How to do gender research

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Na person had a will “cunnilingus”: too much mouth. In addition, the researchers were afraid that people would not know what it meant. “Fellatio” was avoided for similar reasons. The authors of the questionnaires also avoided “making love”, “taking it off”, “going all the way”, “going to bed with” and “sleeping with” – too oblique. “Fucking”, “bonking” and “screwing” were also out: too slangy. Research among the public showed that they should also avoid the word “abstinence” (“absti-what?”). But most felt they had a handle on “chastity”: that, as one respondent put it, was “like the pope or Cliff Richard”.

It’s hard to talk about sex. Walking up to a stranger’s house, knocking on the front door and asking them when they last had sex – and if so, what kind, was it protected, and was it good – that more strange still. It is extremely important to do so, however, for public health. That’s why, for the next 12 months, around 400 interviewers, led by academics at University College London (ucl). Think of it as a national passion lottery: it could be you. And if so, try it yourself.

The fourth National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (Natsal) in Great Britain, which takes place every ten years and aims to interview 10,000 people, is underway. Don’t skip the “and lifestyles” bit, which suggests it might be about whether people are vegan or exercise regularly. This is about sex, plain and simple. Or rather, since the survey has up to 607 questions and – depending on how exciting your life is – takes about an hour to complete, it’s more accurate to say that this is about a genre that is often neither simple nor straightforward, but is written about in a language that is both.

Reading the Natsal study is a relaxing experience. Passion is a scary thing in the hands of a poet. For Sappho, it was that “monster” that bound her limbs and made her tremble; for John Donne, it was an awakening. For Natsal, passion tends to feel a little more like a gcse a mathematical-logical problem. “Thinking about all the people you’ve had sex with in the past five years,” one typical question asks, “did any of them cross over time? In other words did you have sex with someone (person A) then have sex with someone else (person B) then have sex with the first person (person A) again?” Read the question twice, and turn the page when you’re done.

But then Natsal himself arose from what was essentially a mathematical problem – namely, finding the R number (the average number of people infected per person) of the HIV virus. Natsal is laughable now, but when it started, in the mid-1980s, it was deadly. A terrible new disease had emerged and was spreading largely among gay men. “There was a lot of fear and uncertainty”, says Mrs Anne Johnson, professor of epidemiology at ucl, who led the first study. As one scientist involved said, people were concerned about it help “he was going to take over the country”. To find out if it would, it was necessary, as with covid-19, to find out how easily HIV was spread. Since no one knew who was doing what with him, or how often, this was all but impossible, and Natsal’s idea was born.

Care was needed. The history of sexual surveys is getting boring. The seminal work in the subject is Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 “Sexual Behavior in the Male”, an infamous bestseller. The main problem was that Kinsey had questioned volunteers – and those who volunteer for gender surveys tend to volunteer for other things as well, which avoids results. Furthermore, Kinsey’s questions may be forward-looking and his focus, at best, unusual. On its “Contents” pages, in addition to the subheadings “Homosexual Play” and “Heterosexual Play” come the “Animal Connections” (“For the most part”, notes Kinsey, “limited to farm boys”).

Natsal goes to great lengths to avoid similar mistakes. Randomisation – which is done first to select an address, then to select a person from within that address – is very careful. The response rates are high, although men are less enthusiastic about the response than women. Key questions are avoided; carefully chosen language. Slangy, clinical and judgmental words such as “adultery” are avoided and interviewers are trained in preserving what Cath Mercer, professor of sexual health science at UCL who is co-leading the current study, says “that poker face”.

Natsal-4 results will come out in 2025. This is not a “quick and dirty” gender study, says Professor Mercer. The results show some changes in the survey itself (for the first time Natsal asks about sexual pleasure and not only focuses on “bugs and baby”). The results will also undoubtedly show some changes in habits: an increase in same-sex experiences among women was one of the surprising things that emerged from the previous studies. But perhaps the main change is that Britons are increasingly comfortable discussing such things. When the study began, Professor Johnson said, “we didn’t have a language to talk about sex.” There was euphemism, or poetry, or silence. Now, most people are familiar with the terms Natsal uses.

Not that there’s always much reason for them: one of the things previous studies have shown about British sexual habits is how little sex everyone has. So maybe the last line should go to the poets, after all. As Donne said: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and love me.”

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