Maneuvering the World of Sexual Politics: An Interview with Ritch Savin-Williams

Ritch C Savin-Williams

Private lives are becoming increasingly public. Social media allows us to update our friends and family, immediately in most circumstances, about what is going on in our lives. Not only can we update, we can also be fed lies and false allegations. Sexual politics is subject for a lot of discussion. Quite often, very public court cases lead us to engage in political discourse, and suddenly very private matters are scrutinized, subjected to the limelight, and spoken about in a very public manner.

In light of the increasing prominence of sexual politics, public court cases surrounding sexual assault and homophobic hate crimes, I interviewed Ritch C Savin-Williams Ph.D. , Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University. Dr Savin-Williams has written eight books on adolescent development, predominantly focused on teenage sexuality, and specializes in gay, lesbian and bisexual research. He is also Director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University. We discussed LGBT representation, threesomes and their sexual competition, and sexual diversity with regards to tolerance and acceptance.

PLEASE NOTE: The questions in italics are questions I asked, but Ritch did not feel particularly qualified enough to provide answers for them. This was entirely an oversight on my behalf, as I had assumed due to his article ‘Sexual Assault: Hot-Blooded Clashes’, which discussed defining sexual assault, gender double-standards in sexual assault protocol and the necessity to ask the right questions to reporters of sexual assault, he had research experience in this area. As noted in his answer for the fourth question, this is not the case. I am currently waiting for a few more answers to different questions, and so when they do come through, I shall edit the article to remove both this disclaimer and the four unanswered questions.

In your article, ‘Sexual Assault: Hot-Blooded Clashes’, you note the influence of the media, and how they are especially unfamiliar with the issues Muelenhard et al. raise – how influential do you believe the media is in escalating public opinion/beliefs in relation to sexual assault and sexual assault reports?

 Has there been enough research into sexual assault reports which have not been investigated? We seem to be hearing of stories, which may or may not be sensationalized, suggesting a lot more should be done in taking sexual assault cases seriously, and actually believing the people who report sexual assault. In the light of high-profile cases, naturally people are wary of being marginalized, vilified and ostracized as somebody who ‘cried wolf’ or making false allegations for financial gain. What’s your take on these issues? 

If you could fundamentally change one thing about how the public think about sexual assault, or a common misconception, what would it be, and why? 

There have been multiple attempts to define consent in a legal sense. There are flaws in each – for example, the ‘yes’ model of consent could be regarded as reductionist, in the sense that someone may have said yes at the beginning of sexual activity, but may change their mind at any point. Despite this, they’ve initially said yes, so in a legal sense there could be complications. Is there really any better way to ascertain consensual activity other than formally articulating/communicating yes/no? 

Because my research experience does not extend to the sexual assault/rape literature, I do not feel qualified to address your excellent questions. I was only reporting on a review of the literature that I felt my readers need to be aware of.

In a previous article on Psychology Today, ‘Threesomes Are Interesting, But It Depends’, you mentioned Thompson and Byers’ study. One of the findings was that men were far more comfortable with the idea of a MFF threesome as opposed to a MMF threesome. Why do you think this is? Is this a case of evolutionary psychology and sexual competition, or something rather more sinister like homophobia? Or perhaps a combination of these (and other) factors? 

Clearly there must be sexual competition and if the other guy is having sex with the woman then that likely means that he’s not enjoying the full possibilities (say, intercourse) and he’s not about to do something to the other guy to increase the guy’s pleasure or likelihood of ejaculation. One could definitely spin an evolutionary theory around this, as you noted. Also, homophobia is playing a part as well. I hear guys saying things like they’re really turned off by seeing another penis, don’t see why women get off on seeing one, and, of course, the fear that he will be seen as gay (by the other guy or even himself if he’s aroused). The mostly gay or bisexual guys I interviewed were less negative toward a MMF combination because he is (not always but more likely than a straight guy) turned on by the other guy.

You’ve written eight books on adolescent developments, the majority of which focus on homosexuality and coming out. Whilst writing these books, was there anything which surprised you? Were there any overwhelming trends? 

The increasing acceptance (yes, beyond mere tolerance) of today’s generation for sexual and gender diversity in all aspects of life. Of course, this is evident in nearly all polling data and it cuts across religion, social class, ethnicity, etc. Even right-wing religious youth are far more acceptance of this diversity than their parents. Sexual orientation (and increasing trans issues) is a non-issue for them. Indeed, today’s sexual-minority youth now expect that they will live the same kind of life as straight youth: marriage, children, career.

The LGBT community has come a long way, and in some circumstances has successfully assimilated into mainstream society. Sadly, this is not the case in large proportions of the world. Do you think there will ever be a time in our lifetimes when the LGBT community is not discriminated against in some form due to a heteronormative agenda…or is that utopian ideology? Is discrimination always going to take place? 

As I look at the “world,” I believe it will be some time before this acceptance is prevalent. Western World, yes, but other parts, much longer.

In addition to being a Professor of Developmental Psychology and Director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University, you’re also a licensed clinical psychologist. Is it difficult to maintain an emotional-professional equilibrium, especially with young adults who may have tragic circumstances? (I have made an assumption here which you are welcome to correct me on – based on the fact you are a developmental psychologist and the focal points of your books, I have assumed some of your patients fit this demographic, apologies if this is an incorrect assumption.)

It has not seemed difficult because it is easy to see that whatever their issue might not be superficial and thus gives me greater tolerance to accept and support them. I believe my clinical training has made me a much better teacher. And I do refer students to “professional help.”

You’ve consulted for MTV, 20/20 and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Could you tell us a little bit more about your consultancy roles on these shows? 

In most cases it was to explain the reality of “gay life” to combat the stereotypes that exist about gay youth being necessarily and overwhelmingly depressed, suicidal, drug abusing, etc. This was not what Oprah wanted and after many conversations with her staff and being informed I need to be ready to travel to Chicago, she suddenly went silent (no explanation, no call, no notice but avoidance by her staff) and on the show I was to be on she had an advocate of the “suffering suicidal script” for gay youth. Clearly, she had the message she wanted. This experience “matured” me regarding the media, making me more cautious and less optimistic that I could make a difference.

Finally, in an interview with ABC News, you said you advise your college-aged patients to consider being selective in how they come out. Naturally, it is a shame that this is necessary advice to give to people who perhaps feel that their sexuality is a major part of their identity. How would you like to see the support systems for disowned, unaccepted LGBT people developed and improved? 

I believe that the possibilities are now far greater and less dramatic and that youth ought to trust their parents more. That said, other situations remain dangerous and youth need to be cautious. I believe many of the resources are now in place with strong support, plus the online services including examples that youth can view about successful coming out experiences. I just wish there were more “positive” representations so that youth could be more optimistic about their future lives.

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