Blog post

Let’s talk about sex research(ers)

September 2, 2021
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By Simon Dubé

Masters & Johnson with patients/participants Credit: The New York Times

The days of Masters and Johnson observing strangers having sex in laboratory settings are long gone—but their quest for knowledge lives on.

Around the world, scientists scientifically explore sexology—the study of human sexuality—using various methods, both in and outside laboratory settings. There seems to be, however, some misconceptions about what goes on in studies or laboratories that examine sex and intimate relationships.

This is particularly evident when my colleagues and I get questions like: Do people have sex in your lab? Or: Is it like the TV show ‘Masters of Sex’?

Since this lack of information may prevent some people from contributing to sexological science, this piece aims to partly demystify what contemporary sex research is, who is doing it and how. Hopefully, this will help people decide whether they would like to participate in sex studies, or even, become sex researchers themselves.

Sex researchers: Who they are & where they come from

Sex researchers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The paths that have led them to study sex and intimate relationships are as varied as human experiences and career trajectories can be. Some have clinical backgrounds, others come from fundamental research. But ultimately, they are all essential to address the complexity of human eroticism.

People putting their hands in the middle in sign of unity Credit: Steps Today Changes Tomorrow

Sexology is a broad, interdisciplinary field. As such, sex researchers have diverse backgrounds that range from: psychology, sociology, anthropology, medicine, public health, and (neuro)cognitive sciences, to philosophy, history, law, social sciences, as well as women, sex, gender, feminist, queer, and black studies.

Thus, even if your institution does not have a program or department dedicated to sexology—like at the Université du Québec à Montréal, for instance—it may still be possible for you to study human intimacy and sexuality. Importantly, note that not all sex researchers work in academia. Some conduct vital research for governments, non-profits, and private companies.

So, if sexology won’t go to you, there are many ways you can come to sexology.

Two people in bed Credit: Women's health network

Sexperiments: How they are done & why

Intimacy and sexuality between humans can be risky and particularly tricky to ethically navigate in laboratories. Beyond the risks of unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted or blood-borne infections, sex researchers must consider issues related to pain, dysfunctions, interpersonal conflicts, consent, harassment, and assault. They must also take into account that people may simply not want (or be able) to have sex with one another on cue in a lab where they feel observed. Hence, contemporary sex researchers employ several alternative methods to safely study sex and intimate relationships.

These methods may include interviews, self-report questionnaires, and the use of archival or public databases. In laboratory settings, these methods may also include watching sexually explicit stimuli (e.g., pornography) or masturbating, while different instruments record participants’ responses—e.g., eye-tracker, EEG, and fMRI.

To examine participants’ genital responses, sex researchers further use vaginal and penile plethysmographs, or respectively: a tampon-shaped device that measures the amount of blood in the walls of the vagina and a pressure-sensitive device that assesses the circumference of the penis. More recently, researchers also employ genital thermography, a less invasive technique that examines sexual arousal based on the surface temperature of the genitals.

Penile plethysmograph Credit: Skeptic's Dictonary
Vaginal photopletysmograph Credit: Queen's University

For example, typical sexperiments may require participants to complete a battery of questionnaires at home—including questions about their demographics and sex life. Participants would then come to the lab and complete a series of tasks, which may include watching a pornographic video or masturbating while their eye movements, brain activity, or genital temperature are recorded.

Lab suite of the RSVP with thermographic camera Laboratory suite of the Research on Sexuality, Violence, and Personality (RSVP) Lab at McGill University with the thermographic camera. Credit: RSVP Lab

Aside from the access to sophisticated equipment and resources, the main advantage of lab studies is that researchers can better control the influence of different variables on human eroticism. The downsides, however, are that such studies are constrained by time and most of them fall short of the kind of sex or intimate relationships that people have in their everyday life—e.g., at home with a partner.

So as an alternative, sex researchers sometimes rely on methods like daily diary studies, which may require participants to monitor some aspects of their sex lives or relationships, and complete daily questionnaires from the comfort of their home. These methods are useful to examine phenomena that may only occur over longer periods of time and/or in participants’ natural environment. But their success rests upon the fact that participants closely follow instructions, and they make it difficult for scientists to control environmental factors that may influence people’s behaviors or responses.

Thus, to get a more comprehensive picture of human eroticism, sex researchers must triangulate the results obtained from different methods. And after years of accumulated findings, they may draw more accurate conclusions about human intimacy and sexuality.

How to get involved

There are several ways to get involved in sex research.

If you are a student, you can search in the staff directory of your academic institution (or those near you) and find out whether any faculty is conducting sex research. You can then contact them to inquire about research assistantships or volunteering opportunities.

In that regard, I find that sending a concise, well-written and thought-out, motivation letter/email—which also includes your CV and most recent transcript—is a good place to start.

If you are not enrolled in an academic institution, you can still contact sex researchers, but I would recommend that you also look at non-profits or other organizations that may be doing sexuality-related work. And of course, I strongly encourage you to participate in sex studies.

Your contribution is essential to the realization of research projects and the enhancement of human well-being.

So, get involved today, and see just how far sex research can take you!

Astronaut in space Credit: Pixaby

About the author

Photo of Simon Dubé

Simon Dubé is a PhD candidate in Psychology specializing in human sexuality, sextech, and Erobotics – the study of human-machine erotic interaction and co-evolution. His work also explores Space Sexology, and how we can integrate sex research into space programs. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the Université de Montréal in 2016. He is a Student Representative of the "International Academy of Sex Research" and a General Co-Chair of the "International Congress on Love & Sex with Robots". His doctoral research is funded by the "Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé".


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