For the past 13 years, Debra Herbenick has been answering questions about sex. As a designated answer-lady for KinseyConfidential.org, the researcher and educator at Indiana University's renowned Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Herbenick fields questions from a wide variety of folks looking for answers about their fantasies, fears and private bits.
Herbenick, a PhD and author of two books on the subject (Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction), started as a research assistant at Kinsey and handled outreach to the kids living in IU's dorms, answering their queries and encouraging safe practices. Now she answers everybody's questions, including ours.
NUVO: Most of the questions you get seem to be some variation of, "Am I normal?"
Debra Herbenick: They are, and I really feel that fits with the long history of the Kinsey Institute. I've read a lot of the questions that Alfred Kinsey himself got through the postal mail when he was alive and running the institute and they also were around that same kind of common theme. They vary ... but often people are wondering about the size and shape of their genitals, or if other people masturbate, or if it's common to have certain kinds of fantasies or certain types of experiences. Given the lack of information that's out there given to the general public about sex, I think a lot of people do wonder how their experiences, interests and desires fit in.
NUVO: Have we gotten better as a culture about getting this information out there over the course of the 13 years you've been doing this? It seems like the proliferation of information on the internet both good and bad would have some positive and some negative effects.
Herbenick: You're absolutely right. Certainly we've become more creative about ways to get information out. At the Kinsey Institute not only do we have our newspaper column but we also have a podcast series that people can download for free; we have information posted on the internet — but the internet's a really crowded space. Books are a really crowded space. I've written several books about sex. A lot of people write books and post blogs and do broadcasts and all of that, and I think what we find as a challenge is that many of the people who write to us at the Kinsey Institute do say that they've come to us after searching the internet for a while and finding really conflicting information which makes them even more confused and they're not sure what to believe.
NUVO: Does a lot of that misinformation come out of the porn industry?
Herbenick: Some of it may, but a lot of it even comes from schools, from parents, from their best friends, from a magazine. I think we can all look back at our own lives and things that maybe someone's older brother or sister told us about how babies were made. Those things persist over time. When something is talked about quietly or in secret it's tougher for myths to get dispelled. Almost anyone's parents can tell you how babies are made but if your six-year-old is getting information from their good friend you won't get a chance to dispel it unless you're being proactive and saying, "I want my kids to know this information."
NUVO: What's the most common question you get?
Herbenick: From men, probably questions about penis size. From women, about how to have an orgasm. And overall desire ... somebody feeling like they have low desire in comparison with his or her partner.
NUVO: What are some of the more unusual questions?
Herbenick: Well, every day's a different day. They're all over the map. You very quickly stop being surprised at them. I love my job; it's a great experience learning how different we all are. One of the most beautiful and interesting things about humanity is that we're not that similar to each other. We're pretty similar, but we have our own unique quirks as human beings. We all essentially look the same, but one of us might have a ridge on their nose or one eye that's bigger than the other. It's the quirks that make us interesting.
NUVO: Have you noticed that we seem to be shining more light on those quirks as we've seen a couple generations now ask questions about their sexual identities?
Herbenick: I don't know that we are. Sometimes I see quirks sensationalized or shamed but I don't see them celebrated in the way that says, "We're all different and that's okay."
NUVO: That's an interesting distinction between "sensationalized" and "celebrated". Are you speaking about things like Fifty Shades of Gray?
Herbenick: I wasn't thinking about that specifically but I think that's one example. I certainly did think that when that book did come out, it provoked a lot of conversation in a lot of different communities both in the mainstream and in sex research and education. Many people thought a lot of positive things came out of that and a lot were shocked, but it certainly did [start] some conversations.
NUVO: Are you seeing any trends in sexual behavior?
Herbenick: Most of my job is research, and we track sexual behavior in the U.S. Most of the things stay the same: most people have engaged in vaginal intercourse, the vast majority of people have masturbated, all of that. I think in terms of behavioral trends, we've seen over the past 20-odd years a pretty large increase in the number of women and men who say that they've tried anal sex. That's probably the single behavior that's changed the most, which is a challenging one to think about because there's not been a lot of research on it. What we do know is that there's also more women in particular who report pain from anal sex but aren't necessarily talking with their partners about it. It is a behavior that can be pleasurable for many people, but there's the mechanics of it that make it more challenging [and] riskier in terms of infection. If people talked about it more and educated themselves about it more it could go better than it does. If they used lubricant, if they did it with partner they liked and trusted and felt comfortable with ... but the way it is, it doesn't always pan out that way.
I think the more pleasure-focused trend we've seen over the past 20 years is ... women being more proactive about their own pleasure and orgasm, and so we've seen many more women using vibrators than used to. Now more than half of women in the United States have used a vibrator. We see sex toys of all sorts coming out of the shadows ... instead of just being available at adult bookstores that are zoned in certain parts of cities, now they're widely available at women's in-home sex toy parties. It's a more comfortable space for men and women to shop in. I think it's opened up a lot of doors for women to talk with each other about their sexual experiences.
NUVO: Are there other things out there that people don't talk about that might be influencing their sexuality?
Herbenick: The thing we probably don't talk about the most — which is fascinating to me — is intimacy. Connection. Love. It's not for lack of trying. I know as someone who talks frequently several times a week with different magazines and newspapers and so on, there's a lot of interests in the physical aspects of sex, probably in large part because many newspapers and magazines and TV are focused on providing a service: something you can go home and try. For example: find the G-spot a certain way! Try this new position! We always see those headlines in the supermarket checkout lane. But it's every difficult to get anyone to write about things like emotional closeness, intimacy, love, hugging, cuddling, kissing — even though study after study that we have shows how important those aspects are to people's sexual lives. If we're missing any nuances, it's that emotional side of sex.
Editor's note: If YOU'VE got a question you'd like to ask the doc, you might just see your question answered at NUVO.net or even on these pages. We're starting a new column cleverly titled "Ask the Sex Doc." Submit your question to email@example.com and please include the cool fake name you'd like us to use when Dr. Herbenick and Sarah from NUVO reply to your query about all things intimate.