Meet The Modern Day Masters Of Sex

mIllustrated by Tania Lili.
Nobody plans on being a sex researcher when they grow up. Nobody plans to work a strain gauge between splayed legs as they measure changes in penis circumference during sexual stimulation. Nobody dreams to sit across from over-caffeinated college students who are looking to make a quick buck, having to prosaically ask, “When’s the last time you’ve had oral sex?” and then wait for the answer to scrawl on a clipboard.
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Yet, sex research remains a growing field. The average annual salary of a sexologist or sex researcher can range anywhere from $40,000 to $63,000, according to modest estimates, but with potential for that number to skyrocket if the person in question takes on sex therapy, blogging, and, of course, the celebrity of television “sexpert” appearances.
Beginning as a scientific discipline in the classical Greek period, there are currently over 20 schools and institutes that provide higher education for those wishing to start a career doing clinical, survey, observational, or experimental sex research. Once an underground (and fairly dismissed) field, now the seminal work of researchers like Alfred Kinsey, William H. Masters, and Virginia Johnson are being incubated for a new era of hookups, sexts, kinks, and performance enhancers — not only in salacious period dramas on Showtime, but labs in universities across the United States. (Think of the last time you read an article about the results of a sex study; it had to come from somewhere.)
If you think sex — the favorite pastime of those with a pulse — is just sex and it hasn’t changed enough to warrant its own field, you’d be misled and, possibly, a bit blue-balled. In the last century, the slang words we use to describe genitals themselves have shifted widely, from “nether eye,” (1902) “mossy treasure,” (1883) and “beaver,” (1984) to the much more familiar “peen” (2004). The idea of multiple orgasms? That didn’t appear in any scientific literature until Masters and Johnson’s 1966 Human Sexual Response. Does the G-spot exist? We think so, but have fun Googling that one. Is hookup culture ruining 21st century sex lives? Don’t even bother looking that up.
Sex research remains a siren’s song of a scientific discipline, with as many misunderstandings as other fields of study. That’s partially because of the nature of sexuality — it is an act which predominantly takes place during the most private of human moments. But, it’s also because, even after centuries, we are still awed, fascinated, and confused about who, why, and how we mate.
1Photo: Courtesy of Nerve.
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Debby Herbenick, PH.D., the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University
What brought you to this field?
"I fell into this work a bit by accident. I was studying psychology at the University of Maryland and had been working with young children ages 3 to 7. I was fascinated with child development. At the time I graduated college, the Kinsey Institute was conducting research with adults, asking them about their childhood and adolescent development, and that interested me because some of the issues they were studying were relevant to what I regularly heard from parents and teachers of young children I knew at the time. Once I started working at the Kinsey Institute, I quickly realized how little people, including my friends and I, knew about sexuality and sexual health and I wanted to stay and learn more."
I know you often focus on sexual health, genital self-image, and sex toys. What would you say is your particular area of expertise?
"I have several areas of focus: Consumer sexual behavior (e.g., use of condoms, vibrators, lubricants). Genital self-image and genital health is another major area for my work, as is tracking sexual behavior and feelings in the United States. Exercise-induced orgasm is another major focus. Increasingly, I am also doing a lot in the area of intimacy, healthy relationships, and issues related to sexual assault. I keep busy!"
You do mostly survey research. What kinds of subjects generally gravitate to your sex studies?
"People take part in sex research for any number of reasons. Some people simply like to contribute to science of any sort. Many people tell us they find it interesting to participate in our research and that it provides them with opportunities to learn something new about themselves or their partner, if they have one. Others (especially college students and graduate students) might enroll in order to make a little extra money, if it’s a paid study, but not all studies have monetary incentives attached to them.
"People of all genders, ages, sexual orientations, and political orientations participate in our research — especially our nationally representative research, where Americans from all walks of life are involved. Although sexuality remains a somewhat taboo topic at the societal level, I think most people understand that sexuality is an important part of humanity and deserves study."
