Sex Research: The Ins and Outs, the Ups and Downs (Thinking About Sex Yet?!)

Welcome to the inaugural SexLab blog post! As the Supervisor of the SEXual Health Research LABoratory (SexLab), Director of the Sex Therapy Service, and Professor in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University, I am thrilled to be able to offer you a relevant, non-heterosexist, research-based, and fun-to-read blog that will liven up discussions with your friends and partners and provide you with much food for thought. Each blog is written by one of our fantastic past or present team members, or an invited member. This first blog is from me, and it is on what I do for “a living”. When someone asks me what I “do” and I say, “I am a sex researcher”, the person either:

a) Avoids eye contact, and ends the conversation; or b) Gets a little sparky eye glint, and asks for more information (on anything related to sex... and usually about ‘a friend’ who has ‘an issue’).

I have gotten really good at predicting how someone will react when asking me this question, so sometimes I say something vague, like “I do research in health psychology.” This statement isn’t entirely a lie, but it’s useful if I am stuck on a plane with someone and I really don't want them to a) feel really uncomfortable sitting beside me for several hours, or b) feel too comfortable sitting beside me for several hours. Don't get me wrong, I love talking about all things sex-related, but there is usually a time and a place for sex talk and it definitely isn’t while I am running down the street trying to catch one of my run-away twins while dragging the other one behind me!

It’s not as if I am the first sex researcher out there. Many of you might know this tidbit if you have seen the Kinsey movie or the Masters of Sex series. Although sex research is a relatively new field of research—originally (and sometimes still) called sexology—it has deep-rooted historical underpinnings. In Ancient Greek and Roman times, sexuality was discussed by philosophers and physicians like Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Galen. They studied, described, and discussed questions of reproduction, contraception, human sexual behavior, sexual dysfunctions and their treatment, sexual education, sexual ethics, and sexual politics.

In ancient times, it wasn't all boring descriptions about sex. More fun aspects of sex, and how to “do it”, were written about in books of erotology—which dealt with sexual techniques to increase pleasure. One of the most famous erotology books was written by Ovid, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and was published in the first century BC. Ars Amatoria was a treatise on the art of lovemaking and seduction. This book shocked the Roman Emperor Augustus so much that he banned Ovid from Rome (this punishment can be considered a downside to delving into sexuality; as you may be aware, it is still a taboo subject in Western society). Ovid lived the rest of his life in exile in Greece (which is a great upside to the downside of being exiled; who doesn't LOVE Greece (current financial issues aside, of course)?!).

On the topic of erotic publications over the ages, in India, some 2000 years ago, a religious scholar named Vatsayana wrote a book called Kama Sutra, which you may have heard of since versions are still very popular today—there are even Kama Sutra phone apps detailing different sex positions! The Kama Sutra is considered to be the most famous sex book ever written. Today, it is known simply as the “book of sexual positions”, but it was much more than that. It was a guide to full-body eroticism and sensual pleasure. Oral sex, for example, was a popular (if illicit) sexual activity and the book described ways to perform oral sex that would maximize pleasure. Don't we all wish that we had a guide like that?! Or that our partners did, lol?!

But back to the present… people generally think of Kinsey and Masters & Johnson (M&J) as the first sex researchers—and they indeed had a lot of clout in bringing sexuality research to the masses—but it’s important to remember that other people had a huge influence well before them. Just to name a few:

Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician, founded the first gay rights organization (the Scientific Humanitarian Committee), published the first Journal for Sexology in 1908, co-founded the first sexological organization—the Medical Society for Sexology—in 1913, opened the world's first sexological institute (the Institute for Sexology in Berlin) in 1919, and organized the first sexological conference in 1921, among other advances.

Albert Moll was also a great promoter of sexology at the same time as Hirschfeld, and he wrote a number of important sexological books, including one that seems to contain the precursor to M&J’s famous 4-phase sexual response cycle. Moll’s cycle consisted of: the onset of voluptuousness (which, in M&J language, would be the excitement phase), the voluptuous sensation (plateau phase), the voluptuous acme (orgasm), and the sudden decline and cessation of the voluptuous sensation (resolution).

Alfred Kinsey was interested in sexual response too. After he collected tons of data by interviewing people about every aspect of sexuality imaginable (in the 1940’s and 1950’s), Kinsey took his research a step further. Towards the end of his career, Kinsey would hide and observe intercourse between prostitutes and their clients to see what orgasm looked like. Eventually, he and his team progressed to filming masturbation and sex.

There is a whole chapter about this titillating topic in Kinsey’s Female Report on the Physiology of Sexual Response and Orgasm—the information contained in this book was the best and most complete data on human sexual response before M&J’s work (in the 1960’s). What Kinsey said about the clitoris was, at the time, revolutionary. After describing clitoral anatomy, he stated: “… because of its small size and the limited protrusion of the clitoris, many males do not understand that it may be as important a center of stimulation for females as the penis is for males. However, most females … recognize the importance of this structure in sexual response. There are many females who are incapable of maximum arousal unless the clitoris is sufficiently stimulated.”

In addition to observing intercourse and masturbation, Kinsey also arranged for 5 gynecologists to test the sensitivity of the female genitals in about 900 women. He concluded: “The relative unimportance of the vagina as a center of erotic stimulation is further attested to by the fact that relatively few females masturbate by making deep vaginal insertions.” At the same time, he recognized that vaginal stimulation can be perceived as pleasurable by some women: “[They] find that when coitus involves deep vaginal penetrations, they secure a type of satisfaction which differs from that provided by the stimulation of the labia or clitoris alone. In view of the evidence that the walls of the vagina are ordinarily insensitive, it is obvious that the satisfactions obtained from vaginal penetration must depend on some mechanisms that lies outside of the vaginal walls themselves.” So, perhaps this report is one of the first on the G-spot?

William Masters & Virginia Johnson invited people into their lab to have sex and orgasms while they were hooked up to all sorts of monitoring devices and while M&J observed. Much of the time, the people having sex with each other only met right before the sex session! M&J even developed a clear dildo that contained a tiny surgical camera to record what happened inside the vagina and internal organs throughout female sexual response. Their resulting 4-phase sexual response cycle is still included in sexuality and other textbooks today. Thanks to M&J we learned about vasocongestion, the orgasmic platform, vaginal lubrication, the refractory period—and so much more. They even established a sex therapy treatment center to help those with sexual issues. We certainly owe much to M&J, even though their work has been criticized on many levels (for example, ignoring the psychological components of sexual response and excluding participants who could not, um, “perform”—no kidding, there were some people who couldn't function with all the gizmos in the room and eyeballs watching them!). Most importantly, we learned not to watch live sex day after day with someone beside us, lest we wind up marrying (and then divorcing) them!

All of these influences—and many more not mentioned—laid the groundwork for sex research as we know it today. Many universities today will have at least 1 person who studies some aspect of sexuality, and will offer at least a course or two in sexuality-related areas. There are so many different ways to study sexuality, from animal to historical research, and even studies with fancy machines that rival those used by M&J way back when (my lab has some of these devices!). But none of us can repeat the work that Kinsey and M&J have done. Maybe it’s because we now have Research Ethics Boards who frown on the thought of observing participants in the throes of orgasm (haha), or maybe it’s because their work is simply non-replicable given its absolute foundational basis. With this blog, we hope to introduce you to many aspects of sex research and a variety of issues related to sexuality to inform, titillate, and sometimes challenge you.

Caroline F. Pukall, Ph.D., C.Psych.