Sex Research & Sex Therapy

The study of sexuality and sexual health is diverse and multi-disciplinary. It includes scholars, researchers, and clinicians working within the many branches of science, public health and medicine, as well as therapists, activists, and educators addressing the functional issues of sexuality within the social, cultural, and political spheres.

The unique history, collections and research of the Kinsey Institute have established it as a leader internationally in scholarship, teaching and service in sexuality, gender and reproduction. The Institute’s mission is to maintain this leadership by developing and nurturing a community of interdisciplinary scholarship within and beyond Indiana University. This community of scholarship includes the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, medicine, education and law. The primary intellectual and research concerns of the Institute are:

  • sexuality in its anthropological, biological, behavioral, cultural, historical, institutional, legal, medical, psychological, policy, social, and other relevant aspects.
  • gender dimensions of sexuality and reproduction, including behaviors, cultural representations, customs, doctrines, ethics, identities, institutions, laws, practices, public policies, social meanings, and other relevant domains.
  • reproduction as mediated by behavioral, cross-cultural, demographic, epidemiological, ethical, ethnographic, health, legal, policy, psychological, representational, sexual, social, and other relevant factors.

Other institutes

Below are some other organizations primarily concerned with sexuality research.

Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS)
SSSS is an interdisciplinary, international organization for sexuality researchers, clinicians, educators, and other professionals in related fields. The society’s WWW site provides information on upcoming meetings, training opportunities, and Society publications, including the quarterly newsletter, Sexual Science.

University Consortium for Sexuality Research and Training (UCSRT)
The UCSRT connects researchers, educators, professionals, and researchers-in-training to promote the development of training and research in sexuality across disciplines, fields, and sites. Through Dialogues, researchers can communicate, network and collaborate online.

World Association for Sexual Health (WAS)
The World Association for Sexual Health promotes sexual health throughout the world and lifespan by developing, promoting and supporting sexology and sexual rights.

American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT)
AASECT is an interdisciplinary organization that provides certification for professionals. Its WWW site lists therapists by region, as well as information for professionals.

National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC)
The NSRC focuses on sexual literacy which they define as: a positive, integrated and holistic view of sexuality from a social justice perspective. They believe that every person should have the knowledge, skills and resources to support healthy and pleasurable sexuality -and that these resources should be based on accurate research and facts.

The Center for Sexual Health Promotion
The Center for Sexual Health Promotion is a collaboration among sexual health scholars from across the campuses of Indiana University and strategic partner academic institutions around the globe who work toward advancing the field of sexual health through our research, education and training initiatives.

How to Become a Sexologist

So you’re interested in sex, right? Okay, most people are. Let’s say you have more of an academic interest in sex. What do you do with that?

The study of sexuality is often called sexology. According to the Curtin School of Public Health, sexology “refers to the scientific study of human sexuality. The scientific study of sex and sexuality can be traced back at least to the classical Greek period in the Western world, and even earlier in the Eastern world. Throughout history, emphasis in sexological study has tended to focus on the outcomes of sex, rather than the experience of sexuality…The study of love, sexual emotions, human relationships, human sexual response, criminal sexual behavior, sexual function, sexual pleasure and fulfillment have been relatively recent endeavors in the scientific study of sexuality.”

Sexuality classes and research are becoming more and more common in academia as researchers recognize that sexuality impacts almost every aspect of our lives in a number of ways. Most often, sexuality is studied within the realm of social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, history, etc) where researchers can look at the intersection of individuals, societies, and sex.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, & Therapists (AASECT) suggest these steps to engage in a career path around sexuality studies:

Decide if you want to engage in research or practice.
Researchers focus on studying sexuality to answer new questions about how humans engage in sexual behavior, how we interact in romantic relationships, or why we engage in risky sexual behavior. Practice involves being a clinician or sexuality educator that may require slightly less schooling but more direct involvement with community organizations and individuals.

If you choose to pursue higher education, make sure you do your research.
It is important to find a graduate program and faculty within that program who have similar research interests as you. AASECT has a list here of over 20 schools and institutes that offer higher or continuing education in sexuality studies or you can check out the Kinsey Institute’s list of training programs here. When researching schools, look at the Curriculum Vitae (CV, an academic resume) of faculty to see what types of papers they have published and presentations they have given at conferences. Would you be interested in joining them in that research? Do you want to learn more about that paper they published recently? If so, contact those programs. Ask questions. Researchers love to talk about their work and would love to talk to you about it.