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The show Masters of Sex seems to be giving everyone the idea that being a sex researcher means watching people do it. Have you ever been present when someone was having sex in the lab?
"People don’t have sex with each other in our lab. That is not a common occurrence in the U.S. I have been present in a lab when people may be watching erotic imagery or stimulating themselves in a nearby lab (researchers are not in the same room as participants) but it’s really not a “sexy” or arousing situation. It’s a day at work, just like gynecologists and urologists have their days at work.
"Within experiments, people are their own kind of independent variables. What do you find is the trick to interviewing or researching for the most accurate and honest results? In my professional experience, I’ve found that most people want to connect with others and interviews are one way to share yourself and your life experience with another person. If you give people a safe, open, non-judgmental space in which they can feel that they can be themselves, they often will."
Do you have any favorite ridiculous sex myths from decades (or centuries!) ago that were once widely held beliefs?
"The masturbation myths (e.g., that you will die, look prematurely old, go bald, or grow hairy palms, etc.) were once widely held. Unfortunately, many people still hear some version of these myths and carry around tremendous guilt about their masturbation. Can you imagine? Such shame around finding something lovely about your own body. It’s too bad."
You helped lead the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. You’ve also served as a sex columnist for many notable publications and made many, many TV appearances. From your years of research and media, what do you think is the most important element of sex people often forget?
"I think more people could stand to realize that we’re all a little unique with our sexuality — and that uniqueness is something to appreciate, not fear. We’ve now conducted several NSSHBs — in 2009, 2012, and 2013 (and getting ready to do more) and I love pouring through data from thousands of Americans, from ages 14 to 94, to learn what they think and feel and do in their sexual lives.
"What’s common is this deep need for intimacy and connection. Sex can do that, but it’s rarely enough on its own. We seem to be in a strange place right now with so many people — especially young, college-aged women and men — acting like they don’t want to date or love or be loved in return, and yet most do."
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Explain to me what a typical day at work looks like.
"I love variety and so I feel fortunate that there is no such thing as a typical day at work for me. My work involves any and all of the following: teaching a human sexuality class to college students at Indiana University, designing surveys, analyzing data, meeting with students, interviewing research participants, talking about sex on television (or by Skype), consulting with corporations and television producers, giving talks at conferences or to college and professional athletes, writing newspaper/magazine/blog articles, taking calls from writers, shooting web videos, recording Kinsey Confidential podcasts, and — these days — writing my next book.
You know how if you ate ice cream every day, you’d eventually get sick of it. Does critically thinking about sex ever get tedious or affect your personal life?
"It never gets old. And, it does sometimes impact my personal life, but in a good way. My last book, Sex Made Easy, was based on the fact that those of us who work in sex research or education often get asked this very question — if our work impacts our personal life. I feel fortunate that it does. Most people will encounter small bumps or even a big problem or two in their sexual lives, relationships, or marriage — things like low desire, pain during sex, feeling disconnected rather than intimate, vaginal dryness, erectile problems, premature ejaculation, and so on. What’s nice in our field is that we get a lot of exposure not only to the problems but to the solutions. When problems arise, I feel good knowing how to tackle them."
Where’s the future of sex headed?
"We’re a young field and a small field so there’s much to do, many questions to be asked, many technologies we still need, and many communities still not adequately supported or addressed. We need more research to understand and support the sexual lives of people with developmental disorders and physical disabilities.
"We also need to do a significantly better job with sexual assault and rape — with understanding the motivations and designing and identifying truly excellent programs to put an end to it. I am of the firm belief that ending sexual assault — or at least reducing it by half — is a winnable battle. I tell my students at IU that saying you want to end rape on a college campus is not like saying you want to create world peace. Greatly reducing sexual assault and rape is winnable. We can do this."
2Photo: Courtesy of Nerve.
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Justin Lehmiller, PH.D., Sex And Psychology
Did you think you were ever going to be a sex researcher?
