Tag Archives: sexuality research

Going by the numbers

Finally, something more about the research!

I’m currently reading some work from a wonderful researcher in my field, discussing the difficulties of recruitment.  For researchers in fields looking at what is called sensitive topic research, it can be a real dilemma to get enough people together to talk to you about what is going on for them in the topic area.  The irony about this is that getting people talking about sensitive topics is a big inroad into improving people’s lives in these kinds of areas.  For example, no one likes to talk about domestic violence, but talking about it makes it visible, assessable, and then a proper target for social interventions at whatever level to help reduce this social blight can be found.   Which is why so many researchers focus on sensitive topics – these are often at the core of social issues and problems that greatly affect individuals.

I certainly didn’t expect my recruitment process to be easy.  Other researchers in the area of sex and sexuality have discussed how difficult it can be to get participants to interview, and to keep participating throughout the research.  The rate of attrition of participants can be quite high.  And not uncommon.

What surprised me most about my own research was the overwhelming response I had to my own recruitment process.  My expectations were far exceeded with respect to how long it would take for me to get the number of survey responses I needed, and the number of young women who would want to participate further.   The question I guess comes down to why on earth I had an easier time of it than some other researchers I have come across.

Really I have no definitive answers to that, but I think perhaps some of it comes down to a culture of lack of space for women to talk about sex.  Now, I think some of you will shake your heads here, and tell me that young women are talking about sex a lot.  A participant related to me overhearing a group of high school girls talking about the taste of semen in a public area.  This would suggest that there is little issue about talking about sex for women these days.  But what I want to suggest here is whether that is actually talking about sex, or engaging in a public performance that places the speaker as sexually experienced, and therefore, in today’s parlance, as ‘cool’/fashionable/knowing/etc.   Today’s culture is big on the idea that being sexually active is part of being a well-rounded and mature individual – sex is a necessary part of a healthy life, an adventurous life, an uninhibited life, shows you as skilled and capable and so on.  No  one wants to be thought of as a prude!  So talking about the taste of cum, yip, that situates you as sexually experienced,  but does it mean that you are talking about sex?  I’m not so sure on that.

And I think this is where I managed to have some success in recruitment, because I recruited young women on the proviso that they could talk about anything they liked about sex, but most importantly I wanted to hear their opinions on today’s sexual culture (for their age group).   I wanted to hear their gripes and insecurities and problems, and truimphs. I wanted to hear about all the things that it is not really that acceptable for them to talk about in a group – their virginities, their getting drunk and being taken advantage of, their flashing in public, their frustration at their partner’s lack of reciprocity in sex, that they were not sure what they wanted in bed, weren’t comfortable asking for what they wanted, had lousy sex but didn’t know how to fix it, and so on.

In an area where we are all supposed to have our shit together, talking about these things with our peers can sometimes be problematic.  One of the biggest factors participants of my research talked about as a factor that inhibits their sexual expression and experience was the wide range of stigma they could experience – from sexual partners, friends, family, work mates, religious leaders, medical practitioners.  And themselves.  Talking about our faults and insecurities in such a judgemental social context can therefore be a really big thing.   Talking about sex then can reduce to just talking about successes, rather than issues that once discussed can be normalised and examined and addressed.  Because no one wants to be judged.  At least not in a bad way.

Oh, and if you think this is a woman’s problem (which btw it kind of is, as the spaces available for women to be anything sexual let alone chatty have been very small for a very long time), just take a moment and try to recall the last time you heard a guy talk about not being able to get aroused, that he had lousy sex because it just felt mechanical and uncaring, or that he didn’t want to have sex with the girl at the bar he pulled becuase he actually liked/didn’t like/[insert reason here] her.  None of us are outside the social rules about talking about sex.

So when someone gives you the opportunity to talk about your insecurities and worries, well, particularly if its anonymous, I’d bet a lot of you would jump at it (and did).  Of course, there are a lot of other reasons young women participated, but considering what many of you had to say in reply to some very general questions, I’m guessing that this might have been a really good reason.

Which brings be to a larger point beyond how fortunate I was as a researcher to have so many wonderfully brave young women come forward to tell me about their experiences.  And that is the quality of conversations we as women have about our sex lives.  Now, you might think that as a researcher in the topic of sex I’d be a chatty Cathy about all things sexual.  And to be sure, that can be true, within particular contexts.  But that certainly wasn’t the case before I started my PhD.  It wasn’t until I was known as ‘the sex dr’ that my friends started talking to me about their sex lives in much more detail, and I started talking back.  Suddenly they (and I) had an excuse – asking me about the research presented opportunities for us to segue into their own sex lives.  It was great, and a good laugh, and comforting sometimes too.

These conversations are vitally important I think.  Sex is such a large part of our lives, in the contemporary context.  We are all beset by performance anxieties, pressures and fears, many of which could be reduced or removed if we sat and had a good conversation about things.  And not of the Cleo magazine kind – frankly talking about how to make ‘him’ cum does nothing for ‘your’ sex life.  We need to be having real conversations.  About things that really matter to us.  Because if the research is anything to go by, the issues are pretty homogeneous – we are all lamenting about the same stuff.  If we got talking, what we thought about ourselves that was worrisome of weird would probably turn out to be far more normal than we realise – giving us a chance to let ourselves off the hook, and move forward towards ways to resolve the issue for ourselves (which might go no further than simply realising that what you think is a problem isn’t one at all).