Seek a mentor
Join a professional organizations such as AASECT or their sister research organization the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS). Most have mentorship programs that match you with a professional already in the field. They can help guide you through finding a school or starting a new job. They can serve as invaluable resources for your academic or professional career.

Sex Research Methods

Research EthicsSexuality research is bound by the same ethical guidelines as any other research with human (or animal) subjects and is primarily concerned with protecting research participants from harm and ensuring the participants have informed consent.

Clinical Research – Clinical research focuses on medical or psychological treatment relating to sexual problems and disease.

Survey Research – Survey research uses questionnaires or interviews to gather information. In sexuality research this might include surveys about sexual attitudes, perceptions or behaviors among a certain population. Survey research is fairly common because it costs less than other types of research and takes less time to conduct than observational or experimental research. Most surveys rely on tightly constructed questions and answers. Qualitative research can fall under survey methodology but is usually broader, combining open-ended questions, interviews, focus groups, and observations.

Observational Research – Observational research involves a researcher observing the behaviors of a research subject without intervention. In sexuality research, this is difficult because of privacy issues and it is almost impossible to conduct truly observational research without having some influence over the actions of the subjects. Participant observation is one way to address this issue, by having researchers participate in the behavior they want to study and observe but this, too, raises some ethical issues about how the researcher influenced the behavior around them and the bias of the researcher when analyzing the observed behaviors.

Experimental Research – Experimental research involves much more control on the part of the researchers who manipulate variables to look at how one factor (age, medication, emotions, attraction, behavior) impacts other factors (disease, behavior, response). Correlational studies look for relationships between variables (like sexual activity and STI rates) but do not determine if one variable causes another.

Sexuality research that is experimental often focuses on physiological responses to various stimuli, such as sexual imagery, that is measured through tools attached to the genitals (like the plethysmograph) or other sexual arousal responses (heart rate, pupil dilation, brain activity, etc).

Psychophysiological methods include hormonal testing, fMRI (functional MRI, a glance into the body), and genital measurements.

Sex Therapy

Sex Therapy is a subspecialty of psychotherapy, focusing on the specific concerns related to human sexuality. People of all ages, creeds, health status, ethnic backgrounds, whether partnered or single, may benefit from working with a psychotherapist who specializes in this area. Certified Sex Therapists use specialized clinical skills and theoretical knowledge to help people solve their sexual concerns.

In most states and provinces, Sex Therapy is not a separately licensed or regulated profession, just as child psychotherapy or geriatric psychotherapy is not government regulated beyond granting the basic license to practice therapy. To assure the public of highly qualified practitioners, AASECT (The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) provides voluntary certification to those therapists who have completed the rigorous certification process. Only those therapists who have met these qualifications may designate themselves as “AASECT Certified Sex Therapists.”

The most common reasons that people go to sex therapy include concerns about arousal, performance, or sexual satisfaction such decreased or increased desire for intimacy, or in the case of a couple, mismatched desire or interest in sexual intimacy.

Additionally concerns about sexual trauma in one’s background, medical conditions that affect one’s sexuality, sexual pain disorders, concerns about gender identity or sexual orientation, and issues around sexual compulsivity or addiction are frequent concerns that people discuss with a Certified Sex Therapist.

The Sex Therapy process is very similar to that experienced with other mental health practitioners. The Certified Sex Therapist will meet with the person as an individual or with a couple in an office setting where an extensive history of the concerns will be taken. The Certified Sex Therapist will note both the psychological and the physical components and will establish one or more diagnoses. After this, a treatment plan will be proposed, usually with your involvement in its development.

Depending on the diagnosis, the Certified Sex Therapist will educate the person or couple about the issue and about options for change. This educational process may occur through suggested reading material, through watching educational audio-visual materials, through discussion with the therapist, through attending workshops, or all of these therapy processes. Sometimes having more information will allow the problem to resolve. Sometimes more specific or intensive therapy will be needed.

In no instances will a Certified Sex Therapist engage in any kind of sexual activity with a thera patient/client, whether in the office or in any location. To do so is a breach of ethics, and in some states and provinces is a crime.