Friday, April 23, 2010

On perpetual questions, the meaning of life, and the risks associated with starting a controversial line of sex research

“Love is the answer, but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions” Woody Allen

The hands down, knock down, down and dirty best thing about being a researcher is the fact that you not only get to wonder, you also get to know. What excites me about my PhD, and now my job, is that the I can turn things I always wanted to know into research questions, and research questions into studies, and studies into answers (or hints), and answers into articles.

As such, my guiding passion for racial equality has led me to research into race-relations. After several years of researching almost exclusively on race-based topics, and having just conquered my fear of saying the word ‘race’ in public, and engaging in this hot topic of research, I have recently decided to turn my SPSS hand to something a bit different.

In particular, I have always been fascinated by the disparity between men and women’s sexuality, and the need to talk about women’s sexuality honestly and openly. Recent articles that I have read about female anorgasmia (inability to orgasm or difficulty reaching orgasm), and related evolutionary articles about the evolutionary uselessness of the female orgasm compounded my interest. Accordingly, a few weeks ago I launched an online sex survey that asked members of the general public to tell me the ins and outs of their sexual experience. This survey has been an incredible challenge, and an unrivaled learning experience. I found it very confronting to gather my materials, compose my questions, and disseminate the study with my name publicly attached to it. Likewise, participants reported that it was good, but also scary and shocking, to be asked these questions and answer them with candour.

About a week after I launched this study I attended what I think is my 6th conference of the Society for Australasian Social Psychologists, in Perth. Being the sort of ambitious tool that I am, I decided to present the preliminary results of my sex research – results of a study that had been running for less than a week.

On the plane, sleep deprived and wary, I downloaded the results from about 500 participants, and set to analyzing. At first glance, the findings were extremely promising and interesting (I am currently writing a report for participants). Despite this, however, I was not thrilled. While they were very interesting and above all important to me, it became salient that I would be presenting on salacious and shocking data, that really delved into sex – not just vague sexual attitudes but specific sexual practices and knowledge.

“Oh no!” my inner dialogue began. “They will think that I am a strumpet!”

“No, no.” I reasoned back to myself. “They will understand that it is valuable research, even if it is a little sexy.”

Never to be defeated, my defeatist self replied “Who are you kidding – you are going to be banned from returning to another conference, and also will be stoned to death I bet.”

Thus soundly beaten, I continued working on my slides, dreading the mocking from my peers that I knew would come.

So what happened? Well, yes, my talk raised eyebrows. It made people giggle, and it made people blush. After the talk, it seemed to disinhibit people as well – various other academics and PhD students approached me and told me ribald jokes. At first glance it looked like maybe I was right – that sex research simply couldn’t be taken seriously, and that this was risky departure for me career-wise.

BUT WAIT! Since the conference I have been inundated by e-mails from top-level academics from the conference who have told me that they have been thinking about my research, and have some suggestions about what factors may explain my findings. I have had about six offers to read drafts of my first article on this topic from people that I previously did not engage with. Members of the general public have sent me over 50 e-mails, thanking me for talking about this topic, telling me how personally important it is to them, and inviting me along to small group meetings at hospitals and public venues so that my next survey may better tap in to the wide range of factors that make up who we are sexually.

Going down this research road has been TERRIFYING, challenging, and already, exciting and rewarding. Presenting this research at the conference, and publicly outing this line of research before I felt ready was a risk. But hey! I think that now is a good time to remind myself (and you), that this is what is so EXPLETIVE DELETED sensational about being a researcher! We get to ask and answer the questions that we are intrinsically interested in. We get to gather knowledge about the crazy phenomena of human existence and feed it back to the public. Hoorah for research! Knee-knockingly frightening, overwhelmingly important and interesting, and a challenge worth taking.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see risks being taken by academics and for sharing your innner process. May even inspire more students to consider the research path! Thanks, Stephen