"Becoming a sex educator and researcher is something I never planned on. In fact, when I initially went to college to pursue a degree in psychology, I didn’t even know that studying sex was an option! What really set me down this path was when I was assigned to serve as a teaching assistant for a sexuality course in my second year of graduate school. Prior to that, I had never taken a college-level sex class. Needless to say, this experience really opened my eyes and it made me wonder how I had made it so far in life knowing so little about sex. After that, I began incorporating sex into my research program and by the time I graduated, I taught that sexuality course myself a total of six times."
And, now you’ve become the hookup expert.
"My area of expertise is casual sex. Most of my recent research projects have focused on topics such as friends with benefits (e.g., what happens to friends with benefits in the long run?) and use of smartphone hookup apps (e.g., do apps like Grindr promote riskier sexual behavior?)."
What types of methods of research do you generally use?
"I primarily use surveys in my research because this method is generally the most appropriate for studying people’s experiences with casual sex."
Who wants to participate in these studies?
"Getting a sample that is perfectly representative of the population is difficult for any researcher, but it is especially challenging for sex researchers. In almost every sex study, there will be some degree of self-selection, such that those who are more sexually experienced and/or comfortable with sex will be more inclined to participate. Given that research participation is completely voluntary, this is a difficult problem to remedy. As a result, we try to be very cognizant of our sampling limitations and avoid making overly broad generalizations.
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"That said, I should say that the people who volunteer to participate in my studies are still a pretty diverse group. For example, in my online studies of friends with benefits, I have everyone from college students to senior citizens participating, with good representation of folks with varying gender and sexual identities. One of the most important things we as sex researchers can do to get the most accurate data possible is to guarantee our participants anonymity.
Is this whole “hookup culture” thing really a recent phenomenon?
"One of the biggest myths is that young people today are more sex-crazed than previous generations and that they’ve stopped dating altogether in favor of hooking up. The reality is that national survey data reveals that today’s college students aren’t having any more sex or more partners than students from the '80s and '90s. If anything, the trend is toward less sex! Of course, there are still a lot of hookups going on in college, but casual sex has been around on college campuses for decades. It’s not as though we’ve just entered some new 'hookup culture' era."
What is still one of the biggest misconceptions about sex that you’ve come across?
"All too often, people confuse the terms “average” and “normal.” I hear from a lot of people who have looked at the numbers for things like average penis size or average amount of sex couples are having and are incredibly worried because they feel like they don’t measure up. The important thing to remember is that “normal” represents a pretty wide range and most people, whether they are above or below some average, are still perfectly normal."
Take me through a typical day in sex researcher’s life.
"My day always begins by reading about the latest sex research. I do this not just to keep my knowledge base current, but also because I run a blog called Sex and Psychology that aims to educate the public about the science of sex. So, I’m always on the lookout for new information to write about and share with my followers.
"After that, every day is a little different. Some days are spent in the classroom teaching college students about sex, other days are focused on conducting research or writing up results for publication in academic journals, while other days are spent working on my latest book project or writing about sex for magazines and websites."
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Will thinking about sex ever get old?
"The day that this job will 'get old' or no longer interest me is the day that we know everything there is to know about sex."
What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a sex researcher?
"Personally, I find my work as a sex educator to be the most rewarding aspect of my job. What makes it worthwhile is hearing from students who say that my class made them feel normal for the first time in their lives or that it gave them the vocabulary to have an important conversation with their partner.
"One specific moment I’ll never forget is when a student brought her mother to class one day. Her mom came up to me afterward and thanked me for teaching this class. She was thrilled that her daughter had this opportunity and couldn’t wait to go home and share what she had learned with her husband."
What’s been the reaction from your family, friends, or even prospective dates about your career choice?
"I have found that being a sex researcher makes you the life of just about any party! Every time I tell new people what I do, whether I am at the bar or at a formal dinner, everyone wants to talk about sex and ask their burning questions for the rest of the evening."
To meet the rest of the masters, head over to Nerve.
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