Issues Magazine


By By Sally Woollett


An overview of what's in this edition of Issues.

Are you male or female? Gay or straight? These questions, and their answers, might be straightforward – or they might not. Our sex, sexuality and gender are complex, as you’ll see in this edition of Issues.

Rajini Sreenivasan (University of Melbourne), Peter Koopman (University of Queensland), Andrew Sinclair (University of Melbourne) and Vincent Harley (Monash University) explain what it means when a person’s biological sex is not straightforward and they have a difference or disorder of sexual development (DSD). This can happen because their chromosomal make-up is atypical or when there is a variation in the development of reproductive organs. DSD can be spontaneous or inherited, and few genetic causes are known for this often-distressing condition. Treatment must be managed carefully and comprehensively because surgical interventions are irreversible. “Many individuals with DSD do not identify both physically and psychologically with any one particular sex,” they write (p.6), so “… some parents may opt to postpone any medical intervention until their child is old enough to decide their sex for themselves”.

Social justice advocate Sam Killermann uses the Genderbread Person as the centrepiece of his discussion of gender. Representing gender identity (“who you think you are”), gender expression (“how you demonstrate it”), biological sex (“the equipment under the hood”) and sexuality (“who you are romantically and sexually into”) as continuums, he encourages the reader to consider “infinite possibilities” for gender. “Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation are independent of one another,” he explains (p.9).

Adolescence is the time when many questions about identity and sense of self arise, says Alisa Pedrana of the Burnet Institute (p.13). Along with this self-exploration and the building of relationships come sexual experiences; when combined with the high-risk behaviours common among youth, they can negatively affect sexual health. Traditional channels for sexual health promotion – through mass media and sex education in schools, for example – have had mixed success. “Mobile phone text messages (SMS), mobile internet and [social networking sites] could be exploited for health promotion purposes … they present an exciting opportunity to engage with audiences in a way not possible with many traditional approaches to health promotion,” Pedrana writes.

“Along with the rapid physical, physiological and cognitive developments of puberty, [lesbian, gay and bisexual] young Australians are pursuing a sense of belonging at the same time as exploring their same-sex orientation,” comments Fiona MacDonald of Monash University (p.17). To learn about the “coming out” experience of these youth, MacDonald spoke to a family friend who is currently in senior high school in Melbourne. In some ways “Alison” felt supported and accepted, for example by her teachers and friends, but she did not discuss her sexuality with her family. She describes her “coming out” journey as something she mainly did alone.

In a similar vein to Killermann’s point about the many possibilities for gender, Jennifer Power and Henry von Doussa of La Trobe University’s Bouverie Centre explain that same-sex-parent families are complex – certainly not always the gay or lesbian couple with a baby that many people imagine (p.20). They describe some of the many possible combinations for such a family, what the family model might look like, how the adults become parents and how the law recognises them. “The most important message to come out of research on same-sex-parented families,” say Power and von Doussa, “is that children do well… Some people … find it hard to imagine what family life might be like … it is not that different to life in any other family”.

How can one person consider another person, or themselves, as an object? Michelle Stratemeyer of the University of Melbourne says this area of social psychology has a long philosophical history. Objectifying someone could mean viewing them only in terms of what they can do for you, or considering them to be lacking in human qualities or a capacity to act – and it can have a big impact on our behaviour, for example around sexualising women and perceptions of sexual violence. “A popular line of thought suggests that a woman who is a victim of sexual violence has somehow brought the attack on herself through her appearance or behaviour,” she writes (p.24). Psychological experiments have shown that “a greater tendency to objectify women is related to being sexually aggressive towards them … and that a supposed rape victim presented in a sexual outfit will be seen as not suffering as much from an assault as a more conservatively clad victim.”

Plenty of debate and discussion exists in psychology research around the issue of sex addiction – uncontrollable sexual urges and frequent engagement in sexual behaviour, often detrimentally. Is it an addiction, or not? UCLA researchers have measured brain behaviour in so-called hypersexual people. They found that “hypersexuality did not appear to explain brain differences in sexual response any more than simply having a high libido” (p.27).

Marguerite Evans-Galea and Oliver Jones, both part of the Australian Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum, remind us that women in the higher echelons of science are still hard to find (p.29). Gender bias is still alive and well, and the consequences of taking time away from a career to start a family can be long-lasting. Evans-Galea and Jones say that the solution lies with the individual, the institution, and at a national level, but there’s no easy answer as “much more underlies the complexity of gender equity in science than just having children. Impostor syndrome [self-doubt about professional success], unconscious bias and discrimination each play their role and can be addressed.”

During their lifetime, most women will have about 500 menstrual cycles. When these are painful, heavy, irregular, absent – or their arrival is heralded by premenstrual syndrome – they can be physically and emotionally debilitating. According to Jean Hailes for Women’s Health (p.35): “Periods can cause issues at any age, but more commonly affect teenagers and those approaching menopause”. Happily, some symptom relief and self-help techniques are available, such as exercising to release the body’s endorphins, our natural “feel-good” hormones.

Recreational weightlifters and young boys concerned about their appearance are experimenting with male sex hormones, despite the health risks. Androgen abuse is no longer confined to elite athletes and body-builders, according to Andrology Australia (p.38): “… the long-term effects are only now becoming better understood. [They] may include prostate disease (including cancer) as testosterone can increase prostate cell growth, infertility and liver damage. Evidence for links with heart disease is getting stronger, and recent research suggests effects on kidney and brain function, although more studies are needed.” A legitimate medical use of these male sex hormones (mainly testosterone) is in the treatment of androgen deficiency.

Although studies have shown that muscularity is generally considered to be more sexually attractive, masculine faces are generally not. Results of research by Professor David Perrett of the University of St Andrews suggests this is likely “because women perceive masculine-looking men to be less trustworthy, warm, less interested in long-term relationships and even less investing as fathers”, says Barnaby Dixson of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of NSW (p.40).