By NICK WALKER, adjunct faculty member in the BAC program, an alumnus of the BAC and Somatic Psychology programs, and a doctoral candidate in the Transformative Studies program. Nick is senior instructor at Aikido Shusekai, an aikido dojo in Berkeley, and also works as a speaker, trainer, and consultant on embodiment, diversity, neurodiversity, and integral practice.
Yesterday it was my painful duty to write a strongly critical letter to a colleague, a psychology researcher who works at a university far from CIIS (“far” in terms of both geography and institutional perspective), whom I’ve never met and whom I know only by reputation.
Here is the complete and unedited text of my letter:
Dear Dr. ____________,
A colleague forwarded me your survey on autism and sexuality.
I'm shocked – and, frankly, outraged – that any Psychology scholar in the 21st Century, and particularly a scholar who claims "Research Methodology" and "Stereotypes and Prejudice" among her research interests, would create and distribute a survey on sexuality that so blatantly excludes and marginalizes all forms of sex/gender identity that fall outside of the narrow conventions of the "gender binary" model.
Your survey repeatedly conflates gender and biological sex. Your questions assume that there are exactly two types of genitalia and exactly two genders, and that if a person has one type of genitalia, that person is necessarily male, while a person with the other type of genitalia is necessarily female. You ask about the research participants' feelings about being male or about being female, with the assumption that every participant must be either one or the other. You don't even provide the option of answers like "None of the Above," "Other," or "Not Applicable," much less make room for the voices of participants who are intersex, asexual, agendered, transgendered, multigendered, fluid-gendered, etc.
While this sort of binarism and ciscentrism unfortunately remain the norm in mainstream society, one expects better from a scholar of your caliber, especially a scholar in your particular field and with your particular research interests. Those of us who have attained advanced degrees and academic positions in the social sciences incur a certain degree of social responsibility - responsibility to advance human understanding and social justice by uncovering and challenging the biases and prejudices that marginalize any of our fellow human beings. And this process of uncovering and challenging bias and prejudice begins with critical reflection on our own fields and especially our own work.
In addition to the ethical issues here, there is an issue of validity. Having studied the autistic community up-close for over a dozen years, I can tell you that sex/gender identities outside of the "gender binary" are in fact significantly more prevalent among autistic adults than among neurotypical adults. By constructing your survey in a way that shuts out the voices of those outside of the gender binary, you have skewed the results of your research so severely as to render the results of your study invalid.
Should you continue to do research on autism and/or sexuality, I sincerely hope that prior to distributing any surveys or publishing any results, you will have your work thoroughly vetted by scholars within the autistic community (in the case of any study relating to autism) and scholars knowledgeable in the fields of Gender Studies or Queer Studies (in the case of any study relating to sexuality). I would be happy to direct you to some excellent scholars in these fields who I'm sure would gladly assist you.
I believe that your research topic is a very important one, and I applaud your intentions and support your further work in this direction. I hope you will take this letter in the constructive spirit in which it was intended.
California Institute of Integral Studies
I wrote this letter for a few reasons, which I believe are worth enumerating here:
First, of course, there is the social responsibility that I mentioned in the letter – the responsibility of each and every member of the worldwide community of scholars to take a leadership role in advancing human understanding and social justice, and to continually uncover and challenge the biases and prejudices that pervade our own fields.
Second, my sense of ethics demanded it on a personal level. I had become involved in two different discussions concerning the flaws of the study in question – one discussion among outraged academic colleagues and one discussion among outraged fellow members of the autistic self-advocacy community. My own code of personal and professional ethics prohibits me from saying anything behind a colleague’s back that I won’t say to that colleague directly, so once people started trying to draw me into discussions of this study, it became an ethical imperative for me to communicate with the study’s author personally.
Finally, I’m not just a scholar and educator, I’m a scholar and educator at CIIS. I’m well aware that CIIS struggles with diversity issues. As an institution, we’re not free of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of prejudice. But the important thing is that we do struggle with those issues. We engage with them; we make a sincere and continual effort to address them. We have genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion, even if we’re not perfect at it. As a disabled (autistic) student and faculty member, I encounter less discrimination here, and more sincere attempts at understanding and inclusion, than I’d be likely to encounter at just about any other academic institution. I’m proud of my school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and I believe that our successes in that realm invest CIIS scholars with a certain degree of responsibility to actively serve as voices of conscience in the broader acadmic community.
Which might mean writing the occasional difficult letter.
(By the way, I did hear back from the colleague to whom I sent the letter, and we're now engaged in a very amicable, constructive dialogue on how the study can be reworked for greater inclusivity.)