Anyone who’s tried to do sex research in the US knows how difficult it is to get your study approved by the IRB (Institutional Review Board) – the research police imbued with the power of granting or withholding permission for all social science. IRBs all across the country regularly freak out when they see a study about sex, even those that require nothing more than answering a few sex questions in an anonymous survey. You all know how scary and traumatizing voluntarily talking about sex can be.
And when the studies are a bit more involved, their reactions go bat-shit crazy.
Example 1. When I wanted to do a study of people’s sexual experiences and their mental health each week over 12 weeks, one Cornell University IRB member expressed concern that such a study would make people engage in more date raping just so they can have something to report on my weekly survey!
Example 2. When our lab wanted to conduct a study that would require placing devices onto/into people’s genitals to measure their genital arousal while watching porn (people do the device-placing themselves in a private room), the IRB required us to have a nurse present with each participant to make sure people weren’t traumatized by the study.
And these people are adults, fully informed about the nature of the study. You can imagine their reactions to doing sex research with minors!
This fear of sexuality being traumatizing is not surprising given how sexually conflicted this culture is about sexuality.
But now we have a bunch of science to prove that participating in sexuality research is not particularly distressing, damaging, or traumatizing. If anything, it has much more positive than negative effects on people.
In 2011, a researcher at Northwestern University examined the experiences of 181 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth who answered questions about their sexual behaviors. Only 11.1% of the LGBT youth felt uncomfortable answering the questions, and their levels of discomfort in answering sex-related questions were no different than their discomfort in answering questions regarding mental health and and suicide.
In 2012, a U.S. research team at the University of New Mexico did a little experiment: Half of their undergraduate student participants answered surveys on trauma and sex (e.g., sexual partners, sexual attitudes, sexual abuse, rape myth acceptance, body image, masturbation), while the other half took tests of cognitive ability (e.g., abstract reasoning, vocabulary, general intelligence). Both groups then rated their positive and negative reactions.
1. Participants in both groups had decreases in negative feelings after doing the study, but only participants in the sex/trauma group had increases in positive feelings.
2. After taking the survey, participants in the sex/trauma group reported lower mental costs (e.g., exhausting, gave me headache) and greater perceived benefits (e.g, gave me insight) than participants in the cognitive test group. Both groups had similar positive emotions (e.g, made me feel better, proud).
3. Participants in the sex/trauma group did report higher negative emotions (e.g., made me sad, emotionally unstable) than participants in the cognitive test group on average, but the means for both groups were very low (1.99 vs. 1.65 on a scale of 1 to 7). In fact, only 3.4% participants in the sex/trauma group had negative reactions that were above the mid-point of the scale.
4. Finally, participants in both groups similarly rated their experience with the study as less stressful compared to 15 different regular life stressors, like getting a $100 speeding ticket, being fired from a job, getting a paper cut, standing alone at a party not knowing anyone, or having a pet die on you.
In 2012, a study by a Dutch research team surveyed 899 sexually active 15-25 year-olds in the Netherlands. They filled out a questionnaire about sexual abuse and number of sexual partners, followed by a questionnaire about their levels of distress, need for help, and positive feelings. Only 3.5% reported experiencing need to seek help, while 96.5% reported experiencing positive feelings (relief, enjoyment, feeling this was important) as a result of participating in the survey! About 27% reported at least some sadness or having bad thoughts as a response.
And now, the same Dutch team surveyed a nationally-representative sample of over 8,000 Dutch people aged 15 to 70 (both sexually experienced and inexperienced) in a similar way as in the previous study. Results were similar: Less than 7% of people felt the survey questions made them sad and 3% needed help as a result, while over 60% enjoyed giving their opinion and felt this was an important survey to do. Only 5% reported higher levels of distress than positive effects and 2% reported a higher need for help than positive feelings. And, A VERY IMPORTANT AND, legal minors and adults reported similar levels of distress and need for help.
I rest my case.
Will the IRB finally give us a break now please?