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Cross-National Research on Online Sexuality

Foto: Länderübergreifende Forschung zu Online-Sexualität

1. Research Background

Sexuality is an important part of human life and is closely linked to health, life satisfaction and the quality of relationships. The sexual culture in Germany has undergone two crucial changes in the past fifty years: The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s brought about a surge of liberalization, espe­cially through the contraceptive pill and the reform of criminal law at the time. Since then, for example, the consumption of pornography and the cohabitation of unmarried couples have been legal. The sec­ond phase of change is linked to the so-called digital revolution and the popularization of different online sexual activities since the 1990s: online pornography, online dating, and online sex education are just a few examples.

2. Research Problem

The emergence of online sexuality is highly disputed in society and has also been controversially discussed in research for around 25 years. Some claim that there remain further opportunities for liberali-zation (e.g. improvement of information and communication about sexuality and thus improved health, life satisfaction and quality of couple relationships). Others, however, describe the great dangers of online sexuality, ranging from online unfaithfulness to online sexual harassment and online pornography addiction. On these grounds, there is a clear demand for studies that:

  • shed light not only on a limited selection of aspects of online sexuality, but consider the entire spectrum of online sexual activities;
  • are not limited to measuring the impact of only the positive or negative impacts of online sexuality, but take a balanced account of both opportunities and risks and
  • investigate the global phenomenon of online sexuality not only in a single country, but research it from a cross-national perspective.

3.    Research Method

In order to address this research problem, an international research cooperation was established. Four Western countries with varying degrees of sexual liberalism according to the World Values Survey (Sweden > Germany > Canada > USA) were included. Only outstanding researchers in the field of online sexuality are involved: Professor Kristian Daneback from Gothenburg University in Sweden, Professor Nicola Döring from Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany, Professor Sandra Byers from New Brunswick University in Canda, Dr. Krystelle Shaughnessy from Ottawa University in Canada and Professor Christian Grov from City University of New York in the USA.
Methodologically, the study was carried out by using the same questionnaire instrument to survey student samples in all four countries. College students are a particularly interesting target group for online sexuality research, as they are in a phase of life in which sexuality plays an important role (sexual identity development, active dating life etc.) while also using the Internet extensively.

4.    Results

A total of N = 2,690 students were examined across the four countries. It turned out that many online sexual activities have become statistically normal among female and male students in terms of lifetime prevalence. The frequency of online sexual activities, however, varies: people tend to be more involved when they are younger, male and non-heterosexual. Overall, students experience statistically significantly more positive than negative effects of the Internet on their sex life. However, the Internet effect must not be over-estimated, since the statistical effect sizes are small. Other bio-psycho-social influences on sexuality (e.g. sexual upbringing in childhood, personality traits) continue to be very important in the Internet age. Interestingly, there were hardly any country-specific differences in the experience of online sexuality among the students examined.

5.    Conclusion

A better understanding of online sexuality can help to promote positive effects of these new forms of sexual expression and at the same time counteract negative effects.

6.    Publication and Impact

Döring, N., Daneback, K., Shaughnessy, K., Grov, C., & Byers, E. S. (2017). Online sexual activities experiences among college students: A four-country comparison. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(6), 1641-1652.

The Archives of Sexual Behavior (Springer Publishing) are the organ of the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR) and, with an impact factor of 2.720, one of the leading journals in the field of sex research. The paper has 10 citations according to Web of Science and 23 citations according to Google Scholar (as of June 2018).

Further publications from the data set of the study are currently in preparation.

The topic of Sexuality at the Interface to New Information and Communication Technologies has been intensely researched and taught for years at the research group Media Psychology and Media Design at Ilmenau University of Technology under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Nicola Döring.
Research results – for example on online sexuality education – are highly relevant in practice and are requested by the Federal Centre for Health Education [Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung, BZgA], the Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse Issues [Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs, UBSKM] and the WHO, among others. Prof. Döring is co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung [Journal of Sex Research] (Thieme Publishing).


Prof. Dr. Nicola Döring
Fachgebiet Medienpsychologie und Medienkonzeption der TU Ilmenau
Fakultät für Wirtschaftswissenschaften und Medien