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.

Asking the Right Questions

Once we have a good pool of subjects, we must ask them questions clearly, specifically, and sometimes, repeatedly. Let's say we want to determine the frequency of intercourse -- a tough question to ask but an important one. We interview partners together and separately. We might ask, "How often do you have sex in a week?" and later, "How often do you have sex in a month?" If their answers don't jibe, we ask the couple to reconsider their answers. Usually someone simply miscalculated. Or they might say, "Oh, I didn't have sex last week. But last week wasn't normal. Let me tell you about a regular week."

We must be careful how we ask about such issues as monogamy. It might be our personal opinion that having multiple concurrent relationships is "cheating," but in our role as researchers, we can't make such judgments. It would be like saying, "OK, let's talk about this filthy affair you are having." No one would respond honestly. People don't want anyone to judge their sexual behavior, not even the interviewers.

What We Hear

Initially, one woman declined to answer the question about monogamy, then talked freely at the end of the interview. She had a husband and two boyfriends, and no one knew but her. To her, having multiple partners made sense. One boyfriend was a millionaire and her sex buddy. Her other boyfriend made her re-evaluate her marriage and whether she wanted to stay in it.

In a study on how couples initiate or refuse sex, one young heterosexual couple reported that they kept two little human figurines on their fireplace mantle. When one wanted to have sex, he or she would move them close together. If not so inclined, the other partner would separate them again. This system may sound odd, but the couple found something that works for them.

A New Respect

Traditionally, government agencies and other organizations that fund research have tended to consider studies looking at pleasure, including those that examine our sexual behavior, as trivial. But the AIDS epidemic has caused big changes in sex research and led to increased funding.

When more research of this type is done, we all benefit in many ways. We learn about -- and debunk -- common misconceptions. A woman may think nearly everyone else is having sex twice a day, and a survey will prove that notion wrong. Or, a man might read that having sex every three months in a committed relationship is far below average frequency -- and concede that perhaps his partner has a right to complain. Sex research can also tell parents when their children are likely to become sexually active and remind them of the need for sex education.

Sex studies not only let people know how they measure up to their neighbors and friends, sexually speaking -- they can also help them to understand what's normal and what's not. From that foundation of knowledge, couples might then build more intimate, satisfying, and safe sexual relationships.

Pepper Schwartz, PhD, is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She has conducted more than 10 large-scale sex research studies and is the author of 11 books, including American Couples: Money, Work and Sex, a large, comparative study of relationships.

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