Research News

Sociologist Laura Carpenter delves into the intricacies of intimacy

Did you know that sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in retirement homes? How about that some gay men who get the right to marry are apparently more likely to indulge in affairs, with the knowledge and consent of their partners?

This is the kind of thing that fascinates Laura Carpenter, an associate professor of sociology and Vanderbilt’s resident “sexpert.”

“I wanted to embarrass my mother,” Carpenter jokes when asked why she picked sex as her primary research interest.

“Actually, I was originally interested in gender,” she said. “But there was this interesting time in the mid-1990s when Time and Newsweek ran cover stories about born-again virgins. It was a real culture shock moment for me, and it got me to thinking how people’s opinions are very diverse about sexuality.

“What’s good and what’s bad, what’s wholesome and not so wholesome, culturally speaking, that was all kind of up for grabs.”

Laura Carpenter (Vanderbilt)

Carpenter subsequently wrote her dissertation about the loss of virginity, leading to her book Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. Her most recent project was co-editing (with John DeLamater of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra: How Sexuality Changes Throughout Our Lives.

The book, published by New York University Press, is the result of efforts by Carpenter and like-minded colleagues to expand the study of sex beyond the snapshots-style research that has dominated in the past.

“Researchers have tended to zero in on topics like adolescent sexuality or sex in the gay community, little snapshots that could be broken off and analyzed,” she said.

The trouble with that approach is the loss of the big picture within individual lives, the panorama of one sexual experience impacting another and having a cumulative effect.

“If you have an unpleasant virginity loss experience and feel bad about yourself afterwards, you may be less choosy about your next sex partner, who might not care about you or giving you pleasure,” Carpenter said.

“That might set you up for another situation where you’re unable to communicate about sex. People who aren’t able to communicate about sex are among other things, more likely to get sexually transmitted infections. Having a chronic sexually transmitted infection can be a pretty unpleasant thing, and certainly affects how you might respond to later partners and how they might relate to you.”

On the other hand, a positive experience losing virginity has its own consequences.

“Once you have an orgasm it’s pretty hard to un-have an orgasm,” Carpenter said. “That causes one to recognize something about the possibilities of sex. But amassing lots of sexual experience can have downsides, too.”

The primary problem in pursuing life course sexuality studies is lack of data.

“We generally haven’t had the luxury of following people’s sex lives for 50 or 60 years. It’s much more common – and much easier – to do a survey of teenagers in a high school at any given moment,” Carpenter said.

Sex for Life book cover courtesy of New York University Press

Better data is still a ways off for logistical reasons, but researchers who take a longer-road perspective are already showing intriguing results. Meika Loe of Colgate University has an essay in Sex for Life on “Pleasure in Old Age” about the growing population of people 90 and older.

“A lot of adult children of older parents are aghast that their widowed dad who is 85 and in assisted living is fooling around with another resident down the hallway,” Carpenter said. “But under the right circumstances, it could be quite a fulfilling relationship for those two old people.”

Complicating matters, the current generation of assisted living residents hail from the pre-AIDS era and might not think to use condoms so long after their childbearing years. That has led to increased sexually transmitted infections in nursing homes.

Carpenter’s own next research project will focus on chronic disease and sexuality. There has already been research on the impact of breast and prostate cancer on the sex lives of women and men, respectively.

Carpenter would like to know more about how common diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure impact sex life.

“A lot of medications for heart disease and for blood pressure affect sexual response,” Carpenter said. “Also, there are some people who have diabetes and have to wear an insulin pump on their bodies and others, at the extreme stages of the disease, may lose limbs. That has to affect someone’s sex life.”

Of course, any discussion of sex is fraught with complications. There are some stakeholders with a political or moral agenda who aren’t interested in evidence that contradicts their viewpoint.

“You find this in the abstinence-only sex-ed movement,” Carpenter said. “There’s a growing body of evidence that it doesn’t prevent most teenagers from eventually having sex before they’re married, while it does make them less likely to practice safer sex or use contraception, so they’re more likely to get sexually transmitted infections. But those findings haven’t changed the approach of people who believe abstinence-only is right for moral reasons.”

One giant factor is propelling studies of sexual behavior forward, Carpenter said. That’s the self-interest of the millions of baby boomers who are starting to face their mortality.

“Not only are they looking at their own parents and realizing they have to deal with aging, but they’re realizing that old age is going to happen to them,” Carpenter said. “And they don’t want to be asexual people, no matter how they feel about how other generations may have approached sex in later life.”