Category Archives: research

NCSF Survey on discrimination and sexual diversity

Just a very short post to request that you take a few minutes out of your day to take the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s survey on violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.

From the first page of the survey:

Please help us by taking a moment to fill out this survey even if you have not been a victim of discrimination or violence. We are tracking demographics of our community and we also need to know the types of crimes, discrimination, harassment and abuses of authority that occur based on sexual expression or the perceived association with BDSM-Leather-Fetish groups.

This is an anonymous survey being distributed to the BDSM-Leather-Fetish communities throughout the world. We do not ask for your name, address or any other identifying information and all responses made on this website are fully encrypted. Any questions that require a response are marked with an asterisk.

You may contact the authors of this survey by emailing, or by writing to us at: Survey of Violence and Discrimination, 875 Sixth Avenue Suite 1705, New York, NY 10001.

Thank you for helping us raise the level of awareness of this important issue to our community. By completing this survey you are not only helping us to better understand ourselves, but you are helping in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual equality for all sexual minorities.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is a leader in the national effort to protect freedom of sexual expression and end discrimination against those who participate in BDSM, polyamory, and other forms of sexuality that challenge this society’s sex norms. The more good information they have the better able they are to do that work. The survey only takes a short time.

By the way, this is National Coming Out Day. What better day to reveal, even anonymously, a bit about the impact your own kinks have had on other aspects of your life?

Click here to take the survey.

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Some thoughts on religiosity and sex

According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes toward premarital sex 38 percent of adults in the US think that premarital sex is always or almost always wrong (note that the question is framed in terms of heterosexual couples only).

I thought this was odd given that a much smaller percentage of people actually do wait until they are married before having sex, so I poked around in some of the charts. In terms of basic demographics, there are predictable differences between people’s attitudes depending on their age group, with older respondents being more likely than younger ones to think that premarital sex is wrong. Other demographic factors that are correlated with a greater likelihood of thinking premarital sex is wrong include income (as income goes up tolerance for premarital sex also goes up) and education (people with more education are less likely to think that premarital sex is wrong), thought the differences are small.

And not surprisingly by far the variable most strongly correlated with a belief that premarital sex is wrong is religious affiliation, but even I was surprised by the numbers. Remember, 38% of all adults surveyed believed that premarital sex between a man and a woman was always or almost always wrong. But when broken down by religious affiliation, only 8% of those who identified as “secular” felt that way, and only 29% of Catholics felt that way. On the other hand, almost half (49%) of Protestants thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

When Protestants were broken down into White evangelical, White mainline, or Black Protestant groups the differences became even more stark. (And no, I don’t know why they broke white and black protestants down differently, except that perhaps Black Protestant churches are just much more likely to be evangelical than White protestant churches.) In any case, among White evangelicals, 71% said that they thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

Of course this fits in with the abstinence-only sex ed agenda that has been driven by the white evangelical Christians, but it’s interesting to see the numbers so starkly laid out there. It tells you just what segment of the population those policies appeal to, and it tells you who is left out.

I was thinking about this all the more because of the conflict this must create for people who believe so strongly that sex before marriage is wrong, but then who have it before marriage anyway (because most people do, according to the most recent sex research). The feelings of shame and guilt must be tremendous! And then there are the sex scandals that ooze out of the evangelical churches with some regularity. Remember, it isn’t the extramarital sex per se that causes the scandal. It is the apparent hypocrisy that causes the scandal.

And it makes me wonder why it is that that branch of religious folks so vocally and visibly hangs on to a belief that is so extraordinarily hard for so many to live up to.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way even for deeply religious folks. There are coalitions of Christians who believe strongly in their Christian faith but who make room for openness around sexual diversity. I’ve recently learned a little bit about the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, for example. They’re an interfaith organization that works on helping congregations to create sexually healthy environments for their members. They focus on things like sex education, sexual and reproductive health, and gender and sexual diversity. Their web site contains statements like this one, from the Gender and Sexual Diversity page:

“All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”


“While religious denominations continue to debate issues of sexuality, the silence and condemnation of clergy have led to destroyed relationships, suicidal despair and discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. Denying that God created diversity as a blessing is denying Biblical teaching”

