‘Sex and Sensibility’ Sheds Light on Different Perspectives on Sexuality

Four scholars from different disciplines gathered in Edmunds Ballroom for the discussion “Sex and Sensibility” Nov. 11 to share their perspectives on human sexuality.

Panelists included Andrew Lear, an NYU professor, historian of sexuality, and former Pomona professor; Simon LeVay, retired neuroscientist and author of Human Sexuality, the textbook used in Pomona’s Human Sexuality class; Pomona Biology professor Rachel Levin; and Pomona Anthropology professor Pardis Mahdavi.

Daniel Martin PO ’14 moderated the PSU-sponsored discussion and raised questions about the origin of sexuality, the legitimacy of different approaches to the study of sexualities, and the intersection of sexuality and culture.

Each scholar referenced his or her own extensive research on the topic.

Lear provided a brief history of the ancient Greeks’ outlook on sexuality, commenting that they were primarily concerned with the sexuality of adult males, who were considered to be attracted to women and adolescent boys.

“Ancient sexuality raises questions about modern sexuality,” Lear said. “Were the Greeks wrong?” he wondered. Lear said that our idea of sexuality comes from the society around us. He added that sexuality represents the “modern attempt to search for identity.” Lear said that “homosexuality serves as a group identity,” but also “affects those 80% that don’t identify” as an extreme on the Kinsey scale.

LeVay grounded his position in genetic theory. He stated that there exists a correlation between sex and gender. Gender indeed has a biological basis, and that strong biological data should be considered in approaches to the study of sexuality—a statement that elicited a “Bullshit!” from an audience member.

Responding to LeVay, Levin added that “no substantial proof” exists to support his claims. She dismissed the search for a “gay gene” among modern scientists, wondering, “If you don’t have it, are you any less gay?” and claiming that this current search gives science a dangerous authority. Levin received much applause for her assertion that the question of where sexuality comes from is “irrelevant”—and the “opportunity to say that is important.”

“Why do we need to label and categorize things? Will placing a label on someone cause you to treat them differently? To legislate differently?” Levin asked. “What are you going to do with that information?”

Mahdavi agreed with Levin, saying that “everything is fluid” and that “things change across time and space.” She discussed her studies on sexuality and sexual politics in the Middle East, where, when asking an interlocutor about her sexual identity, the woman replied, “‘That is so American of you to put me in a box.’” Mahdavi added that sex, gender, and sexuality must be considered separately.

Lear concurred that, when categories are enforced, people “police themselves.”

A Pomona sophomore in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, said,”LeVay was seen as the enemy, but he’s not necessarily that. He just has different views, and it’s great to see them. It’s good to be informed. I’m kind of on Levin’s side; it’s good to know about these things, but what are we going to do about them? What are we going to do if there is a gay gene?”

“I thought it was a good talk and there was some good dialogue going on. It wasn’t as two-sided as it could have been, with the professors that we had there—seeing as they’re from Pomona and Pomona’s a pretty liberal place,” said Alex Lincoln PO ’14. “But the professors brought up some good points. I did have an opinion coming into it, but coming out of it, I realized that the issues were a lot more complex than I thought. It was good that it deepened my understanding.”

In an interview with TSL, Lear added that this discussion of sexuality (what Professor Mahdavi referred to as “robust conversation”) is important for members of Pomona’s community of students and “scholars doing work on gender and sexuality in a variety of fields.”

“Students are ready for it,” he said.

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