By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
What is a day in the life of a sex researcher like? In this interview series, I talk to some of the world’s foremost authorities on sex in order to answer this question, but also to provide a glimpse into what they’re currently working on, what the media gets wrong about sex, and what they think about some of the most pressing issues facing the field of sex research today.
For this interview, I spoke with Dr. Meredith Chivers, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Canada who specializes in research on female sexual arousal and desire. Below is the transcript of our email conversation.
Lehmiller: As a sex researcher, one of the most common questions you get asked is how you got into this line of work in the first place. So let’s start there—what is it that drew you to this field of study? What’s the story behind how you became a sex researcher?
Chivers: It all started in an undergrad course on human sexuality. In my second year of a BSc degree in psychology, I was facing a sea of middling grades, ones that were certainly not going to get me into medical school, my career trajectory at the time. I had been fascinated by the brain since age 10 and, at age 19, envisioned a career in psychiatry or neurology. But to get there, I needed a course that would counter my poor inorganic chemistry grade, and my friends told me the undergraduate sexuality course was the easy ‘A’ I was looking for. Plus it was about sex, which is so intrinsically interesting, and I was never shy about discussing sexuality—in fact, I did some pro-bono sex ed in high school, educating males friends on how to “find the clitoris.”
Among the key moments in that human sexuality class was the course instructor showing close-up slides of women’s vulvas, and the class—mostly the women—responding “ewww.” Now I was even more intrigued. Another was giving a presentation in this class on women’s sexual difficulties, after which I literally had the ‘aha’ moment walking back to my residence, thinking, “if I could do that for the rest of my life, I’d be a pretty happy person.” The rub was that I didn’t find the sexuality research I’d read about as compelling as the brain science I was in love with, so I kept on the neuroscience/neuropsychology track. For my honour’s thesis, however, I discovered research on the neuroscience of sexual orientation, specifically examining brain lateralization and sexual attractions. I found a supervisor who was willing to support a thesis on the topic, and that was it. I had found my calling; though I was still keenly interested in clinical applications, sexuality and neuroscience brought together was my thing.
From there, I approached Ray Blanchard at the then Clarke Institute of Psychiatry (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and worked as his research assistant for a year, collecting data on hospital patients with pedophilic sexual attractions. When applying to clinical psychology programs, I restricted my applications to Canada, deterred by high American tuition costs, but Ken Zucker convinced me to apply to Northwestern University to work with Mike Bailey, telling me I’d get a scholarship and have the chance to do graduate research on women’s sexual orientation. And Ken was right.
Lehmiller: What is your primary area of research and what methods do you typically use to answer your research questions?
Chivers: The majority of my work focuses on understanding sexual response, particularly how sexual response is gendered, and how gendered sexual response relates to individual differences in sexual attractions, sexual identities, and sexual well-being. Two major findings have been at the core of this work for the past two decades. The first is the specificity of sexual response, or the relationship between patterns of sexual response and someone’s stated sexual attractions; heterosexual women (but not men) tend to show nonspecific sexual response, that is, sexual responses to stimuli that do and do not correspond with their sexual attractions. The second is sexual concordance, or the relationship between physiological and psychological aspects of sexual response; women tend to have more variable relationships between physiological and psychological aspects of sexual response than men do. Both of these findings have been widely replicated, and now we’re working on research to address why we see this variation and what implications these variations in sexual response have for people’s well-being.
I was so fortunate to be trained in sexual psychophysiology by Erick Janssen, then a scientist at the Kinsey Institute. Most of my early career work centered on assessment of genital and subjective sexual response in women and men. Since coming to Queen’s University in 2009, this research program has expanded to include assessment of cognitive, neural, and visual attention components of sexual response. We’ve also explored a number of different ways to assess women’s genital sexual responses, expanding from the more typical measures of vaginal response to include thermal imaging to assess temperature change in the vulva, and measurements of clitoral responses, most recently using pelvic MRI to measure changes in the internal clitoris during sexual arousal.
Lehmiller: You have published research on several topics, including sexual orientation, paraphilias, and the physiology of sexual arousal. Tell us a little bit about a study you’re working on right now—perhaps the one you’re most excited about.
Chivers: We are currently finishing data preparation for a study that examines the relationship between sexual arousal and responsive sexual desire in women with and without sexual difficulties. In this study, women came to the lab, viewed erotic stimuli (gay or straight couples having sex) while they reported their sexual responses using a keypad, and their genital responses were assessed (using vaginal and clitoral measures). Immediately after the lab session, women completed a variety of self-report and behavioural tasks believed to tap in to feelings of sexual desire that emerge when sexual arousal is triggered (this is what we mean by responsive desire). Three days later, they completed several questionnaires that asked about sexual feelings, thoughts, and behaviours as a means of assessing delayed responsive desire. In a few weeks, we will have the full dataset ready for analysis.
In a few months, we’ll also be wrapping up an analogous study using thermal imaging to assess changes in genital response. I’m particularly keen to examine whether sexual concordance, the agreement between self-reported and genital measures of sexual response, predicts immediate and delayed responsive sexual desire, and how these relationships are affected by the method to assess genital responses. Can’t wait to dig in!
Lehmiller: Your research on female sexual arousal is frequently misconstrued and sensationalized in the popular media. What is the biggest thing journalists tend to get wrong about your work? And do you have any sense as to why they keep getting it wrong?