I’m not a religious person, myself, but I’ve often thought that much of what is missing from progressive politics is a recognition of the potential strength of the “religious left.” Just as among conservatives there are different voices (ranging from the free market fiscal conservatives who couldn’t care less about the social issues of the religious conservatives, to the evangelical conservatives whose interests don’t always mesh with the deregulation logic of the fiscal conservatives) on the left there is also a range. But ironically, I think sometimes that the atheists, secular humanists and religious leftists have more in common in terms of their positions on actual issues than do the conservatives. What would happen if the religious left could really tap into the same kind of political power than the religious conservatives have tapped into? What if the religious left could motivate the same kind of voter turnout and political urgency? Would the rest of us on the left support them? Would we see our interests as at all in line with theirs?

Click here to read the Institute’s “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing”

It gives me hope that deeply religious folks can be allies in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual justice.

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Why Young White Unmarried and Non-cohabiting Humans in Psychology Classes Have Sex (in America): Part II

Part two of my critique of the new sex study everybody is talking about! Part one is here.

Yesterday I wrote about my methodological concerns regarding the study by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, “Why Humans Have Sex,” published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Today I’m looking at the reasons themselves and discussing some of the conclusions they drew, and some of the conclusions I’d draw looking at the same data.

First of all, I want to dispense with the notion that there were 237 reasons. Quantifying things is an important part of scientific research, of course, and coding data (fitting responses into categories, etc.) is a process that can never be wholly objective. (Somebody at least has to create the categories!) In this case, my criticism arises because the authors indicate that they whittled 715 initial “reasons” down to 237 by eliminating or merging responses that were “too similar” to other responses. That, they claim, produced a list of 237 “distinct reasons”.

I disagree. How distinct is “I wanted to experience the physical pleasure” from “I wanted the pure pleasure,” or “It feels good”? All three of those made the top 15 for men and for women. For the women in the study these were reasons 2, 13 and 3 respectively and for men they were reasons 3,12, and 2.

I’m also not really sure how “I wanted to keep a partner from straying,” is different from “I was afraid my partner would have an affair if I didn’t have sex with him/her” or how “I wanted to get my partner to stay with me” is different from “I wanted to prevent a breakup.” (All were less common than the top 50 but more common than the bottom 50 for both the men and the women in the study.) There are other examples of very similar “distinct reasons” but you get the idea.

Now sometimes researchers use similar answer options to test whether respondents are consistent or not in their reporting of whatever is being studied (personality traits, motivations, what have you). But that doesn’t mean these are “distinct reasons.” Also usually in that case the similar items are scattered throughout the list of items. In this study similar answers are generally clustered together on the list of items raising both a methodological and analytical problem: were people more likely to give consistent answers because they were faced with similar choices clustered close together?

I have not gone through the list of 237 and figured out how many “distinct reasons” I’d come up with, but is clearly fewer than 237. if you’ve downloaded the study (which you can do in PDF form here) it would be interesting for a bunch of us to try it and compare notes!

Second, it’s important to note that most of the reasons were not reasons most of the time for most of the students in the study. Even in the top 50 for both men and for women, most items have a mean score of less than 3. Remember, individuals were asked to indicate whether each of the 237 reasons was true for “none”, “a few”, “some”, “many”, or “all” of their sexual experiences. (This raises a separate methodological issue in that fatigue sets in for lots of survey takers well before they’d have reached their 237th item on the survey!) Those categories were numerically coded 1-5 with “none”=1 and “always”=5. So an item with a mean score of 3 would be true, on average, for “some” of respondents’ sexual experiences. Of the top 50 reasons for women, only the top 8 had mean scores of 3 or above. For men the top 10 did.

Bracketing the methodological problems for a minute, this is interesting because it indicate that people’s self-reported reasons for having sex are pretty varied, and it would seem that few people always have the same set of reasons.

An aside: In a disheartening interview on the Brian Lehrer show I heard Lehrer, who I usually think asks pretty good questions, as “Did we really need a scientific study to show that?” As if the scientific confirmation our hunches about sex is somehow unimportant! When we have hunches about other things, global warming for example, we certainly expect to use science to confirm whether our hunches are accurate. Why would we not do the same for sex?

