May 31, 2011
I’m breaking ranks and going off topic just a bit today, because I simply can’t bear to wait a moment longer to share the fruits of my recent interview with one of my newer tweeps: fellow Canuck Kristen Mark – sex researcher, doctoral student, and writer of all things concerning sexuality and relationships.
During our chat, Kristen shared her opinions and insights on everything porn/sex addiction to the very remarkable findings of her own research on desire discrepancy (the mismatch of levels of desire for sexual activity within a relationship). All in all it was a very enlightening discussion that touched on more than a few aspects of our favourite topic here at MetAnotherFrog.com…SEX!
“People need to remember that sex is the only thing that distinguishes your partner from being your roommate.”- Kristen Mark
Skye: How did you first become interested in sex research?
KM: My background is in psychology and…I was taking a human sexuality class in my undergrad, in Canada at Queen’s University. At the time I had planned to be a forensic psychologist, and I had actually worked at the Kingston Penitentiary. But it just wasn’t very rewarding. Not something that I wanted to do. Luckily, the professor teaching the sexuality class I was in mentioned that it was a field that was expanding and that there weren’t that many Canadian sex researchers at the time. And I found the class fascinating. It was one of those classes I just wanted to study for. So, that made it a pretty easy decision for me. To say “I’m not doing the forensic psych anymore. I’m switching to sex and relationships.” I did that, took a couple more classes and then found some really great mentors.
At first I wanted to go into sex therapy. But once I learned more about sex therapy I decided that I really enjoyed the research side. Then I got really lucky when I met my mentor Robin Milhausen. She was really interested in the same things I was, so we just kept each other going and really motivated…Once I met her, I was really clear about the fact that sex research was definitely what I wanted to do with my life.
Skye: Going back to the point you made about sex research being a growing field in Canada. I recently met Megan Andelloux, an American sexologist, at a sexuality workshop here in Toronto, and she mentioned that Canada has more sex researchers and sex research going on than the US. Would you say that’s true and if so why?
KM: Yeah, they do. As far as the reason for it, it could be the political climate. I mean, I’m studying in the US now at Indiana University, and this is one of the better universities to study sex at, because we have the Kinsey Institute here, and there are a lot of really deep historical roots in terms of sex research. But I would say at a lot of other schools it can be really difficult, especially if you’re at a state funded school. In those cases you have to worry about funding being pulled because sex isn’t necessarily seen as a priority for a lot of conservative governments…I think that is probably a big part of it.
“…sex research applies to everyone. People will always be having sex, so there will always be something to study.”
Skye: And what about the growth of the field your professor mentioned. Is sex research still on an upswing here in Canada?
KM: Yeah. When I was in undergrad there were only a few sex researchers there. It was really a growing field. And I know that the Canadian Sex Research Forum has expanded exponentially since I started my career in the field in 2005, and that was the trend even a few years before that. The forum used to be much, much smaller and now by comparison they’re huge, which shows just how fast the field is growing.
Part of the growth is due to the fact that more people are starting to realize that you can study sex. They’re still a lot of people who don’t know that sex can actually be something academic and scientific. But the fact is sex research applies to everyone. People will always be having sex, so there will always be something to study. That was part of the reason why I was drawn to the field. I knew there would always be things to study, so I’d always have a job. (smiles)
Skye: Do you think sex research is respected by psychologists and/or the medical field?
KM: I think…(pauses). Some do and some don’t on both fronts. Sometimes you get questions about its scientific merit in terms of journals and things like that. I think as sex researchers we have some really great sexuality journals that are specific to sexuality. But in getting our work into those mainstream medical or psychology journals we have to work a little bit harder than most. So, I don’t think it has respect across the board, though it is slowly gaining respect.
With studies that get a lot of attention, like the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB; conducted by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, where I currently do my research), people are starting to realize that sex matters. The amount of press that study got – it was the first study in over a decade to survey sexual experiences and condom-use behaviors in a nationally representative sample of 14-94 year olds – I think people are realizing that there are researchers out there documenting these things. But, as much as that recognition is great, we still have a ways to go to get the widespread respect that our field deserves.
