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Sexuality research and sex research differ in a number of important ways. Sex research focuses on the mechanics of sex and is dominated by biomedical discourses and most often framed from an objective” stance. Sexuality research, on the other hand, recognizes power relations between women and men, between heterosexual and homosexual, and between cultures, and therefore is inherently political. Sexuality and the research of sexuality are embedded in cultural and historical contexts. Both are embodied experiences that consider the complex dynamic meanings and activities, cultural signs, politics, and ethics that impact on its realization or repression.
Power relations are embedded in every aspect of sexuality research. As Denzin in The Research Act (1989) has argued, when sociologists do research they inevitably take sides for or against particular values, political bodies, and society at large. This includes sexuality researchers, who focus on the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Within the divergent research traditions of sociology there are a number of approaches that reflect particular forms of knowledge about sexuality and ethics. These include functionalists such as Talcott Parsons, symbolic interactionists such as Gagnon and Simon, and Plummer, feminist theorists as diverse as Dworkin and Rubin, masculinity theorists such as Connell, and poststructuralist theorists such as Foucault. While each of these perspectives varies in how it conceptualizes sexuality and gender, they all reflect particular configurations of values, ethics, and society. How sexuality researchers frame their research projects will be influenced by their commitment to or rejection of these or other social theories.
Ethical considerations include the way the research question is constructed, the topic to be studied, and the people or issue being explored, the biography and relations among researchers, the values of the funding body and other actors, and the methodology chosen by the researcher. Ethics also includes which individuals or groups are excluded from research and whether they represent marginal or more powerful groups.
There are several ways that sexuality researchers can seek guidance to resolve research ethics. Reference to codes of ethical practice such as those of the British Sociological Association (2002) or the American Sociological Association (1999) may provide a general overview. However, much of the academic surveillance of research is carried out by university ethics committees or internal review boards (US). It appears to vary significantly between disciplines, universities, and countries.
In the face of these regulatory ethics bodies, sexuality researchers may have to defend their proposals against positivist and biomedical models of research that result in questioning the objectivity” of qualitative methodology and sampling bias” when sexual cultures or networks are the focus of study. There is danger in researchers feeling that all the ethical issues have been dealt with once ethics committee approval is obtained. Codes of practice assume a fixed position and deny the dynamic nature of research and a conception of ethics where meanings are subject to negotiation and redefinition. However, ethical issues confront researchers in a number of areas, including relationships in the field, informed consent, use of the Internet, representation of data, and support for researchers. The development of ethical practice in relation to sexuality research requires a much more dynamic and complex process than a purely regulatory approach. The sensitive and intimate nature of sexuality research and the multiple sites and cultural contexts in which it is carried out suggest the need to encourage ethical subjectivity in researchers.
- Binik, Y. M., Mah, K., & Kiesler, S. (1999) Ethical issues in conducting sex research on the Internet. Journal of Sex Research 36 (1): 82-90.
- Connell, R. W. & Dowsett, G. W. (eds.) (1993) Rethinking Sex: Social Theory and Sexuality Research. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Kulick, D. & Wilson, M. (eds.) (1995) Taboo: Sex, Identity, Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork. Routledge, London.