Sex research sparks interest

Sex lab researchers study levels of participants’ sexual arousal

In a private room, SAGE sex lab participants watch pornographic videos and rate their levels of sexual arousal.
In a private room, SAGE sex lab participants watch pornographic videos and rate their levels of sexual arousal.
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Female participants insert the probe (vaginal photoplethysmograph) during sex research to monitor their level of arousal.
Female participants insert the probe (vaginal photoplethysmograph) during sex research to monitor their level of arousal.
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Being a sex researcher is like sitting at the base of a lightening rod — at least that’s what professor Meredith Chivers says.

“You know it’s going to push buttons for people … as a sexuality researcher you have to have a strong grounding, and feel confident about what it is you’re doing at the same time.”

Chivers is the director of the Sexuality and Gender Laboratory (SAGE) which opened in January 2010. The lab conducts research on sexual psychophysiology, gender, sexual attraction and sexual functioning.

Prior to coming to Queen’s, Chivers’ research had no shortage of controversy.

She received her MA and PhD at Northwestern University and faced criticism while in the U.S.

“Probably the most spectacular case was when myself and sexuality researchers were blacklisted by the Traditional Values Coalition in the States,” she said. “None of us lost funding … but we were all really scared.”

Chivers said sexuality researchers have faced opposition from a range of communities.

“People from religious groups have had all kinds of issues looking at female sexuality, but I’ve also had rubs with radical feminists who see women’s response to pornography as anti-feminist,” she said.

Researchers of the SAGE lab are interested in understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality.

Core research areas include arousal, attraction and orientation and functioning.

“We’re looking at problems particularly with women and sexuality,” she said.

Chivers said study participants aren’t restricted by sexual identity labels.

“These days we’re interested in people with a variety of different sexual attractions, to women, men or both,” she said. “They participate in sex arousal assessment: they listen to erotic stories or watch a series of erotic videotapes in a private testing room where they’ve attached a genital gauge.” Female participants insert a probe that measures blood flow in the vagina, while males use a device that measures the changes in circumference of the penis, she said.

“More often than not they can’t even tell the devices are there,” Chivers said.

“In general, we’re interested in people’s stated sexual interest and their patterns of responding —what they’re feeling in the moment and what their body is doing,” she said. “With some women, the specificity of arousal is different — they can be aroused by a lot, even if they didn’t think it.”

Both the psychological and physical experience are important to research, Chivers said.

“A lot of people can interpret measuring the physiological responding to think that’s the truth. That’s not the case.” Participants range from 18 to 45 years old and they are primarily students. Compensation ranges from $25 to $125.

“It varies with how much time we’re asking of participants,” Chivers said.

Second-year Rebecca Lyons participated in sex research at the SAGE lab in Humphrey Hall.

“Basically they showed us a series of pornographic and non-pornographic videos and you monitor your own response,” Lyons, ArtSci ’14, said. “They have a vaginal probe and … you have to keep a journal about your thoughts.”

Lyons said she heard about the study when she saw an ad in Humphrey Hall.

The study’s compensation, around $40, pushed her to participate.

“I’ve done two of them,” she said. “I did one in early December and I did one the week after the break in January.”

Despite the explicit content that she viewed, Lyons said she wasn’t uncomfortable during the study.

“You receive a lot of instructions. They have someone telling you about what they’re doing, and they give you a debriefing form,” she said. “They give you multiple opportunities to back out. You have to sign a consent form and they leave the room.”

From then on, you participate in an isolated environment, she said.

Sex research doesn’t just attract psychology students.

“I am in PSYC 100, but I’m actually in Life Sciences,” she said. “I just think it’s really interesting.”

Lyons said she hasn’t received any negative responses f

rom friends.

“Most people thought it was pretty cool and interesting. I’ve recommended it to a couple of people to do [the studies].”

Katrina Bouchard, ArtSci ’12, is doing her honour’s thesis in the SAGE lab. She said she wanted to work in the lab after taking courses at Queen’s related to sexuality.

“I took abnormal PSYC in my second year and there was a module on sexuality research, which sparked my interest,” she said. “It’s such an important aspect of human experience ... there’s a lot of unanswered questions we have about sex.”

Working in a sex lab isn’t as scandalous as people might think.

“When you work on something so much the novelty of talking and thinking about sex wears off,” Bouchard said. “It becomes part of our daily lives and vocabulary.”

While Bouchard’s involvement in sex research hasn’t provoked criticism from her peers or parents, it has elicited surprise, she said.

“My parents were a little bit surprised. There’s a bit of a generational divide when it comes to sex — they don’t know a lot about the field and neither do my friends,” she said.

While the researchers and participants don’t generally feel uncomfortable, even if they did, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Any PSYC research is careful with ethics. If someone thought this wasn’t for me, they could leave,” she said.

According to a Queen’s history professor, sexuality wasn’t always viewed as a legitimate field of study, even as recently as two decades ago.

“That students can take courses on the history of sexuality at Queen’s today is a direct result of those earlier struggles,” Steven Maynard told the Journal via email.

Maynard teaches several courses related to sexuality, including a second-year course, the history of sexuality in Canada.

It explores the history of sexuality in Canada, Britain and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

According to Maynard, his course has consistently attracted a steady stream of students.

“The course is always fully enrolled at 130 students,” he said.

“Sexuality ferments opposition in society at large, whether from religious fundamentalists or other moral-sexual conservatives,” Maynard said. “But I think that kind of opposition and conflict aren’t as pronounced within the field of sexuality studies, for the university is one of the few places in our society where we can undertake the critical scrutiny of sexuality.”

Maynard said current political issues make sexuality relevant and relatable to students.

“I’m thinking here of issues like the current move to decriminalize prostitution in Canada, the gay marriage debate, or the recent ‘Slut Walk’ movement,” he said.

SlutWalk is a series of protest marches in response to a Toronto police officer’s comment that to remain safe women should “avoid dressing like sluts.”

Maynard said studying sexuality brings together the personal with the political.

“Many of us first begin to seriously think about questions of sexual identity when we get to university,” he said.

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