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While sex is a topic many of us are naturally curious about, there are surprisingly few reliable sources for learning about it, especially those based on scientific research rather than arbitrary notions of sexual morality. That's why I started this blog. But in order to make the most of the sexology research I've shared on this site (not to mention the research you might see in other media), it's essential that you first have some knowledge of sexology. In other words, it is important to understand and appreciate what sex research can and cannot tell us. To that end, here are six things to keep in mind when you sit down to read the latest sex studies.
1). There is no such thing as a "perfect" study -- every study has some limitations. The nature and severity of the limitations will obviously vary from study to study, but they will always be present. Often, people are concerned about sample size or representativeness (see #2 below for details), but they may also be concerned about the nature or design of the research project (e.g., are the right outcome variables being measured? Are appropriate control conditions in place? In any case, these limitations should give us pause before drawing sweeping conclusions from the findings of any given study. To this end, I always try to emphasize that the research I cover has at least some limitations, but not all sex writers are so careful (in fact, studies have found that very few of the scientific studies reported in the media mention limitations!). Be very wary of articles that discuss research but do not mention any restrictions.
2). Sex studies often do not have representative samples, so one must be very careful when generalizing results. It's hard to find a representative sample in any study, but this is especially true in sex studies, for several reasons. First, sex research is woefully underfunded. Without substantial funding, it is difficult to recruit a large demographically representative sample. But even when sex research is funded, we run into problems of non-responsiveness and self-selection. In other words, not everyone wants to participate in a sex study, especially if they have a gadget hanging from their genitals. The net result is that volunteers in sex studies generally have more positive attitudes about sex and have more sexual experience than others. Similarly, studies of sexual minorities tend to oversample people who are more comfortable and confident with their sexuality. In light of this, always focus on the nature of the sample and how participants were recruited, while asking yourself, "To whom do these results apply?" Be wary of sex studies that don't tell you anything about the sample, or generalizations that seem overly broad.
3). Correlation studies don't tell us about causation. Correlation studies are common in sex studies. Scientists look at which variables are statistically correlated. For example, correlation analyses can tell us if there is a link between condom use and a woman's emotional state - and indeed, at least one study has found evidence to support this, such as women who use condoms more frequently often report that they are unhappy. However, trying to figure out what this correlation means can get us into real trouble, because correlation doesn't tell us why any two variables are linked. Does condom use actually cause a change in a woman's mood, or does a woman's emotional state influence her condom use habits? Or perhaps there is a third variable (for example, relationship quality or length) that does not explain the association? To this end, be cautious in interpreting relevant research and avoid buying into "hype" and sensational relevance media coverage (see here and here for some particularly bad examples of media coverage featuring relevance research).
4) "Average" does not mean "normal". "Normal" means a variety of reactions. Media coverage of sex studies usually reports the statistical average of the study (e.g., average penis size, average sex frequency, etc.). Unfortunately, many readers tend to think of these averages as a reflection of "normal." However, it's important to remember that what counts as "normal" is never a number - it's always a series of answers. So you want to avoid thinking that you are somehow "abnormal" just because you don't quite reach a certain average. The average can be misleading in other ways, too. You can learn more in this article.
5). There are no universal principles of human sexuality, but there are always exceptions. I have seen many journalists conclude that "men are like _ _ _ _ and women are like _ _ _ _ _" in their reports on sexology. But such a conclusion would be inaccurate, because I have never seen a sex study showing that all people in a particular group have exactly the same response - there is always some degree of variation. Research can only tell us what people in a given group do on average, not what each person in a given group does. It is important to avoid stereotyping group members in everyday life solely on the basis of group averages you read about in research reports.
6). An article about the latest sex research isn't necessarily going to change your life. While many sex writers tend to tell you what each study can do for you, or how you can apply the results to your own life, I don't do that very often, for all the reasons I listed above. Given research and sample limitations, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to make practical recommendations, especially when the studies are relevant. In addition, we know that not every study replicates for a variety of reasons (for example, a given finding may be a false positive), and it is not uncommon for two studies to produce opposite or contradictory results almost simultaneously. Given this, you shouldn't look at every study in terms of "what can I personally do about these results?" When it comes to applying science to one's own life, it is important not to look at a single study, but at the wider literature in a particular field, and to give due consideration to the limitations of the research.