Guest Shot

Confessions of a Sex Researcher

By Petra Boynton, Ph.D.

In the UK, there’s been a spate of sex surveys hitting the headlines recently. And whilst the press and public were devouring the latest account of what people can and can’t do in the bedroom (or wherever else takes their fancy), some also turned their attention to finding out about the (sex) lives of the people who compiled the research. It seemed everyone suddenly wanted to know what sex researchers are like.

Are they highbrow academics living in ivory towers, sex-addicts finding an outlet for their desires through their work, killjoys who want to regulate sexual behavior, or just regular people who want to help others be more informed on sex issues? But what is it really like to talk about sex for a living? Well, if you want to know, stick around. I’ve been completing research on sex-related issues for the past ten years, and whilst I can’t speak for all sex-researchers, there are many shared aspects of our work, and many myths about what we do.

Photograph by Chris Clunn (Courtesy of UCL)

‘Sex’ is a source of pleasure, fun, and enjoyment. It can also be a source of danger, abuse and exploitation. And it is up to people like me to find out what’s going on in people’s sexual lives, in order to improve their physical and psychological health, as well as their sexual pleasure. But why do I like talking about sex, and why do I think it’s important? As I’ve been asked by countless people, "Why do you study sex when there are other ways of doing research that helps people?"

Well, I feel there’s lots of sex information out there that the public just doesn’t get to hear about. This ranges from safer sex advice, to tips to improve sex and increase pleasure; through to basic information about how the body works. There’s loads about sex in the media, but when we look at it closely, it doesn’t always talk about the sex your average person is having; so wherever I can bridge this information gap I try and do so. And within academic research on sex, particularly in my discipline of psychology, there’s loads of work on sex that is either badly put together, or in many cases is actually pretty negative. Don’t forget that the liberal sexology we see today was also responsible for past attempts to ‘cure’ homosexuality, ignore (or even endorse) female genital mutilation, and suggest that women ‘ask for’ rape or domestic violence. Clearly there’s loads of space to reinvent sex, which has the added bonus of being entertaining and helpful too.

So you can gather I don’t mind talking to research participants and other audiences about sex, but how about those other stereotypes? Do I live and work in an academic ivory tower? Not exactly, as although I’ve always been based in a university setting, for the past ten years my work has led me to work with prostitutes in on-street settings, with patients in doctors surgeries and hospitals, and with those producing or creating sexual materials in a variety of places. I’m not a sex addict, and in fact much of my work is about talking and advising rather than explicit sexual exchanges (but more on this later). I hope I’m not a killjoy, as I’ve been trying to talk about sex positively throughout my research career, although sometimes you do have to get critical with certain aspects of sex and research. I suppose I think of myself as a regular person doing research on an unusual area, but that’s from a sexologist’s viewpoint. Many people outside this line of work find what I do very strange, and they aren’t often sure how to react to me, or how to describe me.

As a result, one of the first things you discover in this line of work, is you lose control over your job title fairly quickly. Whatever your official title might be you’ll find yourself being referred to as a ‘sexologist’, ‘sex and relationship expert’, or ‘sexpert’. Even ‘snappier’ titles can include a ‘doctor of desire’ or a ‘dirty doctor’, or more specific ones linked to your work (which is why, on occasion, I’ve been called ‘Dr.Porn’, or ‘Petra Porn Queen’, due to some of my research being on sexually explicit media).

The next thing you learn is that (much to my disappointment), we don’t live our lives like Carrie Bradshaw in ‘Sex and the City’. If we did, I’d not only get to look like the beautiful Sara Jessica Parker, but I’d get to go to all the best parties, and have a fantastic wardrobe. Still, as soon as you’ve schlepped round to interview people carrying the inevitable heavy rucksack that is a researcher’s trademark, you soon realise that Manolo Blahniks are not going to work, and swap high heels for trainers. On a more serious level, you have to consider the impact your clothing will have on participants - you don’t want to devalue their experiences by looking like you’ve just stepped out of a lingerie store (nor encourage people to believe you only do the research due to being oversexed yourself).

That’s a myth too. We aren’t usually oversexed ourselves. Of course the Kinsey’s of this world allegedly did try what they were studying. And there are certain people whose work blurs the lines between performance, sex work, and research. I have a great deal of respect for people who have an insider view on the sex industry (such as Nicky Roberts or Annie Sprinkle), who have written about or performed persuasive accounts of their lives. However, for your average researcher, a day of talking through any topic is enough to tire you out - sex is no exception. And add to that hours of data collection, waiting around to try and get people to talk to you, and reading endless reports, you might start to understand we don’t live our lives in some kind of erotic nirvana. It would be great if we did, but it isn’t a perk of the job I’m afraid. Regardless of this, people still seem to believe that my research life could be like a page torn from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

Whether you are straight or gay, with a partner or single - it will be interpreted in terms of your job. Just imagine the difficulties of negotiating relationships when people realise you are a sex-researcher, not to mention the pressure to ‘perform’; particularly as a recent survey of Dutch sexologists showed that this occupation doesn’t give immunity from sexual problems or marital strife. I’ve found that when I’ve been in a relationship, people haven’t been sure what to make of my partner - I mean, what kind of man lives with a woman who spends her time talking to other men about sex, or hanging out with prostitutes? And when I’ve been single, establishing a new relationship has placed demands on both me and my would-be partner that your average person wouldn’t have to negotiate.

