What could be more exciting? People are frequently titillated by the notion of someone conducting research on human sexuality. Because the topic is taboo, and sexual activity is exciting, people often assume that sex research must involve many interesting tasks. Sexuality is deeply private, so most research involves asking people about their sexuality. Researchers typically try to provide a setting in which the respondents are most comfortable—usually by gathering information through anonymous surveys.
In the end, sex research often involves handing out and gathering printed survey forms. After analyzing and tabulating the responses, the result is a set of numbers and graphs, but hardly anything that resembles sexually stimulating material except, perhaps, to some mathematicians. Although the process of conducting most sex research may not be partic- ularly exciting, people are generally interested in the results of the research.
So how do we know how we, as individuals, stack up against the rest of society? Even though Western culture often seems saturated with sexual images and references to sex, there is surprisingly little serious discussion or presentation of facts. This is where sexuality research comes in, and this is probably why most people are interested in its results. Sex research holds the promise of providing objective information about what other people do and think and feel sexually.
As members of Western culture, we most likely encounter with interest reports of sexuality research. So, better understanding the process of sex re- search, and the various pitfalls along the way, will help us become more savvy consumers of sex research results.
Indeed, some sex research is supported by grant money, so that the researchers can focus most of their attention on the study. Most sex research, however, is conducted by faculty members at colleges and universities. These professors typically teach psy- chology, sociology, or anthropology, although some are professors of com- munication, biology, social work, medicine, nursing, or public health. For these faculty members, sex research is a small part of what they do on a day-to- day basis.
They teach, advise students, attend committee meetings, and have families and social lives. This helps to explain why any particular study may take several months or years to complete.
Why do professors study sexuality? Of course that does not explain why some pro- fessors choose sexuality research whereas their colleagues do not. Because professors are more or less free to choose the broad areas in which they conduct their research, it would not be the case that some sex researcher was pressured into studying sexuality.
Being pressured not to study sexuality would be much more likely. So why do it? People often assume that if someone studies a particular sexuality topic, it must be because the person experiences a personal problem or obsession with that topic. So, if someone studies the effects of childhood sexual abuse, it must be that the researcher was sexually abused as a child or, worse, is a child abuser. If a researcher investigates pornography, it must be that he or she is personally Sexuality Today2 drawn to the use of pornography.
There are no data on the subject, so it remains speculation as to why researchers choose the research topics they do. Indeed, sometimes it does seem to result from personal experiences, but many times, research topics are simply those that the professional was exposed to in graduate school, or through colleagues, or those that were being funded by grants.
Unfortunately, assumptions about the personal motives of sex researchers often result in sexuality research being stigmatized compared to most other research topics in the social and behavioral sciences.
Sex researchers have been known to study nonsexual topics early in their careers, until they have achieved a degree of respectability and tenure , so that embarking on the study of sex- uality does not jeopardize their livelihood.
For example, the sex research pio- neer William Masters became well respected for his research and clinical work on infertility before deciding he could afford to study sexual behavior. The less socially desirable the topic, the more the research on that topic seems to be stigmatizing for the researcher who seeks to better understand it.
If sex researchers are frequently stigmatized for their choice of research topic, what about people who choose to participate in sex research? Because sexuality is a private topic, who is most likely to volunteer to participate in sex research? What is in it for them? Since most sex researchers are faculty members in colleges and universities, it is not surprising that many of the results of sex research are based on college student respondents Dunne, Perhaps due to stigma, most sex research is not funded by grants, so researchers do not have money to offer as compensation for the time it takes students to participate in the research.
Some faculty re- searchers offer extra credit in their courses for students who participate in re- search, and some colleges and universities require students in introductory psychology courses to participate in a certain number of research studies as part of the course. Sometimes, research participants are recruited with no obvious incentive or payoff. Why is it important to consider who participates in sex research?
If the research results are used to imply something about people in general, it is important to consider how well the research sample matches the population in general.
College students tend to represent a fairly narrow slice of the popula- tion: With regard to sexuality, college students have not had very many years to have had sexual and relationship experience, and they may be more open minded compared to people who never attended college. So, Sex Research 3 when we learn that a study based on college students revealed certain trends, we should ask whether it is likely that those same results would have occurred among research participants from the general public.
Even though college students represent a fairly unique sample compared to the general public, only certain types of college students are usually studied: How might these stu- dents differ from those who choose not to take such courses?