Skye: As a woman who writes for a website that discusses sex very openly, I’ve had some ‘interesting’ responses from both men and women when I tell them about it. What kind of response do you get when you tell people what type of work you do?
KM: There are definitely people who trivialize what I do and who don’t understand that it is a serious field that uses hard science to look at the issues we study. So what I do when I meet someone new is try to get a sense of the person before mentioning it. And telling them that I’m a sex researcher is definitely not the first thing that I say. I tend to have really good intuition about whether or not someone will be able to handle hearing about what I do. When I get a sense that they won’t be able to handle it or that they’ll be uncomfortable with it, I tend to say that I study romantic relationships. (Laughs)…I mean that’s not a lie. Then if they want to ask more questions, they can.
I’m careful about it because I have gotten negative reactions, particularly in the dating setting. If I’m out talking to people in a social setting it’s harder to get a sense of the person. So, sometimes I’ve said it and certainly regretted it afterwards. Some people make assumptions when you say you’re a sex researcher and often those assumptions aren’t accurate. Assumptions about you being overly sexual or your having some sort of traumatic childhood experience that led you into the field. Generally the assumptions people make have no validity to them.
Skye: People really jump to the conclusion that you’ve had a traumatic experience with sex when you say you’re a sex researcher?
KM: Yeah. When they don’t know what side of sex I study they do. People almost always assume you study sexual abuse or the disease side of sex when you say you’re a sex researcher. But once I tell them I actually study sexual pleasure and satisfaction, then they say “you must be really easy or a slut”. And the most annoying thing is when guys say ridiculous things like, “Are you going to do some field research on me?” (Laughs and shakes her head). It’s annoying, tacky and disrespectful to our field, because no I’m not going to do that. I get ethical approval for any research I do, and I wouldn’t do that unless I had that kind of approval. But when you’re in this field you come to accept that the annoying comments come with the territory.
Of course, there are also lots of people I meet who are totally awesome about it. They find it incredibly interesting and immediately see the validity of it. Those are the conversations that I’m happy to indulge.
Skye: And while we’re on the subject of people’s reaction to your work, how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to pursue sex research?
KM: (Grins) I’m really lucky that my parents are super supportive, but it took a little while for them to completely understand what I was studying. It wasn’t until they came to my Master’s thesis defense. And my grandparents came as well. Afterwards I thought, “Wow, I just said oral sex, anal sex and vaginal penetration in front of my parents and grandparents!” (Laughs)
I think that experience really showed them that I studied sex. Before that they thought it was more about interpersonal relationships with a bit of sex thrown in. But as I said they’re very supportive. Now they talk and joke about it with me. My parents tell me that I need to interview all their friends about their sex lives and write a book about it. (Laughs)
“…desire doesn’t always have to come before sexual activity.”
Skye: Currently, you are researching desire discrepancy. For the sake of our readers, could you give me a working definition?
KM: One of my research projects is on desire discrepancy in dyads – in two person long term relationships. And what that involves is one member of the couple having a higher or lower sex drive than the other member of the couple. This can express itself in terms of sexual frequency, satisfaction in sex, or various other ways.
Skye: Are such discrepancies in relationships generally something that is there from the start that is masked by what I’ll call the ‘heat of newness’ at the beginning of a romantic connection, only to show up later? If yes, what factors exacerbate the problem as the relationship goes on?
KM: Usually at the beginning of a relationship you’re so into each other, and the ‘heat of newness’ you mentioned is so strong. There are actually chemicals in your brain that are making you want to be near each other all the time. And so you don’t tend to see desire discrepancy in the beginning, which is why they are such a big problem. Eventually couples even out, and in the evening out process you learn what your own and your partner’s natural sexual desire is, and it can cause problems if it’s very different. Couples that even out and are in the same place are rare and very lucky.
But it’s important to note that even if you are one of those lucky couples, your desire levels probably won’t be the same throughout the full duration of your relationship. Individual sexual desire has been shown to ebb and flow throughout a relationship and a lifetime. So you’re dealing with both members of the couple having this constant ebb and flow, and the chances of them being on the same rhythm at any given time are slim to none.
