I’ve been writing this column for a few weeks now, and I realize I’ve never formally introduced myself. I think that has left some confusion about who I am and what I do, because each week my email is full of philly.com readers asking, “So… what exactly is a sexologist, anyway?” I understand the confusion. It’s not like “sexology” was a booth at career day in high school.
Sexology is the scientific study of human sexual behavior. Geologists study the earth, psychologists study the mind, and sexologists study sexuality.
When people think of “sex”, they often think of what I call “P in V”, also known as penile-vaginal intercourse. But sexologists study so much more than that. Sexologists investigate sexuality as a holistic part of being human, and look at sex not just through a biology lens, but also from a medical, interpersonal, psychosocial, social, political, and even criminological perspective.
Like all scientists, sexologists study the world around them (in this case, the sexual world), by asking questions. We ask these questions continually. For example, look at some news headlines in the last week.
Why would someone want to harm another person, let alone a child, in this way? Is someone born a sexual predator, or do they become one due to socialization or upbringing? Why are sexual predators disproportionately men? Will the victim ever overcome this abuse? Will he be able to have a healthy, functional sex life as an adult after an experience like this? What strategies would be most effective in helping sex crime victims cope? How do we as a society stop crimes like this from happening?
Is sex such a negative act that a beloved coach and mentor could be fired for starring in an R rated movie ten years prior? Even if it was X rated instead of R rated, should teachers or people who work with children be held to different laws regarding sexual privacy outside of work? Is knowing that a teacher has acted in an adult comedy harmful to children? If not, how can we change attitudes about sexuality to ensure these types of firings don’t keep happening? Is this level of sex-negativity unique to American culture or are there cross-cultural case studies?
How is it that in our culture, media can’t show a nipple but can call a 9 year old a “cunt”? What precipitated the acceptance of sexual vulgarity but outrage over healthy sexual images? What is the etymology of the word “cunt”, and how did it come to be considered so vulgar in the first place? Why are vaginas viewed so negatively that a slang term for it is considered the most offensive word in the English language? How does this affect woman? How does being called a “cunt” affect a 9 year old girl?
These are the questions sexologists aim to answer.
Sexologists come from a myriad of educational backgrounds, including psychology, sociology, social work, gender studies, and nursing. A very small but growing number of universities have actual degree programs in sexology, such as Philadelphia area’s own Widener University which offers two graduate degrees in human sexuality.
Likewise, sexologists work in a myriad of professions. Some of my colleagues work in academia as university professors or as researchers. Some work in private practice as sex therapists or marriage counselors. One works exclusively with gender variant clients. Another does counseling work with HIV+ folks. A third works at a rape crisis center counseling victims and their loved ones.
Some sexologists I know write sex education curricula and professional training programs, some work in policy and lobby to improve laws around things like sexual reproduction rights, gay rights, sex crime victims’ rights, etc. Some sexologists train other professionals such as medical doctors to help them understand the sexual diversity of their patients. Others train CEOs on how to have a workplace inclusive of LGBT employees, or teach them how to write sound anti sexual harassment in the workplace policies. I know of at least two colleagues who do sex education work with communities of faith.
What about me? I do grassroots sexual rights and pleasure advocacy, which means I take academic-heavy sexological research and present it in fun and palpable ways to a variety of diverse lay audiences around the world from Ivy League students in New England to impoverished school children in the Dominican Republic. Last week, I spoke to a community organization about sexual violence against women, presented a workshop on multiple orgasms to a small group of 17 in a woman’s living room, and gave a speech on normative sexual behavior to undergraduate students at Yale University.
My job is incredibly fun and has exposed me to ridiculously entertaining situations in strip clubs, nude resorts, and an all-expense paid trip to Florida for a sex toy trade show all in the name of science! It’s also incredibly rewarding. Perhaps more than any other profession, people share secrets with me that you can’t even fathom. I’ve laughed with people over the confession of these sexual secrets, and I’ve done a lot of crying with them too. Nearly every day I have the honor of being told that my work has changed someone’s life for the better.
However, there are some shortcomings of being a sexologist. First, the pay blows. It blows at face value, and REALLY blows if you consider the level of education I have. Second, America is largely an erotophobic society. Most of us have never grown out of the “sex is icky” pre-adolescent phase of understanding human sexuality. People don’t like what they don’t understand and as such, people hate on sexologists. People are always trying to discredit us. For example, if a sexologist is ever quoted in a news article, they’re often called a “sexologist” instead of a sexologist, the quotations implying that it’s not a real field of study. Or people will say “doctor” Jill, as if I made it up. Some people don’t understand sexology, and mistakenly think we’re just highly educated prostitutes that have sex with clients. I can’t tell you how many times men have asked me “how much” when I tell them I’m a sexologist. Others understand what sexology is, but still mock it because they don’t find it to be of value.
More people than you could imagine believe sex is wrong and that talking about it means I’m the devil. Just this morning someone left a note on my windshield that said “We’re praying for you. Repent of your filthy business and the misery it spreads.” (I have vanity plates that denote my profession, which is how this person knew the car was mine).
In the end, I love my job. I get to talk about sex all day and push people’s buttons. At any rate, I hope this cleared up what the hell a sexologist is.
Dr. Jill McDevitt is a nationally recognized sexologist, and the only person in the world with a bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree in human sexuality, making her the most formally educated person about sex on the planet. Dr. Jill has reached a documented 8.1 million people in her relentless promotion of the idea that sex should be fun, and everyone has the right to enjoy their sexuality without fear of violence. She founded Feminique, her sex education business, at just 21 years old.