And yet proper sex researchers must not be size queens; you must also devote proper attention to the lesser-known issue of the ‘motion of the ocean’, a.k.a. your sampling strategy. Your sampling strategy is your plan for who you will rope into your study and how. The goal is to get some people who can reasonably be expected to pretty much match the ‘population’ you’re interested in — in this case, men and women. A sample like that is called a representative sample and the reason you want one is because it is your golden ticket to generalisability — an omniscient, god-like state from which you can quite legitimately issue pronouncements about entire sexes based on your observations of only some of them.
But hold up — how hard is it going to be to choose a whole bunch of people that you can be confident approximate the general population of ‘men’ and ‘women’? Tricky, right? But now think how much easier it would be to just stick some fliers up around campus. That’s why I recommend following Rupp and Wallen’s lead down the well-trodden path of recruiting a sample composed entirely of subjects from “[local] area graduate and professional schools.” If you’re lucky, your university might even have one of those sweet setups whereby students are forced to participate in experiments and surveys in order to gain credit in their psych courses. WINNING.
Another problem is that not everyone can be expected to respond well when you’ve gotten them back to the lab and you whip out the porny pictures. What you will need to do to get the Ethics Committee off of your back is to screen out anybody who might sue the university for traumatizing exposure to images of naked people defiling their body-temples, probably without even being married to each other. Try screening your potential subjects for experience with pornography at the same time as you are filtering out the gays.
So now you have a sample of highly educated, young heterosexual porn watchers: 15 men, 15 normally cycling women and 15 women on hormonal contraceptives. It’s here, regretfully, that you may need to employ a small sleight-of-hand. Your study won’t be nearly so exciting if you title it ‘Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye tracking study of straight Atlanta-area male and female college students who are also porn fiends,’ so just refer to ‘men’ and ‘women’ for the remainder of the paper, as though it hasn’t occurred to you that college students’ sexuality could differs in any important way from that of other demographic groups...
Step 4: Conduct the experiment
Now to the lab! You may, at some point – perhaps when picking up that crate of Applied Science Laboratories Model 501 headband-mounted eye trackers – be struck by the notion that looking at erotica in a laboratory with computing equipment strapped to your noggin might be kind of different to how humans perve out in the wild? Suppress this thought. Just as most of your colleagues study their students and then generalize to whole sexes, most of them also do it in labs using weird equipment, so you can trust them not to bring it up when you run into them at the water-cooler. At least you’re not wrapping wires around anyone’s dick, you know?
You’d be wrong to think such practices place any question marks over the entire enterprise; in fact the mechanism is much more like the way in which two wrongs cancel each other out, producing a right.
Step 5: Analyse the data
Rather than generating a few firm hypotheses at the outset and then checking whether the data bears them out, just kind of run random statistical tests on your dataset. Run LOTS and LOTS of random statistical tests on your dataset. This has two key advantages. One, it will result in a dense paper that nobody wants to read carefully when, HELLO!, they could be masturbating. Two, it will increase your chances of finding statistically significant differences by chance alone, a phenomenon that can only be described as ‘nifty’.
Here’s how it works. Like Rupp and Wallen, you take the standard p=0.05 measure of statistical significance. What this means is that you’re assuming a difference is real when the probability of it occurring by chance, rather than because a difference really exists, is less than 5 per cent. The first neat thing about this is that the more tests you run, the more and more likely you are to find false as well as true indications of difference, which gives you more to write about. The second neat thing is that readers who are intimidated by numbers — and that will be quite a few of them — can easily get confused between statistical significance (‘a difference really exists’) and everyday significance (‘the difference is substantial and meaningful’).
Step 6: Interpret the findings
And difference is sexy! Unlike Barbara and Allan Pease, real sex researchers are expected to be aware that men and women both come from Earth and are, strictly speaking, from the same homo sapien species. Nonetheless, it is imperative that you maintain a steely focus on differences. Haven’t you heard about how dull the world would be if everyone were the same?
Let’s play a game to illustrate this principle. Say you make pie charts showing what percentage of ‘look time’ your three groups spent in each ‘look zone’ and they look like this:
At first glance, the most noteworthy feature of the row of pie charts is that they are all quite similar: everyone has paid minimal attention to the background or clothing; no-one cares to look much at the male body or face; and for all three groups, genitals, female bodies and female faces together account for the majority of looking time. You could give this observation more than one half of a sentence in your paper.
I mean, you could if you were trying to bore everyone. Now ask yourself whether it wouldn’t be more exciting to simply generate an assortment of existing but generally quite small differences that are nigh impossible to interpret: People who’ve watched a lot of porn look less at men’s faces! Women taking hormonal contraception look a bit more at the background! Compared to people who aren’t getting any, people who’ve had sex recently look at genitals less and clothes more! More sex-obsessed people spend longer looking at female faces! Wheee! Wasn’t that fun?
Despite your best efforts, some of the sex differences you uncover may fail to substantiate earlier predictions. Rupp and Wallen assumed, for instance, that “men would look more at explicitly sexual components, such as the genitals and female body.” However, as we’ve seen, it turned out that everyone was mesmerized by genitals. Not only that, normally cycling women were the ones who really homed in on the pink bits. Meanwhile, men spent a disproportionate amount of time gazing, enraptured, at the ladies’ pretty faces! If something like this happens to you, do not panic, and under no circumstances attempt to re-think any of your world-views. Instead, try casting about for another gender stereotype. There are plenty, so one is bound to fit. How about, for example, the possibility that unlike women, men have to look at faces for aaaages just to “extrapolate information” about what a facial expression means? Men! Those emotionally clueless boneheads! LOL!
Once you take account of the subjects’ heterosexuality, there actually is one very large, very striking sex difference in Rupp and Wallen’s data: while men looked a great deal at the bodies and faces of the opposite sex, women spent far more time looking at same-sex bodies and faces and relatively little time looking at men’s bodies. This is kind of weird! Straight women are meant to find men arousing, not other ladies.
It’s at times like these that maybe, for just one tiny second, you’ll find yourself pondering the cultural context: in this case, an environment utterly, utterly saturated with images of beautiful women, beautiful women that other women are encouraged to study and imitate and compare themselves to, day in and day out? You might very well ask yourself whether a woman’s lifetime of training in the very act of looking admiringly, if anxiously, at images of other women might have some effect on what she does when you sit her down and put an image of a man and woman in front of her? Alternatively, harden the fuck up. This is SCIENCE, not a first year Gender Studies tutorial.
Look, at the end of the day, we all want to understand our surroundings a little better such that the feeling of sheer terror at being an ignorant, powerless speck of short-lived dust in an infinite universe might be quelled but for a moment. So it’d be nice for all the research-reading folk out there if you could draw together the threads from your findings and end your paper with some kind of cogent statement of what on earth it all might mean.
It may be, however, that like Rupp and Wallen, you’ve chosen a research question and a methodology that leaves you none the wiser as to why your participants looked where they did and how — if at all — this relates to physiological or subjective arousal. You may find yourself able to “provide little insight” into the source of observed sex differences, offering only a limp reference to “biology, socialization, or most likely, an interaction between the two,” which only leaves, what, a gazillion possibilities? Sigh. Never mind.
Step 7: Disseminate
You’ve written up your paper and sent it off for review and publication. Congratulations! Your strivings have added one more piece of information to the already complex mess of data that other humans must try to make sense of. Theoretically, the study’s findings should be replicated before they really take on the appearance of fact. But, happily, the world is not a science textbook! We have the media and the internet to perform this very same function for half the price — so all you need to do now is draft that press release. Then sit back! Relax, perhaps with some visual sexual stimuli? You are now a sex researcher.