Work conferences are notorious for being boring and tedious affairs. Fortunately, however, that hasn’t been my experience. I study sex for a living and the conferences I go to tend to be a bit more, well, stimulating.
I recently returned from the largest annual North American meeting in my field, organized by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, where I got a firsthand look at the latest trends in sex research.
But first, let’s clear up one thing: People have a tendency to assume that when a group of sex researchers get together, it’s a non-stop sex party. Sorry to spoil the fantasy for you, but we go to these conferences first and foremost to learn, not to have gigantic orgies. It may surprise you to hear that sex researchers aren’t necessarily more sexually active than everyone else. In other words, we’re doing research, not “mesearch.”
With that said, what were the major themes of this year’s meeting? The biggest one that stood out to me emphasized the need to rethink and challenge our assumptions about human sexuality.
Kinsey Institute research scientist Dr. Amanda Gesselman summed up this idea perfectly in a post-conference interview. She noted that several talks called for “a reconceptualization of how we think, how we ask and how we interpret our findings.” For example, talks by Drs. Helen Fisher and Justin Garcia asked researchers “to rethink casual sex and singlehood, with data showing that people are seeking out and obtaining intimacy just as they do in committed romantic relationships.” Gesselman added that most researchers aren’t bothering to collect those data “because it’s assumed that these contexts are ‘no strings attached’ and lack emotional involvement.”
The casual sex findings that Gesselman referenced were particularly fascinating. Far from being a purely physical act, it turns out that many of us are seeking out—and getting—a high degree of emotional satisfaction from hookups and one-night stands. And this is true across age, gender and sexual orientation. This is a prime example of why we need to be careful not to let stereotypes and assumptions about casual sex creep into how we study sex.
Another big theme that emerged involved using new and more inclusive research methods that can help give voice to persons and groups that have historically been overlooked in sex research. As Gesselman noted, “talks by Randal Brown, Bridget Rebek and Amy Moors pushed for the use of qualitative data because the standard quantitative measures we rely on aren’t adequately representing the experiences of diverse or underrepresented groups.”
Allow me to give you a little more context here: Many sex researchers give out surveys in which people simply report how much they agree or disagree with various statements on a numeric scale (known as quantitative data). However, you run the risk of missing out on a lot of important information if you don’t ask the right questions or if there are biases built into your survey. This is where qualitative data can really help out because, in this approach, participants describe their views and experiences in their own words.
At sex conferences, you hear it all.
To illustrate this idea, consider a study that some of my colleagues and I conducted on polyamorous relationships a few years back. Among other things, we administered the standard quantitative jealousy scales, which have a presumption built into them that jealousy is a universal human experience. We all feel threatened when we see our partners expressing interest in other people, right?
In order to see whether this is indeed the case, we also asked participants to tell us in their own words how they experience jealousy in their relationships. What we found was that many people said things along the lines of “I don’t know what that emotion is because I’ve never felt it.” Instead, many reported experiencing an emotion opposite of jealousy—something that has been termed compersion, which involves taking pleasure in another person’s happiness and fulfillment.
As you can see from this example, qualitative data can allow the experiences of minority groups—like trans persons and individuals involved in consensually non-monogamous relationships—to shine through in a way that the standard approach doesn’t allow.
One final theme worth mentioning is the remarkably broad and interdisciplinary nature of sex science that was on display. “From epidemiology to linguistic analysis to surveys and interviews to neurobiology, sexual scientists are drawing on a wide range of disciplines and techniques to understand how, why and when sexuality shapes all aspects of the human experience,” said Dr. Justin Garcia, another Kinsey research scientist.
You may find this hard to believe, but very few people at this conference actually hold degrees in sexuality studies. There really aren’t many training programs in this area, which is why most of us are instead trained in other disciplines, like psychology, biology or public health. The cool thing about this is that at sex conferences, you hear it all.
For example, in one session I listened to a talk on how our hormone and neurotransmitter levels shape the way we approach sex and relationships. In another, I learned about how Tinder and Grindr are linked to sexual risk-taking. And in yet another, I heard a content analysis of some unique types of fetish porn. That talk focused largely on tickle porn, but it also introduced me to a genre I’d never heard of before, in which a man is held down or tied up while another guy shaves his head. As Rule 34 of the Internet goes, “if you can think of it, there is porn for it.”
Overall, attending this conference reaffirmed why I became a sex scientist in the first place—it’s just an endlessly fascinating subject. However, it also made me optimistic for the future of the field because what I consistently saw was innovation coupled with a thirst for unbiased knowledge about what it is that makes us tick when it comes to sex.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.