Ever wondered what your average zoophile (someone who is sexually aroused by animals) does in their everyday life? Perhaps not! But if you ever have then the chances that you’ll casually strike up a conversation with a zoophile whilst waiting at the bus stop are probably pretty slim. And there’s a clear reason for this: zoophilia is illegal, taboo or at the very least frowned upon in many countries. As such, it’s very unlikely that someone with zoophilic interests would feel comfortable to disclose these interests to a stranger. The same goes for many other sexual interests which fall under the category of paraphilias. Imagine going to a party, striking up a conversation with somebody and then asking them whether they have any fetishes. Aside from this being a slightly strange topic of conversation for a casual chat, it’s probably fair to say that somebody wouldn’t want to tell you about their fetishes*, if they did have any (which as we know from the previous study I’ve looked at, is more likely than unlikely).
If, on the other hand, you asked a stranger the same question on the Internet, you’d be far more likely to get an open and honest answer. The primary reason for this is that you can remain anonymous on the Internet. What harm is there in disclosing that you have a taboo or illegal sexual interest, if nobody actually knows who you are (aside from a screen name or pseudonym)? In effect, there is no harm at all, and this leads to a so-called ‘disinhibiting’ effect, whereby somebody is more likely to be open and honest if there isn’t a way for what they say to be linked back to them (Turner et al., 1998; Brownlow & O’Dell, 2002).
This is just one of the many advantages that the Internet offers those who research taboo areas, such as paraphilias. Other advantages for researchers include being able to reach a more global pool of participants, being able to reach those who might not physically be able to reach a university and, of course, the cost-effectiveness of not having to use university resources. Advantages for the participant include the flexibility of being able to answer from home and the possibility of being able to reflect fully on a question before answering it (Willis, 2012).
On the other hand, there is certainly an argument to be made for the fact that many participants are immediately excluded from Internet studies as a result of gender, ethnic or socio-cultural boundaries to Internet access. Likewise, studies have frequently shown a ‘sampling bias’ in Internet studies – young men from cities who have a higher level of education are far more likely to take part in Internet studies than those who do not fall into these categories (Ross et al., 2005) and introverts also tend to locate their ‘real me’ through the Internet, meaning less extroverts take part in Internet research (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2002).
Over the next few weeks, I hope to take a look at some of the various forms of Internet research and how they can assist (or be disadvantageous to) paraphilia research. I’ll be looking at methods such as online interviews, online questionnaires, online forum observations and online blog observations. And if you’re really lucky, I might divulge a new method which I’ve been considering the validity of myself very recently….
…in the mean time, start tearing up those parties with questions to strangers about fetishes! I promise everyone will love you for it.
*this may not, strictly speaking, be true! At some point soon, I hope to highlight how face-to-face research can be more revealing, depending on who does the research…