Methodological Mishaps and Slippery Subjects: Stories of First Sex, Oral Sex, and Sexual Trauma in Qualitative Sex Research

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Abstract

Numerous assumptions—many rooted in privilege, educational status, and hegemonic power norms—are embedded in the process of collecting qualitative research on people’s sexualities, particularly surrounding meaning making, language, and sexual scripts. This paper interrogates 3 moments in qualitative sex research—what I call “margins of the interview”— where the researcher and participants’ meaning making around women’s sexuality diverged, raising complicated questions around coconstruction of sexual subjectivity in the research setting. Drawing from interview data with a diverse community sample of 20 women (interviewed in 2014, diverse age, race, class, and sexual identities) in a large southwestern metropolitan city, I outline in detail 3 places of methodological ambiguity (or “marginalia”) in the interviews. First, I examine how questions about “first sex” evoke complicated webs of stories that center on early sexual traumas, nonpenetrative sexual experiences, and virginity loss. Further, asking about women’s “experiences with oral sex” reveals how women construct themselves as performing sexual labor via giving rather than receiving oral sex, while asking about women’s worst sexual experiences either highlighted, or erased, sexual violence. Implications for the impact of how sex researchers—wedged between paradigms—choose to word questions, along with how women push and rewrite typical sexual scripts in qualitative research, are discussed. Ultimately, the slippage between the assumed and the experienced also moves us away from thinking about qualitative research in terms of validity and instead highlights the positive, puzzling, and difficult aspects of the “marginalia” instead.

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