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So…..are you a sexpert?

October 30th, 2009

Dr Petra

Without further ado, let’s find out the answers to the questions I posed as part of the Science Late evening of sex event on Wednesday. How did you score?

1. What are the most common methods sex researchers use to study sex?

a. By looking – watching people have sex in a laboratory or on film
b. By measuring – assessing sexual behaviour via brain scanning, blood tests or heat sensors
c. By listening – recording answers from surveys or interviews
d. By participating – having sex with the people they are studying
e. Not sure

Correct answer = C

The most commonly used methods in contemporary sex research globally are surveys or interviews/focus groups. Brain scans, heat sensors or blood tests can be used, as can observational studies (where people have sex within laboratory settings). However, these latter two methods are used less as they’re often more difficult to recruit representative participants for studies. With the internet the opportunity for people to film their sexual activities and share those with researchers, and methods where participants film or document their own lives may become increasingly popular in the future. One thing we don’t do, but which people often assume happens, is have sex with the people we’re studying and then write about it. This would be considered unprofessional and unethical in research nowadays, and would focus the study on the researcher rather than a wide range of participants.

Want to find out more?

Check out the Kinsey Institute and the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology who provide information about sex research being undertaken and provide answers to your frequently asked questions about sexual behaviour.

You might also find these guides helpful too:
Want to be in a sex study? Tells you about how sex research is conducted and how you can get involved

Sex research since Kinsey’s day
– explains the different methodological approaches that can be used to study human sexual behaviour.

What’s it like to be a sex researcher?
answers the frequently asked questions I’ve received about studying sex.

How to run a sex study
outlines the steps you’d undertake to carry out a scientific study.

2. How often does the average UK couple have sex per week?

a. 7-10 times
b. 4-7 times
c. Once a week or less
d. Not sure

Correct answer = C

Robust and reliable research indicates that younger people do have more sexual encounters annually than older people. You can see links to research where frequency has been addressed here. The UK Natsal study found the average for heterosexual sexual activity per month was around 6 times. If you account for sexual behaviour over a wide range of ages the average is once a week or less. However, reputable sex research focuses more on quality rather than quantity. We would usually ask people for a range of sexual behaviours they engage in (masturbation, oral sex, intercourse) and whether they enjoyed them. That way you might find someone doesn’t report much ‘sex’ (as in intercourse) but they enjoy masturbation on a regular basis and are happy with this.

This contrasts with the media’s description of sex where ‘sex’ is usually only considered in terms of intercourse and quantity is taken as a measure of ‘great sex’.

Want to find out more?

Set yourself an experiment. Look at magazine or newspaper coverage of sex/relationships over the next month and see how ‘great sex’ is described. Is it written about in terms of exploration, variety and pleasure, or described in terms of quantity and penetration.

3. The average penis size is 5 inches long
a. True

b. False
c. Not sure

Correct answer = B

Many studies do give the average erect penis length as 5 inches. However, there are numerous problems with studies on penis size as they vary in the methods used to collect data. Some studies relied on self report, others on a researcher either measuring an erect or flaccid penis. Critical reflection on penis size studies suggest there are problems with the inconsistency of measuring penis size (summarized here). Interestingly research in this area suggests men (gay and straight) are more worried about length than girth, although women seem to be more interested in girth. And partners of men (male or female) are usually most bothered about their partner’s technique and the way they treat them. With anecdotal evidence suggesting men with larger penises don’t try so hard to please their lovers.

4. Women and men are equally stimulated by visual images of sex
a. True
b. False
c. Not sure

Correct answer = A

Women and men are just as likely to be turned on by visual images of sex. This may run counter to common knowledge of this issue, particularly since the media often repeats the idea that men are visual creatures and provide various evolutionary and biological explanations for this. What science is now discovering is that women, like men, do get aroused by sexual imagery. There is a diverse range of what turns women on – as with men. There is often the myth that women prefer erotica and men like porn, or women need their sexual imagery served up with a warm slice of romance. Yet studies where women have been asked about or shown sexual imagery suggest they do respond to a variety of arousing stimuli.

Interestingly many of the studies assessing response to visual images of sex (usually done through showing a series of images or sexual film clips and measuring genital response) did not include women. These were conducted on male participants (often undergraduate students) who were tested in response to viewing sexual images to see if exposure to said imagery had led to them feeling more hostile towards women.

