by Paulina Borsook
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"At the Kinsey Institute, we're using the internet both as a research tool and as a research subject. As a tool, it's much more efficient than conducting surveys with people face-to-face. You don't have to worry about data entry, and the reach is so much wider, the number of people you can study so much greater. Several years ago, we put a questionnaire on our website and, without ever recruiting anybody to fill it out, we've gotten thousands of responses. A lot of people do it for entertainment. Many of them are curious: What are the sorts of things that sex researchers want to learn about? And, God knows, some people are just exhibitionistic. We are more-or-less drowning in data because it's so easy to get information.
"Of course you have to ask whether surveys conducted on a computer are as reliable as those done in person. There are disadvantages, but also advantages. With face-to-face interviewing, the questioner can pick up impressions that a computer can't, but the personality of the interviewer can have an effect on what gets said. If the questioner is awkward or shy, for example, that doesn't encourage people to answer honestly. Also, we've found that more people say they've engaged in taboo behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners, on the web than in person.
"But the web is even more valuable for researching subcultures that are small and spread out around the world. For example, some colleagues recently were doing research on bestiality. How do you find a meaningful number of subjects? It was very hard to do that in the past. These days there are news groups and search engines.
"At the same time, we are very interested to learn how people use the internet for sexual purposes. We'd like to know how people's use of the web changes over time, and whether they see the internet as a positive or a negative thing. One study we did for PBS on American pornography got 10,000 responses and showed what you might expect: that a lot of people are using net porn to arouse themselves, and others are looking at it out of curiosity. But what we'd really like to learn is how the internet changes people's sexual behavior and relationships. If you look at the web, there are many sites tailored to very specialized interests. To what degree does that have to do with people finally being able to find what they wanted all along, and to what degree are these sites developing their own audiences by creating new fetishes for people?
"We don't have the resources to do systematic research on the web, and we're constantly losing information as sites disappear without anyone to archive them, but part of my job is to look at a lot of websites. Mostly they overlap in content with the magazines and books we have from the past: The majority of porn is mainstream vanilla, and has existed for centuries in other media. But one difference, I think, is to be seen in anime. Obviously sexual cartoons have existed for ages, yet there's a level of realism that's making anime more and more a world of its own. And I have to ask: To what extent is it because the internet has made pornography so widely available that people are just getting bored with seeing photographs?
"I wonder if there's ever going to be a limit to the interrelationship between sex and technology. I wouldn't be surprised if it got to the point that everybody could buy a suit and hook it up to a computer and stimulate each other over the internet. One thing I've learned from my research is that a lot of breakthrough internet technology, from online payment to video streaming, is developed initially for porn sites. Nothing attracts money quite like sex."