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


Science of Sex: The Women of Sexology

December 30th, 2017

Welcome to the tenth installment in a feature on Of Sex and Love: Science of Sex. In this monthly segment, I discuss the science of sexuality in an easy-to-digest format that’s accessible to the casual reader. I will also follow up with some extended reading material for people who want to know more about the subject of each post.

I try to update Science of Sex every second Saturday of the month, so check back soon.  This month’s incredibly late Science of Sex post is a departure from previous posts, but it’s one that I hope you will enjoy.

Science of Sex Women of Sexolofy

While the last few months I’ve posted about what is happening in the science of sex, I decided to depart just a bit this month and discuss the who of science and sex. Specifically, I’d like to focus on the women who researched and studied, taught, and fought for our sexuality. I do this not to minimize what efforts of men but to maximize the efforts of women who were all too often overlooked — and sometimes still are. We’ve all heard of Kinsey and Grafenberg and Bancroft and Janssen. Now, I’d like to introduce you to some lesser-known names!

Marie Bonaparte

You’ll more often hear Bonaparte listed as a French princess, which she was, but she was also a psychoanalyst and friend of Freud. After growing tired of her inability to orgasm, Bonaparte took matters into her own hands. It’s to her credit that we have the rule of thumb (albeit, this was unknown to me until earlier this year, so women’s voices still need to be promoted!). After consulting with hundreds of women, Marie suggested that the reason that so many women were anorgasmic wasn’t because of what was in their heads: it was because of what was between their legs.

The rule of thumb states that if the distance between a woman’s clitoris and vaginal opening is more than the length from the tip of thumb to the first knuckle (around 2.5cm), a woman is unlikely to achieve orgasm through intercourse because the clit won’t be stimulated.

Virginia Johnson

You’ve likely heard of Virginia Johnson’s work if you’re interested in sex research, but her name always followers her partner and husband, William Masters. Together, the pair discovered different stages of arousal, that women could achieve multiple orgasms and that flexibility of a vagina when it comes to penetration. Johnson contributed to something great, but it wasn’t perfect. Early research with Masters encouraged conversion of gays, which Johnson didn’t approve.

Johnson seems a complicated woman, and neither her professional and personal relationship with Masters is no less complex. But who knows what we would know without her?

Lisa Diamond

Lisa Diamond examined the fluidity of woman’s sexuality, which she published under the name Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Diamond’s research supports the idea that many women experience a sexual fluidity that may not be properly addressed by existing labels. Lisa Diamond also suggest that a woman’s sexuality has more variables, including menstruation, than a man’s.

April Burns

April Burns surveyed girls and young women to discover their attitudes and behavior toward sex. The result is sometimes frustrating and disappointing (a comparison between oral sex and performing a chore or taking a test was common) but always enlightening (oral sex is one way in which these girls felt empowered in their sexual encounters — perhaps the only way). Burns has also examined the relationship that young women of color have with sex.

Debby Herbenick

It wasn’t until I read Girls and Sex that I realized how many women defined good sex as sex that was simply without pain. I guess I had been fortunate.  This knowledge comes from the results of several studies that Debby Herbernick has contributed to. Of particular note is the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the most extensive sexual survey of recent years, Herbernick and her team at Indiana University released results in 2009 and 2012 that offered a look into modern bedrooms, just like Kinsey or Johnson had done decades prior.

Katherine Bement Davis

Davis was the superintendent of a woman’s prison and used her network to survey women about topics such as sexual orientation and desire. Although she isn’t often credited for her work and it took the world a while to accept the results, Davis was a proponent of both the idea that homosexuality in women wasn’t pathological and that women had sexual desires much the same as men.

Evelyn Hooker

Evelyn Hooker worked with the gay community to perform psychological evaluations in an attempt to remove the stigma of homosexuality as a mental illness or insanity. In the end, she surveyed two groups of people, one gay and one straight, and produced results that were virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Celia Mosher

Mosher was studying sex well before Kinsey, and it even earned her the moniker of the “sex scholar.” Mosher was responsible for a Victorian sex survey, the earliest of its type. Unfortunately, the results of the survey weren’t published until after her death. The results showed that women were not ready to admit that their sexual desires were nonexistent or abnormal.

Lori Brotto

More recently, Lori Brotto has studied the disconnect that women often experience between mental and physical arousal. Brotto’s research suggests that the way that women multitask and tend to be detached from their bodies contributes to this. Brotto suggests mindfulness as one possible solution. However, Brotto’s research also indicates that in the sexual moment, men and women experience fewer differences in desire than most people believe. Another myth Brotto is helping to dispel is how much testosterone affects a woman’s desire.

Sari van Anders

Van Anders has also looked into the role of testosterone and arousal, finding only an indirect link. She has researched responsive desire in women and the interplay between thoughts and desire. The van Anders lab frequently tackles topics about sex, women, feminism, gender, and diversity, going so far as to research how to perform feminist research.

