Sexuality, Psychology, Heteronormativity


I recently participated in a psychological questionnaire on attachment and the sexual encounter (researcher’s title). I then showed the graduate student researcher’s abstract/area of interest to a friend who laughed and said this kind of work is like something out of the Toronto Star (newspaper). What is significant about this statement is not that my university funds pop psychology research, but that a parallel can be made between psychological research and a major news publication (a newspaper which publishes pop psychology findings as news/fact). Both psychological research and the newspaper, in my view, are producers of normative discourse – in this case, around and about sexuality.

This is not a new or original claim for Foucauldians, but sharing my experiences and problems with the questionnaire might shed some light on how the discourse on sexuality operates within the sphere of psychological study, and in turn, affects everyday behaviour and morality. My researcher mentioned, upon my disapproving comments about the questionnaire, that these questions were quite standard for her field (she provided a bibliography, and yes, attachment and sex is a whole field of study for the discipline).

The questionnaire was to be answered by a couple, in separate rooms. For logistical purposes my survey partner was therefore defined as “current partner” by the survey. The survey did not require, ask, or make apparent the necessity – if it seriously intended to be faithful to my actual intimate and sexual experiences – for other romantic and sexual partners to be present and fill in the survey too. We will see how this assumption of monogamy disrupts the research.

The key issues for this research are as follows:

The purpose of this research study was to examine how specific behaviours to obtain closeness with a partner [NB not pluralized] could be related to the behaviours during a sexual encounter (foreplay, intercourse, afterplay). There is an increasing amount of research that suggests that one’s predisposition for specific strategies to be intimate with their partner can influence his or her sexual well-being and behaviours…. [I have omitted the normative statements which we are all perhaps familiar with: trusting, emotional individuals have better sexual relationships; individuals with emotional or psychological problems tend to have “impulsive sexual relations such as one-night stands” and have a less satisfying sexual life.]

The responses you have provided in this study will be used to assess if one’s behavioural patterns in intimate relationships are indeed related to behaviours during foreplay, intercourse, and afterplay. Thus, we are interested in whether these relationship behavioural patterns are predictive of particular sexual behaviours. The knowledge [gained?] from this study will provide empirical support to suggest that sexual behaviours can be influenced by individual differences in intimacy-related strategies or behaviours and contribute to a better understanding of sexual intimacy in adult relationships. (From the researcher’s abstract/research interest sheet, italics mine)

To begin:

An early question asked about my relationship status. None of the answers available fit with my actual status. I explained this to the researcher; she was slightly confused and suggested I opt for “open relationship.” I have described elsewhere why I do not like this term. I then chose to answer this question by marking two possibilities and providing a lengthy note (despite there being no space to make such a note). For this survey it is impossible to be both “open” and “committed.”

I was then asked to mark how many sexual partners I have had. The question was not clear as to what constitutes a sexual partner. This is significant for my actual romantic and sexual experience, most importantly because I have had more meaningful sessions of hand-holding than some scenes of penile-vaginal intercourse (researcher’s term). Does the former “count”? I was unable to answer as to the exact number of sexual partners and the researcher said to guess. Thus, whatever data or pattern she discovers is invalidated by my answer in this category. In asking this question, additionally, I am worried that the researcher will attempt to find a pattern of promiscuity and bad attachment (as outlined in the research interest sheet), or something to that effect. Requiring participants to inform the researcher on his or her number of sexual partners is, I felt, like bringing up a rape victim’s sexual history in order to determine the truthfulness of her claim of rape.

The questions which followed were about my definitions of foreplay and afterplay (but not intercourse itself). With these definitions I was able to fill in a blank, writing as much or as little as I saw fit. Yet, as the questionnaire continued, I discovered that the researcher had already defined what all three terms constituted. For instance, the questionnaire considered masturbation and oral sex as foreplay, which I then had to disagree with, and then write on the paper to return to my definition of these terms. I hope this reflects poorly on the data eventually collected.

In this research sexual intercourse was limited to penile-vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse, which I took to be heterosexual. If not heterosexual, it forced the male same-sex couple to the latter act alone, and further, disregarded lesbian sexuality entirely (even if I were generous and defined penile as phallic, sex toy activity still constituted foreplay in this research). I asked about this heteronormativity and the researcher seemed to dance around the question; in other words, as theorists have noted about contemporary views on sexuality, a reinforcement of “compulsory heterosexuality” and “the heterosexual contract.”

Questions about my emotional and intimate attachments followed. The survey posed questions about how I felt toward or about my partner, then asked those same questions reversed (how I thought my partner felt toward or about me). There were then questions that seemed to conflate my feelings towards or about my current partner and questions regarding my feelings towards or about my romantic partners generally (even projecting myself and my feelings into the future). I asked about this conflation; the researcher said it didn’t matter.

