomenon, and as such, isn’t a choice or something that can be changed. Some pedophiles are committed to living a life without acting on their desires (including never looking at child pornography), and we should offer treatment and support to them from day one, so as to help prevent child abuse from ever occurring.
LiHS — Are there such things as objective differences between men and women, at least at the level of developmental tendencies? Do structural and functional cerebral differences at least partially explain differences between their preferences and behavior?
Debra — Yes, neuroimaging studies have shown differences, on average, between men and women in brain structure (both grey and white matter) and function. This is associated with the differences we see between the sexes in corresponding interests and behavior. This isn’t to say that social influence doesn’t play a role, but it isn’t correct to say that gender is socially constructed, or that all sex differences we see are learned.
LiHS — What are the potential harms in ignoring differences between men and women, if any?
Debra — Some people deny the science around sex differences because they are afraid that it will be used to justify sexism or oppression of women. However, I argue that denying facts doesn’t actually help their cause, because it doesn’t challenge the underlying beliefs that support sexist ideas; that is, that female-typical traits and behaviors are seen as inferior to men.
The unfortunate thing is, the more politicized a particular area of research becomes, the less likely researchers are to pursue it, because they know there will be public backlash if their findings don’t support politically correct ideas. Ideology is now interfering with our ability to attain knowledge and scientific truth.