As a Woman Doing Sex Research
When I tell people that I am a sex researcher, they often want to talk to me about their own views, perceptions, and experiences of sex. Sometimes, this is awesome! I’ve certainly learned some interesting perspectives from these conversations, and I would even say that people’s anecdotes have occasionally informed questions in my research studies.
However, I’ve also noticed that, as a sex researcher, people assume that I am always willing to talk about sex (I’m not) and that I want to hear every detail of everyone’s sex life (I don’t). Specifically, I’ve noticed how quickly people can jump into personal, vivid sexual details about themselves when they meet me, spanning anywhere from their very specific frustrations with their sexual partner (who is sometimes sitting right next to them!), to which sexual positions they enjoyed the most last night, at whatever hour, while they were doing X sexual act with Y person (TMI!!). On one hand, I get it. We live in a society where it’s taboo to talk about sexuality, so the temptation to spill it all to the person who thinks and writes about it all day makes sense. On the other hand, however, most people would never consider talking to a person they barely know in vivid detail about their sexual thoughts and histories. At minimum, it’s uncomfortable, but at its worst, it’s actually a form of sexual harassment. Seriously! The definition of sexual harassment according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) literally includes “discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places.”
So, usually, it’s inappropriate to discuss this stuff with someone you’ve just met who is neither a clinician nor a sex worker you’re paying, and who isn’t a researcher leading a study you’re in. That doesn’t mean every instance of oversharing is harassment (don’t worry!). But, people’s tendency to overshare their sexual details with me has prompted me to question how sexual harassment might look or feel differently as a woman doing sex research. After all, while “discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work” is included in the definition of sexual harassment (according to RAINN), discussing sexuality IS a pretty ordinary part of my job. As a result, the typical definition of sexual harassment doesn’t really apply for me the way it does in other workplaces, and I can see how this might lead people to assume that my work (and personal) space is a free-for-all sex talk haven where no sexual topic is too inappropriate to discuss. FYI: This isn’t true! My lab has rules our PI (principle investigator) made for how we talk about our work and about sex [research] precisely to avoid making anyone uncomfortable.
While I understand the reasons people might overshare sexual details with me, I have often come to find myself in a position where I’m trying to figure out if someone is just innocently oversharing – or whether they are trying to test the boundaries of appropriate sexual conduct (i.e., low-key sexually harassing me). And of course, while I am trying to figure this out, I’m also working to present that perfect womanly balance of being warm, competent, and professional (but definitely NOT angry). Usually, I conclude that most people are innocent, and they take the hint when I politely steer the conversation towards a more conceptual (rather than personal) discussion of their chosen topic. But, this isn’t always the case, and I sometimes leave conversations wondering: Did that person really respect my research, or were they hitting on me (or both)? Should I report this, and if yes, to whom? Was that interaction really even reportable? For a long time, I wasn’t sure how to voice the ambiguity I felt about these kind of encounters. But, after years of similar experiences, I’ve begun to recognize how the “unclear” boundaries associated with being a sex researcher may compel harassers to justify their behavior, emboldened perhaps by the excuse that “it’s all out of interest” in a professional discussion of sexuality. To show how, exactly, people have used unclear boundaries to justify sexualizing comments – and in the name of defining my harassment experiences as such – I describe a few examples of encounters I’ve had as a woman doing sex research below.
Early in my graduate school career, a prominent male writer (“prominent” as in he wrote a sort-of popular book) contacted our lab, wishing to visit so that he could gather information on a story he was writing. He seemed genuine enough and so, for a few days, this writer talked with us, lunched with us, and took notes. Importantly, this writer even tried one of our studies to get a feel for the process (not for real participation!); and, in this particular study, participants were asked to write about a sexual fantasy while giving saliva samples.
After doing this study, the writer asked if he could interview me about my research. As a junior scholar, this is a pretty exciting prospect (as is literally any time anyone wants to talk to you about your research ideas). He took me to a private room where he had set up a tape recorder and asked me a few basic questions, all quite normal. Then, he proceeded to tell me that, when he had fake-participated in our study, he had written his fantasy about ME (!!!) – oh and by the way, how did I, the attractive, feminist, woman sex researcher working in a sex research lab, feel about that? All in the name of research, of course.
I froze. I remember the blood rose to my head so fast that I became dizzy. I racked my brain to put together a response that didn’t make me sound as awkward as I felt, and I stammered off some response as my mind raced with the thoughts: Was this man hitting on me or was he really asking as a part of his writing project? What was he going to do with the tape recording? WHAT WAS THE POINT OF TELLING ME THIS SEXUAL DETAIL?
