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“I want to be in a sex study!”

March 7th, 2007

Dr Petra

Over the past few months I’ve had lots of emails from people volunteering for sex research. Most have been interested in contributing to our understanding of sex, some have been less sure about what sex research is all about but wanted to volunteer anyway, and a minority just seemed to want sex and thought joining in a study was a good way to get some.

Some of the questions indicate some of the misunderstandings people have about sex research, so here’s a guide to what won’t happen in a sex study:

- The researcher (or anyone related to the research) will not have sex with you (including masturbation).
- You will not be assigned a sex worker/prostitute.
- Researchers are unable to enter into personal correspondence with you after the research has finished.
- Sex researchers are unable to offer advice or clinical referrals outside of the research setting.
- Researchers are ethically prevented from having romantic or sexual relationships with people they encounter in research.
- If you are filmed within a sex study it will not be made into a porn movie.
- Research is not therapy so although you may be asked to talk about problems this is not a replacement for sex education or therapy (see links at the end of this blog for more support on this issue).
- Whilst some research may take place within your home, most sex research is based in another location (e.g. a college, laboratory or doctor’s surgery).
- Sex researchers will remain clothed throughout a study.

Whilst some studies may require a genital examination or you providing a blood or urine sample, the majority of sex research is ‘hands off’. You are most likely to be asked to keep a diary, answer a questionnaire, complete an online interview or talk to someone about your sexual behaviours and experiences. In a minority of cases you may consent to masturbation in a laboratory setting or sex in a lab setting with a partner. These studies are very unusual and would be clearly explained to you before you volunteer for them. In any research you will need to fully consent to it before you begin and are allowed to change your mind about participating at any time without having to give the researcher a reason.

The questions I’ve been sent by people about sex research does raise some interesting issues about how we work. Obviously the ‘hands off’ approach is taken to protect the public, avoid exploitation, and for practical reasons (it’s much quicker and less costly to get people to fill out questionnaires than it is to get someone into the lab and monitor their arousal in response to a porn film). Since sex research is taken less seriously than other science subjects academics also want to be seen to be ‘proper scientists’ and so they will opt for less invasive (and cheaper) study methods. That said, it’s interesting that this is one area of science where researchers are less likely to directly observe or participate. Wider debates need to be had on how we can ethically study sexual activity in appropriate ways without being seen as ‘non scientific’ and ensuring exploitative individuals do not harm participants.

The other issue with sex research is often it is focusing on negative issues such as teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, termination of pregnancy, sexual abuse and sexual problems. This means participants who have positive sex lives may be less likely to be researched.

And just wanting to be in a sex study isn’t really enough to qualify. As with any research you need to fit the bill. Just as someone volunteering for a study on new motherhood, cancer, or bullying would have to have direct experience of those issues to be eligible for research, in sex research you also need to suit the study. So being interested in sex or wanting someone to watch you (and possibly a partner) having sex isn’t usually going to be what researchers are looking for. They’re often after a particular type of person with a specific experience of sex, rather than just someone who’s into sex. The main reason for this is people who’re very eager to be watched and measured having sex are probably not representative of the wider population – and also aren’t going to be so enthusiastic when they’re handed a questionnaire to fill in rather than getting it on in front of a doctor.

However, the last thing we want to do is put people off being part of a sex study since sex research is as valid as any topic and frequently we find it difficult to get the right participants to join in. Whilst we need to discourage those who’re only hoping for therapy or a sexual encounter from research we also need to reassure those who are currently put off joining such research for fear of being probed, prodded and filmed in compromising positions. Remember most sex research is not physically intimate and you only have to join in any study if you feel comfortable with it.

If you do want to participate in sex research then it’s worth being aware of where studies are taking place. Some sex research is advertised online (although check it out carefully first as it can often be a con); ensure it is being run via a reputable agency (e.g. hospital or university) before you sign up. The Kinsey Institute does advertise when it is looking for potential participants. In other cases you may find that your local doctor’s surgery, community centre or youth group has flyers advertising research or researchers may be recruiting participants there. Sex-related websites also advertise research (although again be careful as often these are not reputable studies). If in doubt about research ask somewhere like the Kinsey Institute or an academic sex researcher if they think it’s kosher.

You may also find the following useful as it explains what happens in sex research more clearly:

What happens in a sex study? Tells you what to expect from sex research.
Why sex research is important
Outlines the reasons why we need to study sex. What do sex researchers do? Answers some of the commonly asked questions of people who do sex research.
Questions for parents to ask about sex research We sometimes need to study teenagers about sex and relationships, this guide provides information for parents concerned about such research.

If you were interested in sex research because you wanted help for a sexual problem or more sex education these sites may be of use:

Sexual Dysfunction Association (advice on sex problems)
Go Ask Alice!
(health, sex and relationship advice)
Condom Essential Wear (information on safer sex and condoms)
Planned Parenthood (advice on sexual health and contraception)
Family Planning Association (sexual and reproductive health information)
Brook (sex advice for the under 25s)
Childline (confidential support for children and young people on sexual abuse and bullying)
Resources for adult abuse survivors’

Survivors UK (support and advice for male rape survivors)
Rape Crisis
(support and advice for female rape survivors)
Refuge (information, support and referrals for those experiencing domestic violence).

Hopefully this has explained a little more clearly what will (and won’t) happen in a sex study and will help you make a more informed decision about such research if you’re asked to be involved.

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