So here’s a little homework.  Have a ‘talk about sex’ night with friends – not one about how great Mr Y from Bar X was, but about all things real.  It may take a glass of wine to kick the conversation off, but I think it might be worth it.  And a lot less daunting that you think.  After all, sex is fun.  Talking about it, even the problematic, scary stuff, can be too.


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Sex and Risk – Its Fun but …

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing about my research results.  A number of interesting results came out the survey and interviews and a web discussion group.  Many are too large to be dealt with in a single posting – TMI – so I’ll tackle them piece by piece.  Feel free to offer comments or email me about what you’ve read.

My first major research finding is something I call the Sexual Risk Script.  One of the theoretical frameworks I used in the thesis is called Script Theory –we learn a number of scripts about how to behaviour in various social situations and bring these out in various circumstances and use them as they are or adapt them to the context and/or who we are and what we believe.  It’s a useful framework for providing some explanatory and descriptive information about behaviour.

The Sexual Risk Script is based in the large number of conditional statements that participants gave during their interviews and within the survey.  “It’s fun to hook up as long as you …” or “It’s fine to have casual sex as long as you …”   There was such a predominance of these kinds of statements that I began to see a pattern in the kinds of conditions (the ‘as long as you do x’ part of the statement) that many participants adhered to.  The Script therefore ended up looking like a list of rules or guidelines that should be considered when thinking about flashing your boobs at a bar, hooking up with a new guy, having casual sex, or starting a fuck buddy relationship.  Predominantly these conditions were risk-avoidant advice snippets, centring on sexual health, emotional/mental safety, partner-related safety, reputational safety, and self-control.

On a personal note, this was a difficult Script for me to come to grips with.  When I was growing up the dialogue around sex for young women involved a lot of scare tactics.  I was coming of age as AIDS began to be part of the sexual lexicon, and a huge mythology was circulating about how you could catch it and what it would do to you.  Sex ed focused on pictures of oozing sores and herpes blisters, and the ‘evils’ of STDs.  The shame of becoming pregnant in your early teens was also a weighty dialogue.  Sex education for me was an effective program of terror, basically.  How any of us ever managed to have sex … ?

Coming to this research I presumed that this fear-focus in education and social dialogue would have changed.  Young women are apparently having more sex with more partners, with greater frequency.  Surely young women are less fearful or risk-averse than I felt at similar ages.  Of course, that’s a purely subjective assessment.  It’s not something I could really know for sure.  But the appearance of the Sexual Risk Script out of all the statements and conversations had with participants during my research suggested that risk-focus is still a major orientation for young women, one that is not off-set by a pleasure-based dialogue that paints sex as something beyond risk – namely as something that can be fun, enjoyable, esteem-building, and subjectively satisfying.   This was a disappointing realisation for me.  I had hoped that our sexual culture had become more balanced in its treatment of female sexuality, that ‘sex=risk’ had evolved into something more.   What movement beyond this I came across was driven by participants and their personal experiences, and their own self-discoveries, rather than our social context.   Society still seems to be pedalling the same old stories.

Thinking about sex as risk is of course important, and that so many young women focused on this aspect of their sex lives highlights the efficacy of sex education and social messages around being safe sexually and protecting yourself against disease and ‘dangerous’ partners.  The importance of these aspects should not be undercut.  However, that there are few opportunities for young women to engage in alternative conversations about sex and their own desires and pleasures appeared to tip the balance towards danger-thinking at the expense of many other pleasurable aspects.   The only chat in town that many participants suggested was OK to talk about with respect to sex, was risk-oriented, despite many wishing they could talk more honestly and openly about sex and their sex lives.

This orientation towards sex – that risk-avoidance is central – was obvious in how participants talked about what they were OK with doing, what was OK for others to do, and what would happen if boundaries were crossed.  Basically, participants noted that young women could have a limited amount of fun.  There were certain things they could do safely without for example damaging their reputations, getting used, catching something, losing control and being slutty (or unfeminine), or being violated somehow.  Borderline behaviours could be done but carefully – be discrete, hide them away, tell people you were drunk or say it was only a hook up and hide it behind some ambiguity –caution and careful consideration was necessary.  Other behaviours were guaranteed to end in STIs and unwanted pregnancies, feelings of being used, getting coerced, being vulnerable to crazy guys, and being labelled a slut or a bitch or a skank.

Safe behaviours weren’t always guaranteed to be safe either.  Stigma and reputational damage were serious consequences for many participants, and due to the nature of judgemental observers, something as simple as making out with someone could have serious impacts, of which many participants were aware.   The Script’s cautionary nature therefore suggested that being sexual in any way outside of a relationship was a tricky undertaking.   The usefulness of the Sexual Risk Script was therefore obvious, as a way to help minimise negative consequences.    But it also had the not so great impact of significantly curtailing the kinds of things young women were able to do, narrowing the list of permitted behaviours to little more than kissing and erotic dancing.   Beyond, this, activities were potentially risky and could only be done within certain circumstances.

In my next post I’ll discuss the limits to behaviour more, and the kinds of conditional statements participants offered, that helped illustrate those limits.

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