Outlaw Science: How Does One Become a Sex Researcher Anyway?

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

I generally get this question from two types of people:  Those who are interested in becoming a sex researcher, and let’s face it, the path to this outcome is not that obvious, and those who are trying politely to disguise the fact that they are rather surprised, if not alarmed, that they are interacting with someone who chooses sex as a focus for a career. Many of us in the field do not freely disclose our professional identity to that stranger seated beside us on the plane, our children’s teachers, or to people at a friend’s holiday party. It incites too much anxiety, or worse, too many questions and looks from them that seem to question whether there’s something off about us, something pervy (!)  Even our colleagues view us skeptically—is this legitimate science?  I once overheard a colleague suggest that a sex researcher be invited on a panel “to spice things up a bit.”  Usually, we refer to our primary (e.g., sociology, biology, medicine) or secondary fields (e.g., social psychology, gender studies) in situations where we need extra legitimacy among those who are not in this field, but fortunately we are often in situations, especially at conferences, among those who understand the importance of value of these questions to life.

For those who truly are interested in topics that help explain our closest relationships, intimate experiences, passion, and fun (who isn’t?), and actually want to pursue these topics in research, then let me tell you how it’s usually done. 

First, you have to have research training at a graduate level. This typically requires entering the field through the social sciences, humanities, science, or medicine. Each discipline has developed its own research tradition, tenets of sound research, principles, and practices. In many ways the field you enter determines the type of questions that you can address as well as the methods that you are likely to employ. In Canada, you usually have to complete an Honours thesis in your final year of undergraduate studies to get into graduate school—plus have stellar grades, relevant volunteer and work experience, a research track history (even if helping on studies without credit), and strong letters of recommendation from professors who can truly vouch for your work ethic and potential.

Second, we are mentored by others in the field. Find strong researchers whose work really interests you and who have a history of mentoring new professionals in the field. See if you can meet them (perhaps at a conference), and express your interest in studying under their guidance in graduate school.  Make it meaningful; we are approached by many students each year, but who makes a genuine effort?

Third, we make inroads by networking at research conferences, volunteering for research society committees, and submitting our work to research journals.  All these tasks develop as you progress in your studies and gain research experience, but remain important career-long.

Absolutely essential, however, is having a passion for this type of research. It can be challenging practicing this type of “outlaw science,” but by strength in numbers, maintaining high standards of professionalism, and advancing our knowledge in ways meaningful to both researchers and the lay public, the sex research field will continue to flourish.