My research agenda comprises three major areas: First, I study the social construction of knowledge about sexuality. My book project, based on my dissertation research (abstract below), shows how the sexuality knowledge produced by demographers and other social scientists shapes policy, politics, and identities. Second, I am deeply invested in advancing the demography of sexualities, both by producing population science that can be used to meaningfully address inequalities affecting LGBTQ people, and by shaping measurement and research practices. Third, I have examined young women’s sexual identity, behavior, and desire using innovative sampling methods in order to make theories of sexual fluidity more intersectional.
Specifically, my research has focused on sexual fluidity among young mothers and women beyond the elite college campus, the experiences of non-heterosexual women participating in fertility research, contraceptive behavior and relationship dynamics among non-heterosexual women (with Elizabeth Ela), sexual and intimate partner violence (with Jennifer Barber, Yasamin Kusunoki, and Heather Gatny), measuring sexual violence in surveys (with Elizabeth Armstrong), and the epistemological implications of disconnecting the study of sexual pleasure and risk in survey research (with Laurel Westbrook and Aliya Saperstein).
I am currently working on a book manuscript based on my dissertation research:
The New Gay Science:
Sexuality Knowledge, Demography, and the Politics of Population Measurement
This dissertation shows how population science became an important form of sexuality knowledge and, in so doing, shaped contemporary understandings of non-heterosexualities and LGBTQ civil rights claims. I use the tools of feminist science studies to investigate the production and circulation of demographic, survey-based knowledge about non-heterosexualities. Empirically, I investigate how population science came to join psychology and biology as one of the most prominent tools for understanding sexuality and the consequences of this transition for sexual identity, social science, and knowledge politics. Theoretically, the case of demographic sexuality knowledge enables me to address broader issues of how social scientific thinking shapes public discourse and policy debates.
The last decade witnessed an unprecedented prioritization of research on SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity), with a particular focus on the inclusion of SOGI measures in demographic surveys. This focus follows the legacy of a century of dehumanizing science of homosexuality, but this new gay science holds different kinds of perils and promise. The routine counting of SOGI populations in surveys transformed LGBTQ civil rights claims and fueled data-centered activism (“data=power!”). However, political upheaval and contemporary skepticism toward expertise, coupled with the tensions between demographic research norms and transformations in contemporary sexuality, leaves this sexuality knowledge in a precarious position.
I use comparative-historical and interview methods and diverse but complementary data sources to investigate the sexuality knowledge circulating out in the world in public discourse and policy debates, and to interrogate its technical production within social science scholarship. My data include newspaper articles, court documents, survey questionnaires themselves, and interviews with key data activists. I focus specifically on the inclusion of SOGI measures in population surveys in the United States since 2000, the three most recent and pivotal marriage equality cases at the U.S. Supreme Court (2013–2015), and the coverage of these and other sexuality topics covered in the national media during those same years (with comparisons to selected eventful moments dating back to the dawn of the gay liberation movement).
My dissertation has three main findings. First, demography has become part of our scientia sexualis, the authorized vocabulary of contemporary LGBTQ sexuality discourse, alongside psychology and biology. In other words, demography is the new gay science. Second, the availability of demographic data and researchers’ normative practice of separately measuring sexual behavior, attraction, and identity have generated new sexual theories, types, and research paradigms, but these practices exist in tension with some queer modes of identification. Third, demographic knowledge has engendered powerful claims to representation, as evidenced by the use of social science expertise in pivotal marriage equality court cases and the emergence of data activism. Although quantitative measurement can reproduce inequality by limiting definitions and foreclosing more nuanced understandings of sexuality, population counts are also deployed as tools for progress and justice.
These findings demonstrate the theoretical and empirical value of bringing together survey methodology and feminist STS, as well as the possibilities and limitations of addressing material disparities and sociopolitical marginalization impacting LGBTQ communities through the power of data collection.