Two graduate students are studying sexual satisfaction among marginalized groups.
The past decade has been transformational for Texas Tech University in many ways.
With its designation as a top-tier university in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, its research profile has increased dramatically. Simultaneously, Texas Tech's recognition as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and repeated five-star rankings on the Campus Pride Index speak to its ongoing efforts to support diversity and inclusion for all.
The university's growth in these two priority areas is highlighted in the work of College of Human Sciences faculty member Dana Weiser and her graduate students.
An associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, Weiser studies families, sexuality and romantic relationships, with most of her work focused on infidelity and sexual violence. Five years ago, however, a first-year student came to Weiser with an idea to conduct a climate survey examining what life is like at Texas Tech for LGBTQIA individuals.
That student was Matthew Rivas-Koehl, who graduated with his master's degree in May. The project that became his 2018 undergraduate Honors thesis marked Weiser's expansion into the world of LGBTQIA research. Not long afterward, doctoral student Adam Thomas joined Weiser's lab, the Sexual Health, Infidelity & Family Transmissions (SHIFT) team, as a graduate research assistant. Since then, their body of work has continued to grow.
Their newest endeavors study sexual satisfaction among marginalized groups.
“I view it very much as my students' research,” Weiser said. “I'm here for support, but it's their brilliant ideas that have gotten everything off the ground, and they've done the work for it. So, I view myself as a support system to make the magic happen.”
Rivas-Koehl remembers meeting Weiser in 2016, after a lecture in a first-year experience course he took through the Honors College. She was one of two faculty members who spoke about issues of sexual violence and discrimination toward the LGBTQIA community. After the lecture, he approached her and asked, “What about at Texas Tech?”
Working closely with the newly established Office of LGBTQIA Education & Engagement and Amelia Talley, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, Rivas-Koehl and Weiser sought answers to that question.
“We created a survey that assessed the attitudes and experiences of both LGBTQIA and heterosexual individuals on campus to get an idea of how their experiences differed and what inequities might exist between their experiences,” Rivas-Koehl said. “We found there were definitely some significant disparities between LGBTQIA and heterosexual individuals, but Texas Tech was doing a pretty good job of supporting LGBTQIA students compared to other surveys and results we had seen.
“So, there was definitely room for improvement that we identified, and we've been able to publish some of the data that helped advance the field in terms of LGBTQIA health on college campuses. But it did make me feel good, knowing a lot of the work we were doing at Texas Tech was beneficial to students. We weren't seeing nearly the disparities other schools have reported.”
Many students felt like they belonged and felt safe at Texas Tech, Weiser noted, but not so much away from campus.
“We also were seeing a lot of internalized homophobia, so Texas Tech isn't able to protect its students and community members from these kinds of bigger issues of homophobia and transphobia,” she said. “We definitely have seen in the data that the mental health for LGBTQIA individuals is not as high compared to the heterosexual, cisgender participants. That is unfortunate and sad, and what seem to be the major contributing factors are the more social factors outside of the university.”
‘It's not problematic to have an LGBTQIA identity'
It's something Rivas-Koehl and his husband have experienced firsthand, but he's careful not to paint a picture of LGBTQIA individuals as inherently more victimized than heterosexual individuals.
“We really want to move away from this model where we compare the health and well-being of LGBTQIA versus heterosexual people,” he said. “We want to think instead about how everybody in society is involved in creating a system in which it's ‘normal' to be heterosexual and it's ‘different' or ‘wrong' to be a queer-identified person.”
In one recent publication, which examined suicidal ideation, plans and attempts among adolescents, Rivas-Koehl addressed that notion specifically.
“It's not problematic to have an LGBTQIA identity,” explained Weiser, a heterosexual, cisgender woman. “What is problematic is how society treats people, and that is what's leading to some of these more negative consequences.”
As one example, Thomas cites the average lifespan for transgender women of color, which is about 40 years.
“When you tell people that, they think it's because of suicide or drugs, but when you really look at it, it's because they're murdered so often,” Thomas said. “Some of these societal barriers are causing these issues. It's not that there's inherently something wrong with them because they're transgendered; it's that society chooses to tell them there's something wrong with them.”
Relationships in transition
Thomas' research focuses on transgender men and the effects of the transitioning process on their romantic relationships.
As a trans man himself, Thomas has been in the position of those he now studies. In fact, it was the lack of available information about what he and his wife might face during his transition that led him into his current role.
“When my wife and I got married, we married as two women; we were a lesbian couple,” Thomas said. “When I started my transition four years ago, there was very little research out there about how a transition might impact that relationship, and so we didn't really know where to turn to or how to get help.”
They had many of the same questions other people have. More information was available about the biological effects Thomas may experience, including hormonal changes, but socially, what did Thomas' transition mean for him and his wife? They had been a lesbian couple; was his wife now bisexual or heterosexual? As a man married to a woman, was Thomas now heterosexual? Would they experience changes in the types of behaviors they preferred?
Like Rivas-Koehl, Thomas heard Weiser speak about her research and knew he wanted to work with her. Weiser was equally enthusiastic because Thomas' research has one overarching goal, and it's one she fully supports.
“My goal is to put out there that trans people in general can have very similar experiences to heterosexual, cisgender individuals and couples,” Thomas said. “I'm doing a study right now on trans men and infidelity – and infidelity is a very typical part of romantic relationships of all kinds. I think people find us very different, and we're really not. So, normalizing the subject, the population and us as individuals is really important to me and my research.”
