science of us

My Life As a Sex Researcher

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I went to graduate school to get a degree in social psychology, and initially, I was going to focus on studying the psychology of romantic relationships. But I ended up being a teaching assistant for a human-sexuality course, and that opened my eyes to this whole world of sex research. Before that course, I didn’t even realize it was an option to study sex. I was someone who went to Catholic school for a lot of my life, and in my undergraduate training and master’s program, there was no option to take a sex course. So it was really that moment that I realized I wanted to become a sex researcher.

Being in that course answered a lot of questions for me, but it also raised a lot of questions for me. For example, at the time, one of the things that was new was online dating and hooking up, and there just really wasn’t any research yet on how that was changing the way that we were approaching relationships and the implications for sexual communication and sexual health practices. So I remember being interested in that, and thinking, We really need sex research that addresses the needs of people in modern society. Because there are very few people who are doing sex research, and just a lot of questions that have never really been answered.

I tend to describe myself as a promiscuous researcher in that I’m not just interested in one thing. The way typical academics go is, they pick one area, they spend their entire career studying it, and they get increasingly narrow as they go along. I can’t do that — there are so many areas of sex research that are still unexplored. My earlier research was focused on casual sex; I did several studies looking at friends with benefits relationships, and how people navigate that, and what happens to them in the long run. I also did some studies looking at the use of hookup apps and how that’s related to sexual health, and some work on group sex and threesomes. I do some work now on sexual fantasies, which is another really under-studied area, and a lot of research on people who are in consensually non-monogamous relationships.

Surprisingly, I’ve never really had trouble recruiting people for studies. People seem interested in sex and in talking about it, and I generally have a really good response when I’m conducting research. Now that said, I have colleagues who do face more difficulty, such as those who are doing studies where people have to come in to a lab and have equipment attached to their genitals. Those face a little more difficulty in recruiting because the method can be a little more invasive.

One challenge in this line of work is that there’s almost no funding for sex research unless you’re studying STDs, and in particular HIV. If you’re not in that direct sexual-health area, it’s really hard to get money to do research in the U.S., and that’s why a lot of sex researchers I know have moved to Canada — it’s a lot easier to get funding for your research there. And there have been a lot of political attacks on sex research here over the years. It’s a very controversial area.

But it’s not just a funding issue, and it’s not just politicians who attack the work that we do. Sometimes, even getting accepted in our departments, by our colleagues, is hard. People don’t always take you seriously when you’re a sex researcher. An example that comes to mind is when I was teaching a human-sexuality course at Harvard, and there was another faculty member who complained because my course had a very high enrollment. They thought that my course was just fluff, because it’s about sex, and that people should be taking their course instead. That’s just one example, but that’s kind of the attitude that you face: People don’t necessarily recognize the scientific or academic value of what we’re doing.

Another misconception is that people assume that if you’re a sex researcher, you’re wild and crazy and really kinky. But there’s some data where they compared the sex lives of sex researchers to everyone else, and what you see is that we’re really not that different. One area where sex researchers and educators do differ is they have safe sex more often, but it’s not necessarily the case that they’re more sexually active or adventurous. And I think there’s this perception of what sex researchers do where people think that it’s kind of like the TV show Masters of Sex, where we’re watching people have sex and hooking them up to devices and showing them porn and all that. But that’s very far from my reality. My days are most often spent in front of a computer, with a statistical analysis program and a Word document open, so it’s not quite as glamorous or as sexy as people might think it is.

Still, people ask me for advice all the time. They come up to me at dinner parties, at bars, anywhere. Usually there’s some alcohol involved — people will have a drink or two, and then come up and start telling me about the sexual issues in their relationship. I think the reason they come to me is that they don’t feel comfortable talking about this with their partner, so they’re looking for advice on how to talk to their partner about the sexual issues they’re having.

I’m not a therapist, so I make that clear to people who ask me that my training is as a scientist and a researcher and not in administering therapy. But if I have some research-based insights that I can give them, I’ll do that, because I know that if people are struggling, many of them aren’t going to go somewhere else to seek help. I have friends who, years later, will thank me for insights that I’ve shared with them, because it changed the way that they saw the situation or saw themselves, So that’s been nice and gratifying to see. But in cases where people were having really severe issues, where just giving them a little bit of sex education isn’t, going to help, I do encourage them to seek professional therapy and counseling.

It’s not the case that I went into this field looking for personal insight, but you can’t help but sometimes draw that insight from the work that you do. One example of this would be, when it comes to the subject of sexual fantasies, I’m the kind of person where any time I have a dream or a fantasy, it’s always in the third person, like I’m watching a movie. And in the process of researching sexual fantasy, I found that a lot of people have a first-person point of view experience when they fantasize.

So for me, that was very eye opening — I hadn’t necessarily thought about it before, because we have a tendency to think that everyone sees the world the same way we do. That’s one of the things I love about what I do: It’s always challenging you to think and see the world differently, and recognize how much diversity and variability there is in the way our brains work.

Justin Lehmiller is the author of the blog “Sex and Psychology” and the book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.

My Life As a Sex Researcher