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Sex research since Kinsey’s day

February 28th, 2005

Dr Petra

Kinsey made the sex survey famous, and in the movie he’s shown creating, refining and completing surveys.

He covered a variety of human sexual behaviours – issues like age at first intercourse, masturbation, sexuality, extra-marital affairs, number of sexual partners and frequency of intercourse. Kinsey’s survey was more of a semi structured interview schedule, where researchers asked participants about their sex lives, and recorded their answers.

Sex surveys today are usually more structured than the ones Kinsey used, with multi-choice answers or rating scales given to participants on questionnaires, for them to indicate their sexual preferences and activities. Participants could be asked ‘How often do you masturbate?’ with the possible answers:
‘Never, less than once a month, once a month, once a week, more than once a week, every day, more than once a day’.

Some argue questionnaires work well for sex research since participants indicate choices, and don’t have to talk about personal issues. Others suggest this method misses many sexual topics, since the researcher sets the categories for participants to answer, rather than participants telling their own ‘sexual stories’.

Nowadays epidemiological studies focus on prevalence of sexual problems or disorders – for example tracking sexually transmitted infection rates, or identifying people’s sexual dysfunctions, like how many people have trouble reaching orgasm.

Much of Kinsey’s approach depended on watching participants, and recording sexual histories. This kind of observational research is used today, like watching couples’ negotiate marital problems in a therapy setting; or a researcher observing life in a sex shop or strip club.

Kinsey was a great critical thinker, but given the era he was practising adhered to the views of ‘science’ held at the time – that all behaviour could be conceptualised, measured and tested. Yet he was also willing to address issues around sexuality and see sexuality as a continuum (more on this later in the week).

Were he alive today, Kinsey may well have been amenable to qualitative approaches, where participants define, discuss and explore their views on sex – and rather than sex being defined as absolute and ‘true’ categories, it’s seen as a series of scripts or stories, continually being rewritten and revised.

Kinsey was a keen collector of erotic art and artefacts, and modern sexology may also include collecting, analysing and creating poetry, photography, film, art, blogs, diaries or theatre. These approaches may include participants or practitioners explaining their lives, or be for entertainment, or to train health care staff. Like the UK theatre group who interview men about using sexual health services, then re-enact these stories for health care staff, to teach them more about the patient’s perspective.

Not all sex research involves talking to people. Sex-related materials from porn to historical sex records can be analysed for their content, form and message.

Things have certainly changed since Kinsey’s time. People can now share their sexual histories with researchers in person, and by text, over the phone, via email or websites. However, many of the questions Kinsey asked remain the same – and we’re just as keen to know what other people are doing, and how to understand more about our sex lives.

We’re now very lucky to have a much greater range of ways to capture this information.

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