Busting a myth: Meet the UBC psych researchers combatting sexual misinformation

Is it possible to masturbate too much? Can pregnant people experience sexual desire? Does good sex always involve orgasms?

Psychology graduate student Kiarah O’Kane has the answers.

Throughout their undergrad, they contributed to a slew of different laboratories but quickly realized that sex research was their path. After taking an undergrad course on the psychology of human sexuality, O’Kane jumped at the opportunity to work in Dr. Samantha Dawson’s new Sexuality and Well-Being (SWell) Lab.

O’Kane has watched the SWell lab’s team grow, and its scope of research topics expand. Ongoing studies are looking into the transition into parenthood, sexual pleasure and memories of first sexual experiences.

O’Kane’s current focus is the Sexual Opinions, Attitudes, and Knowledge Study (SOAK), which focuses on identifying prevalent sexual myths, and debunking them through public communication campaigns.

SOAK participants were exposed to a prevalent myth about sex, then asked to rate their agreement with it.

Preliminary findings show that people assigned male at birth, cisgender and heterosexual people are more likely to believe myths about sex, while people assigned female at birth and 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals are less likely to do so.

These results came as a surprise to researchers, because “sex education within schools usually focuses on majoritized groups, and is mostly relevant to them.” Since sex ed disproportionately focuses on the experiences of cis straight men, shouldn’t they come out with the most accurate understandings?

“I think the findings suggest that our sex ed as it is just isn’t good enough and comprehensive enough to benefit even the people that it’s focused on,” O’Kane said.

Queering sex research

Not only do sex ed curricula primarily reflect cishet experiences, but the world of sex research does too.

Though O’Kane has found a community of Queer sex researchers to support them, this diversity is not reflected in all sex research — something that they hope to change with this study.

“I think my own experiences, and seeing the experiences of my community members, really made me understand that, at least when it comes to sex education, there’s a deficit in terms of the information that Queer people receive in schools or have access to about sexuality.”

They are hopeful that their emphasis on using diverse samples in SOAK will provide more insight to future sex researchers on the sexual health and wellbeing needs of Queer people.

SOAK’S influencer arc

Using the Instagram account @misconsexions, hope not only to identify where sexual myths take root, but to find the best ways to creatively communicate the facts.

Each post on @misconsexions presents a specific myth about sexuality, and the following slides debunk it by sharing “evidence-based information from recent research, especially research that focuses on LGBTQ+ people and diverse samples.” All posts are presented in an easy-to-follow format, “using more accessible language than if the general public was reading a research paper by themselves,” said O’Kane.

“Sex research in general is pretty new as a field, which is really exciting, because it means a lot of the questions that you want to ask haven’t necessarily been done before,” said O’Kane. “Knowledge translation within sex research is something that’s gaining a lot of traction and a lot of attention.”

Most of the research that O’Kane has come across focused on specific sexual dysfunctions rather than improving general sexual knowledge, making SOAK one of the first studies of its kind.

O’Kane also noted that much research falls victim to the “valley of death” — the phase between doing research and actually implementing these findings into potential solutions. She hopes that knowledge translation initiatives like @misconsexions can “bridge that gap a little bit and disseminate research findings a lot faster.”

In the future, the SOAK team hopes that their work can positively influence sex ed curricula and lay the groundwork for other “brief knowledge translation interventions [that] can be effective for improving people’s sexual knowledge.”