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Ellen Laan

Who: Ellen Laan (1962)
What: Professor of Biopsychosocial Determinants of Sexual Health (popularly known as Professor of Sexology)
Studies: Psychology
First job: Peeling bulbs in a bulb shed 
Favourite place at the UvA: My office at the AMC
Essential: Compassion and empathy

Ellen Laan (1962) is a Professor of Biopsychosocial Determinants of Sexual Health (popularly known as Professor of Sexology). She was the first member of her family to attend university. Although she initially chose Dutch Studies, Ellen never became a Dutch teacher. Instead, she developed an unexpected fascination with psychology and decided to switch degree programmes. She and a fellow student became the first to conduct research into a sexology-related topic, and like that, she was hooked. Her career trajectory has been what you might call unique. She was appointed a professor at the UvA in 2016, and in 2017, she became head of the Sexology department at the Amsterdam UMC.

What is it about psychology that you find so fascinating?

‘As a Dutch Studies student, I learned that it's okay to talk about all kinds of things – things I never would have been able to discuss as a child. In the northern tip of North Holland, where I grew up, the shared motto was: just act normal, that's crazy enough as is. The idea that you might experience complex emotions and be able to talk to other people about it – the clinical aspect of the psychology field, in fact – that was a foreign concept to me. I wasn't quite sure what psychologists did, but I did know that I felt all kinds of complicated emotions myself. Now, I think that people are happier and more tolerant when they have better psychological health habits. Sometimes that's how it goes. You bump into something, and it grabs a hold of you and never lets go.’

And so you decided to specialise in sexology, of all things. Did that surprise you?

‘Yes. I never expected to be bitten by the sexology bug, as it were. In the last year of the programme, we wrote what is now called a Master's thesis. Together with my classmate Gerdy van Bellen, I went to see the new professor, Walter Everaerd, who was teaching the very first Sexology course at the UvA. We found it intriguing, and so we became the first students to conduct research aimed at a sexology-related topic. It was a psycho-physiological study of the relationship between feelings of sexual arousal and the genital response in women. That connection is much weaker in women than in men. My hypothesis was that the mainstream pornography available at that time – and which still dominates the market today – is lopsided in that it is overly focused on the man's pleasure to the exclusion of the woman's. While such films do elicit a genital response in women, they don't necessarily enjoy watching them and may not identify personally with the typical porn scenario. This has a negative impact on their sexual experience. The most important finding of these studies was that, to a certain extent, the genital response is automatic and therefore involuntary – even in a negative context. This bodily response is therefore not indicative of what a person truly wants, contrary to what many people still think. We now know that this type of genital response also occurs in life-threatening or dangerous situations, such as in cases of rape. In this way, the knowledge gained through my research can help victims process experiences involving sexual violence. These days, people who have a genital response to abuse or violence are told that such a response does not mean what happened to them was not a violation, nor does it mean they are in any way responsible for what happened. That paper we wrote was the thing that truly got me interested in science.’

People who think of sexual dysfunctions as a luxury problem are way off base.
The UvA is a symbol of freedom.

You are a serious advocate for greater equality in terms of sexual pleasure. Is that really necessary?

‘It is absolutely necessary. More and more often, my research, clinical practice and teaching activities are intersecting with one another in a form of activism. I am now focusing on reaching the general public with the message that, when it comes to sex, men and women are more alike than different, and that greater equality in sexual pleasure would benefit the sexual well-being of both women and men. I find it unacceptable that around 10% of women experience pain every time they have sexual intercourse, that women who have sex with men experience orgasm much less frequently than their male partners, and that so many women experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. I think the notion that there are major sexual differences between men and women serves to perpetuate these problems. People who think of sexual dysfunctions as a luxury problem are way off base. Sexual problems cause an incredible amount of suffering, and much of that unhappiness stems from fundamental misunderstandings about what sexuality is and how it works. Sexual educators are therefore an important target group for me as well: you can prevent a great deal of misery by providing people with the right information. A vast amount of the information available online is not only incorrect but serves to further the idea that sex is something you have to do in a certain way. As sexologists, a big part of our work consists of refuting incorrect assumptions.’

The UvA is characterised by drive and determination.

To your mind, what makes the UvA special?

‘The UvA is a symbol of freedom. Here, I was challenged to develop as a person, both intellectually and emotionally. I liked it at the UvA, and so I never left. The UvA is characterised by drive and determination as well. The UvA buildings are gorgeous and Roeterseiland has undergone an admirable transformation. There are some older buildings remaining on the premises, and these have been nicely integrated into the campus as a whole. It's impressive that such a mega-project was carried out while people were able to keep working and attending class here. I occasionally lecture in the very same hall where I often came to learn during my own Psychology programme. In the midst of so many changes, that room has stayed the same.’