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As Kinsey and others discovered to their cost, sex research is fraught with problems for researchers and must be managed carefully. In the USA, Congress has cut or threatened the funding in recent decades for two national surveys of sexual behavior: a study of massage parlor workers and a study of sexual risk-taking, among other topics. And those who publish research invite trouble, as the University of Minnesota Press found when it published Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors. Levine’s book, a critique of the hysteria over pedophilia in American society, so offended the Minnesota board of trustees, that they cut funding to the university press even though Levine’s book could in no way be seen as a defense of pedophilia.
Although researchers have been concerned about (these problems) for over 100 years, Kinsey was the first to discuss it explicitly. Worried about guarding the confidentiality of the thousands of respondents who agreed to share their sex histories, he trained his hand-picked interviewers to learn the questions and write the answers in carefully guarded code, and he kept locks on all the materials in his institute. Even so, in 1954, when Congress investigated the Rockefeller Foundation to punish it for opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee, the only issue raised was their funding of Kinsey’s research. As a result, the funding ceased.
While sociologists argue that we become sexual just like we become anything else, those who engage in sexuality research recognize that their work differs from that of others, for the reasons outlined above. These researchers have responded to the perceived dangers by careful management. Many sociologists of sexuality write theoretical articles, or use small numbers of qualitative interviews with carefully selected volunteer respondents, or undertake historical research using texts as their data source. Problems of small samples and inconsistent questionnaires make it hard to generalize to larger populations. Researchers who undertake quantitative work on other topics justify their carefully picked topics by citing compelling social reasons.
In addition, researchers have ignored methodological problems associated with asking sensitive questions for fear of inviting criticism discrediting their results. As a result, they have claimed their research is more accurate than it is and have only recently faced such problems as the inconsistent responses between men and women in the number of reported sexual partners, or the difficulties of asking uniformly worded questions about masturbation when there is no term for this practice that is generally accepted and understood by all segments of the population. For example, there has been an enormous amount of research on voting behavior in the United States in response to the difficult problems associated with getting an accurate account of the vote and with predicting who will vote and how in forthcoming elections. Until recently, there has been no comparable body of research on sexual behavior surveys.
In the last decade or so the picture has changed, and major research centers have begun to undertake methodological research on sex surveys. In spite of Foucault’s declaration that talk about sex led to self-policing, not to liberation, and even in the face of much discourse intended to control sexuality, most would agree that attitudes towards sexuality are more liberal and facilitate more open discussion of sexual behavior than previously. Surveys are one kind of open discussion about sex. In addition, the devastation caused by AIDS has provided ample justification for prying into the private lives of individuals.
- Ericksen, J. A. (1999) Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994) The Social Organization of
- Sexuality, Appendix A. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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