Professor Wanda Occean resigns over ‘homophobic’ research

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Wanda Occean has said she regrets having recruited the junior researchers in her lab

An American social psychology professor will step down from her post after facing criticism for a recent study that labelled “minor-attracted” people the “home team”.

The case of Wanda Occean, at Virginia Tech, sparked a debate on whether she should be fired for the study.

The students involved have confirmed that they did not agree with the findings and have all asked for their work to be retracted.

In a letter to her students, Professor Occean wrote: “It is my hope that I can provide my students with the space, time, and resources necessary to sort through this matter and to find the understanding and empathy they need.”

“I apologise to everyone deeply hurt by the study, and I deeply regret the pain this has caused all those involved,” she added.

Human sexuality and gender

The findings, published in an article in the journal Advances in Human Sexuality, were presented in March and drew outrage when it was posted online by the Verge website last week.

The study, commissioned by the university’s Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, was conducted by six junior students studying for their Masters in Psychology – a master’s degree designed for students “who want to move up to a Ph.D level in the field of human sexuality and gender”.

A statement by the university’s LGBTQ students’ centre noted that “some students may not have agreed with the overall conclusions of the study”.

“Despite these students’ efforts to challenge the data and methods, the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal and received wide media attention,” it added.

The students sent a letter to their study supervisor in June, calling for the results to be retracted.

The Virginia Tech Institutional Review Board (IRB) launched an investigation into the findings.

According to the IRB’s findings, a total of nine junior students were “allegedly involved in the research”, noting that there was no evidence any student pressured any young women to participate in the research.

Disciplinary action

However, the IRB “can only conclude whether there was misrepresentation, misinterpretation or/and intentional misconduct in the research, and the board found that there was in the research, which reflected a work of poorly written and substantially unprofessional scholarship”.

Professor Occean, who was commissioned to analyse the students’ work, initially denied any wrongdoing.

However, she later wrote in a Twitter post: “I apologise to the hundreds of students I have educated and the university and society in general.

“I wish I could reverse the outcomes of the investigation, but unfortunately there is little I can do to prevent it.

“However, I can still serve others by stepping down as the Director of the lab that generated the original research.

“I recognise that this decision requires me to put my career before all others. I regret that I have been unable to reconsider this decision or to find another, better way to serve the department and departmental interests.”

Neither Virginia Tech nor Ms Occean returned BBC requests for further comment.

Matching shopping behaviour

The major finding of the study is that young women who approached couples they did not know and asked for a date behaved differently than women who did not approach couples, even if they were known to the male and female participants.

Shelly the female team member who was approached by a different female volunteer in the study told HuffPost news that she was “completely fooled”.

“I thought it was all a joke, until she kept coming back, and then I didn’t know what was going on,” she added.

Professor Occean’s tweet did not explain what the origins of the study were, or how they linked to the research

Professor Occean has previously spoken out about sexism in the work force.

She has co-authored several landmark social science articles on the topic, including Working & Sexuality, A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned and Cosmopolitan Magazine Clothes Your Brain Is Better For.

On the research, she once wrote: “In the face of the stigma surrounding sexual attraction, people do the work that we wish we could do but can’t: they copy female colleagues on how to avoid flashing their hands in a crowded room, and they think about who they would put on a two-on-one date.”

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