Hormones and women’s sexuality: Information deficits, overeager criticism, and misinformation – and why fixing it is urgent

April 24, 2024
3:30 PM ET
R-414-AB David Ellwood Democracy Lab, Rubenstein Building
This event is part of the Speaker Series on Misinformation, co-sponsored by the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School and the NULab at Northeastern University.

Reproduction radically reorganizes women’s bodies and minds. During pregnancy, hormone systems undergo system-wide change while body and brain mechanisms that may have been dormant for decades exhibit wholly new functions for supporting gestation, childbirth, lactation, and parenthood. Although men do contribute substantially to reproduction, their obligatory investment is minimal, and men’s bodies need not change at all. Yet women’s reproductive biology – including the biology that guides sexual desire and reproductive behavior – continues to be understudied relative to men’s. In 1993 the National Institutes of Health attempted to address over-representation of males in research by requiring equal representation of females in research, and then followed up in 2016 by requiring statistical analyses by sex. These policies have had mixed effects, and some indications show that representation of females in research has gotten worse not better – and, analysis of data by sex worsened from 50% in 2009 to 42% in 2019. Martie Haselton suggests several possibilities for why sex bias persists, illustrating through my work on hormones and sexuality. In this discussion, Martie will show that this area of research, once neglected, has been maligned by misinformation concerning its evidentiary value, setting back efforts to close gaps in understanding women’s sexuality by ten years or more. Women face profound challenges related to sexuality and reproduction – including concerns related to sexual desire and satisfaction, possible short- and long-term effects of hormonal contraception, and confusion about the onset of menopause and whether to use hormone replacement. These concerns must be addressed by a renewed focus on women’s reproductive biology and its impact on women’s wellbeing.

Martie G. Haselton is Professor of Communication, Psychology, and the Institute for Society and Genetics at University of California, Los Angeles (Ph.D., 2000, Psychology, University of Texas, Austin). She directs the UCLA Sex, Gender, and Evolution Lab (SAGE lab). In 2018 she published Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones—How They Drive Desire, Shape Relationships, Influence Our Choices, and Make Us Wiser (Little, Brown). Haselton studies human reproductive hormones and their relationship to social behavior, intimate relationships, and sexuality. She is also known for her work articulating error management theory as an explanation for a diverse suite of cognitive biases. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Post, Time, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times, and she has been interviewed on NPR, CNN, Good Morning America, and The View. She was Associate Editor at Psychological Science from 2022-2024 and is currently Associate Editor at Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. From 2006-2011 she was Editor of the flagship Journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, Evolution and Human Behavior. At UCLA, she coordinates the year-long freshman “Cluster” course, Sex: from Biology to Gendered Society and previously served as Associate Director of the National Science Foundation Interdisciplinary Relationship Science Program. She received a US patent for a romantic matching and is a science advisor for hormone-tracking devices and applications.