Notes from a lesbian guinea pig

Notes from a lesbian guinea pig

Werden, Frieda

Notes From a Lesbian Guinea Pig

I saw the piece in off our backs about an expermiment being conducted at the University of Texas at Austin that claims to differentiate between lesbian and heterosexual ears. Recently, I responded to an ad for subjects in that experiment. It was in the local free weekly and offered $30 to homosexual and bisexual subjects. At the start of my appointment, I signed a release in which they stated that the experiment contained no deception, that they didn’t think it would be harmful but that they were not liable if it were, and that I could stop the experiment and withdraw at any time.

A woman student assistant (who was wearing a large gold cross) gave me a hearing test, and I was pleased to find that though I am over 50, I still have excellent hearing.

Next, she tested my auditory “evoked response.” She played a barrage of clicks through an earphone into each ear in turn, and the ear was supposed to click back. She showed me the audio wave form pattern on a computer screen and pointed to some areas where she thought probably my ears had made part of the noise. My right ear made fewer responses than my left, though she seemed to feel neither had a lot of responses.

A personal questionnaire followed. I was told if I didn’t want to answer all the questions, I didn’t have to, but that would end my participation in the experiment. Supposedly responses are confidential, with the identifier sheet dropped into one box and the response into another. The questions were mainly statements about sexuality and sexual history, to which one replied with answers from a sliding scale about how much each described oneself. I felt a lot of them were not possible to answer definitively, but came up with something for each. Typical questions were about when I had first felt “different,” had I been a tomboy, if my sexual experiences and sexual fantasies were mostly with/about males or females, who initiates sex, and if I preferred to do or be done to. They also wanted to know if I thought my lesbianism was biologically based and if it was a political decision.

The next test had only two types of questions, both considered indicators of sex-linked personality traits. The first task was to match pictures of 3-dimensional arrangements of blocks with pictures of the same arrangement from another angle. Supposedly males are better at these spatial problems than women. As I struggled with the sample question before the test started, I told the experimenter what I tell my women audio production students — “this may be unfamiliar, but all it really takes is logic and patience, and women have plenty of both.”As the test progressed, I got faster but hadn’t answered many questions when time was called. Questions in the second part of the test each showed a drawing of a vertical cylinder with a level of water in it, and asked the subject to draw a line across a larger cylinder that was at an angle on the page, showing where the water level would be on it. I used a ruler I was given, trying to get the proportions right, but probably the point was to see if the subject takes the angle on the page into account (I did — drawing the water levels slanted with respect to the cylinders). Women, I’ve heard in psychology classes, are supposedly more “field dependent” than men.

Next, a male student experimenter prepped me with electrode paste and stuck electrodes on the top of my head, the center of my forehead, and both earlobes. He talked to me pleasantly but seemed almost to be holding his breath and I wondered if he were concealing some emotion like disgust or fear (or prurience?). He wore a ball cap with the Christian fish embroidered on the front.

I was ushered to a large easy chair in a small soundproofed booth and he put a large, tight earphone into my right ear. Each ear was to be done in turn. The young man then sat at a computer console arranged so that he was facing me through the glass, but I couldn’t see the screen, and he played a recording into my ear.

A newspaper report I’d read on the experiment said it was testing a response generated by the cochlea used to amplify soft sounds, and that the experiments used “soft clicks in a quiet room.” But the long bursts of rapid clicks this guy piped into my ear quickly became uncomfortably loud, then got even louder and stayed loud. I started to feel angry — a response I always have to loud noise — and I also began having paranoid thoughts about the experimenters and getting pains in my chest. I decided it wasn’t worth risking a heart attack, nor my ears, which are my livelihood, for this experiment. I never voluntarily expose myself to noise and even usually stuff kleenex in my ears in a movie theater. I raised my hand and announced that unless they could play it softer, I wanted to stop the experiment.

The woman told me the sounds were “only about 70 db” (decibels) — which, according to one reference work, is about the noise of “an office typing room” (the book was written before pc’s replaced typewriters). However, the noise of a typing room is not generally piped directly into one’s ear with an earphone. As I told her, I usually work with audio around -20 dbs.

The two both assured me it was completely okay to stop the experiment and even gave me the $30. I expect they will throw out my data since I didn’t complete the tests — which is too bad, since their hypothesis seems to be that lesbians are relatively insensitive to loud noise.

Curiously, on the second night after the experiment, I woke up to the sound of a barrage of loud clicking coming from my right ear. It lasted maybe 10 seconds or so and then tapered away. I called the experimental office and mentioned it to a young man who answered the phone. He said, “If it happens again, call McFadden” (one of the two male professors conducting the experiment). I said it had never happened before and I didn’t expect it would happen again.

Photo (Guinea pig)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jun 1998

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