‘How do I become a sex researcher?’ I get this question a lot from students who want to know what degree they should pursue in order to enter the field. Here’s what I tell them:
The scientific study of sex and sexuality is known as sexology, and the scientists who contribute to our knowledge in this field are known as sexologists. Sexologists are an incredibly diverse group of people who come from many different scientific backgrounds. In fact, most of them did not get degrees in sexology (I’d venture to guess that very few actually did!); rather, most received their training in another discipline, such as medicine, psychology, anthropology, or sociology.
Sexologists generally have a Master’s or doctorate, or some other type of advanced professional degree. While there are certainly some training and certification programs available in sexology specifically, these are not essential to becoming a sexologist. Sexology consists of a very interdisciplinary group of researchers because sex is a complex phenomenon that requires us to consider biological, psychological, and social factors. Considering all of these perspectives is the key to obtaining a complete understanding of human sexuality.
On a side note, I should mention that many of my colleagues who technically qualify as sexologists don’t actually identify themselves as such; instead, they’ll identify as psychologists, doctors, therapists, etc. Part of the reason for this is because “sexologist” is such a broad term that it doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s background, training, or credentials. However, another part of the reason is that pretty much anyone can claim to be a “sexologist,” which has led to some misuse of the term. For these reasons, you probably won’t see “sexologist” listed on a lot of my colleagues’ resumes or bios.
That said, my training was specifically in social psychology, which is the scientific study of how social environments influence people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Some social psychologists (like me) end up studying sex and sexuality, but most do not because sex is just one of many topics that may be of interest to a social psychologist. For example, social psychologists might also study things like stereotyping and prejudice, personality, persuasion tactics, political attitudes, and so on.
In other words, you don’t have to get a degree in social psychology to become a sex researcher—and becoming a social psychologist doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to study sex, either.
So if you’re thinking about becoming a sex researcher, the primary question you need to ask yourself is this: What aspects of sex are you most interested in researching? This will help you to determine the specific field of study that is the best fit for you because some disciplines are a better for studying certain aspects of sex.
For instance, if you are primarily interested in the biological side of sex, then you might consider pursuing a degree in neuroscience or medicine. Alternatively, if you are interested in studying STIs and safer-sex practices, you might consider a degree in public health. Or, if you’re interested in studying social influences on sexual behavior or the impact of culture and society on sexual attitudes, you might consider a degree in social psychology, sociology, or anthropology.
Be advised that many graduate programs don’t offer much in the way of training specifically on sex research, so you may have to pursue independent study or outside educational opportunities. For example, I teach several courses with the Sexual Health Alliance, an organization that provides continuing education opportunities for sex educators, researchers, and therapists. I offer these courses as a means of filling in the gaps for folks who didn’t get much training in sexuality issues, and also to help active researchers keep their knowledge base current.
You should also be advised that making a living as a sex researcher is sometimes challenging, given that there isn’t a lot of funding available for sex research, especially in the USA. It’s for this reason that many sex researchers I know wear multiple hats. For example, some do clinical work to pay the bills and sex research on the side. Others—especially those who want careers in academia—may do research in multiple areas in order to ensure that at least one line of research is fundable to meet criteria for promotion and tenure. In other words, you need to have a plan in place for how you’re going to make a go of it.
In short, there isn’t just one way to become a sexologist. The path begins by clarifying your interests, perhaps by taking some undergraduate courses on sexuality and seeing what speaks to you. Then look for a graduate program and mentor that can provide you with the tools you need to conduct scientific research in that area.
Focus first on becoming a great scientist—then, once you’ve built up your skills, specialize in sex.
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