April 6, 2012

How I Became A . . . Sex Researcher

Part of our "How I Became A . . ." series: The story of how one public health doctoral student, Nicole Smith, got into the field of sex research.

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Nicole Smith

Nicole Smith

“I didn’t even know you could make a career out of that!” is a very common comment that myself and many sex researchers/educators/therapists receive. This comment is quite often followed by the question “how exactly did you get into that?” or “how do I get into that field?”

Nicole Smith, a doctoral student in health behavior at Indiana University in health behavior, shared her story with me about her path into sex research. Here it is:

Nicole’s Journey

Growing up in Montana, I was not exposed to lot of diversity. Everyone pretty much looked and acted the same with respect to cultural and societal norms in a small, rural, mountain town. I don’t think that anyone in my high school was openly gay, I can count the number of individuals who were not white on one hand, and dying your hair pink was about the most extreme form of rebellion I witnessed during my youth. So when I tell people from back home the trajectory that my academic and professional careers have taken me, it is shocking to many, to say the least.

In many ways though, it makes the most perfect sense. Luckily, I went through the public school system before the abstinence-only restrictions were imposed and I had several age-appropriate health courses that covered topics such as STI prevention, reproductive health, and even contraception to a limited degree.  These topics, although totally embarrassing to a 7th grader, were always secretly so fascinating to me.

In high school I started volunteering at a group home for pregnant and parenting teen girls called the Florence Crittenton Home. I was often intimated by these girls, who would drop their babies off to me while they attended parenting classes or other groups, yet also so curious about their lives and how they ended up a mother at such a young age. After high school I remained in Helena, Montana where I attended Carroll College and pursued a degree in Psychology with a minor in Biology. I continued to work at Florence Crittenton and it was my experience of working with these teen moms and their children that I began to realize the immense importance of sexuality and the power of procreation. Although many of these young women possessed the skills necessary to successfully parent their children, many of the babies born from these unplanned pregnancies were the victims of abuse and neglect. Knowing that these infants and their young, disadvantaged mothers are some of our most vulnerable individuals in our society, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in an effort to be a better advocate for their issues.

Which Degree to Pursue?

In the spring semester of my junior year of college the movie “Kinsey” was released. I distinctly remember leaving the theater thinking,

Someone gets paid to study sex? That is what I want to do!

At the time I was planning to continue my graduate education in Psychology, but I asked one of my professor’s, Dr. Anne Perkins, for advice on what might be the best path to follow in Dr. Kinsey’s footsteps.

To my great surprise, Dr. Perkins was herself somewhat of a sex researcher. As part of her expertise in animal behavior, a local rancher had asked Dr. Perkins to study the mating behaviors of his sheep. Because of her research, she had been invited into an elite international sex researcher conference on the biological bases of sexual orientation and gender. Upon hearing my interest in the field, she graciously invited me to tag along.

During the conference, I was exposed to fascinating sex research from experts throughout the world.  I asked one woman for advice on graduate programs, and she recommended that I speak to her friend, Debby Herbenick, who at the time was pursuing her PhD in Health Behavior and doing research on women’s vibrator use at Indiana University. I was hooked. I emailed Debby and she recommended that I look into a Master’s in Public Health program and specialize in women’s sexual health issues. Knowing that my ultimate dream was to end up at Indiana University, I chose to obtain my MPH at Portland State University to get a more diverse academic experience.

Researching at the Intersection of Reproductive and Sexual Health

Upon completing my MPH, I moved back to Montana where I began working for the State Health Department in the Title X Family Planning program. It was during my two years of professional experience that I reignited my passion for promoting women’s access to contraception in an effort to reduce unplanned pregnancies. I also became quickly outraged by the controversy that surrounds women’s reproductive and sexual health. While the tobacco use prevention program had millions of dollars to provide services, the family planning budgets were continuously attacked and decreased due to political reasons. Again, I decided that enhancing my skill set and continuing my education would be the most effective way to join the battle for women’s reproductive health rights.

In the fall of 2010, my dream of attending Indiana University was realized as I began my doctoral program in Health Behavior. Over four years had passed since my email conversations with Debby Herbenick, and now I was one of her students and advisees at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion. It is exciting, to say the least, to see your dreams come full circle and to have the opportunity to study with some of the nation’s leading sex researchers.

I plan to use my education to advocate for women’s reproductive and sexual health issues. In a time where women’s access to affordable contraception is making headlines and fueling political debates, it is important to have good data to inform our public health policies and make decisions that will result in the enhancement of health and quality of life for all of our citizens.

-Nicole Smith, MPH