Science of Sex: How Sex Research Is Done

March 31st, 2018

A few months ago, I took a look at some of the awesome women who are researching (and writing about sex). Now, I want to touch on just how that research is done. Someone somewhere is taking the time to study people in a lab as they watch porn or have sex or to hand out questionnaires to anyone who is willing to check a few boxes (or click a few links).

Thus, this week's Science of Sex post is all about how that research is performed.

Remember, if you like this post, I update Science of Sex every second-ish Saturday of the month!

In the beginning, there was Kinsey, who was asking people ostensibly invasive questions about their sex lives. Kinsey was not the first to do so, but he was among the first to really attract attention for his work. Kinsey didn't just interview subjects, however. Kinsey had filmed homosexual prostitutes ejaculating in the attic of his own home for one study. He also invited 30 couples into his home to masturbated and have sex while being recorded. Kinsey has since been described as a voyeur and even some of his contemporaries were wary of the way he went about his studies and whether his interest was purely scientific. It's difficult to imagine such impropriety when it comes to modern sex research. But there was no example for Kinsey to follow in the 1940s. He was making up — and breaking — the rules as he went along.

Surveying and interviewing continues to be a popular mode of sex research. The Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana Bloomington still uses it. The 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior also utilized random dialing and physical mailers to connect with possible respondents while a more recent survey by the university has been posted online.  

The Internet presents an opportunity to easily collect information en masse and with identity protection (when that's desired). It's a hell of a lot easier to reach thousands or millions of people by posting surveys online rather than a physical bulletin board. You can find a list of surveys and studies that you might be eligible to participate in on Dr. Lehmiller's site. I've shared similar links with my readers, positive that
y'all would be as excited to be part of history as I am.

One of the downfalls of self-reporting (whether it's done in person or over the Internet) is whether a respondent is being honest, both to themselves and to the survey. Furthermore, the way that questions are worded can leave a lot of room for ambiguity. Surveys presented by reputable institutions — I'm looking at you Bloomington — are often quite thoughtful in this regard. I imagine that the more ambiguity, the more likely some survey responses will have to be thrown out.

Despite the pitfalls of relying on someone's self-reporting, it's important to understand how a person feels, especially when it comes to arousal. Thanks to studies that have compared women's' reported arousal to their physical arousal, we have a much better understanding of the arousal discordance that is more commonly found in women than with men.

Researchers will connect subjects to devices that measure

  • pupil dilation, which can be an indication of arousal
  • heart rate can be measured with an electrocardiograph (EKG) like Masters and Johnson used
  • erection via penile strain gauges that measure the circumference of the shaft
  • vaginal pulse with the help of a probe known as a vaginal photoplethysmograph 
  • genital thermometers
  • brain activity with the aid of fMRIs that scan for real-time changes or an electroencephalograph (EEG) that measures electricity
  • skin conductance, which occurs when patients sweat during arousal and stimulation. Electrodes are the old standby for this method
  • penis volume through the use of a cuff filled with air (or water) that would become displaced as a subject became erect
  • penile rigidity with a device that attaches to the base of the shaft and just below the head of the penis

Often, researchers hook up patients to these devices and show them sexually explicit images or videos. Yes, buying porn might be on the docket if you're a sex researcher. Patients might be advised to masturbate or engage in sexual activity with a partner.

Sometimes, if you want to know more about sex, you just have to do it yourself. That's what author Mary Roach did when she was writing "Bonk." She volunteered herself — and her husband Ed — as subjects of a 4D ultrasound. The author and her husband engaged in sex while a researcher passed an ultrasound wand over their bodies, briefly resting his arm against her Ed's body. The pair would hold still momentarily to achieve still images, and the scientist instructed Ed to ejaculate.

Mary Roach and her husband may be lucky — or unlucky if you prefer — to be alive. Researchers have used cadavers for some studies, especially those regarding the G-spot. 

Several of these cadaver studies have been critiqued for being too small a sample size. That argument has also been made against other sex studies, which may only involve a handful of subjects. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior is among the largest ever, recording responses from nearly 6,000 people. 

Few of these studies have been replicated, so it's important to remember that the results give us a glimpse but not the whole picture.

One interesting factor is how the language used in these studies has changed. Whereas it once was more clinical and heteronormative, language has become depathologized. It's more common to see "man" or "woman" in place of "male" or "female." The same goes for sexual orientations and subjects. Interestingly, the concept of consent is more frequently referenced in modern sex research. Mentions of HIV is on the rise (and AIDS decreasing), as it the term MSM, which stands for men who have sex with men.

Further Reading


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