Main content start

Dangerous Data: Seeing Social Surveys Through the Sexuality Prism

Laurel Westbrook
Jamie Budnick

Social surveys both reflect and shape beliefs about sexuality. Social norms construct the “authorized vocabulary” of surveys and the resulting data influence the research questions that can be answered and the policies likely to be inspired by study findings. Scholars have called for balancing attention to pleasure vs. danger and normative vs. non-normative practices in studies of sexuality as well as for collection of data on sexual desires, behaviors, and identities. We combine these calls into what we term the sexuality prism. To better understand how data about sexuality are typically collected and what research they facilitate or constrain, we analyze six decades of materials from four of the largest social surveys in the United States and five national surveys focused on sexuality, health, and family formation. We find that these surveys do not allow for investigations of the full sexuality prism. Instead, they tend to assume and narrowly investigate the “charmed circle” of sexuality: heterosexual, married, monogamous, and potentially procreative couplings. When surveys ask about non-normative practices, they do so primarily in the context of risk (e.g. sexually transmitted diseases) and ignore non-normative practices that are not deemed “risky.” The focus on risk likely explains the greater attention to sexual behaviors and the shortage of questions about sexual desires and identities. Moreover, most questions about sexual practices highlight the dangers of sex, rather than the pleasures. Not only does this severely limit the scope of U.S. sexuality research, it also means that, individually and collectively, these surveys reify “sex negativity.”