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Remember: Every (Sex) Study You Read Isn’t An Invitation To Change Your Life

Remember: Every (Sex) Study You Read Isn’t An Invitation To Change Your Life:

Most people will experience a sexual problem at some point in their lives, such as trouble becoming aroused or reaching orgasm. Not surprisingly, difficulties of this nature can be highly distressing.

For solutions to these and other problems that we might encounter in our lives—both sexual and nonsexual—we often look first to science.

This isn’t a bad idea. In fact, it’s probably the single best source of information we have.

However, it’s also one of the most widely misunderstood.

Many people look at each and every study they happen upon as an invitation to change their lives, thinking to themselves: “If I just do what the participants in this study did, the same thing will happen to me.”

Maybe it will. Or maybe not.

If you plan to use the results of scientific research to change your sex life, it’s important to first understand a few things about how science works—otherwise, you run the risk of setting yourself up for major disappointment.

In brief, here are three things you should keep in mind any time you read up on the latest scientific sex study, or really any study for that matter:


1. SCIENCE CANNOT “PROVE” ANYTHING. PERIOD.
By definition, a proof is something that is absolute and final—it’s not subject to change. Unfortunately, science can’t tell us anything with this level of certainty.

The way science works is that we test theories by gathering evidence. Those theories that have the most and highest quality evidence supporting them are tentatively accepted. I say “tentatively” because future evidence might challenge that theory, leading scientists to favor a new one.

For example, it wasn’t long ago that medical authorities believed that masturbation was unhealthy. But as a result of decades of research on self-love, we’ve come to learn that masturbation might actually have some positive health effects. Scientists haven’t proven that masturbating is healthy, though—instead, they’ve simply found that the weight of the current evidence is in favor of it being healthy.

In short, there really is no such thing as “scientific proof.” Science tells us more about probability than anything. For this reason, be wary of media reports that tout scientifically “proven” ways to enhance your sex life—all that proves is that the author doesn’t understand how science works.

2. EVERY STUDY HAS LIMITATIONS, AND REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLES ARE EXTRAORDINARILY RARE IN SEX RESEARCH.
It’s not a good idea to change your life based on any study without first evaluating its quality. However, keep in mind that you’re never going to find a perfect study—they all have limitations.

First, pay attention to the sample. Who actually participated in this study? Nationally representative samples that can generalize broadly are rare because they’re very expensive to carry out and, in many parts of the world (including the U.S.), it remains difficult to get grant funding for sex research. As a result, most studies rely on college students or recruit volunteers online. This means participants tend to be younger, more educated, and more affluent than the rest of the population.

Also, sex studies—especially observational sex studies, like those depicted in the fantastic Showtime series Masters of Sex—tend to select for people who are more sexually experienced and who have more positive feelings about sex on average. As a result, it’s wise to think carefully about whom the results of a given study might apply.

Second, consider the study’s methods. Most sex studies are based on correlational data, in which researchers are simply looking to see whether two things are statistically associated. However, such an analysis can’t tell us why these things are related. It is for this reason that experiments are prized in science. Experiments can shed light on cause-and-effect.

To illustrate why this is important, consider an example: several correlational studies have that found frequent sex is linked to reports of greater personal happiness. On the basis of this, you might be tempted to assume that you’d therefore be happier if you were just having more sex. However, in an experiment in which couples were either instructed to increase their sexual frequency or not, no corresponding increase in happiness was found among those who had more sex!

As you can see, some skepticism is always warranted when looking at correlational studies. This doesn’t mean experiments deserve a free pass, though—they have limitations, too.

Unfortunately, limitations are rarely mentioned in media reports about science. If you don’t see any limitations addressed, the study is being sensationalized and the author’s conclusions are probably too good to be true.

3. SCIENTIFIC STUDIES OFTEN YIELD CONFLICTING RESULTS. IT’S BETTER TO LOOK AT BIGGER PATTERNS IN THE LITERATURE RATHER THAN SINGLE STUDIES.
Science can be exciting, but also frustrating. When researchers attempt to replicate previous findings, they don’t always find what they were looking for. Sometimes they find no effect at all; other times, they find the opposite of what was expected.

For example, contrary to the widely reported finding that men seek to “demonstrate their value” and take more risks when they’re around sexy women, a new set of 8 studies found no support for this idea at all.

A lot of attention has been given to this issue recently, with reports emerging that most drug and psychology studies aren’t replicating. The reasons for this are complex and have been well-covered elsewhere; however, it’s important to keep in mind that a failed replication doesn’t necessarily mean that the original results were wrong. There are numerous reasons a given finding might not replicate, including very minor differences in the procedure and makeup of the samples used.

However, the fact that studies often produce conflicting results is good reason to be cautious about changing your life on the basis of a single study.

If you’re going to use science to inform your life, it’s better to limit this to areas in which there’s a lot of research pointing to a similar conclusion.


Don’t get me wrong: Scientific research is an extremely worthwhile and important endeavor, and that’s a big part of the reason why I’ve devoted my life to it. However, science is often misunderstood by people in search of solutions to problems, by marketers who want to sell you a product, and by journalists seeking to share the latest research with the public.

If you want to use science to improve your sex life, or any other part of your life, just make you do so with an informed view of what science can and cannot tell us.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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