Likewise, Rivas-Koehl's master's thesis aims to normalize talking about sexuality among queer men.
“So much of the research on sexual experiences of queer men relates it back to HIV risk, alcohol and drug use, violence or things like that,” Rivas-Koehl said. “What I wanted to really look at is why people are choosing to engage in sex in certain ways and promote a sex-positive lens through which to view it.”
He focused on the top, bottom and vers labels commonly used among queer men. Originally descriptions of sexual positions, these labels have developed over time into broader symbols of an individual's identity.
“Not all queer men use these identities, but a majority do,” Rivas-Koehl explained, “so I was interested in how people come to form these identities.”
Consistent with the small amount of research done previously, Rivas-Koehl found that men who identify as “top” were more likely to favor ideas about male dominance. However, after adding masculinity and sexual satisfaction to a model to attempt to predict a person's positional identity, only the sexual satisfaction variables were significant.
“There's only so much we can interpret from a non-longitudinal sample,” he said, “but this definitely leads me to believe that sexual satisfaction is a key factor people are considering when they're coming up with these labels.”
Labels: Not the whole story
For people who are not members of marginalized groups, it's an easy assumption that labels themselves – like gay, lesbian, trans, etc. – are a major factor in the “otherness” these groups experience. But the reality is more complex.
“Inherently, any of the labels are limited,” Weiser said. “They don't cover the full scope of people's experiences, but they also have a utility: they can be a great source of pride and provide a sense of community and a source for rallying around such issues. So, I think it's a double-edged sword. Having a label and being able to say ‘This is who I am,' is a very powerful thing for a lot of people. But it also can limit the extent to which people come out and how much they want to talk about those identities. Plus, those labels might not be descriptive of what your lived experience actually is.”
As Rivas-Koehl explained, there are three angles from which to examine any person's sexuality: (1) their identity – that is, the label they put on themselves; (2) who they're attracted to; and (3) with whom they're actually having sex. In many cases, inconsistencies exist.
“Somebody might be reporting that they're heterosexual, but they actually have sex with somebody of the same gender,” Rivas-Koehl said. “Why might this difference exist? If you've grown up in an area where you feel like it's not OK to label yourself as something other than heterosexual, even just checking that box or clicking that button showing another identity might inflict some sort of pain or harm.
“The labels are more important to some people than others, but they certainly have implications for research. If we want to know about somebody's sexual behavior, we need to ask them about their sexual behavior. If we just asked about their identity, we don't know if that necessarily captures what their behaviors are in their everyday life, because they might be identifying a certain way because they feel pressure from society to do so.”
To that end, many young adults are now using more overarching terms like “queer” – once a derogatory term before being reclaimed by the LGBTQIA community – instead of “gay” or “lesbian.”
“It really does show that there is this fluidity and flexibility,” Weiser said. “Using this big encompassing term that doesn't have the same level of precision is still extremely meaningful, and it gives the flexibility that people find matches their lived experiences.”
While labels can help differentiate other groups from heterosexual, cisgender individuals, another phenomenon tries to ignore the differences that exist.
“It's important to recognize that our society treats heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as the norm,” Rivas-Koehl said. “We call this ‘heteronormativity,' and it's the idea that a relationship is always being compared to that of a man and a woman. Even among queer individuals of varying identities, there's still an underlying idea that they're supposed to somehow resemble a traditional man-and-woman relationship. We need to move away from the idea that a relationship has to model this heterosexual dyad.”
Among the most common microaggressions queer couples face is the question, “Who wears the pants in the relationship?” In essence, who is the “man” and who is the “woman?” Accordingly, transnormativity promotes an image of trans individuals as following a binary gender system, with men being more masculine and women more feminine.
Homonormativity, meanwhile, downplays other differences, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic background. Media typically paint same-gender couples as white, relatively affluent gay men.
“There's been a lot of silencing and a lack of attention toward trans individuals and individuals who are racially minoritized,” Weiser said. “I think it's really important to focus on the diversity within the LGBTQIA community.”
Diversity within diverse population
For Rivas-Koehl, specifically, that's the next major avenue for research.
“I see myself moving away from this comparison model of queer versus heterosexual individuals, and moving toward inclusive studies that look at within-group differences between people with queer identities,” he said. “One area I'm passionate about is violence prevention.”
To that end, Rivas-Koehl wants to examine why LGBTQIA individuals are at a higher risk for violence, particularly sexual violence, than heterosexual individuals.
“There's not a lot of research that has investigated the nuances within queer relationships that contribute to why sexual violence rates are higher,” he said. “Is sexual violence being perpetrated by queer people more, or are queer people just put in a more vulnerable position in society to experience these things? That's what I would assume is the case, but we don't have a lot of evidence to support these ideas because, in the past, we have focused on comparing heterosexual versus queer. So, I think more needs to be done to understand the complexities and nuances within queer populations.”
Thomas, likewise, intends to continue to grow the body of knowledge on trans men.
“There's so little research out there about trans men, specifically, even compared to trans women,” Thomas said. “I would really like to get at identity creation: how trans men come to the point of realizing that they're trans and realizing what their sexual identities are.”
At the heart of their work is the same concept that's at the heart of all work in diversity: respecting the individual differences in us all.
“Just because somebody holds one certain identity, we can't then assume a bunch of other things about them,” Rivas-Koehl emphasized. “We need to really take care to look at people individually and appreciate their individual characteristics.”