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Want to be in a sex study?

July 14th, 2005

Dr Petra

US men’s website has a feature this week by Donald Zimmer talking about sex research.

It kicks off predictably with the usual stereotype that people have about sex studies: “You walk into a lab staffed entirely by busty nymphs clad in snug-fitting nurse outfits, spend a few hours with them in the throes of sensual pleasure, then leave with a healthy check in hand, cheerful in the knowledge that you’ve helped advance the causes of science and rational thought”.

Hmmm, not only is sex research not quite like that, it sets up all kinds of gendered assumptions about the nature of the research, the quality of the science behind it, and whilst I’m sure Donald Zimmer was trying to play with stereotypical ideas such descriptions makes life a whole lot harder – particularly for female sex researchers.

The remainder of the feature reminds the reader sexology is a legitimate speciality and outlines a couple of examples of studies participants could expect to be part of.

Unfortunately it only mentions two types of research – lab based physiological studies and what’s confusingly called ‘question sessions’.

To coincide with the release of the movie ‘Kinsey’ earlier this year I wrote a number of accounts describing modern sex research that fill in the gaps left by the Zimmer feature. These include:

How we study sex
Why we need sex research
What’s it like to be a sex researcher? (You may also enjoy a piece I previously wrote for Libido magazine about being a sex researcher)
How to run a sex study

Getting paid
The Zimmer piece heavily focused on compensation for participating in sex research. Perhaps the reason for this was the model of sex research described was aimed at a Western audience and focused on the model of pharmaceutically funded research. Whilst pharmaceutical studies aren’t necessarily bad per se, there is concern that those within developing countries are being used as ‘guinea pigs’ which patients in more affluent countries benefit from.

Within many countries either compensation isn’t given or a minimum gift payment is made to thank participants for their time. The reason for this is simple. Payment may coerce vulnerable people into doing research that otherwise they would not have wanted to do (a major issue when testing the safety of drugs or talking about highly sensitive topics). It also means that people are attracted to research to make money, not because it genuinely interests them or they just feel happy to help advance scientific knowledge. The end result is you get research conducted on people who aren’t representative of wider populations – which is always dangerous no matter what the topic.

Get stuck in!

As a sex researcher I’d love more people to volunteer for studies, so if you do hear about some sex research that is going on, here’s some questions to ask yourself and the researcher:

1. Who is this study for?

For example is it a survey to find out attitudes to safer sex that will lead to improving a sex education programme or a survey for a magazine that’s going to be used as part of their publicity campaign?

2. What do I have to do?

Will the study mean answering questions, watching erotic material, a physical exam or blood tests, or trying new medications? Evidence shows the more explicit or invasive a study becomes the less likely people are to take part.

3. Who is funding this research?

Is it being paid for by a drug company, a charity, a magazine or PR company? You can decide if you want to be part of the research based on who is paying for it and what they’re asking you to do. Funding shouldn’t put you off, but it may give you an indication of how impartial the researchers are. Those being paid for by corporations will usually have to report findings the company wants to hear.

4. What will the findings be used for?

This could include a report or academic paper, a feature in a newspaper, or an internal document. Reputable research will be published in an academic peer reviewed paper before it hits the headlines. Beware any researchers who go straight to the media with their findings.

5. What’s in it for me?

This isn’t as selfish a question as it sounds. If payment is important to you then you can ask about it (although I hope it isn’t your only motivating factor). You should also ask about any possible psychological or physiological side-effects and how those will be treated.

What else should happen in a good sex study?

A reputable sex researcher will provide you with written material that answers all these questions. They’ll have ethics approval and give further details if you wish to check them out. They’ll tell you who they’re working for, their qualifications, who is paying for their research and how results will be used. They’ll give you some breathing space to decide whether you want to take part, and also will make it clear you can withdraw from the study at any time without having to give a reason and without incurring any penalties.

They’ll keep your responses private and they won’t reveal your identity when they report their results. If you’re uncertain about how this will happen ask them to explain.

They may also send you information about the research once it has been completed and should always refer you to sources of advice and help in case their study causes you any concern (it shouldn’t, but sometimes being in research can raise issues later on that you’ll need support with). They should respect your values, culture, race, religion and sexuality. They should not harass or rush you into being in their study or gloss over what it involves.

