She’s an advocate for evidence-based sex education, amid the largely sensationalist media coverage of the subject, and a tireless campaigner for sexual equality, having worked to improve media sex coverage both in the UK and internationally.
As well as conducting extensive research into sexual attitudes and behaviours, she also promotes the public understanding of social and health science research through her teaching, writing and broadcasting.
Petra has kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about her work, motivations and current interests in the world of sex research.
Why sex research?
There are two reasons why I got interested in sex research. Firstly I was always very interested in research methods and keen to evaluate whether lab-based psychology studies could make sense outside that context, as well as assessing flaws within different social research methodologies. Obviously that would make me fairly dull and so I thought one way to liven this up would be to look at how sex was studied and go from there.
Secondly when I was at school I wanted to work in a family planning clinic but I got told to stop showing off (I also got told I wasn’t up to going to university). So there was definitely an interest in sexual health from an early age.
I’m interested in researching sex now for several reasons. It’s an area where there’s still a lot of ignorance, fear, stigma and taboo. There’s an increasing amount of pressure on us to be sexual and yet still a lot of unanswered questions.
Within sexual health there’s a lot of need to understand why people are taking risks, as well as a need to show how sex research is both important and a relevant area of study. Sadly there is some pretty poor sex research out there – often coming from commercial companies – and that needs to be challenged.
What book would you recommend to make someone enthusiastic about sex research?
Rather than a book I’d recommend a visit to the Kinsey Institute’s website that outlines different areas of studying sex and the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology which has lots of useful free online courses. Both of those sites have links to other great resources, online reading and books.
Sex is one of the most under-researched of human behaviours. What do you think needs to happen for sex research to be taken more seriously?
I think sex research is taken seriously in some areas now, but not all. For example sexual health research, studies on sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and sexual problems have been taken seriously although those that are quantitative in nature (e.g. trials or epidemiological research) tend to have a higher profile than qualitative research.
There is now a lot of money available for sex research on sexual dysfunction since drug companies can see the opportunity for profit – and that has led to some researchers taking money to produce research that isn’t as always as ethical or robust as it should be. What does need to happen to improve sex research is a more critical approaches to funding and ethics, a willingness to embrace a wider range of methodological approaches, and training of staff to complete such research sensitively.
Sadly at the moment we’re seeing sex ‘research’ misused by PR companies so there are ‘sex surveys’ galore in the media. That gives a poor impression of sex research, alongside the unqualified ‘sexperts’ in the media. Sex researchers need to show good practice and to challenge some of the dodgier approaches out there.
I think within science there’s still a prejudice amongst some towards studying sex – partly because of people’s sexual hangups, and partly because ‘good science’ is not supposed to be about social issues or things we’re all interested in and know a bit about.
I remember someone saying about me in a blog ‘she’s writing about sex and she actually understands science’. We need to show that we’re completing rigorous and robust research – and also have research with measurable and effective outcomes. That should show the wider scientific community, media and the public that sex is a legitimate area of study.
What are the main difficulties in conducting your research?
There are issues of funding. Often the public want to know things like ‘how do you fall in love?’ or ‘how do you know you’ve met your perfect partner?’ which are interesting questions but ones that aren’t at the top of the research priority list.
That’s partly because funding is limited to key areas, and also because many sex researchers want to be taken seriously and so won’t take on topics or questions that could make them seem lightweight.
There are problems with drug company funding – if you are willing to complete research into sexual functioning problems then there is cash for you. Although there are issues about your own academic freedom and conflict of interest that arise as a result.
Often there are problems with accessing the public as obviously this can be a very sensitive area and you need to be sure you’ve got the right people doing research appropriately. Many people want to talk about sex, but you have to be careful to ensure you get the right participants and also treat them respectfully.
We have seen examples in the developing world in trials for HIV drugs and similar where the training and support of researchers and ethical treatment of participants is not what it should be. So there are problems with some studies/researchers giving others a bad name.
There are issues of method – quantitative approaches tend to be favoured – at least within the health area of sex research. There are still some outdated views of methodologies circulating within the discipline, and evidence based practice isn’t always observed.
Finally there’s the issue of how to go about sex research. As with any other area of study you’re under pressure to often do work as quickly and cheaply as possible so investigations that require more expensive kit – such as brain scanners or thermal imaging – may be less easier to use than questionnaires.
There are some concerns that ethics committees can be more skittish the more invasive sex research might be, and it is interesting that this is a key area where we’re becoming increasingly ‘hands off’ in our methodological approaches. The public tends to assume sex researchers spend their time watching people having sex or fitting them with probes, whereas you’re more likely to be doing an online interview or questionnaire.
I’d like to see the opportunity to explore a wider range of methods, and training to ensure we can study all aspects of sex in a sensitive manner.
What are you excited about at the moment?
There’s some very interesting work coming out about how our ancestors had sex – it’s causing a lot of debate as some scientists are rather upset about the idea our ancestors might have had sex for pleasure, may not have been monogamous and perhaps had a different interpretation of gender than we do now.
I wouldn’t say I was excited about this, but I am concerned about the debate on HIV and circumcision for men in Africa. A number of trials suggest that routine circumcision of men can reduce HIV prevalence. Many global health organisations are encouraging we now explore this option.
However there’s a growing body of medics opposed to male circumcision who’re fighting this on the grounds of disapproving of circumcision per se, whilst practitioners like myself are more concerned of any programme that targets men in countries where women’s social position is seriously disadvantaged. That debate is set to run, but in the meantime the concerns about the spread of HIV continues.
Name three under-rated things
Sex education. Whenever I do a public science event people start asking me questions about the science of sex, but pretty quickly start wanting to know ‘am I normal?’, ‘what’s female ejaculation?’, ‘how do you know if you’re a sex addict?’, ‘can men orgasm without ejaculating?’ You quickly become aware that there are masses of sex questions people have because they’ve not recieved good quality sex education and don’t know where to get objective advice about sex from now.
Knowing your history. You can’t study anything in social science without understanding historical and cultural issues. This is particularly the case in the study of sex where there’s a trend towards reductionism – just studying hormones, the brain or behaviour. To really understand sex you need to understand history, culture, global differences and sex as an holistic issue rather than just one issue. Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense.
Being reflexive. I don’t think it’s the place of social scientists to be ‘objective’. I don’t think you can be objective but you can be transparent. That means thinking about the work you’re doing, piloting your research, getting feedback from others and constantly trying to work out how you can do better. It also means talking to people you’re studying – and getting them to feed back on or shape the research you are doing. That’s often discouraged in research either due to poor training or lack of time, but it is essential.