Investigating the Impact of Inquiry Mode on Self-Reported Sexual Behavior: Theoretical Considerations and Review of the Literature

By McCallum, Ethan B.; Peterson, Zoe D. | The Journal of Sex Research, March-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Investigating the Impact of Inquiry Mode on Self-Reported Sexual Behavior: Theoretical Considerations and Review of the Literature


McCallum, Ethan B., Peterson, Zoe D., The Journal of Sex Research


In 1941, Alfred Kinsey began one of the first large-scale studies of sexual behavior in modern scientific history-an effort that was met with substantial resistance at the time (Bullough, 1998). Many of the early questions that were raised regarding Kinsey's research focused on whether sexual behavior should be studied at all. Kinsey forged on, despite his critics, and in the 70 years following this groundbreaking effort, sexual behavior research has grown exponentially, as has the recognition of its benefit to society. The emergence of the AIDS epidemic and increasing rates of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), along with a greater awareness of the impact of sexual violence, has convincingly demonstrated the importance of a scientific understanding of sexual behavior as a potential threat to public health. Sexual behavior research has also provided insight into the prevalence and correlates of positive sexual functioning, sexual pleasure, and sexual satisfaction, as well as the importance of sexuality in the lives and relationships of men and women across the lifespan. Today, a larger number of people recognize the value of sexual behavior research; however, controversy remains as to how these behaviors should best be studied.

One such point of controversy, which can be traced back to the early work of Kinsey, is how to ask people about their sexual behavior. Kinsey himself advocated for the necessity of face-to-face interviewing, as he saw self-administered paper-and-pencil questionnaires to be an invitation for dishonest responding (Bullough, 1998). Researchers today share Kinsey's concerns about the accuracy of self-report data collected through self-administered questionnaires and face-to-face interviews, although the issue has become considerably more complex. Modern technology has given rise to a range of methods, or modes of inquiry, in self-report data collection, as researchers have begun capitalizing on the ubiquity of telephones, computers, and the Internet. These rapid advances have provided researchers with broad and affordable access to large and diverse samples of research participants but have done little to resolve questions regarding the accuracy of reporting and have made it even more difficult to establish equivalence across modes of inquiry.

Although the questions regarding inquiry mode and accuracy of self-report sexual data date all the way back to the early stages of sexual behavior research, they are by no means academic or inconsequential. Sexual behavior research is one of the most directly applied research areas in existence today, with applications ranging from informing public policy and legal statutes in the United States, to evaluating the efficacy of AIDS interventions in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Bloom et al., 2000). Given these broad applications, it is essential that sexual behavior researchers are aware of the degree to which methodological decisions may impact their findings and, in turn, the application of their findings to policies, laws, and clinical settings.

Measuring Sexual Behavior

Much as Kinsey did in the 1940s, researchers today rely heavily on self-reports in studying sexual behaviors, although such reports are inherently problematic. One of the major limitations of any self-report is a dependence on accurate recollection and accurate reporting of the targeted behavior by participants. Recognizing this major limitation, many researchers have sought to identify alternative methods of data collection to serve as a point of comparison for self-report data.

For example, biomarkers, such as the presence of semen in women's urine, have been suggested as points of comparison for particular self-reported behaviors, such as engagement in intercourse (Langhaug, Sherr, & Cowan, 2010). However, major restrictions inherent to the applicability of such markers (e.g., measures of semen in urine are applicable only to women engaging in unprotected vaginal intercourse with a man) greatly limit their utility.

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