Also, rather than looking at your desire on its own as being low, you should look at it in relation to your partner. As opposed to looking at it based on some societal norm; which is why I really like studying sexual desire in the context of the relationship.
Skye: How easy is it for coupes dealing with DD issues to overcome the problem? Are they generally able to work or talk it out on their own or through counseling?
KM: I think it depends on how it’s impacting their relationship and if they’ve talked about it. As big a problem as this is for couples, there’s surprisingly little research on desire discrepancy. I can only think of three published papers off hand, and one of them is mine. A lot of researchers don’t acknowledge or don’t know about desire discrepancy as a problem, much less society or couples. So, couples do need to talk about it. I think overall it’s a relatively easy problem to address. I think that it’s a matter of compromise, and NOT pathologising the person who has a lower desire: which often happens.
You see blame being placed, and that really shouldn’t happen. There can’t be blame in these situations. Instead you have to consider yourself relative to your partner and meet in the middle, as opposed to one person having to go all the way.
Also, there are different types of desires. There’s reactive desire and then there’s also that organic desire that you feel. And as for the reactive desire, if you don’t necessarily want to have sex with your partner, but you know that your partner wants to have sex, sometimes it’s good just to have sex with them and give in a little bit. (laughs) You’ll be surprised that once you start having sex with your partner, the arousal that you feel from their touch will induce your own desire. So, desire doesn’t always have to come before sexual activity. It can come halfway through, it can come at the end. It’s not necessarily a linear response, it’s more circular.
Skye: As far as I can tell, and please correct me if I’m wrong, there seems to be a lot of discussion of women’s low desire/sex drive, driven primarily by pharmaceutical company’s goal of discovering a little pink pill – the female version of Viagra. That said, do you think that women tend to have more problems with low libidos, or do men face the problem just as often, albeit with much less license to discuss it openly?
KM: Yeah. You’re certainly right. There is a lot of discussion about women’s low desire and pharmaceutical companies are playing a big role in the ongoing dialogue on the subject. I don’t think that women necessarily have more problems with libido. In the past two studies that I’ve done we’ve found that the number of men with low sexual desire is pretty much equal to that of women. Other researchers who have looked at desire discrepancies have found that as well.
I think that our society just expects men to always be ready to go, so therefore men don’t feel like they can talk about their issues with low desire as openly. In the case of long term relationships particularly, the longer the relationship goes on the lower the desire gets in men just as it does in women.
Regarding the role of pharma in the discussion of sexual desire, it’s an interesting one. Anyone interested in learning more about it should definitely see the movie Orgasm Inc., a movie that gives a great depiction of the medical and pharmaceutical industry’s role in creating a problem around the issue of women’s sexual desire, and women’s sexual functioning in general, that doesn’t necessarily exist.
I also really love Leonore Tiefer’s New View Campaign, which is promoting a new view of women’s sexual problems. I love all the work that they are doing. It is so interesting because they acknowledge that women’s sexual functioning is different. She often says that women’s sexuality “is not like digestion, it’s like dancing”. So, you can’t treat it with a pill, you have to treat it with a whole lot of other things, kind of like learning how to dance.
And I think that is true with men too, although women have been getting a lot of attention because of pharma’s search for a little pink pill. But with men too, it’s more than biological, it’s relational. It’s interpersonal and emotional. I mean, desire in particular is affected by things like financial stress and even lack of sleep. There are so many things that are related to desire that there’s just no way that one pill should be able to fix that.
Skye: What would you say are the top three mistakes couples make with respect to maintaining a strong sexual relationship over the long haul?
KM: Certainly communication. The research that I’ve done and the research I’ve read shows that communication is so so so important. And couples who don’t communicate, not just in general, but about sex – because there’s a really big difference there – will have real problems in this area. There are a lot of couples who think they communicate well who never discuss sex, who aren’t even comfortable talking about their body parts with each other. So it’s important to develop a vocabulary to discuss sex with your partner and to become comfortable saying those words in front of your partner. So a big mistake is not communicating about wants and needs, and the sex life in general with your partner.
