HHH masterclass: The science of sexual desire

Stefan Reyes

Part of the autumn 2020 online meeting of HHH on 18 September 2021 was the masterclass “The sciences of sexual desire” by Jacob Stegenga, organised for RMA-students and PhD candidates of the Huizinga Institute. Stefan Reyes shares his impressions in this contribution. Reyes is a PhD candidate at VU University working on Cape Colony slave ships as emotional communities between 1780 and 1806.

The masterclass “The Sciences of Sexual Desire” gave a broad review of the history of sexuality with a chronological overview of the field’s major studies. It was an interdisciplinary course that incorporated knowledge from numerous fields. The readings covered the most seminal texts in the study of sexuality. However, this seminar was much more than an introduction to sexual desire. The course encompassed a comphrehensive literature review of the major arguments and the historiography. We delved into the major criticisms levied against these influential works and analyzed both: the ways in which scientists have built off previous approaches and how subsequent studies perpetuated the same errors or misconceptions of previous scientists.

I found this course invaluable for a number of reasons. If you have no interest in medical history, the masterclass was a valuable source of knowledge toward refining your own perspectives and methodological approaches. As a ‘philosophy of science’ seminar, it introduced students to how easily individual biases can completely distort science that considers itself objective and purely rational. We saw how period and contemporary misconceptions were built into the framing of the research, the hypothesis, and ultimately, the results. For example, one of the readings analyzed how male scientists studied orgasms in apes. However, once subjected to critical analysis, the male scientists were only studying male orgasms and completely neglected female orgasms and the social contexts and differences between the two.

Baboons (Photo by Ali Taylor from FreeImages)

Such contemporary biases, such as these, were approached from all angles in almost every seminal reading throughout the history of sexuality. For me personally, as someone who has a background and interest in racialism and science, this course confirmed many notions I previously held. At the same time, the complexities illuminated also reminded me that these sorts of misconceptions are built into hypotheses and results throughout all fields of knowledge. I believe the reflection on my own biases will contribute to a higher quality of research in my future.

I found the balance between the literature and the perspectives to be expertly done. I left feeling like I knew much more and, at the same time, still unsure of how to reconcile such differing perspectives. My only criticism is that for the broad overview of the arguments, literature, and the historiography thereof – there was not enough time in the class to give each perspective its proper service. However, for individuals pursuing an interdisciplinary future it offered a great introduction into the study of sexuality. I enjoyed this masterclass for the exposure to numerous perspectives and the latest theories: an excellent introduction to sexual desire and the complications of conducting such a study.