First lab for co-sex research at UM
‘Sex sells!’ This may apply to many contexts; unfortunately, that is not really the case in the scientific research domain. Sexologist Marieke Dewitte has many questions she would like to research in her unique sex lab at Maastricht University, but finding research funding is no easy task. Nevertheless, the first study of sexual arousal in couples is now underway. “We know that most sexual problems do not play out at the individual level, but in a partner relationship. Nevertheless, research into that interaction is rarely done.”
It started with Goedele Liekens
With her Belgian accent and the ease with which she talks about sexuality and everything that comes with it, Marieke Dewitte is reminiscent of Goedele Liekens, the Belgian sexologist who has been on Dutch and Flemish TV for decades. It appears that she was a source of inspiration for Dewitte. “I think it’s really important to talk about sex. That still doesn’t happen enough.”
You cannot translate solo behaviour into a partner relationship
Another important mission she has set for herself is to research is sexuality in the context of a relationship. Scientific research into arousal is still too often done in an individual setting. The study participant looks at a screen on which pornography is shown and a measuring instrument that is placed in the vagina or around the penis measures the physical sexual arousal. “That is solitary sexual behaviour and you cannot translate it one-to-one to a partner relationship. Since most sexual problems do not manifest themselves during solo sex but rather during interactions with the partner, it is essential to involve both partners in our lab studies.”
Sex research in partners is rare
Since the founders of sexology, Masters and Johnson, did research in the lab on physical processes during partner sex in the 1960s, very little psychophysiological research has been done on sexuality between partners in a ‘dyadic context’. In Groningen, lightweight athletic couples were researched together in a scanner, but that focused primarily on brain activity. Dewitte wants to know more about ‘peripheral genital arousal responses’, or in other words, how sexual arousal is expressed in genitals or elsewhere in the body. (text continues below photo)
It’s possible in the Netherlands: the first dyadic sex lab in the world
Talking about sex is still taboo in many countries, but Dewitte has noticed that the climate in the Netherlands is quite progressive. Leading sexologists such as Ellen Laan and Jacques van Lankveld prepared the way; the latter even spent several years at UM. “Genital arousal has been measured here for about seven years and, as a result, the ethics committee has less difficulty approving a research design than what I would see in my home country, for instance.” And thus the first ‘dyadic sex lab’ in the world has been set up in Maastricht; it has a cosy sort of living room with dim lighting and plants, where couples can be researched during sexual stimulation.
Key question: how do partners align their sexual arousal?
With many psychology studies, the study participants mostly consist of students, and the same goes for this case. “That does not make the group representative of an average population, but you have to start somewhere.” The question that Dewitte and her modest research group want to answer first is: How do partners align their sexual arousal? And stemming from this: How long does it take in a relationship before couples find a ‘sexual balance’? Is there such a thing as an immediate sexual click, or can compatibility develop over time? In the current study—which was set up in collaboration with the University of Leuven—partners have a kind of Skype call from separate rooms, during which they stimulate themselves and focus their attention alternately on themselves or on their partner. Their physical and subjective arousal is measured during the conversation and afterwards they listen to the audio fragment again to make an assessment of their own and their partner’s level of arousal. In a follow-up study, the intention is also to have them stimulate each other physically.
Why research into all this is important
The problem with this type of research is not so much finding study participants, but finding research funding, Dewitte has observed. “Why do we need to know this, people sometimes ask me. A sexual problem doesn’t seem urgent, but it does have an impact on your health—just like many physical and mental disorders, as well as the medication that is taken for them, have an impact on our sexual experience. Sexual well-being is essential for our quality of life. That makes research in a dyadic context so relevant.”
So many myths about sex ...
Marieke Dewitte previously worked as a sexologist at a hospital and regularly speaks about her profession as a teacher for both professionals and students. “I think it is important to translate my research into practice, but also to dispel myths using everyday language. Every year, third-year students from the Mental Health Sciences specialisation come to me afterwards saying that they have learned so much, also about their own sexuality. For example, that spontaneous sex does not exist. Or that in a longer relationship, you often have to make compromises about the frequency with which you have sex. Or that sex does not always have to be spectacular. Good enough is often really good enough.”