Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

The science of gender, sex, and sexuality

Sari van Anders investigates how social experiences impact our identities, our bodies, and our research.

[Colourful ribbons with terms of gender, sex and sexuality written on them]
Dr. Sari van Anders is the author of sexual configurations theory, a tool to deepen our understandings of gender/sex and sexual diversity. (Unsplash/ Patrick Fore)

What is gender? Is gender tied to sexuality – if yes, how? How do sex and gender differ? The way we conceptualize gender and sex impacts the way we think of ourselves and others, and how we organize our societies. It also can bias our research, for example, when we focus exclusively on biological explanations for gender differences. Could new feminist and queer perspectives in science challenge the status quo and lead us to new understandings of human biology and behaviour?

Sari van Anders, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Canada 150 Research Chair, believes they can, and should. She is a leader in the fields of feminist science, gender, and sexuality and has been researching social neuroendocrinology for over a decade.

Sari van Anders
Dr. Sari van Anders

Dr. van Anders is also the author of sexual configurations theory, a tool to deepen our understandings of gender/sex and sexual diversity. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including, in 2022, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, and the Outstanding Graduate Teaching of Psychology as a Core STEM Discipline Award from the American Psychological Association's Board of Educational Affairs.

In this interview, Dr. van Anders talks to the Gazette about her research program and commitment to promoting social change within academia.

Your research focus is social neuroendocrinology. What is that, exactly?

It’s the study of hormones and behaviour in a social context.

People typically focus on how hormones influence behavior. From a feminist perspective, we understand that that's because our culture often looks to biological explanations for gender inequities, in what is often called biological determinism. I've long been really interested in what we could call the reverse relationship or how our social behaviors change our hormone levels. Our results suggest gendered behaviour can actually change hormones like testosterone.

This can radically alter how we envision what is sex, what is gender, and even nature/nurture debates. And it’s one reason why I use the term “gender/sex”: so much of the biological phenomena I (and others) study are also sociocultural.

The way we study human biology, behaviour, and sexuality is framed by our conceptions about gender and sex. Is sexual configurations theory (SCT) a way to address this issue?

Heteronormativity directly impacts people’s lives in many ways, including that it limits what kinds of knowledge we have available to us about gender/sex and sexuality, and whom that knowledge serves.

SCT is a new and broader way to conceptualize and model gender, sex, and sexuality. I am really excited about SCT as a potential starting point for sexual diversity studies and research because it includes many important aspects of how people understand their own sexuality – not only genitals, or sexual attractions.

We developed diagrams where people can mark where they see themselves in terms of diverse aspects of sexuality, and also their own gender/sex. And we added this to a “zine”, a sort of mini-graphic novel/magazine in plain language, that people can use to reflect on themselves and their sexuality. I’m so excited that it’s been translated into three languages, with two more coming! And, we are now working with others in the field about how to use SCT with clients in therapy, counseling, and clinical contexts. People learn something new about themselves with SCT, and many have told us how this is the first time they’ve ever seen themselves in science.

A zine about Sexual Configurations Theory
A digital, open-acess "zine" explains sexual configurations theory in plain language.

Why is it important that you work from feminist and queer science perspectives?

Even though some people still believe that science should be politically neutral, scientists already are bound by all sorts of political considerations, whether these are ethical, funding-related, environmental, or other. And these considerations should include feminist and queer considerations.

Feminist research is crucial because our world has inequities related to gender and intersecting axes of oppression. If we don’t want to support this status quo, we need to work against it. Our science needs to tackle gender inequities and oppression to get to more equitable worlds.

Related to but not the same as feminist science, queer science is a way to do research about phenomena through multiple lenses, showing how dynamic they are. Queer and science go well together because they push us to challenge and even transgress accepted wisdom. Queer science questions scientific and empirical truths, and cultural understandings of bodies, social norms, and sexuality.

Do these perspectives have an impact beyond gender/sex and sexuality research?

They are relevant to any field of research because we’re all humans who have been socialized within oppressive systems. Science isn’t just the topics we study or the questions we ask, but also how we do our work, whom we do it with, how we communicate it, lab practices, academic conferences, and so much more. From neuroscience to theoretical physics to math to cell biology, there is compelling scholarship and science that shows the value of feminist and queer approaches.  

How do you expect your work to foster social change within academia?

Science needs to be meaningful to and reflective of all of us, taking inequities into account, working against them, and working towards more liberatory aims. We need to rethink our methods, our questions, and our epistemologies or ways of knowing.

In our lab, we build knowledge frameworks that draw on insights from and are meaningful to people in marginalized social locations. This can help them (us!) make sense of their own gender, sex, and sexualities and work towards change. It also helps people outside of these social locations to understand the reality of diversity. Finally, it helps make clear that existences are informed by intersections that reflect oppression and/or privilege, including neurodiversity, dis/ability, race/ethnicity, immigration status, body size, and so much more. This helps our science and scholarship be more accurate, empirical, and just.