Cold Calling

Within the UK social or health research on sex is rarely conducted by ‘cold calling’ (e.g. someone phones you up and asks you to take part in a sex survey). You should usually receive a letter, email or introductory call inviting you to take part and giving you information about a study. After that you may agree to do a telephone or face-to-face interview. Market research companies can be paid for to do a sex-based survey for a PR company that will be used to promote a product in the press – and occasionally market research companies may also support kosher sex research. If in doubt, ask. Outside the UK cold calling is more common.

If you decide to take part get the person’s details – their agency or organisation, contact number etc and say you need time to check them out first. A reputable researcher or group will agree to this. If the person is evasive, overly personal or upsetting then end the call (you don’t have to give a reason why) and report the call to your telephone service provider.

The five most-asked questions about sex research

These are the things people have asked me the most about being in a sex study:
1. Will it help cure my sexual/relationship problem?
Whilst some people find completing sex research helps them learn more about themselves or their relationship the purpose is not to give treatment. If you feel you need help tell the researcher who’ll refer you to support services.

2. What if I get aroused?

In some cases the purpose of the research will be to arouse you. For example you may watch erotic films and have your vagina or penis responses measured. This should be in a professional setting (e.g. a lab or exam room, not a researchers home or office) and should be conducted with respect and dignity (so no sexual innuendo or personal sexual comments). Remember if you want to stop a study at any time you can without giving a reason.

For other research such as surveys or discussions then you may find the questions exciting. Some people also react with humour, giggling, and embarrassment or occasionally distress (for example if talking about sex reminds them of previous abuse). A trained researcher will be able to respond to all these reactions and refer you to specialist help if appropriate. The only thing to remember is the researcher is doing a job, so no touching please!

3. Can I keep in touch with the researcher?

In some studies you may see the researcher several times – this is particularly true of a long-term piece of research investigating your sex life or reactions to a drug. In such cases the researcher will tell you what your commitment to the study is likely to be, and when it begins and ends. Outside of this you shouldn’t expect to see the researcher (aside from perhaps bumping into them at your local store or cinema). A reputable researcher will not ask to see you outside of the study, nor ask you out on a date (sorry!). You should respect their professional status and also not ask to see them socially.

4. Will I have to get naked?

Some sex studies could involve a physical or visual exam (looking at or touching your genitals), or fitting you with a monitoring device to your vagina or penis. This should be made clear to you before the study starts and a recognised and respectful clinician should conduct the exam within an appropriate, private setting. In most sex research you’ll stay fully clothed as will the sex researcher (sorry again!).

5. Is sex research serious?

Sex research when completed professionally and ethically is a legitimate speciality. That’s not to say it can’t be fun, rewarding and inspiring, but it does follow theories and methods based on scientific ideas and is designed to respect participants. Sadly there’s a growing trend of PR and internet research being conducted for commercial gain, alongside unethical research in developing countries that gives sex research a bad name, but overall it’s as legitimate a subject area as any other – and a whole lot more interesting too!

Why do people do sex research?

As mentioned, most people do sex research so their results can help others. Some do it to find out more about themselves, their body or their relationships, others to pass the time or have fun. Occasionally people do it because they need help and feel the research may offer them a ‘cure’ – not a good reason for doing a study and researchers should be vigilant in such cases to refer people on to appropriate sources of support or treatment. Remember any researcher you meet is trained to conduct a sex study but their role is not one of medical advisor, sex therapist, mentor, or sex worker (prostitute). If you’re uncertain about their role or need further help then ask.

Where do I sign up?

In most cases you have to wait for sex research to come to you. It may be you’re approached within your doctor’s surgery or health care centre, sexual health or antenatal clinic, or possibly by spotting a request to participate in a sex study online or in a newspaper. Remember to check out if the study is kosher before you start (see questions to ask above), avoid doing research just to make some money, but be willing to share your views and experiences. And recommend other people take part too.

Who knows, you could be meeting myself or a colleague in a sex study in the very near future.

We look forward to seeing you!

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