More recent studies of women show they report enjoying a range of sexual imagery but do often worry more than men about the content of materials and how they’re made. Debates around the impact of porn, and whether the content is sexist, can often make women feel guilty for looking at/enjoying sexual imagery. Interestingly we’ve focused more on asking women critical questions about how they respond to porn than we have inviting men to reflect on their porn use.

Want to learn more?

Violet Blue’s written a fascinating book called The Ultimate Guide to Adult Videos which discusses how to pick porn to view, and answers some of the common concerns people have about content.

Alternatively there is a vigorous debate about porn/sexual imagery that’s ongoing. Some view porn as innately sexist and degrading to women, others feel it’s a symptom of a sexist culture but not a direct contributor to sexism/abuse. While some believe porn could help improve relationships, or at least has no harmful effects. You can find debates ongoing across different websites (particularly those with a feminist/political focus). Read up on the issues and see where you fit in.

5. Men can fake orgasm

a. True
b. False
c. Not sure

Correct answer = A

Men can, and do, fake orgasm. We don’t know exactly how many do this, but therapists and educators are increasingly hearing from men who are worried about faking orgasm. Reasons for doing so include being tired, sore, wanting to bring sex to an end, and not wanting to let a partner down. Men report feeling the need to fake because of pressure to perform sexually. It is unclear whether this pressure is experienced more or less acutely by straight or gay men. Interestingly, we tend to respond to women faking orgasm as being an inevitable (partly linked to the stereotype of women being less sexual). We tend to respond to the idea of men faking with disbelief or humour. This does little to help either gender if they feel the need to fake.

Want to find out more?

Comedian Richard Herring has written a great book called Talking Cock which although based on humour is a useful survey on male sexual behaviour and includes some discussion about faking orgasm.

If you’re a man and find it consistently difficult to orgasm it might be you have delayed (or retarded) ejaculation. More information about this condition and treatment options available here.

6. Men reach their sexual peak at 17 years old, women at around 40 years old
a. True
b. False
c. Not sure

Correct answer = B

Although this is often quoted in the media it doesn’t make sense in social research terms. The data seems to have come from surveys in the first half of the 20th century on sex where young men could record an interest in sex, but young women couldn’t. Culturally young women weren’t supposed to be sexual (particularly before marriage) and so either were unable to report on sexual behaviour, or were too afraid to disclose what they may have done. Older women who were married and had experienced sex were in a stronger position to report on their experiences. So early surveys measured behaviour and found younger men were able to report sex positively, as were older women. This is not the same as hitting a sexual peak during lifespan.

Although studies do still about that reinforce this myth or suggest particular ‘peak’ times for sex, reliable research suggests that rather than their being specific peak times for sex, there will be times when people enjoy, desire, and have sex more or less. This will be influenced by many factors including health, parenthood, financial security, relationship quality, and lifestyle factors (such as work stress).

Sexual activity may reduce as people age, and certainly we do see young people reporting having more sexual encounters. However, this does not mean the same thing as pleasure or desire or exploration. Older people do also report they may not have as much sex as in their youth, but the sex they have remains important and pleasurable.

Part of the misrepresentation of sexual behaviour across lifespan as having one off peaks is linked to the quantity over quality. A more accurate way of looking at this issue would be to see sex intertwined with other factors (listed above) and to expect points in your life when you’ll have no sex (with a partner), lots of sex, and occasional sex – with quality differing also.

Want to find out more?
Keep a diary for the next year and record when you had sex. Note periods when you enjoyed different sexual activities (masturbation alone, oral sex, intercourse), who you were intimate with, and when you were or were not enjoying sex to identify what else was happening. It might be something negative like being made redundant, or something positive like starting a new job where you put your energy into that activity.

7. Animals (other than humans) can be gay
a. True
b. False
c. Not sure

Correct answer = A

Homosexuality has been observed in numerous species from dolphins to monkeys, dogs to sheep. We have only recently begun to learn more about this topic as science has in the past often misrepresented homosexuality in animals, describing it as ‘immature sexual behaviour’ or reporting it as something that only happens because no other sexual partners are available. Or simply not discussing it at all.