Another mistake that couples make over the long haul is assuming that things are always going to be great in the bedroom. People go into relationships thinking “if our sex disappears for a month we’re doomed, we’re done.” But that’s just not true. I mentioned the ebb and flow of sexual desire before, and because it does change so much over time you need to expect those changes. Couples who make the mistake of thinking that their sex life is always going to be perfect are going to have more issues. And communicating through those imperfect times is crucial.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I’d say that not making sex a priority in your relationship is another mistake many couples make. People need to remember that sex is the only thing that distinguishes your partner from being your roommate. If you don’t make sex a priority it will just up and disappear when you have kids – especially if you have the baby sleep in the bed with you, which should NEVER happen. Talk about taking the intimacy out of your relationship. There’s even research that has shown that even when couples get a new pet the sex tends to disappears, because so much energy is focused on this new thing in your life that you just love so much.
So, you really have to place a high priority on your sex life and make a decision with your partner to keep sex a priority. You need to discuss it and make it happen. You need to be so committed to it that you are open to the idea of taking one for the team, so to speak, doing it when you don’t want to do it for your partner, to keep it going. It’s so important.
“…women’s concern about men’s porn use is actually having a larger impact on those sex lives than the men’s actual perceptions… the real damage comes from the women being concerned about their male partners not finding them attractive…”
Skye: I’ve heard it said that mainstream porn is making what constitutes female pleasure ever more limited, even more so than it was 20 years ago. Agree or disagree? If you agree, why do you think this is happening in the porn industry at a period in history when people are much more open about exploring kink, swinging, etc.?
KM: I’ve heard that as well. But there’s a lot more porn out there and a growing number of female directors doing porn. So I think the depictions of female pleasure are increasingly becoming more realistic. On the other hand, the free porn you get on the internet is not the stuff being done by female porn directors, and I think that is what people are consuming the most, as it’s free and so readily available.
I don’t know though…(pauses) I think that a lot of porn is really limited to penetration leading to orgasm immediately, which isn’t accurate. I’m not sure, but I believe it’s women who are watching most of the female directed porn. So, if it’s men who are having these unrealistic expectations of the female partner’s pleasure then yes, I would definitely agree that the view of female pleasure is limited.
Finally, I think the people who are open to exploring kink and swinging are more likely to check out the more alternative porn that has a wider perspective on female sexual pleasure.
Skye: There is also lots of talk about the impact of porn on the sex men have with their real life partners. What are your thoughts on that?
KM: I’ve read a lot about this lately. But I really think that it’s important on the men’s part to realize the porn isn’t real all the time. (Laughs) I teach human sexuality here at IU and we talk about this, because my students are always so interested in porn and in men’s perceptions of it. I always have the men and women in my class talk to each other about this, and talk about their perceptions of porn and how it impacts their relationships. And what I’ve found is the women are always really concerned about it. To me it appears that the women’s concern about men’s porn use is actually having a larger impact on those sex lives than the men’s actual perceptions.
Most of the men in my class, and I’m talking about 18 to 22 year olds here, say “I know that it’s not real. I know my partner isn’t going to look like that or come that quick or that loud.” A lot of them also express concern about the idea of porn addiction, which is something I don’t personally believe in. I don’t think we should place the label of addiction on sexuality. But the young men in my class are concerned that if they watch too much porn they may become ‘addicted’ to it and then be unable to orgasm in any other context. So, they express the fact that they really monitor their consumption of porn for that reason, because they don’t want that to happen to them.
But to me, the real damage comes from the women being concerned about their male partners not finding them attractive, or being irritated by the fact that they don’t come as fast, due to porn. People are missing the fact that porn can be really useful in a relationship. If you watch it together, you can get ideas about technique, ideas about positions. Visual stimulation for men is incredibly arousing and it can be a great aid in any sexual relationship. You just have to use it properly and not misuse it by making assumptions.
Skye: Regarding the notions of sex and porn addiction, why do you believe our society is so concerned with labeling ‘out there’ sexual behaviour as a disease? Is it about reducing our accountability when we participate in ‘questionable’ activities – à la the many male celebrities who end up in rehab for their sexual addiction, or more about society’s inability to openly look at the broad range of sexual interests we all really have? Or some mixture of both?
