Sex Research Considerations: Collecting Data From Couples

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Some sex research benefits from collecting data from couples rather than individuals. However, doing this takes some methodological considerations.

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Research on love, relationships, and sex.

As a sex researcher, I’m constantly trying to keep up with the latest methods that other researchers are using to collect and analyze their data. This includes innovative ways to recruit participants, different ways of thinking about data collection, and unique approaches to statistical analysis.

Considering sexual behaviors in the context with which they occur is really important if you want to get the full picture (note: not all studies aim to get the full picture, especially if little is known about the concept). For sex research in the area of long-term relationships (which is what my research usually focuses on), it is a benefit to collect data from both members of the couple.

Although there are a handful of really solid studies that have looked at sexuality in the context couples, even followed them over time, unfortunately the majority of the studies on sexual dynamics have examined individuals. Therefore, there is a need for more research to be conducted that examines the dynamics of these sexual relationships, by collecting data from both members of the couple.

One of the reasons previous research hasn’t done this is because it is a lot harder to collect data from dyads (couples) than it is from individuals. You have a few considerations when you collect dyadic data:

  • Recruitment Considerations: You have to double the recruitment effort because both members of the couple have to agree to participate. And you have additional concerns if the couple breaks up or if one member of the couple is less adhering to participating (especially in longitudinal study designs).
  • Statistical Considerations: Dyadic data analysis creates issues of non-independent data. For example, one member of the couple’s score on sexual satisfaction is going to inevitably be related to the other member of the couple’s score on that same measure. And for those of you who are familiar with statistics, this can be problem if you don’t take the right precautions by adjusting the statistical tests used. It requires learning a new statistical approach, and that can understandably be intimidating for some.
  • Technical Considerations: You have to have a system in place that keeps the couple’s data together without using their names to do so (that wouldn’t get past ethics review boards). This requires a good deal of organization or a very tech-savvy assistant!

I’ve taken all of the issues into consideration, and I am currently collecting data for The Couples Study from…you guessed it…couples. To better understand the sexual lives of couples, this study (my dissertation study, in fact) will ask couples to complete an online questionnaire separately at three different time points (two months apart) and one brief daily survey for 30 consecutive days.

For this particular study, the couples need to be mixed-sex couples (one man, one woman). I am only collecting data from this group because of the nature of my main topic (sexual desire discrepancy) and how much it impacts heterosexual couples due to gender differences in sexual desire (note: couples don’t have to identify as heterosexual to participate, they just have to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender).

The couples also have to have been together for a minimum of three years. I chose this cutoff due to research that suggests that love shifts and attachment bonds form at around three years, and this is indicative of stable relationships.

Conducting research with couples can be a daunting task, but there is also significant potential to learn about the interdependent nature of relationships, and in my case, how sexual desire and desire differences play out within the context of the couple.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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