I’ve dissected this interaction many times, and I always come back to consider his expressionless, unconcerned stare during that very uncomfortable question. That is, it seemed quite clear that he found this behavior (reminder: TAKING A WOMAN INTO A ROOM ALONE TO TELL HER ABOUT HOW HE HAD BEEN SEXUALIZING HER) entirely appropriate given the nature of our lab’s research and the study had just fake-completed! I wondered if it crossed his mind that this interaction would make me so uncomfortable, and I pondered again and again whether his transgression was accidental (maybe he really just didn’t understand how boundaries work in a sex research lab?!) – or opportunistic.
After the incident, I told my advisor, Sari van Anders, what happened and she was horrified, but also angry for another reason. As it turns out, the writer actually KNEW that it was inappropriate to talk to me about his fantasy because Sari had TOLD HIM SO. That is, the day before, he had brought up his attraction to me TO SARI (again, WTF?!) and asked Sari what he should do. Sari explained that, while there is no problem with attractions, there is a problem with expressing them in a professional situation, like teaching or interviewing, especially with power imbalances (like a journalist ostensibly about to write to a public audience about a lab interviewing one of its junior members!).
So, why did he decide to talk to me about it anyway? Sari emailed him (with my permission) about the incident after it happened and he claimed that, while he understood the ethical risks of approaching me, he was hoping I would feel comfortable speaking candidly about the situation anyway. That is, he assumed that I, as a sex researcher, would somehow be more open to his comments (even though Sari, another sex researcher, told him it would not be okay) – and that, as a result, the typical boundaries of sexual harassment were moot.
The above example was perhaps a unique case because of the nature of mine and the harasser’s respective positions (i.e., sex researchers don’t usually have writers poking around in their labs) and my ability to later gain insight into the writer’s approach to boundaries (i.e., he knew the boundaries and chose to cross them anyway). This next example is perhaps the more common experience I have in that it happened in passing, with another researcher:
After giving a talk at a conference, an older, senior researcher approached me, saying that he had some questions. Again, given my junior status, I was thrilled that anyone would want to talk to me about my work. Soon after I obliged, the researcher quickly steered the conversation away from my talk to the tattoos on my shoulder, commenting that “such a good-looking girl” (girl? what am I, twelve?!) must have considered how this might affect perceptions of my attractiveness. Of course, he clarified that he meant this in a “scientific way”, given that, you know, asymmetry is hideous according to evolutionary theory. I stood there in confusion as he droned on, unsure if I was being negged and/or if this guy really did think our conversation was purely scientific. As this happened, I nodded and smiled, my heart dropping as other scholars (who were perhaps actually interested in my research) walked away, waving and mouthing that they would catch up with me later when I wasn’t “busy.” They didn’t, because life moves on, and this matters because I lost professional opportunities to actually discuss my work.
Notably, I reported this encounter to my advisor as well, and Sari emailed said researcher to let him know that his comments were inappropriate (again with my permission, and we worked on the email together). I received a decent “I didn’t mean to offend you” apology. But alas, the whole situation still left me unnerved, frustrated and wondering: am I doomed to these kind of experiences this forever?
The answer is: maybe. I hope that people will learn to be better and that these interactions will become less frequent as people speak out more about sexual harassment in general. But, I’ll admit: my fear is that the increased societal focus on sexual harassment won’t actually do much for those of us in sex research, because our boundaries are still assumed by most to be more flexible (or just plain non-existent) compared to most people’s. Perhaps as a result, sex researchers will always be in a position where people are tempted to test the boundaries of appropriate conversation about sexuality, which means that I really am destined to spend my career figuring out how to weed out the innocent over-sharers from the sexual harassers (great…can’t wait…). At least now, though, I know that while sexual harassment DOES look different as a woman sex researcher, it is definitely happening. And for all you harassers out there, I’m on to you.
Brescoll, V. L., & Uhlmann, E. L. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead?: Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace. Psychological Science, 19(3), 268–275.
Herbenick, D., van Anders, S. M., Brotto, L. A., Chivers, M. L., Jawed-Wessel, S., & Galarza, J. (in press). Sexual harassment in the field of sexuality research. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Sexual harrassment. Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-harassment
Sara B. Chadwick is a PhD student in the joint Psychology and Women’s Studies program at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on how gendered sexual scripts influence sexual behaviors and experiences related to orgasm and sexual desire.