Feature Archive

Sizing Up Sex Lives

Everything you always wanted to know about sex surveys.

WebMD Feature

April 24, 2000 (Seattle, Wash.) -- When a sex research study is made public, most people can't resist reading or listening to news reports about it. Some studies are large, such as the one conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center, affiliated with the University of Chicago, which polls 3,000 people about their sexual behavior and attitudes. Others are smaller and more specific, such as an investigation about teenage condom use within a community. Here, a respected sex researcher describes how she and her colleagues manage to gather such intimate information, and how their findings can help us all.

There is a common assumption that it is difficult to get people to participate in sex research. In fact, many people are willing and eager to talk about sex and their sex lives. But what about those who are not? High-quality research requires the study of a group of participants that accurately reflects the population. We researchers can't study only the eager and uninhibited people who are anxious to tell all and neglect the more reserved members of society.

To find a good survey sample, we have to convince those who are hesitant to talk about sex that society can benefit from their participation. We go to churches to talk about a study, we enlist the help of respected community leaders, we show them that our work is legitimate. Once our research team visited a Mormon Church, where a senior member pointed out the value of our study. Hundreds from the congregation then volunteered.