(Here’s a link to the Lehrer piece. If you listen to the clip, at 7 minutes 51 seconds you can hear Leonore Tiefer, noted sex therapist, researcher and sex educator, call in to raise the same methodological questions I raised in my blog entry yesterday. Leonore, I wish I’d heard the piece in time to site it in yesterday’s post!)

Anyway, given those variations, and still bracketing the methodological issues for a moment, it’s interesting to look at the top 50 reasons with a purpose slightly different from that of the researchers. Their interest was to categorize peoples’ reasons. Mine is to examine what they mean. Remember that these are self-reported reasons. They are self-reported at two levels: first, the list itself is the result of people’s own reports about why they have sex. Second, the ranking comes from people’s reports about the relationship between their thoughts and their behavior. (Our self-reporting is not always accurate but it is interesting because it does represent the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do.)

I’m pleased that actual desire to have sex and enjoyment of sex is reported as often as it is (the second and third most common reasons for both men and women in the study). I’m pleased that affection, attraction and love are mentioned as often as they are (all rank in the top 20 for students of both genders). I’m pleased that the students in the study were able to acknowledge and own their horniness (the seventh most common reason for women and men in the study).

That said, there are some troubling reasons in the top 50 for both the men and women students who participated in the study.

For male students in the study, the 34th most common reason was “The person was too ‘hot’ (sexy) to resist” (mean score of 2.17), 38th most common reason (with a mean score of 2.15) was “I saw the person naked and could not resist” and the 42nd most common reason (with a mean score of 2.11) was “The person was too physically attractive to resist.” Framing one’s sexual activity in terms of “being unable to resist” is troubling if it is accurate because it implies a lack of ability to control oneself. In addition, pointing to another person’s characteristics (attractiveness, sexiness) as the cause of one’s own inability to control oneself reinforces the victim-blaming that often surrounds rape, and acquaintance rapes particularly.

That for women students in the study the 49th most common reason (with a mean score of 1.89) was “I was drunk,” certainly doesn’t make the situation easier. And the fact that both men and women cited “heat of the moment” (mean score of 2.84 for the men and 2.89 for the women), “it just happened” (mean score of 2.23 for the men and 2.21 for the women) and “my hormones were out of control” (mean score of 2.20 for the men and 2.11 for the women) is only reassuring in that I’m glad the students were aware of those things as factors in their own sexual behavior.

Sexual motivation is complicated and deserves serious study. This study, though disappointing in many ways, at least has us talking about the need for better research on why people have sex. Understanding people’s sexual motivations, both their conscious motivations and their unconscious motivations, could be important to designing effective public health campaigns, and address the still-too-real problems of sexual abuse in our society.

So lets move beyond this study. Let’s move beyond the trivializing focus on how many people said they had sex to get rid of a headache, or the focus on the number 237 and what the 238th reason might be, and lets start talking about the different ways to design really good sexual motivation research.

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Filed under Archives of Sexual Behavior, Cindy M. Meston, David M. Buss, psychology, public discourse, research, sex, sexuality

Why Young White Unmarried and non-cohabiting Humans in Psychology Classes Have Sex (In America)

That should probably be the title of the new study by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss of University of Texas at Austin (PDF).

The study is an important one because it does begin to explore people’s conscious, expressed motivations for having sex, a subject that has been largely ignored or taken for granted in the past. We know much more about what kinds of sex people have than we do about why they have it (or why they think they have it).

And when I read the New York Times article about the study and saw that there was such a wide range of reasons people gave, I was excited: it seemed that the researchers were breaking open some interesting ground and finding lots of diversity.

The news coverage only mentioned a few of the reasons, and I wanted to see the whole list of 237, so I downloaded the study, which you can do here (PDF). I skipped straight to the Table 1 (p. 481) labelled “Top 50 reasons why men and women have sex.” And while I was not at all surprised to find pleasure-oriented reasons among the top reasons for both men and women, I was rather surprised that nowhere in the top 50 for either gender was “conceiving.” Then I read the methods section.

Always read the methods section!

The study occurred in two phases. In the first phase, where the actual list of reasons was generated, the sample was slightly more diverse. It included undergraduate and graduate students in psychology and “community volunteers who were participating in several other ongoing studies in the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas.” (The demographic characteristics of these respondents are not broken down in the methods section of the article so we can’t say much about them.)

