The Ecology of Sexual Science: Context and Challenge

By Keeling, Richard P. | The Journal of Sex Research, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Ecology of Sexual Science: Context and Challenge


Keeling, Richard P., The Journal of Sex Research


Ecology teaches about balance, "interfaces," boundaries, relationships, and interdependence. The teeming life of a salt marsh, tidal basin, rain forest, coral reef, or northern prairie is deeply interconnected; life in nature is, in a sense, always cross-referenced. And life is lived in patterns and cycles; there is, over time, balance in an ecosystem. From the view of any single element of the system, that balance may be hard to discern--or, perhaps, hard to accept; the individual caribou brought down by a timberwolf may not, we think, appreciate the grand plan of which her death is a small part. Robert Frost, years into observing the cycles of New England seasons, wrote, "It is hard to see the field from within the field."

Perhaps it is our collective difficulty in seeing the whole--our field--that prevents our comprehending human seasons of life and death. Animals actually may do better; careful observations of the "death conversation" between powerful predators and their traditional prey suggest an intimate kind of communication that precedes an attack, preparing each animal for what both realize is inevitable and, in an ecological sense, healthy. Animals, we sometimes believe, differ from people primarily because they are obligated to live only in their moments--not to ask the ultimate questions of purpose and meaning; perhaps the other caribou see the wolves' attack, witness the death of one of their herd, and then go on. Humans have the gift, and the burden, of wondering if this is all there is.

The complex relationships that define an ecology establish food chains and steps in evolution--relationships of caribou and wolf recapitulated down the corridors of time, iterated over and over. This particular caribou disappears, but there will be others. Alfred, Lord Tennyson speaks for all living organisms in writing about "nature, red in tooth and claw"--so careless of the individual life, so careful of the type.

My purpose is not to address humankind's big questions, but to suggest an ecological view of sexual science, sexology, and sexuality We do not live and study in a salt marsh or tide pool. However, by thinking about our adaptations and relationships, we may discover a better understanding of the evolution that continues to occur in our field and a greater respect for a different process--a slow, painful, relentless destabilization that threatens our future.

We could imagine ourselves caribou, nurturing our young in a changing environment. We have known since sexology began of the danger posed by certain predators (limited grant funding, promotion and tenure, conservative legislators, the religious right, and popular radio talk show hosts, as examples). Our students, research projects, papers, journals, organizations, and junior faculty have sometimes perished at their hands. Viewed from outside the field, this may look to be completely consistent with the assumptions of the natural order of things: An occasional graduate assistant, human sexuality course, or grant application fails, but there will be other assistants, courses, and grants, and things go on. We grieve the departed untenured, but their places are quickly and smoothly taken. We worry about the challenge from angry observers of our work, and now and then the field sacrifices a leader, but, again, things go on. Talk radio, as evanescent as its medium, is here today and gone tomorrow.

And so it might, in fact, go on, as it does in the tide pool, age upon age, were it not for the arrival of some destabilizing factors in the underlying support systems of our field (field meaning both our discipline and our ecosystem). To be clear here: I do not see the usual predators (unsympathetic elected officials, university politics, conservative ministers) as de-stabilizers; rather, I think they are precisely the opposite--stabilizers, ordinary parts of the ecosystem of research, scholarship, education, and practice in sexuality Their particular manifestations may change from year to year, but the type is consistent.

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