Once upon a time, research about sex had mostly been done by The Kinsey Institute and/or Masters & Johnson. Fast forward to now, and there are not only many studies, but whole journals dedicated to sex research. Consequently, we know a lot more about the physiology of sex, as well as its emotional and relational impact.
But not all research is well-done or applicable to the Christian life. We should use caution and discernment when looking at these studies. So let’s look at the perks and pitfalls of sex research.
What’s the purpose?
If you remember anything about the scientific method from school, you know that a study begins with a hypothesis. Ideally, observation and background research inform the hypothesis, but the research itself follows a pattern of asking a question, forming a hypothesis, determining the sample and design, conducting the experiment, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions.
What hypothesis researchers propose impacts how they design the study, which data they look at and which data seems irrelevant or tangential to their purpose, and how they process the results of the study. The researcher might be biased or simply might be looking at A and not B, and that needs to taken into consideration when deciding whether the research is applicable to our marriage.
For instance, let’s say a researcher wants to know whether a couple is more likely to climax after watching pornography together. The researcher presumes pornography to be a benign or beneficial act and then looks at short-term effects on sexual arousal and satisfaction. Indeed, plenty of studies have noted some positive, short-term effects of viewing porn. But that purpose is at odds with our goals for marriage!
We want our marriages to honor God and others. We want our sexual focus to be on one another, not bringing in others outside the bedroom. And we want to understand the negative, long-term effects of viewing porn (see An Open Letter on Porn | gottman.com), as well as the cost to those involved in the porn industry (By the Numbers: Is the Porn Industry Connected to Sex Trafficking? | fightthenewdrug.org).
Other research might be right in line with our goals, despite being from a secular viewpoint. For instance, a 2016 study of 52,588 people showed a 30-point orgasm gap between men and women. That is, 95% of heterosexual men said they usually or always orgasmed when sexually intimate, while only 65% of heterosexual women said the same. The study’s purpose of determining how often men vs women orgasm is useful information for husbands and wives as well.
Who’s the sample?
The study’s sample is a key factor in deciding whether (1) the study was well-designed, and (2) its conclusions apply.
When looking at a study, ask: Where did the study subjects come from? What are their demographics (age, gender, etc.)? Were the participants already primed in some way to respond one way or another?
Early on, sex studies were biased toward people willing to participate in a sex study. While that’s still somewhat true, the culture was more hush-hush about sex years back, so those who did volunteer tended to be more sexually inclined than the average. At times, those skewed samples made for skewed conclusions.
Not long ago, I saw a headline boasting that new research showed women were just as high drive as men. The study turned out to be a survey of visitors to an adultery site. Yep, these were men and women actively seeking sex with someone outside their marriage, so duh, they consider themselves higher drive. That’s not a good sample!
Chris Taylor also pointed out in our latest Sex Chat for Christian Wives episode that college students are easy-to-get study participants, so they are overrepresented in research. But studying the sex lives of college students won’t tell you all that much about the sex lives of couples married ten years or more.
Another common research sampling is whoever comes to your website. It can certainly be interesting and even useful to hear what my readers or another’s readers think about a topic, but that’s not a representative sample. So take those “I polled my readers and they said…” statements less as fact than as food for thought.
Basically, anytime research conclusions are cited, one question should be: Who did they study? Some researchers do a great job of sampling, others not so much.
What are they selling?
I hate to be so cynical, but a number of research studies are financed by or connected with individuals or entities who would like you to buy their stuff.
For example, if a sex toy company commissions a study that shows vibrators are the number one way for women to climax, I have questions. Maybe the conclusion is accurate, or maybe there was heavy or light pressure to deliver a certain outcome.
It doesn’t even have to be intentional bias. Sometimes we’re just in inner rings where we’re influenced by friends and colleagues. We know the general thinking of the people we hobnob with, and we don’t really want to stray too far from that.
It’s just worth asking who financed the study, what entities are associated with the researchers, and whether the sale of any products or a person’s career advancement is impacted by the results.
How do you really study sex?
If I want to study the migration patterns of butterflies, or the efficacy of a prescription drug, or whether people prefer Diet Coke or Diet Dr Pepper, it’s pretty easy to imagine how one can do that objectively. But how does one really learn about sex between humans? Obviously, we don’t want to observe people doing it, so studies typically use self-report, exposure to sexual stimuli (like arousing images), and/or masturbation + physiological readings. But do those yield accurate results?
More importantly, do they tell us enough about the whole of the sexual experience?
- Imagine a wife who shows all the physiological signs of arousal, orgasm, and release. But throughout the experience, she feels guilty.
- Or take an elderly couple who can no longer complete penetration due to medical issues, yet they engage in lovemaking nearly every day.
- How about the husband who can become aroused easily and masturbate to climax, but struggles to reach that peak with his wife?
In each of these scenarios, a study might draw the wrong conclusion. How do you design research that captures the complexity of sexual intimacy between husband and wife?
Well, you don’t. Rather, you take a piece here and a piece there and put them together to highlight important aspects of the sexual relationship. And underneath that, you need a foundation of understanding God’s design for sex in marriage.
Believe me, I’m fascinated by sex research. I’ve written about it here, here, and here. But no study expresses the depth of your sexual experience and your spouse’s and how those come together to form your current situation. We should use discernment when considering takeaways from research about sexual intimacy, looking at the purpose, sampling, and more. We should prioritize what God says about sexual intimacy above any specific research finding, for He is the one who created sex and knows what it is supposed to look like.
And oftentimes, the best sex research we can conduct is in our own bedroom, with our own beloved, studying one another and figuring out how to nurture a physical, emotional, and even spiritual connection there.