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How to run a sex study

February 27th, 2005

Dr Petra

The film ‘Kinsey’, about the life of the famous sex researcher Alfred C Kinsey, opens in the UK this Friday. To mark the event, each day this week I’ll give you the low down on contemporary sex research, including how we study sex, why sex research is necessary, barriers to sex research, and what it’s like to be a sex researcher.

Because most of us have sex, it’s often assumed that running a sex study is simple to do, but a kosher sex study takes a great deal of planning, training and forethought.

The majority of sex research is completed within the social or health sciences, with work also being completed within biology, neurology, pharmacology, or evaluating therapies. Kinsey’s work fell firmly within the social/ health sciences arena, and much of the film focuses on the process of completing sex studies.

So how do we do sex research?

Identify an idea
Ideas come from becoming aware of a problem, issue, or evidence gap – e.g. the rise in sexually transmitted infections in young people.

Review the evidence
By studying literature from peer reviewed academic journals (something like the British Medical Journal or The Lancet), and books, records, or reports. The researcher will also liase with colleagues, and see if there are existing tools (such as surveys or interview schedules) that can be adapted for this new study.

Get specific
For quantitative research, this involves setting a question or hypothesis to be tested – e.g. testing teenagers knowledge of sexually transmitted infections.

For qualitative approaches, an overall aim of study may be established or this may be allowed to develop during the course of the study – e.g. groups of teenagers talk about their thoughts on sexually transmitted infections.

No one method is superior. A good researcher will match the most appropriate method to suit their participant’s needs and research question. More on this tomorrow.

Find funding
Obtaining funding for sex research may be far difficult to obtain in more conservative or less affluent nations.

Be ethically approved
No social or health research – including that on sex related topics – can proceed in the UK without full ethical and governance approval. This means applying to a research ethics committee – a group of experts who check the study idea to ensure any participant who takes part in the research won’t be upset or harmed by it. In our example, the ethics committee would look at the study design, check the teenagers wouldn’t be embarrassed or upset, and supported during and after the research – and that anyone working with the teenagers is up to the task.

Pilot the research
To test the quality and feasibility of the study. In our example, piloting may reveal teenage boys seem less interested in the study than girls. But checking with teens might show boys felt embarrassed talking to a female researcher in a mixed sex group – so for the main study teenage boys could be offered the chance to talk to a male researcher in an all boy group.

Recruit participants
For example, teenagers can be identified and invited to take part in the study on sexual health, usually once their parents have given permission for them to be in the study. Any researchers working with teens will also need to be police checked.

Sort out the data
As participants are completing the research, the researcher will be entering data or transcribing interviews, checking it’s been recorded correctly, amending any errors, and completing analysis.

Write up findings
This could be for an internal report or document, or a paper that will be sent to an academic journal for peer review. If such a journal accepts and publishes the research, its results can be used to inform policy, and by other researchers working on future projects.

So for our example, the teenagers and sexually transmitted infections study could show they weren’t aware of basic sexual health messages, or perhaps were knowledgeable about safer sex, but not confident about accessing sexual health services, or maybe know they should use condoms, but don’t know how to negotiate this with a partner.

Why go to all this effort?
Sex researchers need to study as representative a group of participants as possible, and check they’re okay to tell you intimate things about their lives. Given that sex research often influences policy and practice, it’s vital that all stages of the research are completed as carefully as possible, to convey participant’s views, feelings and experiences accurately.

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