Marie Stopes

Stopes not only penned the first sex manual in England, but she also opened the country’s first reproductive health clinic in 1921, she used it to gather data about contraception. Her clinic inspired others and eventually led to the Family Planning Association.  The Marie Stopes Foundation still promotes access to contraception around the world and continues research into abortion.


Emily Nagoski

Emily Nagoski has done a ton to educate the world about sexual desire, especially as experienced by women, as well as risk and sexual behavior. Hers is the book that introduced me (and many others!) to the dual-control model of sexual desire and is also responsible for me finally coming to understand my body’s stress response cycle. I’ve referenced it countless times since reading it.

Do yourself a favor, boys and girls, and read Come As You Are. Nagoski’s blog, The Dirty Normal, contains helpful entries and comics to further illustrate these concepts.

Beverly Whipple

Finally, we have a name with which many of you may already be familiar. Whipple has orchestrated over 170 studies into sexuality, the best known of which may be on the G-spot. A paper she helped write on the topic in 1981 was the first publication to use the G-spot, which she named in honor of Dr. Gränfenberg, who had earlier studied it. Her studies have also found how food affects the G-spot, “diets heavy in spicy chilies may block the naturally occurring analgesic affect of the G-spot, therefore causing childbirth to be more painful,” women who can think themselves to orgasm and those suffering from persistent genital arousal disorder.

Whipple has received many well-deserved awards and commendations for her work, which covers myriad angles of sexual response.

One of the things that I love about nearly all these women was their attention on women’s sexuality. When men wouldn’t take it seriously, women took up arms to shed light on the subject.

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are those whose work has been overlooked, is still in the process, or are simply unknown to me. I relish the thought of learning about more women researching the field of sexuality, so please leave comments with anyone who should be added to this list!

Further Reading

Several books I’ve read provided me with information for this post, and I’d like to recommend them in addition to the usual articles and studies that I post. They include Bonk by Mary Roach, Girls and Sex. I’d also recommend checking out Masters of Sex; although, I haven’t had a chance to read it.


State of the Porn Address

April 11th, 2013

A while back I came across this study of porn. I bookmarked it, and it slipped my mind until now. Jon Millward took a look at thousands of porn stars to determine things like typical bust size, name and race. The result was “Deep Inside – A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars and Their Careers.”

The six-month-long project resulted in a pretty interesting PDF and some awesome infographic. The full infographic would take so long to load that I cannot possibly consider posting it here on Of Sex and Love, but Millward did take time to create a smaller infographic about the race results of his research. Surprise! Most porn stars are white. Very few are Asian or the infamous “other.”



TeeThere were plenty of surprises, though. While you and I might think of the typical porn actress as a busty blonde, she’s actually a B-cup brunette whose name is probably Nikki. In fact, blondes represent about one third of the total porn star population, which seems a little like a stretch if you only exposure to adult entertainment is Hef and his crew. Nevertheless, many of those blondes are what we’d call “bottled.” In a recent post, I did talk about how Playmates are becoming both thinner and bustier. Millward’s research into porn stars indicates that the same thing is true here, and he even created a funny little graph that mimics the shapes of boobs and butts to prove his point.

Apparently, I was born just an hour too far to the north to make it big as a midwest porn actress. I’m probably cool with that.

The survey goes on to discuss the type of activities that most porn stars do. Facial and anal are almost a given, even if the same isn’t true in private bedrooms. Interracial scenes, which I feel shouldn’t even be labeled or novelized as such, are also done by 52% of women. I suspect the other 48% are missing out. Only a third of women swallow and half of them are able to squirt — but I wonder if it’ real?!

If you keep reading the infographic, you’ll see information about the most popular roles women play in porn:

  1. Teen
  2. MILF
  3. Wife
  4. Cheerleader
  5. Nurse
  6. Daughter

Can we say “Yawn” to most of those?

Jon Millward attempts to squash the commonly-accepted myth that most female performers only do a single video, too. It’s true that somewhere between 10% and 30% of women  quit the biz after making a single film, but there’s obviously some who have stuck it out to stick in time and time again. Still, the average career is becoming much shorter. In the 2000s, men spend just four years making porn.

Nina Hartley, who does sex education now, has almost 1,000 films under her belt with about 200 different partners. Hartley’s male counterpart has a list over over 1,100 partners, though. This illustrates the chasm between the sexes, which I can’t help but wonder about. Is it because women are and can be choosier? Is it sexism in the industry?

Men have sex with an average of 45 women per year on film while women have 8 partners annually. The majority of the most “prolific” entertainers are men, and while they might have many more partners, Millward discusses how it’s more difficult for a man to break onto the scene. I find this true in an anecdotal sense. I mean, I know the names are far more female performers. I’m aware of many males, but I generally don’t give a fuck about them — pardon the pun.

There’s more insights and visuals over on Millward’s blog, and I’m sure he’d love some comments on Twitter. I just found this too interesting to pass up talking about, even if I have little to add myself.

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