What do Women Want? Party Favors & Sex Education, Too
Formal sex education, for most women, consisted of a video they watched in health class during middle school or junior high. Or, possibly, the health textbook devoted an entire chapter to the mechanics of human reproduction. Topics of special programs were usually limited to preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Or, maybe there was nothing at school.
Informal sex education ranged widely in content and accuracy. At home, typically, moms explained to their daughters what to do when their menstrual periods started. Later, some parents set down rules based on a moral code about sex that they wanted their girls to follow. Older siblings, cousins and friends passed along tidbits of information that sometimes were accurate and helpful, sometimes not, and youth learned social cues and expectations about sex by watching television and listening to music.
For Kristen Jozkowski, who studies sexual health, this raises some important questions. Where do mature women turn for facts about sex? Where do they learn what’s normal for most people, what to do if something hurts, how to communicate with partners about what they want, and what products and techniques exist that would make sex more enjoyable?
The topic of sex is everywhere – on daytime talk shows and in movies, in the news, in popular women’s magazines, social media, advertising, casual conversations at the gym and the grocery store – but is the information reliable and accurate?
Jozkowski believes the quality of a person’s sex life is important. She teaches in the community health promotion program in the College of Education and Health Professions, and she’s a Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University.
Some people question the legitimacy of research about sexual health and sexual behavior. But, an estimated 99 percent of people have sex, Jozkowski counters. People are curious about sex, she says.
“This is an applied discipline,” Jozkowski says. “I study topics that will apply to nearly everyone.”
Jozkowski has published several articles about her research regarding how sex toys and other sexual enhancement products provide an opportunity for sex education for women. Her research with colleagues at Indiana University, where she earned a doctorate in health behavior, has examined the questions women ask when attending sex toy parties.
Sex toy parties are hosted by a woman or a small group of women who invite their female friends to attend. A consultant from the sex toy company will be at the party; she will have products for women to see and learn about, much like Pampered Chef and Tupperware parties. But, instead of cake-servers and storage containers for leftovers, products sold at these home-based parties include vibrators and lubricants.
As a result of her work with sexual enhancement product companies, Jozkowski helped design an online training module for the party consultants to complete so they are better able to provide information and resources for their customers.
Very little scientific research previously existed on the role these parties play in providing sex education. Jozkowski’s research, published in the International Journal of Sexual Health and the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, found that party consultants could answer questions about the products themselves, but the women attending the parties wanted information beyond how to use the products.
In one study conducted by Jozkowski and her colleagues, more than 2,500 party attendees were surveyed. Sex education efforts tend to focus on adolescents and risk-reduction strategies, the study authors wrote. Outside of clinical settings, there are few sex education opportunities focusing on enhancing sex lives – including such aspects as desire, arousal and orgasm – of adult women in long-term, monogamous relationships.
“The party consultants were telling the sexual enhancement product companies that women were asking questions they didn’t know how to answer,” Jozkowski says. “The women who give these parties are from all sorts of backgrounds. They don’t necessarily have a background in health.”
Nearly half of the women surveyed were over 30 years old and more than 75 percent reported that they were married or in a monogamous relationship. The majority of participants in the online survey reported relatively high levels of sexual functioning on the nine-item Female Sexual Function Index that measures the domains of desire, arousal, lubrication, pain, orgasm and satisfaction.
The researchers suggest that sex therapists could work with party consultants to improve the party experience while providing accurate sexual health information. This would give sex therapists an opportunity to reach a previously underserved population of women, promoting messages about sexual wellness and enhancing women’s sexual experience.
Another study of 677 women attending sex toy parties found that they asked 765 questions at the parties. Most commonly reported questions were about lubricants and vibrators. Women also frequently asked questions about men’s sex toys, G-spot, orgasm and vaginal dryness.
A CHANCE TO TALK
Sexuality in general is a topic that people tend to be uncomfortable talking about in some settings, Jozkowski says, but her personal experience in gathering data is that finding subjects who will open up about their experiences and feelings is not terribly hard. Her research findings suggest that women at the parties feel comfortable asking questions about relatively private topics including sexual behavior, function and sex toys.
“People really want to tell their stories,” she says. “It’s not unusual when I’m doing qualitative research for interviews to last more than an hour for each person.”
Jozkowski also conducts research, with her students, on topics related to women of all ages. They have studied how college students define and communicate consent to sex, the impact of hormonal contraceptive methods on women’s sexual pleasure, sexual function in menopausal women, how medical providers talk to their patients about sexuality and sexual health, beliefs about women’s vibrator use, association of lubricant use with women’s sexual satisfaction, and the influence of social media on communication of consent.
“Within research about sex there are safer topics,” she says. “There are research topics that are more likely to be funded. Sexual enhancement doesn’t fall into that category, although the use of lubricants decreases condom breakage and slippage, which helps reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
“Making sex feel better is an important part of sexual health,” Jozkowski continues. “Sexual satisfaction contributes to
general happiness, and quality of life is an important indicator
of public health.”
Societal taboos around such products may be lessening some based on the wide variety of products now available on discount store shelves, Jozkowski says.
“You go past the greeting cards or the snacks, turn the aisle and there they are,” she says.
Kristen Jozkowski is an assistant professor of community health promotion in the College of Education and Health Professions and an affiliate faculty member in gender studies in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. She was recently funded by the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality to examine conceptualizations of sexual consent that extend beyond the dyadic encounter.
She directs the Sexual Health Research Team at the University of Arkansas and is a Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University.