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What’s it like to be a sex researcher?

March 4th, 2005

Dr Petra

Since the film ‘Kinsey’ went on general release, people have started getting more interested in studying sex and relationships. Here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions I get on sex research.

How do you study sex?
There are many ways to study sex. Kinsey used a survey, but we now have a far greater range of methods at our disposal to help people reveal more about their sex lives.

Are you a proper scientist?
It depends on how you define science! I study sex in a systematic way, using different methods and theories to try and understand people’s sexual lives. Because sex makes some people feel uncomfortable, or because they don’t see it as being very important, they may think it’s not worthy of study. We may not always choose a science approach to study sex, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid topic for investigation.

Shouldn’t taxpayer’s money be spent on better things?
Many sex projects aren’t funded by taxpayer’s money. They come from private organisations and charities.

Can you help with my problems?
Sex researchers create and convey evidence. From our studies we can make recommendations to improve services, education, or treatment programmes. We can use and share information to help people make sense of their sex lives. If people need sex advice, therapy or medical treatment, we refer them on to specialist services.

Are you very open minded?
If you mean I think about sex critically, then yes. If you mean ‘are you up for trying anything sexually?’ the answer’s no. I think sex research can raise issues, thoughts and feelings, and it’s important to recognise and deal with those. Some people get into sex research because they’re involved with the sex industry, fetish or similar. Others do sex research and keep their sex lives separate. Sadly some people working in the field can still, sadly, hold homo/Trans/bi phobic, sexist or racially bigoted views. I’m probably more open minded than some people, less than others.

Do you enjoy your job?
I love it. Although I have concerns about sex, particularly around sex education and information in the media, it’s my reason for carrying on working. And finding out new things about people’s sex lives is always fascinating.

How can I become a sex researcher?
There are many routes in. Most people obtain degrees in psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology or medicine – with additional training in research skills, sexology or psychiatry. Artists, photographers and writers have also moved into documenting sex, as have historians. And more recently sex workers such as strippers, prostitutes and porn stars have also started producing their own sex information.

What does being a ‘sex researcher’ mean?
Sex researchers study sex using a variety of methods. Some work exclusively in academic settings, others extend their work to training other professionals, working in healthcare, or (like me) liasing with the media.

People are often confused by the different terms, so here’s a quick glossary.

Sex researchers study sex and can inform policy and public opinion.

Sex educators, healthcare staff, social workers, and therapists use the evidence created by sex researchers to teach or treat others.

Sex writers or salespeople should ideally consult with sex researchers, therapists and educators to inform the products they sell or stories they write.

Sex workers (porn stars, prostitutes etc) may work with sex educators or researchers, some produce their own training materials and some retrain as therapists. In other cases, sex researchers and healthcare staff work together to assist sex workers in need of help.

Finally there’s the ‘sexpert’. Some researchers, therapists or educators choose to use this term as a more ‘public friendly’ title. Sometimes it’s applied to them by the media whether they like it or not. More problematically is the self-appointed ‘sexpert’ – the person who has no real qualifications or experiences in the area, but still talks publicly about sex.

You can identify a professional sex researcher by how they describe sex. They’ll talk about evidence and draw together lots of sex information. If on the rare occasions they talk from personal experience, or voice their own opinions, they’ll make it very clear they’re doing this, and state their views aren’t representative of other people.

Are you very good in bed?
Wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you being a sex researcher guarantees constant, fantastic, sexual performance?! Not quite true. Sex is very important to me, and of course things I’ve learned have influenced it. But there have been times when being tired, health problems, or relationship difficulties have got in the way. I guess what does help, studying this area means I know where to get help should I need it, and I realise you don’t have to be perfect in bed every time.

Is sex research very sexy?
Again, wouldn’t it be great if I could say ‘yes’ every time?! Sex research, like other research involves a lot of work. Although certain topics can be arousing (e.g. people sharing sexual fantasies), much of sex research on HIV/ AIDS, child abuse, or rape can be distressing for participants and researchers. To be a good sex researcher you have to be open to hearing a variety of sexual stories from people – the positive, negative, sexy, funny, serious and moving. And you have to be prepared to manage data, write papers, and review countless reports and journal articles. Which can be very dull, and unless your kink is data management, isn’t all that sexy.

Do you ever sleep with participants/ colleagues?
In the Kinsey movie, Kinsey and colleagues are shown sleeping together and swapping partners. Although I’m sure relationships do still spring up amongst colleagues in most academic departments (not just sex study units), I think people are now more aware of ethical issues around professional behaviour. Certainly some researchers reflect on their sex lives and share their sexual secrets, but modern sex research involves studying other people more than personal experience. And it would be ethically unacceptable to make any sexual advance to a research participant.

Is the film true to life?
The movie shows Kinsey struggling to get his work accepted, and to obtain funding. The topic area’s stigmatised and some other academics are judgemental. Research is shown being developed, tested and refined, and something that’s pretty overwhelming and time consuming. So yes, that’s pretty much what sex research is like.

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