Renowned sex researcher and globetrotter Dr. Paul L. Vasey is not only a professor of psychology and research chair at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, but the only person in the world with a research program dedicated to understanding the evolutionary reasons why genes associated with being gay don’t go extinct. (In case you were curious, recent research of his supports the Kin Selection Hypothesis, or the idea that investing in nieces and nephews helps gay men pass along their genes.)

The day before he jumped on a flight to Samoa, I got the chance to speak with Vasey about what it’s like conducting sex research on the other side of the world. In addition to his impressive work ethic and productivity, I was taken aback by how down-to-earth and humble he is. Whether you’re a nine-to-five desk job kind of guy or prefer to be nomadic, here are the ins and outs of a typical day in a cross-cultural researcher’s life.


You’ve studied the Kansai gay community in Japan as well as female macaques in Arashiyama and cultures in which same-sex attracted individuals who are born male are considered a third gender, such as the Istmo Zapotec muxes in Mexico and the fa’afafine in Samoa. Across all of the cultures you’ve studied, what has surprised you the most about doing research abroad?
Early on, one of the biggest surprises for me was finding out that some cultures recognize more than two genders. At first, this concept confused me. How could anyone be neither man nor woman? It took me a while to wrap my head around this idea, but I was fascinated from the start and I’ve now spent much of my life working in such cultures with third gender males, who are identified by themselves and others as something beyond the gender binary that is typical of Western cultures.

How did you first get started doing this work?
In Samoa, the first time I ever went, all I had was a fa’afafine’s phone number that I got from a journalist. I called her and she said she would meet with me. [My colleague] and I went to meet her at a nightclub with two of her friends. I just kept going back and spent so much time on the island, things grew. I was determined to make it happen.

How often do you usually travel as part of your research program, and for how long at a time?
It wouldn’t be unusual for me to travel to Samoa twice a year, and sometimes Mexico twice a year. I spend at least two to three months in both places.

Western societies as a whole would benefit greatly from getting over their transphobia.

What kind of information, or data, do you collect when you’re abroad?
For my research, I do a lot of interviews using questionnaires. All participants are asked basic demographic questions [about their] age, gender, sexual orientation and income, but after that, the questions can vary greatly depending on the study we are undertaking. I also do viewing time experiments [which measure the length of time a person spends looking at different images of people] to determine the patterns of participants’ sexual attractions.

Once you’re at your field site, how do you go about finding research participants?
Because I’ve worked for so many years at my sites and I spend so much time at them, I’ve got relatively large networks of participants. Each year, they lead us to new ones. Often, this involves a lot of driving around the island from village to village to meet.

[In Samoa,] data collection can occur in the capital, [Apia,] but also in many different villages across the two main islands, Upolu and the more remote Savai’i. For the studies I do, it is not unusual to interview 100 men, 100 women and 100 fa’afafine (or muxes, depending on the field site). Once we get to a village, we might have to hunt around for a while before we find the person we are looking for. We often have helpers in different villages that help us recruit participants, as well.

What are you working on right now?
We’re studying mate competition in Samoa with fa’afafine and women, and in Juchitán, Mexico, with muxes and women. I think what this research will show is that females not only have to compete intra-sexually [with other females] for mates, but inter-sexually [with third gender males] as well.

The presence of third gender males has evolutionary consequences for men and women, because through their behavior, [they] can influence mate choice and outcomes in reproduction. Women have to not only be competitive in an intra-sexual context, but also in an inter-sexual context—if they are not, they risk losing a man they like, or even a man they are in a relationship with, to a fa'afafine or muxe competitor.

When you’re in Samoa, what is a typical day like, from waking up in the morning until you go to sleep?
Coffee. Immediately, lots and lots of coffee. And then I often spend a large part of the morning writing manuscripts, reading, responding to emails. I’m in the field [collecting data] but all of the other stuff, it keeps going on in Canada and I have to keep on top of that.

The heat makes you very sluggish—it can be 90 degrees. It’s so hot and humid, you have to pace yourself with the work you do. Starting the data collection at around four o’clock, that’s a way of coping with the heat. I’ll go out with Trisha [one of his research assistants who is a fa’afafine]; sometimes I’ll go on my own. Weekends as well, we usually collect data. If I’m way on the other side of the island, it can be 11 o’clock before I get home.

We push ourselves; it’s not a vacation. I’m not lying on the beach, drinking piña coladas [laughs]. Yes, we do get days off, but oftentimes, we’ll work 30 days straight in a row, and then we’ll take a day off.

How do you adapt and navigate as a foreign person in a new culture?
It depends on the day. Some days I navigate well; some days, not so well. Living immersed in very different cultures can be challenging and I make lots of mistakes. I think one of the things I have going for me is that I’m okay not interacting with other members of my culture when I’m in the field. I always thought it was odd that people would go away only to hang out with people like them. Isn’t the whole point of going away to hang out with people that are not like you?

Mostly, I navigate by being quiet and taking my cue for how to behave by watching other people. I recognize I’m a visitor—albeit a strange one who keeps coming back for long periods of time—and I try to do my best to be respectful.

You have to be more committed to understanding the world the way it is than the way you want it to be.

How do you get research participants to trust and open up to you about their sexuality and gender identity?
People in these other cultures love talking to me about gender and sexuality because those are not topics of normal conversation. They would almost never have those conversations with members of their own culture. I’m repeatedly told that people will tell me things they would never tell another Samoan, for example. In that way, I’m really ideally positioned to do the sort of research I do. In addition, I try to communicate to people that I’m not going to judge them for what they tell me.

What can the West learn from cultures that recognize third genders?
Western society as a whole would benefit greatly from getting over their transphobia. These cultures are much more chill about third gender males [whom we would call transgender] and consequently, third gender males are more relaxed and comfortable with themselves compared to what I see in the West.

What is your biggest take-away about human sexuality, from all of the research you’ve done around the world?
I’ve been a sex researcher for more than two decades now and what strikes me the most is that sexuality is a lot more complicated than we think. Culture is important and how sexuality is expressed in non-Western settings does not necessarily mirror what is going on in the West. We still have an enormous amount to learn. It’s critical to conduct research outside of the West, so that we can better examine assumptions about the universality of human sexual nature.

Human sexuality research is by nature controversial. What advice do you have for other sex scientists, who will likely face some form of pushback during their careers?
Stay strong and remain committed to an evidence-based perspective, no matter what the evidence says. You have to be more committed to understanding the world the way it really is than understanding it the way you want it to be. At the end of the day, I find the world way more interesting and complicated and fascinating from a scientific perspective than people’s ideas for how it should be.


Debra W. Soh is a Toronto-based sex writer with a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. She has written for Harper’s, Scientific American, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her sex writing: @DrDebraSoh.