Can We Get Some Relationship Research That Isn't About Heterosexual Couples, Please?

by Claire Lampen
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We often see headlines about studies revealing new, or "new," dynamics in sexual and romantic relationships — almost always, from a heterosexual perspective. How men pose in dating app pics versus how women pose; what shared item men would claim in a breakup versus what women would take; who masturbates more in a relationship, men or women? As if straight, cis men and women were the only ones making dating profiles, breaking up, masturbating, basically engaging in the full spectrum of sexual and romantic behaviors. It's a familiar, if misleading, narrative.

Recently, headline after headline proclaimed "Men lose interest in sex in long-term relationships before women, study finds." The study the articles referred to was not so much a study, but an analysis of 64 peer-reviewed articles on changing desire patterns in these partnerships. Published in the Journal of Sex Research, the paper's main point seemed to be that everyone's sexual desire exhibits peaks and valleys over time. Why, then, are we making this mostly about the straight dudes? Why do heterosexuals always enjoy if not all, then at least the lion's share of the attention?

The study authors raised that point, too, noting in their discussion that only three of the 64 studies involved same-sex couples: "Despite same-sex couples engaging in long-term relationships as often as straight couples, the research being conducted in these samples is certainly not focused on the maintenance of sexual desire in long-term relationships," the paper said. Usually, research focuses on pathology: things like risky sexual behaviors and disease transmission.

Wouldn't you think that in 2018, we could get some numbers that reflect the reality of sexuality and human desire, in all its fluid complexity? True, some people are undertaking these studies: Jane Fleishman, PhD, studies sexual satisfaction in older, same-sex couples; other researchers have explored intimacy and emotion in non-hetero relationships, desire discrepancy and sexual satisfaction in lesbian relationships, and similar topics. It's not that this theme goes completely unprobed, but certainly, priority seems to lie with heterosexual subjects — reflecting broader cultural biases.

Narrowly focused sex research, Mark says, is just one of the many ways we reinforce misperceptions about the overwhelming straightness of the society we inhabit.

"People have this idea that this discrimination against same-sex couples is gone, it’s part of our past," Kristen Mark, associate professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky (and also the aforementioned paper's lead author) tells Bustle. Narrowly focused sex research, Mark says, is just one of the many ways we reinforce misperceptions about the overwhelming straightness of the society we inhabit.

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And sure, the majority of people do identify as cisgender — the term for people whose gender identity and birth sex align — and heterosexual. As of 2017, around four percent of U.S. adults identified as LGBT — up from 3.5 percent in 2012, but a relatively small segment of the general population nonetheless. For that reason, it can be difficult to enlist the requisite number of participants to even hold a study. Mark points to a study on mixed sex couples she conducted with support from the American Institute of Bisexuality: She wanted pairs wherein one or both parties identified as bi, and those are just harder to find than straight partnerships. Because "sexual minority couples" tend to be "more hidden," she says, seeking them out "takes extra effort."

Nicole Prause, PhD, a neuroscientist who researches human sexual behavior and the physiology of sexual response, agrees. She tells Bustle that "sex researchers tend to be a very LGBTQ+ friendly, aware bunch," and that the explanation for homogenous relationship research "will be disappointingly practical." And indeed, Prause confirms that part of the problem comes down to numbers. For example, she explains, if you want to test emotional response from different types of movies — let's say, horror versus comedy — you need large enough groups watching the scary movie and the happy movie to be able to gauge the statistical difference.

Similarly, she says, "Part of what happens is anytime we allow sexual orientation to vary and we know that we’re doing it ... we have to get enough people to be able to tell if there’s a difference or not."

"The little sex research that does get funded is almost always focused on problems."

Culling subjects from populations that are smaller to begin with takes more time and money, another logistical hurdle. Because the United States remains, in many respects, a socially conservative country, sex researchers have a hard time securing funding regardless of their subjects' orientation. In 2003, for example, a Republican Congressman made a stink about the National Institutes of Health grants for research into sexual behavior, a topic he deemed "much less worthy of taxpayer funding" than "devastating diseases." As such, Prause says, "The little sex research that does get funded is almost always focused on problems."

"You have to characterize [sex] as risky," she says. "So what can sex do to hurt me? How can sex give me disease?" Sex positivity seldom sees rewards; instead, researchers often end up couching their studies in terms of HIV, cancer, or other ailments. But when they apply those terms to LGBTQ communities, they may end up perpetuating stigma: That non-hetero people are inherently unhealthy, or that non-hetero sex is dangerous.

Rosara Torrisi, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in sex therapy and founder of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, studies sexuality in lesbian breast cancer survivors. She agrees that, for a long time, the only way to clinch funding was to peg your project to pathology. In 2013, though, the NIH announced the creation of a Sex & Gender Minority Research Coordinating Committee to prioritize LGBTQ research, but as with so many Obama-era endeavors, that one has not enjoyed comparable shine under the Trump administration.

Still, Torrisi tells Bustle, "Smaller studies have always been published, [but] they don't get the same attention" their more mainstream counterparts do. Partially, this has to do with the scaled-down sample sizes; it may also hinge on the size of the author's platform.

But another hurdle in researching LGBTQ relationships stems from the fact that the acronym itself is an umbrella term: it encompasses a huge number of orientations and identities. You have to "enforce categories" when you're trying to measure variables, Torrisi says, and that can be sort of antithetical to the concept of queerness, which is all about "not fitting into a category."

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"But then research says, you have to choose!" Torissi says. "Are you gay or straight or bisexual? And you might be like, well, I’m a unicorn. And there’s no category for that."

There exist innumerable options for labeling your sexuality and gender identities these days, many of which came into our lexicon only recently. According to Mark, it's difficult — from a quantitative research perspective — to ask the right questions in one survey, then go back five years later and use the same language. You might find yourself adjusting your phrasing to fit the times, and lose your basis of comparison in the process. Would it be more accurate to say pansexual, or bisexual, and what nuances do you understand within the terms, and is that how you understood them half a decade ago?

So sure, keeping up-to-date with the terminology requires effort — but that seems like part of the challenge inherent in scientific study.

"I would argue pretty strongly that [the] work is worth it, and I hope that researchers aren’t discouraged because of [linguistic nuance]," Mark says. "This is part of our field, this is part of getting to know new populations. I think it’s pretty fascinating how much our language changes around these sorts of things. Although it does cause more work for us, I think it’s worth it."

Younger generations, especially, now identify as markedly less straight than ever before. So shouldn't we begin building a body of research that reflects real life?