Chivers: The most common mistake is one that likely is fed by the incorrect belief that what happens in someone’s body reflects the ‘truth’ of their sexual desire or interests. From this error springs a number of damning conclusions about women’s sexual response, such as the idea that women lie about their sexual arousal or the idea that all women are “really” bisexual because their bodies respond to male and female sexual stimuli. In both of these examples, women’s physiological responses are prioritized in determining a person’s “true” desires, and their self-report is considered as confusion at best or irrelevant at worst.
This error is fairly common when interpreting psychological science, where objectivity is lauded and subjectivity is seen as a nuisance. Measurements of physical bodies are thought to be “objective,” meaning free from bias, reflecting an essential, biologically-determined quality of the individual. Couple this thinking error with the natural fallacy (the tendency to believe that what is natural, like what happens in the body, is the good or desirable state), and many arrive at the conclusion that what bodies do is true and good, and how we interpret and define our experiences is more of a distraction.
All of this is horribly wrong and it belies the difficulty many have with conceptualizing the embodiment of sexuality. I think this is what I find most compelling about studying sexual response – it is among the quintessential human experiences of our sexuality, where we are so intimately involved with our bodies, the bodies of others, and the potential for pleasure and fulfillment.
Lehmiller: You did your graduate training in the United States (at Northwestern University), but you took a faculty position in Canada (at Queen’s University). If my understanding is correct, this is because you had serious concerns that the political environment in the US might impede your work. Tell us a little about what this move meant for your career and some of the things Canada is doing to support sex research.
Chivers: It was partly because of funding concerns, but partly because I’m Canadian and was happy to come home! In 2002, when I was finishing my PhD, The Washington Times published a scathing article criticizing Clinton-era funding of research in Mike Bailey’s lab. Seven months later, in July 2003 and while I was at a conference at the Kinsey Institute, a vote was held in the House of Representatives to unilaterally rescind all federal funding of sexuality research. It came within two votes of passing. The writing was on the wall. I would never be able to fund the research I wanted to do if I stayed in the US, and the W. Bush government was just getting rolling. This episode with the House of Representatives, coupled with an omnipresent tone that my research ranged from morally objectionable to a complete waste of taxpayer’s money, made it was clear to me it was time to go home.
(Note: For a full recounting of these events, see Epstein S. The new attack on sexuality research: Morality and the politics of knowledge production. Sex Res Soc Policy. 2006;3(1):1-12. doi:10.1525/srsp.2006.3.1.01.)
The unbearable lightness of being (Google!) makes it such that I will never know what could have been had I stayed in the US. The country would have to be a very different place in many ways for my career to have flourished. Fortunately, in Canada, people don’t get quite so exercised about the moral overtones of studying sexuality and believe it is a legitimate topic of scientific inquiry for its own sake. The US federal government has predominantly restricted funding to problematized sexualities, focusing, for example, on funding work relevant to public health problems. Within this framework, the moral concern about studying sexuality can be countered with the morally laudable goal of preventing STIs or unwanted teen pregnancies, so sex research can slink under the watchful eye of conservatives.
In Canada, I’ve been fortunate. My research has been funded by all three of our federal granting agencies: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada to understand basic processes associated with gendered sexual response, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for work focusing on sexual response and women’s sexual difficulties, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to understand how gender stereotypes influence sexual response. I’ve never felt pressured to conceal the focus on sexuality in my grant applications. Moreover, CIHR’s Institute of Gender and Health explicitly focuses on funding work to understand how gender and sex influence aspects of health, including sexual health, and research focused on women is valued and encouraged. This support has been essential to creating the research programs we have underway in the Sexuality and Gender Lab at Queen’s.
Lehmiller: What would you say is the most pressing issue sex scientists should be focusing on right now and why?
Chivers: In terms of clinical research, I would like to see more focus on the development, validation, implementation, and evaluation of evidence-based interventions for reducing sexual violence. The most recent surge of #MeToo voices underscores the magnitude of this problem, where many have been hurt, and many don’t have the tools, understanding, or experience of consequences to stop them hurting others.
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to be involved with prevention and response to sexual violence on a local level. Here at Queen’s, I serve as the faculty advisor on my university’s sexual violence response and prevention group and have been involved with bringing several evidence-based programs to our campus, such as bystander intervention training, and more recently, Charlene Senn’s prevention program. I also have experience working clinically with both victims and offenders, and I’m a sexual violence survivor myself. In another lifetime, I would love to do this work, but I’m still preoccupied in the sexual psychophysiology lab, figuring out sexual response. Maybe in a few years.
Lehmiller: Last question: as a sex researcher, people tend to assume that you know everything there is to know when it comes to sex. However, the truth of the matter is that no one does—like everyone else, we’re all constantly learning. Tell us one new thing you recently learned about sex that absolutely fascinated you.
Chivers: Today it was something in the cognitive science realm, somewhere I seem to find myself a lot of these days. I read a paper that examined how sexual motivation (operationalized as key presses to reveal a sexy picture) is reduced by a previous experience of inhibiting a response to that same sexy picture. How cool is that!?! And this response inhibition effect is not exclusive to sexual stimuli, it can be found for other desirable objects, like yummy food. Lots of possible implications about the regulation of sexual motivation and behaviors in our sexual-media saturated worlds.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.