My research agenda comprises three major areas: First, I study the social construction of knowledge about sexuality. My book project, based on my dissertation research (see below), shows how the sexuality knowledge produced by demographers and other social scientists shapes policy, politics, and identities. Second, I am deeply invested in advancing the demography of sexualities, both by producing population science that can be used to meaningfully address inequalities affecting LGBTQ people, and by shaping measurement and research practices. Third, I have examined young women’s sexual identity, behavior, and desire using innovative sampling methods in order to make theories of sexual fluidity more intersectional.
Specifically, my published scholarship has focused on sexual fluidity among young mothers and women beyond the elite college campus (Gender & Society 2016; Contexts 2017), the experiences of non-heterosexual women participating in fertility research (in progress), contraceptive behavior and relationship dynamics among non-heterosexual women (with Elizabeth Ela; Demography 2017), pregnancy desire and ambivalence (with Jennifer Barber and colleagues; Demography 2021), sexual and intimate partner violence (with Jennifer Barber, Yasamin Kusunoki, and Heather Gatny; American Sociological Review 2018), measuring sexual violence in surveys (with Elizabeth Armstrong; Council on Contemporary Families), and the epistemological implications of disconnecting the study of sexual pleasure and risk in survey research (with Laurel Westbrook and Aliya Saperstein; Sexualities 2020).
My book project, The New Gay Science: How Demography Shaped Sexuality Knowledge and LGBTQ Politics, is based on my dissertation research (available upon request). An abstract for this project appears below.
Through an account of the social lives of sexuality statistics, I show how and why demography became the new gay science, and how the norms of demography reshaped our understanding of LGBTQ people. Entanglements between science and sexuality are not new, but the 20th century saw an important shift from the question “what is homosexuality?” to “what is the LGBTQ population?” The former was a question imposed by the authorities of medicine, psychiatry, and psychology on individual patients, criminals, and sinners. While this framing was slightly reformed as homosexuality was understood less as pathological deviant behavior and more as a (pitiable) kind of person, the essential question remained “what is homosexuality?” and the biological sciences charged forward locating difference in gay brains, hormones, and genes.
Although this medicalized approach did not disappear, I argue that beginning in the post-war period (with Kinsey’s early studies of human sexual variation) and dramatically taking off with the advent of the gay rights movement, the most important question in the imperative to understand sexuality became “what is the LGBTQ population?” This was the beginning of the making of a new population and an exemplar of the “looping effect of human kinds” in which scientific classificatory practices interact with the classified people. I argue that demographic sexuality knowledge and the sexual minority demographic were co-produced.
Top-down identification of individual deviance or difference transformed as grassroots-level collective identification as gay or lesbian became increasingly visible and vibrant. This shift from “the homosexual” to “the LGBTQ population” was not imposed from above as new form of surveillance and control, but rather demanded from below in an (effective) effort to claim civil rights by analogy to other minority populations. This was necessary for not only a fundamental sense of human dignity but also the possibility to organize and make demands for inclusion in society and in science. I argue that a critical transformative way these demands gained traction was through engagement with population science, and centrally, with demographic classificatory systems. In this project, I investigate the conditions under which this new gay science emerged and the forces that shaped how it functioned in domains such as public and legal discourse. For example, in my analysis of decades of newspaper articles covering the intersection of science and sexuality, I find a “demographic imaginary” in which gay people were beginning to be conceptualized as a group but without data to illuminate or humanize this minority. These newspapers called attention to what we did not know and were littered with guesses and gaps. LGBTQ was a demographic without a demographer.
Invented and misappropriated numbers (such as Kinsey’s 10%) filled the demand for data and took on mythical characteristics that would shape LGBTQ politics for decades to come. In the 1980s-2000s, expert demographers began to actively study the size and characteristics of the LGBTQ population, frequently overcoming political pushback and resistance from the state to do so. Initially, these counts were conducted through creative uses of existing data (the prime example being the identification and enumeration of same-sex couples and their children in 2000, using the first US decennial Census to count unmarried partners). These data established the need (and ability) to study the LGBTQ population to a new audience of demographers. Over the next two decades, demographers and survey methodologists would adapt all kinds of questionnaires and study designs with gay research participants in mind. If the population sciences were once oblivious or hostile to the non-heterosexual respondents in their samples (assumed to be outliers or inconsequentially small numbers), these fields are now expected to grapple with how explicit consideration of sexual minorities might change the topics they study—from families and fertility to politics and public health.
As demographers increasingly attended to measuring the size of the LGBTQ population, their work became an obligatory passage point in public and political discussions of LGTBQ people. My analysis tracks this through three cases: (1) recent marriage equality cases at the US Supreme Court, (2) newspaper articles, and (3) the surveys themselves. The centrality of demography to political debates about sexuality reshaped public understandings of LGBTQ people. I show how the norms and interests of demographers (e.g., standardized closed-ended questions that could track variation over time and place; health and risk framings needed in part to secure funding) clashed with the changing politics of parts of the LGBTQ community that increasingly embraced open identities and rejected confining boxes. Demographic knowledge about sexualities in turn helped create and solidify new identities (e.g., MSM, non-heterosexual), theories (e.g., sexual fluidity), and research agendas (e.g., surveilling “at risk” populations, correlating negative outcomes with discordance between behavior and identity) that were often at odds with what activists wanted and what sociologists of gender and sexuality learned in their research.
Demography was demanded from below as part of efforts to self-define and advance the LGBTQ community, but demography still exercised normalizing disciplinary power as it became the new gay science. I show how the politics of sexuality is shaped by demographic norms by identifying the various kinds of maneuvers demographers make and justify, which—according to the epistemic of the discipline—truncate the space of sexuality. Simultaneously, LGBTQ activists made demands to be counted and thus known and incorporated into the body politic. To demonstrate the co-production of demographic sexuality knowledge and the sexual minority demographic, I trace the social lives of sexuality statistics. I define the contours and identify the consequences of this specific feedback loop by analyzing the production and circulation of an essential form of demographic sexuality knowledge: population counts.