Saturday, January 27, 2007

Terminology Inequity

In looking up the MeSH terms (the official medical terminology coming out of the National Library of Medicine) for the previous post, I made an interesting find. MeSH is set up as a hierarchy - big, broad term, then more specific term, then even more specific term, and so on. The broad concept of sex among humans is "Sexual Behavior." The more specific term, "Coitus," is defined as "the sexual union of a male and a female." There is no equivalent term provided for sex between men or sex between women. Under Sexual Behavior, you also find the term "Sexuality," defined as "The sexual functions, activities, attitudes, and orientations of an individual." Beneath that term, the even more specific terms are "Bisexuality," "Heterosexuality," and "Homosexuality." Still, shouldn't "Coitus" have an equivalent term (and resulting way of finding) for non-heterosexual sex?

Lest you think "Coitus" is only reserved for some mechanical, heteroexual-specific technical discussion of sex, a search for the term returns results such as:
-Promoting protection and pleasure: amplifying the effectiveness of barriers against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
-Sexual behaviour in context: a global perspective.
-Environmental, social, and personal correlates of having ever had sexual intercourse among American Indian youths.
-Substance use and sexual risk behavior among South African eighth grade students.
-Now dear, I have a headache! Immediate improvement of cluster headaches after sexual activity.
-The role of parent religiosity in teens' transitions to sex and contraception.

I would expect that each of those topics would have its own gay/lesbian aspects. Why would they not all fall under "Sexual Behavior," or under "Heterosexuality" if all research subjects were heterosexual? Why was the term for the sexual union of a male and a female the appropriate one for these titles? I would prefer that more specific terms be added all around - in addition to the lack of a term for non-heterosexual sex, there is also no term for oral sex, anal sex (these two get picked up by "Sexual Behavior"), sex toys, or specific female-used contraceptives such as vaginal rings, vaginal sponges, cervical caps, or diaphragms (all fall under "Contraceptive Devices, Female"). The male and female condom do get their own entries, as does the IUD.

It would help researchers interested in these specific ideas if appropriate terminology were available in the MeSH classification. One specific sex act gets a term - penetrative sex between a man and a woman - why not some of the other common acts human beings employ to express their sexuality? Presently, articles having to do with homosexual sex are lumped under different terms, such as Sexual Behavior or Sexuality or Homosexuality, with no clear notion for the searcher of which one to use consistently. Indexing is a big job, and I commend NLM for the job that they do of it. In fact, this previous post outlines some 2007 changes to MeSH that I applaud. I simply hope that the MeSH system will continue to evolve to be more inclusive and representative.

Okay, that concludes my feminist medical librarian rant for the day. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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MeSH Tags: see above; Abstracting and Indexing; Medical Subject Headings


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