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Why do people do sex research?

January 11th, 2006

Dr Petra

Yesterday, during a chat with a journalist they asked me ‘why do people do sex research?’

It’s an interesting question and one I’m not asked often enough, so here’s the answer.

People volunteer for sex research for a number of reasons. The most common one is to help other people. They believe their contribution will allow us to understand other people’s sex and relationships health better. And they’re right.

The second most common reason for people wanting to do sex research is they want to find out more about themselves, or think it could be interesting. After that people say they volunteer because they think sex research could be fun, it might provide them with help or advice, or because it’ll pass the time.

In a minority of cases people also say they do research because they feel they have to, which in reputable research you try to avoid as much as possible.

In PR or commercial research people sign up for sex research because they’re offered incentives – cash payment, vouchers, or a chance to win a prize. In social or health sex research we avoid offering incentives like this since they attract people who want payment (so won’t be representative of a wider population), or can make those who’re vulnerable stay in research when they’d really rather not be included in it. Some researchers do offer people payment or a reward for participation, but they get this when they finish, they’re not told about the incentive at the start of the study.

What always interests people about sex research is women are far more likely to volunteer for it than men. You might expect that men would be eager to be in a sex study, but often when approached to be in research (regardless of topic) men are more likely to refuse – often before they fully discover what the research is about. Women are more likely to agree to be in sex research, although the more intrusive, explicit or demanding a study becomes, the more likely women are to then refuse to participate.

Participants report they find sex research interesting, informative, empowering, fun, although sometimes it can feel upsetting or distressing if negative sex issues are covered. In those cases a researcher will always be available to provide alternative sources of help or support, or refer a participant on for therapy if necessary. What is discussed less but does happen, is participants find some sex research arousing (depending on the topic of the study). In some research the study requires them to become aroused or orgasm. However that doesn’t tend to be the main reason for volunteering for sex research, and far more sex research involves discussing views, experiences and behaviours rather than being observed having sex or masturbating.

You find people in sex research react to volunteering in many ways. Some tell you how informative they found the study or how it revealed things to them they hadn’t previously considered. They use the research to raise other issues about their lives, view of sex or knowledge that they’d not discussed before. Others make jokes about it – particularly around sexual performance or sex organs – sometimes because they find the research amusing, sometimes as a means of dealing with things they find threatening in the study. Still more participants use the research as a chance to have a wider discussion about sex and relationships with a researcher or to ask for sex tips, or advice on relationship problems. Sometimes they say it identified spiritual issues. Some even consider the research an opportunity to ask the researcher for a date – or to request the researcher helps them find a partner. And others just say very little, or ‘that was okay’.

Whatever the reason for getting involved, we need people to volunteer for sex research so we can find out more about our sex lives – from pleasures to problems.

If you’re interested, here’s some further reading about sex research:
Information about volunteering to be in a sex study

What’s it like to be a sex researcher?
Questions parents may have about school sex research
How a sex study is run

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