Students interested in social and behavioral sciences may be more open-minded and introspective compared to students uninterested in those courses. What about the social science students who then decide to participate in sex research? Research comparing students who participate in sex research to those who choose not to has revealed some consistent dif- ferences: Even when sex researchers target the general population, not everyone chosen agrees to participate.
Even in the most conscientiously conducted studies, perhaps only 70 percent of those contacted end up participating. How might those 30 percent who do not participate differ from the 70 percent who do?
Compared to participants, nonparticipants tend to be older, more con- servative in their attitudes and values, and more likely to be female. What we have been discussing in this section is the extent to which any particular sample is representative of the population the researcher is trying to understand.
The ideal is for the sample to be perfectly representative, meaning, the sample perfectly matches the characteristics of the population. In reality this never occurs, mainly because people cannot be forced to participate in research. So, those who choose to do so will probably always differ in some ways from people who choose not to—and this is especially the case when the topic is sexuality. Some people are simply more open to sharing with researchers details of their sexual attitudes and experiences than are others.
These people tend to have more open and liberal attitudes about sex. Perhaps the least representative of samples occurs when participants themselves have to initiate participation.
For example, if a magazine publishes a questionnaire, asking readers to complete it and mail it to the magazine, or asks them to go to a Web site and complete a questionnaire, who is most likely to do so? Participation here requires some effort on the part of respondents, and there is no obvious incentive to participate. If the topic is extramarital sex, we can imagine that those readers who have had some expe- Sexuality Today4 rience with it will be the ones most likely to respond to the survey.
After all, if a reader does not have any experience with extramarital sex, the reader is liable to assume the survey does not even apply. In the end, savvy consumers of sexuality research need to ask how research participants were recruited. The ultimate question is the extent to which the sample is representative of the population.
These issues are separate from another important set of issues having to do with how variables are measured. Researchers cannot study various aspects of sexuality directly. Instead, each aspect of interest has to be measured. This may seem like a straightfor- ward matter, but measurements are always less than perfect, and sometimes quite a bit so. Depending on the variable the researcher wants to study, the primary choices are observation Moore, , physiological measurement Janssen, , and verbal reports Wiederman, Because sexual activity is private, there is little that can be observed directly.
When it comes to actual sexual activity, however, few researchers have chosen the observational route. One notable exception was the pioneering research performed by Mas- ters and Johnson , Masters and Johnson were pioneers for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they observed people actually engaged in sexual activity.
These re- searchers recruited singles and couples to come into the laboratory and be observed, videotaped, and their physiological reactions measured. Masters and Johnson used their data to construct a model of how the typical person responds physically during sexual activity. We can imagine how the volunteers for such intrusive research might differ from people who would never consent to engaging in sexual activity under laboratory conditions.
Some sex researchers continue to use physiological measures in their re- search Janssen, They may measure general physiological arousal blood pressure, respiration, heart rate or degree of genital arousal in response to certain stimuli such as photos of nude children compared to nude adults.
The measure of penile arousal involves a band placed around the base of the penis. As the penis becomes erect the band is stretched, thus registering the degree of erection. The measure of vaginal arousal involves a plastic device that looks similar to a tampon and is inserted the same way.
Sex Research 5 One important limitation of these measures of genital arousal is that they indicate a relative degree of arousal, but not an absolute level. So the researcher can determine how sexually aroused each participant is relative to his or her nonaroused state.
Another limitation is that there are only certain situations in which researchers are interested in the degree to which people become sexually aroused in response to certain stimuli. In most cases, researchers are interested in sexual experiences and attitudes, and those require self-report measures.
Self-report measures are the primary tools of sex researchers, and they include paper-and-pencil surveys, diaries, and interviews. Let us start with the issue of insight. With sexual attitudes, researchers typically assume that respondents have good insight into how they feel and what they believe. That may be true, but even if it is, there is probably variation across respondents in terms of how much insight each respondent has into his or her own attitudes.
Who is most likely to accurately remember his or her experience? Probably those individuals with very little experience will be able to remember most clearly, whereas those with the most experience will have to rely on estimation to come up with an answer.
Perhaps, in reality, the re- spondent typically has sex once per week, but lately the frequency has been higher, leading the respondent to overestimate the frequency for the entire year. Of course the same thing could happen in the other direction, resulting in an underestimate for the year. The average sounds very precise, but it is important to remember that most of the individual self-reports that went into it were estimates or guesses and hence round numbers.
Given that human memory is imperfect, even when respondents are completely honest and open, self-reports may not be accurate Tourangeau et al.