Ethical Issues in Conducting Sex Research on the Internet

By Binik, Yitzchak M.; Mah, Kenneth et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, February 1999 | Go to article overview
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Ethical Issues in Conducting Sex Research on the Internet


Binik, Yitzchak M., Mah, Kenneth, Kiesler, Sara, The Journal of Sex Research


As the Internet becomes a new household technology, with nearly 20% of the population on-line by 1997, opportunities grow for researchers to conduct sex research using this technology. The growth and popularity of personal Internet services allow for novel investigations of sexuality at home, in the absence of physical presence, and under conditions of relative anonymity. By making use of existing or experimental on-line sex therapists and sexual self-help or entertainment groups, researchers can study topics such as interpersonal attraction, flirting, sexual language, sexual self-help, sexual writing, role playing, and therapeutic relationships. Sexologists interested in the use and effects of sexual images are hard pressed to find a better research environment than the Internet. Researchers can present sexual stimuli on the Web, run interactive virtual experiments, or study people's access to existing sexual material, even recording responses using automated psychophysiological measures that connect participants with a central laboratory through the Internet.

Because the Internet is a somewhat new domain for research, ethical guidelines for conducting research on the Internet are beginning to emerge. Are paper and electronic informed consent forms interchangeable? Can we promise anonymity and confidentiality on the Internet? The newness and technical complexity of Internet technology make the application of current ethical codes ambiguous, a situation that can arouse the concern of researchers, institutional ethical review boards, and others. This article addresses ethical issues related to conducting sex research on the Internet.

Researchers using the Internet for many kinds of behavioral and social science research will be concerned with ethical issues (Hewson, Laurent, & Vogel, 1996; Kiesler, 1997; Kiesler & Sproull, 1986; Kiesler, Walsh, & Sproull, 1992), but sex researchers may be especially interested for three reasons. First, given the sensitive nature of much sex research, uncertainty about appropriate research conduct is likely to affect sex researchers more than other researchers, as became apparent to us in the context of two recent research projects. A furor arose at Carnegie Mellon University about a student's study of pornography on the Internet. The student obtained a database from the computer center that listed monthly-usage statistics on sexually-oriented newsgroups at the university. For technical reasons unrelated to the research, the computer program also stored the names of people who had last read each newsgroup each month in the database. An ethical question rose over the researcher's responsibility to individuals whose sexuality was revealed without their consent by an automated computer routine. A second instance occurred at McGill University in the context of a Ph.D. proposal entitled "The Phenomenology of Orgasm." Two separate ethics committees rejected proposals to allow data collection via the Internet despite safeguards which probably surpassed those used in traditional survey research.

A second reason why questions about ethical conduct on the Internet will affect sex researchers is that people's responses to research on sexuality may change when they use the Internet. For instance, the convenience and speed of the Internet, along with the paucity of social information and perception of anonymity that surrounds many Internet interactions, might lead some individuals to be more open in their network communications and less cautious than they might be otherwise (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). On the other hand, participants who know they will be identified might be particularly wary of public exposure or of the uses that can be made of cross-referenced computer databases. To the degree that the Internet presents unexpected threats to privacy or alters participants' perceptions of the research environment, ethical codes for sex research might need to be revised to fit this new environment.

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