These basic questions about my feelings generally (trust, independence, anxiety) failed to take into account the unique experience of individual partners. Whether I feel anxious with one partner may be untrue about my feelings towards another. The questions were not precise enough to make this distinction. What it seemed to be most interested in was whether I am locked into a particular kind of identity or character (anxiety-ridden or emotionally healthy). It presupposed emotions as some kind of stable element across romances, which is simply untrue.

Moreover, the cause of anxiety or emotional stability was not addressed. It goes without saying that an individual’s past experiences, even as far back as childhood, play a significant (for psychoanalysts, the most important) role in their current sexual behaviour. Despite answering pages of questions in intimacy and intimate encounters, I feel no concrete evidence was gathered as to my particular or general emotional experiences and behaviours. What it did satisfy was the extent to which my current partner and I have a healthy emotional relationship. How does the effect my relationship with my other partner(s)? I was never asked.

The research did ask about my “last” penile-vaginal sexual encounter and to answer many questions about it in some detail. Two things are worth mentioning. First, this “last” was not with the “current partner” discussed in my questionnaire. To be fair, the “last” sexual encounter section did ask who the person was, but there was no “Current partner #2” answer, or whatever we want to call it. When I asked about this, the researcher was quite confused again, so I answered Other. It was impossible to have, according to this survey, two current partners. As mentioned, prior to this section I spent pages and pages answering questions about my intimate and emotional relationship with “current partner,” the one surveyed alongside me, and therefore, my answers on my intimate and emotional relationship with “current partner” are rendered useless because I was unable to (appropriately?) answer the question as to my last penile-vaginal sexual encounter with said current partner. Furthermore, even if I were able to answer this question in the manner the researcher had desired, how could one sexual encounter be significant enough to develop the pattern the researcher would like to prove (the researcher had already established what pattern is sought for, as above). One sexual encounter may not be representative of the gamut of sexual practices we engage in.

Following the “last” sexual encounter section, the questionnaire went on to ask the same detailed questions about my sex with “current partner” generally, our habits, practices, and possible satisfaction. Both “last” and general feelings on my sexual encounters posed the same questions. Some are worth considering because, as I am trying to suggest, it presupposes a normative take on sex.

For some reason the time of day when we engage in sex was presupposed. There were several questions as to whether I or my sexual partner “cuddles then falls asleep,” “rolls over and falls asleep” (without cuddling I assume), “leaves the room/asks you to leave the room,” or “stays awake”. I answered all in the affirmative, to some degree, for sex takes place at different times of the day, not just at night. There were no questions about the space in which the sex takes place. One could assume, I think, that a healthy sex life would not limit itself to the shared bedroom just before the couple goes to sleep.

I realized after the questionnaire that it did not ask about BDSM practices. It occurred to my partner that the one question about the degree of “role-playing” we engage in was in fact a question about BDSM. I do not consider acts of dominance/submission to be playing a particular role, but just part of sex (perhaps my mistake). Again, the lack of clarity in the questionnaire resulted in an inaccurate answer. Further, one poorly phrased question about role-playing speaks to the questionnaire’s normative discourse (normal sex has little to do with BDSM practices apparently). Had there been more questions about these practices I could have perhaps answered in more detail or not made the mistake.

One more normative problem to conclude my entry: A question asked the degree in which my partner and I remain in penetration after orgasm (the time we do so, I would guess). Without specifying which partner gets to experience the orgasm, and given the heteronormative approach to the questionnaire, I assumed male orgasm. There were no questions about the frequency of orgasms, which partner gets to experience them, and its varying intensities. Neither was I asked how I or my partner prefers to orgasm; it was assumed that penile-vaginal or anal intercourse is the only route to orgasm. Given that some women do not orgasm by vaginal penetration alone, and do not orgasm through anal intercourse alone, the orgasm, for the purposes of this study, must be on the side of the male. Similar concerns were raised for me as to the degree of oral sex my partners and I engage in – oral sex performed on whom was never specified. I assume the worst.

One final note, a general comment on the questionnaire and proposed research: given that this was a study about the sexual encounter, there was not much emphasis on the kinds of sex, its frequency, its variances and varieties, couples’ experimentation and patterns internal to the individuals surveyed. We had about six or so sexual positions to choose from when answering about our detailed sexual practices. There was not adequate opportunity to reveal or indulge the researcher in our sexual habits. This lack of detail could make one thing stand out: sex is boring.

I have hopefully related how this questionnaire and its results will contribute to the continued dominance of romantic and sexual norms and the discourse surrounding intimacy and sexuality. I am certainly glad I participated as I had hoped to skew the data. Through my insistent questions, concerns, and writing on just about every page that I do not understand or that I have a problem with a question, I aimed to disrupt the work of the psychological study and ideally, aid in disrupting the flow of discourse between scientific research and its shortened and digestible reception.

My conclusion on the study: my prior skepticism about the methods and conclusions of popular psychology were reinforced.