These participants were given an opportunity to respond to the following prompt: “Please list all of the reasons you can think of why you, or someone you have known, has engaged in sexual intercourse in the past.” Collectively they came up with 715 reasons, and after the repetitious ones were weeded out the researchers were left with the 237 “distinct” reasons they took into phase two of the study.

It was in phase two, the one with the especially skewed population, that respondents were asked to look at each of the 237 “distinct reasons” and, using each one to complete the sentence “I have had sex in the past because…” to indicate whether that statement was true of “none,” “a few,” some,” “many” or “all” of their sexual experiences. For those who had not had sex in the past (27% of women and 32% of men for whom sexual experience data were available reported not having had sexual intercourse, for example) the instruction was to use that same scale to rate the “likelihood that each of the following reasons would lead you to have sex.” In their published study the authors do not distinguish these responses from those of people who were reporting on actual experience, and while I can’t tell whether that had any major influence on the data, it seems to represent a seriously flawed assumption that guesses about what might motivate one to have sex are the same as reports on what actually has motivated one to have sex.

The respondents in that part of the study, the part where the “reasons” were analyzed for frequency and relatedness, the participants were 1,549 undergraduate students enrolled in Introductory Psychology courses. This kind of sampling is fairly common in academic studies, especially psychological ones, but in this case it makes, I think, a very significant difference in the results. And it means that the title of the study, “Why humans have sex,” and the overall interpretation of the data are rather overstretched. I don’t think that the motivations college students might have for having sex are the same as the motivations that married non-students might have, just for example.

The sample is interesting in its homogeneity in other ways too. Ninety-six percent were between 18-22. And most were not married or living with a sex partner. (Only 4% of the women and 2% of the men were married. Only 6% of the women and 5% of the men were living with a sexual partner.)

So at the time these people were filling out their surveys, they represented a group that is generally young, single or dating students who are focused on their educations and perhaps the beginnings of their careers.

This doesn’t sound like “humans” to me. And it doesn’t sound like a good way to make conclusions about the reasons that people have sex.

While the range of 237 reasons that people have sex might be broad enough to encompass most people’s experience, I don’t think that the priorities or motivations of 18-22 year old college students is representative of the priorities or motivations of, say 30-35 year old people in long-term relationships.

And none of this begins to address the hubris of claiming that any study performed on an American sample represents “humans” in general.

Now, the authors of the study do devote two paragraphs in the discussion section (always read the discussion section) to the limitations of their study. Specifically they mention the fact that their study is based on people’s “expressed reasons” thus can’t account for subconscious or unconscious motivations, and that social approval of some reasons and stigma around others might have affected what people were willing to claim about their own motivations. They also mention the limitations of their sample. They write:

“A third limitation pertains to the relative youth of most of the sample. Reasons for engaging in sexual intercourse undoubtedly differ by age cohort … and would be expected to change over the life span. For example, compared with the student sample assessed in this study, we would expect having sex for reproductive purposes to be endorsed much more frequently among 30 and 40 year olds and having sex simply to gain social status to decline with age.”

They also acknowledge the limitation of conducting their study “within a single culture” and simply say that researchers should explore these same issues in a range of other cultures.

If the authors acknowledge these limitations at the end of their study, why am I harping on them? Mostly because the vast majority of folks who hear about this study won’t have read the study itself. They’ll have read news coverage or commentary that quotes from the body of the results, or directly from the tables, and the authors of the study are not terribly cautious with their language in those sections. They talk about “men” and “women” and “people” but not about “male college students” and “female college students” for example. It will be very easy for these findings to be widely misinterpreted.

Still, the authors of the study raise excellent questions for future research to explore, and those questions acknowledge the limitations of their own work. For example, the authors suggest that future research examine whether or not the 13 major clusters of reasons found in this study are found as primary sexual motivations in other cultures as well, and “to what extent do the reasons for having sex change across the life span.”

It would be just as interesting to ask the question “Are we really motivated by the things we think are motivating us. Ironically, on the same page of the Times was an article suggesting that is not likely to be the case!
Note: In another post I’ll try to address some of the actual findings. It is interesting, for example, how few of the reasons are “common” in the sense of representing most people’s experience much of the time! Even among the top 50 reasons, for example, most had mean scores that indicated that people said they were true only for “a few” or “some” of their sexual experiences!
This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org

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