Sex research is alive and going well, even if the actual sex isn’t

For Dr. Debby Herbenick, the study of sex goes way beyond the bedroom.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen
Lynn Comella

More than 60 years ago Alfred Kinsey, the zoologist turned sex researcher from Indiana University, released the results of the first major study to examine human sexual behavior in the United States. The American public was incredulous. The media was fascinated. People did what? How frequently? And even before marriage?

Kinsey’s legacy was alive and well last week as more than 400 attendees from around the globe—academic researchers, sex educators, health care practitioners and therapists—convened at Green Valley Ranch resort for the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the oldest professional organization dedicated to advancing knowledge about sexuality.

Among those in attendance was Dr. Debby Herbenick, associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and a member of the research team that recently completed one of the most comprehensive surveys of sexual behavior ever conducted, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior.

Since the release of the study’s initial findings in a special issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine in early October, there’s been a firestorm of media publicity surrounding the results. There have been more than 500 television and radio spots and more than 1,000 newspaper and online reports about the study, and 50,000 people from around the world have downloaded the research papers—a level of interest that has surprised even the research team.

According to Michael Reece, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion and one of the study’s lead investigators, “The fact that this many people around the world have taken the time to download this study shows that there is a thirst for information about sexuality.” Personal curiosity aside, the results also have important implications for medical and public health professionals who are on the front lines in addressing issues related to sexually transmitted infections, HIV prevention and unplanned pregnancies.

The research team from Indiana University discussed the study, its methodology and findings, and implications for public health programs during a special plenary session at the SSSS meeting. The survey is one of the most thorough of its kind to be conducted in almost 20 years, and includes the sexual experiences and condom use of 5,865 adolescents and adults between ages 14 and 94, allowing researchers to chart sexual development across the lifespan. The study’s highlights paint an interesting, and in some regards surprising, picture of sexual behavior in the 21st century:

Orgasm gap: Eighty-five percent of men reported that their partner had an orgasm during the most recent sexual event, compared with 64 percent of women who reported having an orgasm during their most recent sexual event. Although this was not a couples study, the results are interesting and suggest—at least to me—that even in a post-Sex and the City era, information about female orgasm and sexual response continues to elude many men.

Women and pain: One-third of women reported pain during their last sexual encounter. This result, more than any other, came as a surprise to Herbenick and suggests that women are experiencing sex very differently from men.

Condom use: Rates were higher among young people, unmarried people and black and Latino men, indicating that public health efforts targeting specific populations have had positive results.

Adolescent sexuality: Contrary to commonly held perceptions that young people are becoming sexually active at younger ages, the study’s data indicates that partnered sexual behavior among young people is not as pervasive as many think. Young people are abstaining from partnered sex more than they’re having it, and when they are, they are using condoms.

Herbenick, 34, defies the stereotype of an academic researcher who is divorced from the real-world implications of her research. In addition to being a research scientist, she is an author, a blogger, a sex columnist for Men’s Health and Time Out Chicago and a frequent media commentator. Herbenick has appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, where she used a “vulva puppet” to talk about women’s sexual anatomy. And just this week, she appeared on an episode of The Doctors. “I don’t think our research matters if others don’t hear about it,” she told me, “We need people—researchers, educators, and journalists—to translate our research findings to others.”

Herbenick didn’t grow up thinking she would become a sexuality researcher and educator. After graduating from college with a degree in psychology and an interest in childhood development, she found herself working at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University on a study that involved asking college students about their childhood sexual experiences—e.g., did they play “doctor” or other games like, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours”? It was during this time that her interest in sex research, and her affection for the Kinsey Institute, developed. Graduate school and advanced degrees followed, and Herbenick has never looked back.

Herbenick has her hands in a number of research projects, from examining attitudes toward vibrator use to investigating the relationship between sexual lubricant and pleasure (“How is it possible that we don’t know more about the things people put in their bodies?” she asked). She also has an ongoing interest in understanding how people feel about their genitals and the genitals of others. “There are many ways that people can have sex,” Herbenick explained, “but many ways involve genitals. I was intrigued to find that there was not much known about people’s attitudes toward genitals, and how these attitudes fit with our decisions about health care and sex.”

Herbenick seems tireless in her pursuit of scientific knowledge about sexuality and in her commitment to disseminate the most up-to-date information about sex to as wide an audience as possible. As for me, after three days of listening to researchers discuss what happens when only one partner orgasms, whether college sex education makes a difference, the role alcohol plays in risky sexual behavior and how body image affects sexual functioning, among other sex-related topics, I wanted nothing more than to put my feet up, have a glass of wine and play Scrabble. That is, as long as I didn’t get the letters S-E-X.

Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV.

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