Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Seven Steps To Being A Sex Researcher

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It’s funny that careers counsellors never tell kids they can become sex researchers, because it seems pretty obvious to me that it’s the best of all possible occupations. Firstly, there’s sex, which is something teenagers (and most everybody else) is interested in. If sex is interesting and your work involves sex then you are, by association, an interesting human being.

Secondly, you have research. Apart from fucking, research is probably humanity’s greatest invention. It took us a long time (because busy fucking?) but after tens of thousands of years of thinking that the earth stayed up because it was resting atop of an infinite stack of turtles, we hit upon a way of finding out stuff that was more likely to be (if you’ll allow me) ‘true’. Research is the thing that takes you from being a moron with an opinion to being an authoritative moron with an opinion that people have no choice but to accept because they don’t really know anything about linear regression and therefore don’t find it suspicious that, despite extremely low p values, you haven’t plotted your regression data. Also, research adds a pleasing lube-y sheen of middle-class respectability to your prurience. It’s like intriguing-cute-girl-with-glasses sexy, which is widely considered superior to orange-thigh-exposed-beneath-poly-lurex-blend-dress sexy.

The combination of sex and research is simply unbeatable, so in the interests of compensating for a lack of guidance at school, I have prepared this remedial guide to sex research, covering all of the key stages from design through dissemination. For concrete illustration of the concepts, I will be referring to a study, representative of the genre, by Heather A Rupp and Kim Wallen: Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye tracking study in men and women, published a few years back in the academic journal Hormones and Behaviour. Strap yourselves in!

Step 1: Develop an hypothesis
Ever since there was nothing new under the sun, it’s been hard to come up with original research topics. I advise doing like Rupp and Wallen and sticking to an old favourite — perhaps a comparison of men’s and women’s responses to porn? Since a lot of research has already been done on this theme, you won’t wow anybody just by firing up Redtube and slipping on a plethysmograph. Instead, you’re going to have to come up with a new and highly specific angle, such as the hypothesis that “previously reported sex differences in response to visual sexual stimuli may reflect sex differences in viewing patterns to sexual stimuli.” I know you’re busy and tired due to the unceasing demands of modern life, so let me translate: perhaps men and women and women respond to porn differently because they’re looking at it in different ways?

Decades of research make it fairly clear that there are differences between male and female sexuality, but you shouldn’t feel as though you have to stick with the scientifically well-established ones. This early stage of your work is also an opportune time to whack in some Everybody Loves Raymond-esque predictions. For example, we all know that ladies don’t like sex but are particularly interested in home décor, so how about something like: “there could be sex differences in men and women’s interest in the contextual vs. specifically sexual elements of visual sexual stimuli; with women looking more at contextual and nonsexual details than do men.” Ideally, musings such as these should have some basis in prior research, but feel free to be creative. Rupp and Wallen found the support for their Home Décor Model of Female Sexual Arousal in a 1995 study which revealed that after repeated exposure to the same sexual stimuli, women started to look around at the contextual surrounds “whereas,” and quite remarkably for a study without any male subjects, “men did not.”

Step 2: Design the experiment
Once you’ve got your hypothesis, it’s time to design an experiment. For Rupp and Wallen’s study, participants were asked to look at sets of 72 images of intercourse or oral sex in three different viewing sessions. Eye-tracking equipment was used to record which areas of the pictures (female face; male face; genitals all smooshed together; female body; male body; clothing; background) the participants looked at, in what order, and for how long.

In designing your experiment you’re almost certain to come across some tricky issues. For instance, Rupp and Wallen’s literature review turned up studies which had found that women tend to find erotic stimuli more, y’know, stimulating when it had been made, or at least selected, by other women. This is obviously relevant to the planned experiment: you don’t want to find that you’ve accidentally tested for sex differences in who was holding the camera when you thought we were measuring sex differences in how people look at some neutral, equally appealing kind of visual sexual stimuli. There’s nothing for it; you’re going to have to make some effort to get around this in the design of your experiment.

But how much effort? You’re certainly welcome to spend your weekend thinking very carefully about the intricacies of research design, but do bear in mind that in doing so you’ll be leaving less time for revisiting season two of Battlestar Galactica. A clarification of your ultimate aims should help you come to a decision. If you are weirdly passionate about adding to the sum of human knowledge, you’ll want to devote a good deal of effort to this stage of the process. Conversely, if you’re driven by a deep need to see your name in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, some fairly token attempt will probably suffice.

Rupp and Wallen wisely went the token route. They downloaded a bunch of porny photos from unspecified free websites (we can probably assume most were made by and for men) and asked seven men and seven women to rate their attractiveness on a four-point scale from ‘most attractive’ to ‘least attractive.’ For use in the experiment they picked out the images of the highest relative attractiveness to both men and women, although the men nonetheless rated them more highly.

It’s really nice that they tried, but do you care to get technical with me for a moment? For one thing, anyone with an internet connection knows that female porn performers tend to be substantially more attractive than their male counterparts, for whom superhuman erection maintenance skill appears to be the most important selection criterion. If your images have only been rated and selected for overall attractiveness, it’s entirely plausible (or even highly likely) that the female individuals within them are, on average, hotter than the men. If you then find that everyone’s looking at the women in the images, you’ll have no idea how much of this is because they’re women, and how much is simply because they’re the most attractive person in the frame and people tend to look at shiny things.

To get even more technical, you might consider that a scale ranging from ‘most attractive’ to ‘least attractive’ makes the scores given to each image dependent on each other. In other words, if a rater finds that the images are mostly mediocre and none are really super-mega-hot, an image that is merely somewhat attractive will still be the ‘most attractive’ and will probably net a higher score than it would have if the scale instead went from ‘[absolutely] attractive’ to ‘[absolutely] unattractive’. This dynamic could obscure even greater differences in the attractiveness of the chosen stimulus to men and women, with implications for the experiment. Potentially important, yes, but it’s such a subtle point that I’m boring myself just by writing about it. So maybe just charge ahead with dubious stimulus?

Step 3: Recruit a sample
Sampling is very, very important. Even small children and barely literate people know this and, should they disagree with your findings, can be expecting to alight on you at any moment screaming “YES BUT HOW BIG WAS YOUR SAMPLE?!!” This is because samples, not unlike penises, tend to be more impressive if they’re big.

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:

pie charts

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.

Last modified on Friday, 12 October 2012
Ultra Hedonist

Ultrahedonist is an everyday office worker. She loves pleasure and even-handedness and wishes we could all just get along.

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