KM: Certainly the whole sex addiction thing we see with celebrities is bullshit. (Laughs) It’s an excuse for them. They have plenty of opportunity to engage in infidelity, they took the opportunity, and they got caught. If they didn’t get caught, they wouldn’t have had an “addiction”.
I definitely agree it’s about reducing our accountability when we participate in activities like that. Blaming something that’s out of your control – by calling it an “addiction” – for your behavior gives you an easy out. And I also think people have real difficulty looking at the wide range of sexual interests we have. So, it’s about both.
As for labeling ‘out there’ sexual behavior as a disease, we’ve been doing that for years. Homosexuality was originally in the DSM. When we aren’t comfortable with something as a society, we tend to label it as a disease that needs to be cured. But that’s just not how it goes. We’re just lacking a social consciousness about sex. It’s ridiculous. (Laughs, shakes head).
I don’t think we’re going to come to a clear idea about sex and porn addiction until people start realizing that it’s more a matter of sexual preferences that are on a continuum. As long as you’re not harming anyone else, you can engage in whatever you’d like. Kinsey had a famous quote that’s one of my favourites. “The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.” So, I think that’s interesting that even back in the 1940s and 1950s he felt that way, and yet our society now is still so delayed in terms of accepting sexual behavior.
Skye: I want to go back to the subject of sex research in general for a minute. Based on my limited experience, interaction with sex researchers, therapists and educators the field seems to be one heavily dominated by women. Is that indeed the case and if so why do you think that is?
KM: Yes. It definitely is the case. I think academia in general is being dominated by women, more and more. Now, you see universities with 60:40 ratio of women to men, sometimes even more than that. So, sex research is also following that trend. But, another part of the story is that a lot of the men who do sex research are gay, and the few heterosexual men I know in the field have expressed that outsiders react to them being sex researchers in a harsher way than I’ve experienced, as a female sex researcher. Men are already oversexualized in our society, so making sex research your profession may emphasize that and could be keeping some men out of the profession.
Also, I think that women may just be more curious about the subject. At least in the area that I study, relationships and the dynamics of satisfaction, women tend to be more interested in that stuff.
Skye: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing sex research as a career?
KM: I would tell them to figure out what area of sex research they are most interested in. It does require you to go to grad school if you want to be immersed in the sex research societies and such. So, I would definitely suggest enrolling in a program where there is a researcher who is studying what it is they’re interested in, and doing research under them as a Masters student and then a PhD student. Once you find that match, that’s the first step.
Also, since it’s such an interdisciplinary field, you can enter it from almost any academic background. You can be in anthropology, sociology, psychology, or public health, to name a few. It’s really great. There’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of different angles you can look at sex from.
Skye: And based on what you mentioned at the start of the conversation about the growth of the field over the last few years, do you think that new students would find it easier to connect with a research mentor who’s working in an area of sex research that interests them?
KM: Absolutely. Through The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality we have a resource that lists all the schools that have sex researchers at them, so people who are interested in entering the field can easily reference that. Also, just talking to other sex researchers and finding out what different types of research is going on in different places is helpful, as sometimes those lists get a little outdated. So talking to someone you can connect with in the field and asking them who is doing work on an area you’re interested in is a good idea.
As much as the field has grown a lot, we’re still a pretty small group. In the sex research world we all kind of know of each other. As a doctoral student I may not know the names of all the doctoral and masters students in the field, but I will know the faculty they’re working under. So talk to other students, and you can learn a lot about where to look.
Finally, It’s definitely a field that is growing. So now is a good time to get into it.
“A lot of people don’t realize that what they’re going through sexually is normal. And that’s particularly a problem with women’s sexual problems…”
Skye: And for the benefit of our readers who may be seriously considering a career in sex research, what would you say is the most rewarding aspect of the work you do? The least?
