Sexual Psychology/Who's Doing What

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I mentioned in the first chapter that I frequently get questions about this or that topic in human sexuality from people — the less shy ones, I'd guess — who have recently learned about my research interests. Though some of the questions are unusual and unexpected, more often the same questions are just about the same: How often do people actually have sex? Is it normal for my husband to look at pornography? What size is the average penis?

I think the reason questions like those come up over and over again is that they are, fundamentally, normative questions. That is, they are questions about what is "normal," what everyone else is doing. This is unsurprising: We humans do seem to have a natural curiosity about what other people are doing, especially in taboo areas like sex. More than that, though, it allows us to see how "normal" we are. Should I feel fulfilled with the amount of sex I'm having? Or — heaven forbid — am I some sort of pervert? Of course, demographic data can never really answer that sort of question. As the philosopher David Hume pointed out centuries ago, there is a great divide between the "is" and the "ought." Sex research can tell you how close you are to what's average, but it will never be able to tell you how close you are to what's right. That's a question for other fields — philosophy, religion, perhaps law.

Nonetheless, questions about what people are doing and whom they're doing it with are some of the most interesting and fundamental in sex research. As a purely practical example, we can't combat the spread of AIDS if we don't know what sort of people have a lot of sexual partners, what sort of people are less likely to use condoms, and so on. On a more theoretical level, it's impossible to understand the effects of culture of sexual behavior if we don't know what that behavior is. Because of this fundamental importance (and because it's just so darn interesting),

Surveying the Field[edit | edit source]

If you want to figure out what Americans think, do, or think other people do, the solution seems straightforward: Take a survey. Even if you know nothing about the mechanics of survey methodology, you probably have the impression that modern surveys are among the most marvelously useful things ever invented. And that they are. That's why you can hardly turn on the nightly news or read a major magazine without learning of a new survey. You're probably most familiar with political surveys (or polls, as they're more commonly called), which seem to track the public's opinion on every imaginable issue, from who the next President will be to whether the government should pay subsidies to Iowa corn farmers.

These sorts of surveys are not easy, of course, but as surveys go they're pretty routine. To give a quite simplified example: If you wanted to know who will win the upcoming race for mayor of your city, you could simply pick a couple of hundred numbers at random out of the local phone book, call them, and ask "Who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming mayoral race?" Add up the responses, and you've got your answer. This would certainly not be the most accurate survey in the world, but even in that simplified form it would give you a pretty good idea, as long as the race wasn't too close.

Taking surveys about sexual behavior is not so easy, though. Imagine your reaction if a stranger called your house some evening and asked how many times you'd had sex in the last month. Personally, I'd probably hang up on them immediately; who knows if they're actually researchers or just prank callers? And of course a reasonably comprehensive survey of American sexual behavior would have dozens of questions, some of them even more sensitive than that one, and require participants of every age, race, and religion from every state. The prospects for such a thing seem pretty dim.

For that reason, most sex surveys have not been of that conventional sort. The earliest and still most famous American survey was that by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues.[Kinsey, et al., 1948] Kinsey and his many assistants.

Surveys of large groups have been conducted in the UK, France, New Zealand and Australia. Recently the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society was established. Summary survey results were also made available.

Related Links[edit | edit source]

ABC News Primetime Live Poll: American Sex Survey