Dr. Paul Vasey is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge. He conducts cross-species and cross-cultural research to answer the question: If reproduction is the engine that drives evolution, why engage in non-conceptive sex? For the past decade he has done research on the development and evolution of female homosexual behavior in free-ranging Japanese monkeys at various sites in Japan. He also studies the development and evolution of male same-sex sexual attraction in humans at field sites in Samoa, Japan and Canada. Since 2003, he has worked in Samoa with members of the fa’afafine community – biological males who live “in the manner of a woman.”
Vasey currently holds both a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant in addition to various grants from private funding agencies.
What first piqued your interest in your research discipline?
As a kid, I was always interested in nature documentaries. I remember when I was 13 or 14 watching one documentary on the evolution of iguanas and tortoises on the Galapagos Islands and it fascinated me. So, from a very early age, I was interested in understanding the world from an evolutionary perspective. I’m also gay, and same-sex sexuality doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least at first glance, from an evolutionary perspective. This led me to search for literature on the evolution of homosexuality. What I found was a lot of speculation but virtually no data. It seemed that everyone had an opinion on the topic, but no one wanted to do the work of hypothesis testing.
So, for my doctoral research I studied female homosexual behavior in Japanese monkeys and after graduating from the Université de Montréal, I expanded this line of research by conducting fieldwork in Japan, which continues to this day with my Post-Doctoral Fellows, Drs. Jean-Baptiste Leca and Nöelle Gunst.
How is your research applicable in “the real world?”
There is an enormous amount of public debate about the nature of sexual and gender diversity. Is it “natural”? Is it “normal”? Should it be socially tolerated? Should members of sexual and gender minorities have human rights that are equal to those of the heterosexual majority?
So often these discussions occur in an information vacuum that is driven by personal politics and morals but divorced from any actual evidence. I go out into the real world and collect data about many of the issues that are being debated publically. In doing so, my research generates information about phenomenon related to sexual and gender diversity and furnishes a basis upon which an evidence-based understanding of these topics can be situated.
What is the greatest honour you have received in your career?
The greatest honour I have received in my career is having internationally renowned sex researchers, whose work I hold in the highest esteem, state that they consider my body of work to be of exceptional quality and importance. I’m talking about people like J. Michael Bailey, Anne Lawrence, Alice Dreger, and Alan Dixson, among others. I don’t think there is any greater honour than having the researchers you hold in such high esteem indicate that they consider your work a significant contribution to the field.
How important are students to your research endeavours?
I’d say most students in my lab have been foundational to my research efforts. The lab could never be as productive as it is were it not for the fact that I work with an extraordinary team of undergraduate students, graduate students and Post-Doctoral Fellows. Some of my former students have gone on to become medical doctors, take up post-doctoral fellowships at hospitals, pursue further graduate work in clinical psychology programs or undertake further research at places like Cambridge University. It’s been a privilege to work with all of them.
If you had unlimited funds, which areas of research would you invest?
I would like to build a Kinsey-style Sexuality Research Institute in Canada – one that does not downplay the importance of biology in human sexuality, yet at the same time does not ignore the importance of culture. Part of my goal in building such a research institute would be to help create jobs for young sex researchers in Canada.
It has been said that Canada packs a punch far above its weight internationally in terms of the number of renowned sex researchers who make this country their home. Moreover, Canada has a political and social climate that is far more amenable to sex research than most other countries. Further, Canada has the funding systems in place to support such research and it has been demonstrated time and time again that sex research attracts large amounts of funding from multiple agencies when it is done properly.
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