Nov 062011

I’m dedicating this post to my brilliant and amazing (and patient and tolerant) dissertation co-chairs, who are co-authors on this:

Risk, Individual Differences, and Environment: An Agent-Based
Modeling Approach to Sexual Risk-Taking
. (Also known as: Emily is a big giant nerd.)

(EDIT: Download the PDF here.)

(This is official as of today!)

I defended my dissertation in August of 2006, having spent the prior 18-24 months preparing it. It took 5 years to get it published.

Part of why it took so long is that I lose at least 3 months out of each year to seasonal mood issues that seriously disrupt my ability to work – like this, for example. And also I left the state, so we had to collaborate from a distance, which is surprisingly difficult. And then there’s the fact that I have a more-than-full-time job, and blah-dee-blah.

And then there’s the fact that no one had any idea what to do with it, because it’s an agent-based model, and no one has ever used ABM in sex research before.

It really is new stuff. People have no idea how to feel about it. It was a struggle to write the paper in a way that made it clear to people who have never even heard of computer modeling why anyone would bother.

I believe in agent-based modeling as an approach to public health research in general and sexual health research in particular, because it has the power to model immensely complex and heterogeneous populations.

What is ABM? It’s like a computer game. It’s a little virtual world full of critters. You give the critters rules to live by and an environment in which to live, and then you watch what happens. You can also add in generational factors that allow for evolution of strategies.

Whenever we have an HIV vaccine (or cure), ABM can provide dissemination models that take into account not only basic infrastructure like roads and electricity, but also sociocultural factors like stigma and vaccine resistance.

To study the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, which is tremendously difficult because our sexual cultures leave no fossil record so no one REALLY KNOWS what the hell our early ancestors did with and about sex, we can try multiple models bared on various hypotheses and essentially reverse engineer the origins of human sexuality.

To study the development of childhood sexuality, something that hugely complex due to human subjects/informed consent issues, we can model behaviors and developmental phases that it might be unethical to observe or induce in real life.

And so much more. I really believe ABM is a powerful tool. In particular I think it’s important because it allows us to witness influence ACROSS LEVELS OF ANALYSIS. It can show us how individual-level rules and behaviors can give rise to various patterns at the population level, and vice versa. Which is what my paper did.

My own model was almost painfully simple. Little heterosexual critters (goils and bois) in a landscape-free environment given sex-specific but heterogeneous sexual motivation profiles (SMP) and told to go mate! Then I dropped an HIV-like disease in the system and watched how the infection spread through the system. The independent variable was the rpopulation-level distribution of different SMPs.

In some trials, there were loads of agents with high-risk profiles, and in others there were loads of low-risk profiles, and in others there was a normal distribution of risk profiles (which is what real life is like).

The hypotheses were : (1) that we could make a model that behaved like real life and (2) the movement of the infection through the population would vary depending on the distribution of SMPs in the population.

It worked.

Even my committee was surprised.

Anyway, I’m terribly proud of my little goils and bois, and I’m dissolving with gratitude to the best committee anyone ever had.

Emily Nagoski

  23 Responses to “my goils and bois.”

Comments (22) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Sounds fascinating. I’m excited to read the paper tonight!

  2. Congratulations on the publication, Emily!!

  3. So when can I get an autographed hardcopy of this?

    • Wait, it’s $35 to read the pdf? I guess it’s back to stolen issues of Penthouse for my sex ed.

      • Jesus is it really $35?! Email me and I can send you a copy.

        Or wait! I’ve got this cool new plan that I’ll be doing later this week, but why not start now? I got a PO Box so people can send me stamped, self-addressed envelopes and I’ll send them 4″ round sticker that say “This is what sexy looks like” (per

        So what the hell, if you really want a hardcopy of the paper, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:

        Emily Nagoski
        PO Box 1526
        Northampton MA 01061-1526

        Anybody who wants one! If I get the stickers in time, I put some of those in too! :o)

  4. Where can I get one of those gadgets to try to tweak my PUA-game? Facebook should really get that as an app! I’m surprised none of the current PUA gurus offer it, but I’ll post this on my mailing list.

  5. congratulations! This sounds so cool. I love that you broke all the rules with the ABM … so intriguing :)


  6. For those of us on the other side of the world – could we have a PDF or somesuch of “this is what sexy looks like” so we can print it on our own stickies?

  7. Congratulations, Emily!

  8. How much should we send for postage? I tend to underestimate, although you can send it media mail, right?

  9. oh, and congrats! buh! I was so excited for you I forgot ; )

  10. Can we also get the po box address please? Cause I so want one of those stickers.

  11. Nice work, Emily! I know how deeply satisfying it is to see something that took over that much of one’s life see the light of day :)

    If you have a Dropbox, you can put the article in the public folder and link to it; if you don’t, I can invite you or host the article. I’ve done this with all my papers, now, I’m sick of them not being easily available.

  12. Congratulations!!!!!!!! You must feel amazing. Yay for science and science about sex!

  13. Congratulations! Your approach to this question is BRILLIANT!

  14. I’d love to read it, but not sure how to go about sending an SASE from Canada… :)

  15. Hi! Computer Science nerd here. This is awesome. Is there any material available on the technical aspects of the project or code available for reading?

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