Want to find out more?
The question of sexuality is one that fascinates people – and can be a reason for concern or celebration. If you want to find out more about your own sexuality why not try the Kinsey scale which gives you a score from heterosexual through to entirely homosexual. You can even get a t-shirt to proudly display your rating.

Within the scientific community we’re still debating homosexuality and for two differing takes on this issue you might consider Queer Theory which sees sexuality largely as a social construct or contrast this with Qazi Rahman and Glenn Wilson’s excellent book Born Gay.

There’s also widespread discussion about whether homosexuality can be ‘cured’. Evidence shows it cannot (because it’s not a disease or dysfunction). You might find these papers interesting – they feature interviews with psychiatrists and patients who were part of treatment programmes to ‘cure’ them of homosexuality.

8. Where do most people get their sex information from?
a. Friends and family
b. School/college sex education
c. Self help/sex experts
d. The media (magazines, films, television, internet)
f. Pornography

Correct answer = D

Most people do use the media, and particularly the internet (where available to learn more about sex). Friends can be highly influential, although more for young people than older adults. The self help/sexpert market (which often influences media content) is worrying given that many sex experts are not adequately qualified to discuss sex and relationships issues. Porn is not the first place people look for information, however evidence suggests it is somewhere people will turn to if they can’t find answers elsewhere.

Want to learn more?
If you want to find useful places to get quality sex information (aside from the links above), I’d recommend:
Paul Joannides – author of Guide to Getting it On
Cory Silverberg – who writes Sexuality About
Good Vibrations magazine
Dodson and Ross – sex tips, advice and information
DIY sex education from All About My Vagina
Susie Bright
gives great sex advice over at Jezebel

9. What’s the most popular area in sex research currently?

a. Desire and pleasure
b. Sexual problems
c. Sexuality
d. Sex addiction
e. Love, romance and courtship

Correct answer = B

The most funded and most prolific research globally focuses currently on sexual problems. That’s things like sexual dysfunctions and sexually transmitted infections (particularly HIV). While these are issues requiring investigation, there are problems about other issues such as love and romance, desire and pleasure receiving far less attention. In particular concerns have been expressed about the ‘medicalisation of sex’ (for women and men) and the way sex research has been influenced by pharmaceutical funding.

Campaigners working within sex research are working to try and broaden the range of topics studied in this area, but limitations around funding and academic priorities do still influence what gets studied. This is a problem since many members of the public have many unanswered questions about sex which are currently not being addressed.

Interestingly, the area of sex addiction is hyped up a lot in the press but is not being researched to the same degree within academia/therapy. That’s because the concept is not agreed upon by practitioners. You can find out more in this great discussion between Susie Bright and Leonore Tiefer on the topic, or see just how problematic the diagnosis of sex addiction is in my blog ‘Help! I’m a sex addict and I didn’t even know it’.

10. Why do sex researchers study sex?

There are numerous reasons why we study sex. To find out more about human sexual behaviour, to get people answers to questions they have. To reduce problems – STIs, anxieties, fears. To promote sexual pleasure. Or to encourage abstinence (not all sex researchers are sex positive). Some sex researchers are motivated to research sex because they want to offer help, to share pleasure, or to learn more about themselves. Some may have had a personal experience (positive or negative) that’s motivated them to study a particular area of sex.

As part of the Science Museum event I asked guests to share why they thought we studied sex and I’ll blog all their ideas next week – along with some updates from real life sex researchers about their motivations.

So, are you a sexpert? You may have scored well or badly on this test. It doesn’t really matter. Many of the questions were deliberately tricky. Hopefully what the test has revealed to you is that there’s a lot more to sex research than you may have imagined, it’s an area that spans many academic areas (science, medicine, history, anthropology and zoology to name a few). It’s a growing subject area and one with a real application to human life. By continuing to read up on sex (using some of the links above) and ask questions about all the sex stories you read in the press (and anyone who calls themselves a ‘sexpert’) you’ll be well on the way to sexpertise.

If you work in science communication, sex research or sexual health you are welcome to use this quiz (and answers) in your own activities (with acknolwedgement). Please do research all answers before presenting to ensure you fully understand topics, and perhaps you can bring in questions and resources of your own to add to the quiz.

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