Interview With The Sex Researcher: Dr. Zhana Vrangalova

Photo credit: New York Daily News

Photo credit: New York Daily News

If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you're probably a fan of sex research. But have you ever wondered who is behind the fascinating studies and theories discussed on this site? How did those folks get into this field in the first place? Where do their research ideas come from? And what is a day in life of a sex researcher really like? Today, I'm launching a new feature on the blog in which I will interview prominent sex researchers, scholars, and therapists in order to give you some insight into these and other questions.

My first interview is with Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, who holds a PhD in developmental psychology and is currently a sex educator, researcher, and blogger based in New York City. Below is the full text of a recent online chat I had with her.

Lehmiller: Generally speaking, sex researchers do not say that they planned their whole lives to enter this field. Many of them (myself included) instead have stories about how it kind of happened by accident. So what’s your story? What is it that made you want to become a sex researcher?

Vrangalova: My story was probably less of an accident compared to others. Ever since I was little, I knew two things: 1) that I wanted to be a scientist of some sort - my dad was a professor of electrical engineering, so I grew up surrounded by science; and 2) that I was highly sexual. Sexuality (sexual pleasure, sexual identity, agency) played a big role in my life, and growing up in Macedonia, an atheist but fairly patriarchal, traditional culture (just as an example, I was continuously warned by well-meaning adults and peers that I'd never find a husband to marry me because I didn't know how to cook), I was always intrigued by all the secrecy and ambivalence surrounding sex, and intensely bothered by the pervasive homophobia and sexual double standards. During my college years (I majored in psychology),  I got actively involved in the beginnings of the LGBT civil rights movement and used every chance I got to do research with sexual minorities. When the time came to pick an area for my PhD, I asked myself 'what is the one thing that is going to keep my professional interest for the rest of my life?' Sex was the immediate and most obvious answer. I didn't think twice.

Lehmiller: That's a fascinating story--thank you for your willingness to share it. Now let me ask you a little bit about the work that you do. You have published research on the topics of casual sex, attitudes toward sexual promiscuity, and non-heterosexual identities. Of all the studies you have published to date, which one is your personal favorite and why?

Vrangalova: That's like asking a parent which child is their favorite! If I had to choose one, I'd say it's "Who Benefits from Casual Sex? The Moderating Role of Sociosexuality" published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, which found that people who desire and approve of casual sex (i.e., those with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation) get a mental health boost after hooking up (specifically, higher self-esteem and life satisfaction, and lower depression and anxiety), while those who don't desire it and disapprove of it don't get such a boost and may, in fact, suffer decrements in their mental health following hookups. In many ways, this may seem obvious (casual sex is good for you if you like casual sex), but no one had ever really tried to distinguish between the effects of casual sex on different types of people.

Lehmiller: I'm glad you brought that paper up, not just because it's one of my favorites too, but because it leads nicely into my next question. You recently launched The Casual Sex Project, a website where people can anonymously share their past experiences with casual sex, both good and bad, with the rest of the world. Tell us a little bit about why you started this website and what the response has been so far.

Vrangalova: I started it because I felt there wasn't much realistic discussion about casual sex - it was always presented in a very black-or-white kind of way, as either amazing or horrible, often with a lot of moralizing, and with a lot of gender stereotyping about men always wanting hookups and women going along with them only reluctantly and not really enjoying them. And it always seemed to be presented as something that only college students do. So I wanted to bring greater diversity and honesty to the discussion. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Media outlets on every continent have written about it, over 900 stories have been shared from people from all over the world, and it's garnered 3 million views in the 7 months it has been up. People regularly email to thank me for creating this space where they can share stories they have rarely had a chance to share with others (and in quite a few cases, have never told anyone before), or where they can learn from other people's experiences and feel like they're not alone in their desires, thoughts, or feelings. It's been a truly amazing experience, and I hope to keep it up for as long as people find it useful.

Lehmiller: That's an incredible response! Congratulations on the success of your site! I'm confident that people will find it useful for a long time to come. Next question: I'm sure that people don't just talk to you about sex through The Casual Sex Project. If you’re anything like me, when people find out what you do for a living, they start asking sex questions no matter where you are (e.g., at dinner parties, on airplanes, and so forth). What’s the most common question you get asked and how do you answer it?

Vrangalova: Ha - yes, people always have sex questions! Over the 8 years that I've been researching sex, the most common question I've gotten is also the one I hate the most: "So, what's the most interesting thing you've learned about sex?" or "So tell me something I don't know about sex?" These are impossible questions to answer - Everything is interesting; and how do I know what you know and don't know about sex?! Luckily, as I've been writing more about consensual non-monogamy (CNM), more people these days come to me for advice on how to open up their relationship, find a CNM partner, or navigate problems in an existing CNM relationship. Those are difficult questions, but at least they have answers, which are usually tailored to the specific situation of the person asking it.

Lehmiller: Last question: what advice would you offer to students who might be considering careers in sex research or sex education? Is there anything you know now that you wish you would have known earlier on?

Vrangalova: Like any career, it has its pros and cons. On one hand, it's a small field and academically not too respected and definitely not very well funded. So finding a good academic job and research funding can be challenging. On the other hand, it is one of the most intrinsically rewarding professions: sex is such a fascinating topic to study, so you can have a lot of fun with it (and you'll never run out of fun dinner and cocktail party conversations). Also, especially if you do sex education, you can profoundly change people's lives for the better. And because it's a topic of general interest, there are many opportunities to apply your knowledge and skills outside of academia - there are popular media (magazines, TV, radio) always hungry for new 'sexperts,' industry databases that need researchers to analyze them (from sex toy companies to dating/hookup websites), sex-related smartphone apps you can help develop, various kinds of sex-related websites (educational or otherwise) you can start running, adult sex education outside of academia, social media connections to the world, etc., etc. And that is exactly what I know now that I wish I knew earlier on--that for sex researchers/educators, there is a world outside of academia. So my advice to students in this regard is to start engaging with this world earlier, while they're still graduate students.

To learn more about Dr. Vrangalova, follow her on Twitter @DrZhana, check out her blog on Psychology Today, or read some of her recent research papers here.

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Image Credit: New York Daily News

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