The science of sex: welcoming Debby Herbenick to RealScientists


Sex. As Alfred Kinsey and colleagues put it in their 1953 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, “there are few aspects of human biology with which more persons are more often concerned”. Some of us, of course, are more concerned with sex than others. Our curator for this week,   Debby HerbenickAssociate Professor Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, is more interested in sex than most – from a scientific perspective, of course. As Debby says, “Not everyone has sex, but most people do – and it of course plays a large role in romance, love, marriage, and reproduction, plus just plain old human intimacy and connection and fun! And yet this compelling force is something that few people get much education or information about. I believe that if people were better educated about sex (and if we had more high quality sex research) we could better address a range of personal, professional, and societal woes.”

Here’s Debby, in her own words, on her research interests and what led her to them:

I used to want to be a medical doctor and then a therapist. But in college, I found myself always sitting in library stacks, pouring through research journals in search of answers to questions I had or people I knew had. Between that and several undergraduate psychology required courses in research methods, I fell in love with research!

My first job after undergrad was as a research assistant at The Kinsey Institute. Before that job, I had never imagined going into sex research! Once I was there, however, I realized how little my friends and I knew about sexuality and how much of what we read in magazines and even some books was based on myth and rumor rather than fact. I loved the interdisciplinary environment at Kinsey back then and ended up staying at IU for my master’s and doctoral degrees. I continue to be most inspired by conducting research that addresses people’s common concerns about their sexual health or behavior – for example, pain during sex. Or little-researched topics, such as exercise-induced orgasms (“coregasm”), which are orgasms that about 10% of people experience that seem to come about during physical exercise.

Debby Herbenick discussing sex research with Katie Couric on her eponymous US talk show 'Katie'

Debby Herbenick discussing sex research with Katie Couric on her eponymous US talk show ‘Katie’

Most of my research involves surveys and interviews but occasionally I partner with colleagues on lab-related studies, for example related to sexually transmitted infections (STI) or exercise science. I lead the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, an ongoing annual survey of sex in America. I also conducted research on exercise-induced orgasm and arousal, pain during sex, relationship happiness and love, and much more. I’m also highly committed to translating research about sex into mainstream venues so that everyone can learn. As examples, I’ve published 6 books about sex and love, I tweet about sex research, I launched a Kickstarted project about vulvas and vaginas, and I’ve worked as a sex columnist for several years now, including the Kinsey Confidential column and podcast. I also host the Bloomington Sex Salon in Bloomington, Indiana which is a lot of fun – it’s a free public event series held in bars (kind of like Science Pubs or Science Cafes) where I bring sex research/education into community spaces and just talk about it with audience Q&A.

Debby with a vulva puppet at the Bloomington Sex Salon.

Debby with a vulva puppet at the Bloomington Sex Salon.

Away from research, I like reading, writing, hiking with our dog, swimming, gardening, and cooking. My ideal day off? After a wonderful night of sleep (!) I would eat breakfast, go hiking with our dog, and make a nice home-cooked dinner from one of my Thomas Keller cookbooks. He’s the best!

Debby usually tweets at @DebbyHerbenick, but this week, she’s tweeting for us. Welcome Debby to RealScientists!






James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: