The way psychologists talk about sex reveals exactly what they get wrong about our inner lives

Psychologists don’t always get it right.
Psychologists don’t always get it right.
Image: Reuters/ Charles Platiau
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For much of the 20th century, psychologists ignored inner thoughts entirely. The field was going through a “behaviorism” phase at the time, and experts tended to believe people could only be understood by studying behavior and external stimuli.

This outlook, and its crucial flaw, is neatly surmised by a rather nerdy joke:

What does the behaviorist say after sex?

“That was great for you, how was it for me?”

It’s hardly a coincidence that the joke uses sex to highlight the absurdity of behaviorism’s focus on external, observable behavior. Sex, after all, is at the very core of psychology. Even those of us who have never considered the complexities of the human mind recognize that sexual desires and practices are worthy of scientific study and explanation. Why we desire certain sexual acts, and with certain people, is both so powerful and so strange. No wonder Sigmund Freud, one of the earliest figures in modern psychology, devoted so much attention to the development of sexuality.

Not all of Freud’s theories have stood the test of modern scientific standards. Contemporary psychologists do not believe, for example, that clitoral orgasms are a sign of psychological immaturity, nor do they believe that everyone wants to have sex with their mother or father. But some of Freud’s ideas—the sheer importance of sex to our psyches, for example, and the link between early childhood and how we form relationships as an adult—have held up to further studies and scrutiny. And, even if Freud did get a fair bit wrong, his ideas were so novel, shocking, and compelling, that they radically transformed how western culture thought about personal identity.

I felt a little nostalgic for the excitement and imagination behind Freud’s ideas earlier this year, at a conference hosted by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In one presentation, researchers explained how they recruited couples to experiment with using a vibrator and trying novel sexual positions and found that those practices correlated with heightened sexual passion. The data was sound and the experiment rigorous enough to be presented at a prestigious conference. But, well, who cares? A fairly narrow group of people who agreed to take part in this odd experiment had more sexual passion after trying out novel sexual experiences. It hardly seemed groundbreaking.

The preponderance of banal findings in psychology is not limited to research on sex. At the same conference, other researchers presented a paper showing that people who watched The Apprentice felt like they had a closer relationship with US president Trump, while another study found that people enjoyed a meal less when their dining companion had their phone constantly out on the table. Though the academics seemed pleased with these results, you hardly need a PhD to offer up either analysis. Every day, dozens of psychology similarly narrow-minded papers are published that, unfortunately, are utterly uninteresting to anyone but their authors.

Academic psychology is currently going through a replication crisis: the results of many of its most famous and influential studies cannot be recreated, it turns out. And so the field is particularly eager to establish itself as a “real” science, founded on empirical data. As a consequence, psychologists get excited when studies come up with any strong data—no matter how dull. In an ideal world, psychology studies would produce results that are both true and interesting. And perhaps, one day, the field will achieve this elusive goal. But currently, psychology is dominated by narrow laboratory experiments, and seems so desperate to get any sound data about the human mind, that it appears to be giving up any effort to seek deeper meaning.

It’s not that psychologists don’t want to say interesting things about sex or the human psyche, says Justin Lehmiller, psychology professor at Ball State University and author of Tell Me What You Want, a book on sexual desire. It’s that doing so is a lot harder than in Freud’s day. “Freud had a lot of good ideas but a lot of bad ideas as well,” he says. “In terms of getting to those grand unifying theories, the bar today is so much higher than it was before.” Whereas Freud was able to base his theories on single case studies and anecdotes, psychologists today have to collect considerable data to support any theory to be taken seriously. In addition, the seemingly boring ideas are necessary building blocks. “There’s a lot of research that seems like common sense and doesn’t surprise us. That doesn’t mean it’s not important,” he says. “We need to test a lot of our assumptions about sex through scientific research.”

The field today aims to be far more rigorous than it was in Freud’s time, but that means it can also be a little plodding. Those studying psychology today hold on to the view that their field, just like any other academic subject, has advanced and progressed over the centuries. But, in truth, there seems to be value in both the old-fashioned Freudian and the contemporary academic approaches. Certainly Freud’s paltry data sets would not make it into journals today. But perhaps the lack of restrictions gave him the leeway to develop more imaginative theories—some of which, after all, have held up to 21st century analysis, even if Freud himself never bothered to gather the supporting data.

Though psychology today can be a little dry, there’s still the odd glimmer of sexual excitement. For example, in 2015, Amy Muise, psychology professor at York University in Toronto, found that couples in committed relationships tend to be happier the more sex they have—but only up to a frequency of once a week. It was a striking and unexpected finding, and one that likely brings comfort to those who’ve been with the same person for decades but still feel some pressure to have as much sex as possible.

Muise says she struggles in her research to both get as much data as possible and to create compelling theories. She sees the conflict reflected in her desire to include the perspectives and experiences of diverse subjects in her research, while also pulling out a finding that’s broadly applicable to everyone.

But she believes advances in methodology and statistics, as well as recruiting through the internet, is making it easier to evaluate ever more diverse data. And, while there are currently only smaller studies on diverse sexual subjects and behaviors, eventually they will build together into a more inclusive, and insightful theory about human sexuality.