People do seem fascinated with what are the underlying motivations for a sex researcher to do their work. If you are studying what is considered the more ‘lighthearted’ aspects of sex, people will believe your motivation is because you are some sort of pervert. If, however, you are investigating negative issues around sex, people commonly believe it’s due to a past negative experience you might have suffered. It also seems there are no boundaries when it comes to talking to sex-researchers. Some people seem to think it’s okay to insult or harass us, and it’s often seen as our fault if something goes wrong - after all we were ‘asking for it’. Many people I’ve talked to have expressed concerns about the risks of working in this area. As a young woman talking about sex, or in the case of one of my studies being out on the streets with prostitutes, it might appear I do work in dangerous situations. However, that’s not where I’ve encountered problems. Most of the negative experiences my colleagues and I have encountered have arisen within academic departments. These include people receiving unwelcome sexual comments or touching, offers to pay the researcher for sex, stealing materials (such as porn magazines or tapes), homophobic abuse, and cases of rape or assault. Frequently, researchers keep these experiences secret so they don’t look bad, or because they know they won’t get a sympathetic hearing. And you won’t hear them talked about in public when a survey hits the press, as you want to show off your results, not report any problems. We want to encourage participation - not scare people away.

Of course this area is gendered. Younger female researchers will have different experiences from older male ones. Evidence suggests participants may well feel more inclined to talk to women researchers, but these researchers may also be more likely to have problems managing the sexual reactions of participants. As it’s a difficult one to call. You ask someone to talk about sex - perhaps more intimately than ever before - but some participants misunderstand boundaries and make advances to researchers. Again, there’s no arena for researchers to voice these concerns. But we do need to acknowledge that if participants will use sex research to talk about problems or get advice; they may be just as likely to use sex research as a site for humor or arousal and excitement.

‘Sex’ is a subject that is as vast as it is fascinating. Whilst sex-researchers have to negotiate the way they complete their work, we also have to address issues of ethics, confidentiality and anonymity that clearly have to be abided by to protect participants. We are highly restricted in what we can ask, where we can ask it, and who we can talk to. Many people don’t realize how we have to get permission to ask even simple questions of the public, and very often ethics committees prevent us from talking about sex.
However, these codes of conduct are frequently not respected by others who want to know about the cases we have encountered. I’ve certainly found that many people think sex-researchers are fun to have parties, without acknowledging I might want to leave work behind. My close friend and fellow sex-researcher Dr Gary Wood compares this as inviting a decorator to a party and asking them to repaint your living room while they’re there. Only that probably wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately the sex-researcher isn’t always so lucky and may have to spend social events either as a form of impromptu entertainment, or agony aunt hearing about strangers (or friends) sexual difficulties.

Maybe I’m making this area of research seem worse than it is. Certainly it isn’t an easy area to work in, as it is seen as jokey and not ‘proper science’. It’s an area where it is difficult to get funding, academic credibility, or support. Yet seeing as we face global problems around sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse, and sexual dysfunction, our work is very necessary. But due to the problems of not being taken seriously (not to mention the other issues I’ve already discussed) many researchers keep their work within the academy. The coverage of sex within the popular press is fairly dire, but many experts won’t talk to the press for fear of losing face, which means sex information isn’t as good as it should be. It also means people aren’t sure what to make of sex researchers when they meet them, and sometimes are a little suspicious of us. Yet despite all these difficulties I still wouldn’t swap my job for any other.

The fictitious character Carrie Bradshaw apparently knows good sex. And so do sex-researchers. They also get to hear about sex that is bad, illegal, dangerous, dysfunctional, or sometimes just mundane. But we have one thing in common. Above all else, we do this work because we want you to know good sex too.

Petra Boynton is a research psychologist, at University College London; where she is currently completing an evaluation of sexual dysfunction in patients’ registered with a General (family) Practitioner. Her work to date has focused on working with marginalised groups (e.g. women who do sex work), and attempting to improve problems with research methodologies – particularly in ‘pornography research’ (on which her PhD was based). Her main research interests outside sex/health research include making health messages more accessible to the general public, improving academic training for psychology students, and encouraging scientists to speak to the public via the media. Petra is the editor of the British Psychological Society journal ‘Psychology of Women Section Review’; and is a year 2000 Cosmopolitan Magazine woman of achievement, for her work in the field of education and research. You can find out more at