“What did you do at work today?” he asks over beers and burgers in a dimly lit Midtown bar.
“Penis transplants,” I say. Noticing the disturbed look on his face, I backpedal. “I mean, I wrote about the ethics of penis transplants.”
He seems unsettled but relieved.
Oddly enough, this is standard date conversation for me. As a bioethicist, my job entails analyzing ethical concerns emerging from new medical procedures and research, and weighing in on medical policy. I specialize in sexual and reproductive health, and I’m often immersed in controversial medical topics such as stem-cell research, abortion and end-of-life decisions.
No matter how hard I try to avoid talking about my work, it always comes up. Countless first dates have turned into question-and-answer sessions:
“Is cryopreservation really a thing?”
“Which enhancing substances are banned in sports?”
“How can I tell if a woman has her period?”
“At what point will robots become smarter than humans?”
Frequently, the conversation devolves into my date asking specific questions — about sperm donation, in vitro fertilization or birth control — that he has always wanted to know but somehow never Googled.
These are fascinating topics, and I appreciate a guy’s desire to learn about how women’s bodies operate. However, once I’ve discussed the mechanics of menstruation in detail — while gesticulating toward my own uterine area as a visual aid — it kind of kills the mood. As it turns out, there’s nothing sexy about discussing reproduction on a first date.
Unfortunately, society still has strict expectations about what women can or should know about sex. “Down for whatever”: good. Knowledgeable about the ins and outs of assisted reproduction: bad.
Several men have made it clear that they prefer I come across as interested in sex and experienced (but not too experienced). And definitely not so well-versed in the human reproductive system that I can explain how his aunt and her wife ended up with twins with one genetically related to each mother.
It has been difficult for me to discern these men’s intentions. I thought we were on dates; they thought they were at science camp or a doctor’s office. Were they interested in me, or did they just want a subscription to Popular Science?
In addition to questions about new technologies and basic female biology, men will often save up all of their medical questions for me. No amount of me stressing, “No, I’m not that kind of doctor,” can prevent them from asking about a rash they recently acquired at the gym, or whether I thought a newly acquired mole looked cancerous.
But it’s not all uterus transplants and gym rashes — there are awkward parts, too. It can be hard for me to switch out of my analytical mind-set. I often find myself making a mental tally of potential risks and benefits of continuing to date someone. A perceptive former beau told me that he felt as though he was in a never-ending interview to fill the role of my boyfriend. He wasn’t wrong.
Much like dating, bioethics is all about weighing the risks and benefits of a potentially complicated situation. So far, no one has convinced me that the benefits outweigh the risks.