KM: Currently I work on a project called Good In Bed, as well as Kinsey Confidential and the most rewarding thing is posting an answer to a question in a forum or writing an article about a given sexual problem and getting responses from people I’ve never met who thank me for talking about it openly. Often in the emails and messages I get, people express the fact that they had no idea that a given issue was a common problem. That to me is the most rewarding.
I am so dedicated to distributing our research in a digestible format for the rest of society. I don’t think any of the stuff we do is as important if the public – people outside our small scientific community – isn’t able to access it or understand it. So getting those emails and thank you notes makes me feel like I’m achieving that, and makes it the most rewarding part of the job for me. It’s my absolute favorite part of being a sex researcher.
A lot of people don’t realize that what they’re going through sexually is normal. And that’s particularly a problem with women’s sexual problems because women’s sexuality has been so repressed compared to men’s. Currently, we don’t know a lot about sexual pain and functioning for women. And when I’m able to provide a solution to those people – most of whom are hearing of it for the first time – it is rewarding.
The least rewarding?…(sighs and smiles) Research is a long process. When you write a manuscript for academic publication, you have spent a LOT of time preparing it. You put your blood, sweat and tears into it and then you get it back from peer review and it’s torn to shreds. (Laughs) That’s probably my least favourite part of being a sex researcher. But that happens for researchers in general, it isn’t specific to sex.
On the flip side, there is also a rewarding part of that. Because after going through all that hard work and turmoil there’s a lot of pride when it does finally get published. The accomplishment is even more special and rewarding. Still, the whole process is my least favourite part.
Skye: I recently attended a lecture where a doctor who specializes in sexual health for men noted that over the course of four years of training at Ontario medical schools new doctors only get six hours of instruction on issues related to sexual health. In addition, the College that regulates physicians in this province has policies in place that make it quite difficult for doctors to discuss their patient’s sexual wellbeing with them without the possibility of being cited for misconduct. This of course is reflective of society’s discomfort with sex in general. Why do you think the medical establishment and other health professionals are so uncomfortable discussing sex, when it is such a key part of our overall health?
KM: (chuckles) I wish I knew why so that we could change it. Society as a whole still tends to be fairly uncomfortable with sex. Although things are getting better it’s still not something that everyone is comfortable talking about. I think people, even within the context of their own romantic relationships, aren’t comfortable talking about sex. So, talking about it with a stranger, which is essentially what a health care provider is, has such a stigma attached to it.
I don’t know how society will get past that, but it certainly needs to be addressed. I mean, whenever someone has a sexual problem the first person they go to is their GP. The public generally doesn’t know that there are trained sex therapists or ob-gyns that have been trained in sexuality that can help them much more effectively. So they go to their family doctor and it ends up being a really awkward conversation, and when that happens they’re likely to never bring it up again.
Through the course of my research I’ve had interviews with at least two women who have gone to their doctors about sexual pain problems, and the physicians just dismissed it as if it wasn’t an important concern. And that just gives the patient a bad perception of sex, in addition to not helping them.
Again I don’t know how to change the situation so health professionals get over it and deal with the fact that sex is part of everyone’s healthy, whole life. So, I totally agree that it’s about our society’s discomfort and very poor social consciousness about sex in general, as health care professionals, for all their training, are a part of our society too.
Skye: Do you foresee a time when our very sex obsessed society will be more open about discussing sex?
KM: Uhhmm…(laughs) That’s the interesting thing. It’s a sex obsessed society. But I don’t think we’re going to see that until sex becomes less taboo. Until sex isn’t seen as being risqué, we won’t see that. For me, I think it’s most important to open up the lines of communication within couples. Once we accomplish that then we may be able to spread that openness throughout the rest of society. Because, as I said previously, there are couples who don’t talk about sex who remain dissatisfied because of their inability to do so. And since sexual fulfillment is related to their relationship happiness, it eventually impacts your relationship and your life as a whole.
Skye: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
KM: I guess I’ll just reiterate the fact that communicating about sex on a partner level is so important. If we all learn to do that well, perhaps we’ll all be more comfortable discussing our sexuality, and that will eventually spread throughout society. The more comfortable we are discussing sex in our own homes the more we’ll be able to discuss outside of that context.