Pillow Talk: Sex Researcher Amy Muise

Judging by the number of romantic comedies that come out every year, it is pretty obvious that people have a distinct interest in how dating and relationships work. We just can't get enough of vicariously experiencing the situations that create intimacy, establish a relationship and then, possibly, ruin a relationship. The insatiable need to understand how this happens (and in real life, with far less hilarious or heartwarming consequences) is the drive that sex researchers approach their study.

Amy Muise will soon complete her PhD in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Guelph. Her study has been on how motivational goals and interdependence (mutual influence between partners) influence sexual desire in long-term relationships. She also studies the effects of new media, including sites like Facebook, and the social effects fo these new technologies have changed the dating script and influenced relationships.

Sexlife Canada caught up with Amy to discuss her chat about where Canadian relationships are headed.

SLC: How did you get involved with studying sex and relationships?
AM: The coolest part of the work that I do is exploring questions that are central to most people’s lives. During my undergrad I became interested in studying relationships partly because I had questions about my own relationships and sexuality, and noticed that this was a topic I spent a lot of time talking about with friends. When I realized that researching the answers to these questions could become a career, I was thrilled.

SLC: Does the lessening of desire in a long-term relationship mean the spark is gone?
AM: We know that sexual desire tends to decline to some degree over the course of a relationship. Most of us who have been in a long-term relationship will remember the desire being intense early in our relationships and becoming somewhat less intense as we grew more comfortable with our partners. But…we also know that there are many factors besides relationship length that contribute to desire in relationships. Some couples maintain strong desire throughout the course of their relationship, and even those who report declines in desire may still be very satisfied, close and connected with their partner.

SLC: What are you asking participants and what trends are you seeing in your Couples Research Study?
AM: We are asking long-term couples about their motives (or 'goals') for having sex with their partner, and the factors that contribute to their sexual desire. One interesting finding is that the motives for having sex with a partner are more important predictors of sexual desire than sexual frequency alone. We may engage in sex with our partners for many reasons: to have an orgasm, to feel closer to our partner, to avoid an argument with our partner, or to avoid feeling guilty. My research has shown that in long-term relationships, approach goals (having sex to pursue a positive outcome) are associated with increases in desire for your partner, and having sex for avoidance goals (to avoid a negative outcome) are associated with decreased desire.

SLC: Do you think Facebook (and other social media) will, ultimately, be a good or bad thing for relationships?
AM: Facebook (and other social media) are changing the way we communicate in relationships and this is not wholly positive or negative. For example, Facebook can help geographically distant couples stay in touch and feel more connected to each other, but, as our research has shown, can also expose us to information about our partner that can trigger jealousy and conflict in relationships.

SLC: Are we becoming too dependent on expressing feelings in 140 characters?
AM: Research I have conducted with my friend and colleague, Jocelyn Wentland, shows that although text messaging and social media are widely used, most people still see in person or phone communication as more intimate and more appropriate to use when asking someone out on a date. This suggests that there is still a hierarchy of communication where face-to-face communication is at the top.
    In line with my response to the above question, written (or typed) communication has both positive and negative consequences for relationships. Our participants have said that text messaging can make it easier to initiate communication with someone that they are interested in, but that this type of communication can more easily be misinterpreted.

SLC: What are some of the differences between men and women when it comes to using technology to meet and court?
AM: In several studies we have found that women use Facebook more than men do—they spend more time on Facebook, post more pictures and have more 'friends.' Women are more likely to search for information on Facebook in response to a jealousy trigger, and may place more importance on information their partner posts on Facebook. It seems that women are more likely to see their male partner’s profile as an extension of their own.
    In my and Jocelyn’s research about dating and technology, we have found that new technology (particularly text messaging and Facebook) allows women more opportunities to initiation a date or a relationship. The traditional dating script labels men are the initiators (and this holds true in our research when we ask about initiating dates over the phone or in person), but when we asked about initiating a date via text message or social media, our participants held more egalitarian ideas about this (men or women could initiate a date via text).

SLC: Who do you look up to in this field of study?
AM: We have a wonderful Canadian sex research community of which I am proud to be a part of, and I look up to all of the great Canadian sex researchers who have paved the way for me to do the work I do. I have also been lucky to have some wonderful mentors who have directly influenced my own work: Dr. Serge Desmarais, Dr. Emily Impett, Dr. Ed Herold, Dr. Robin Milhausen and Dr. Lorne Campbell.

SLC: What are some of your future plans (in research and away from it)?
AM: I will be completing my PhD this summer and starting a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in September. In research, I plan to continue exploring the question of how new technology has changed dating, relationships and sexuality. We are only beginning to understand these associations. Also, I will continue to explore the factors that contribute to sexual desire in relationships. Much of what we know about this topic is from undergraduate student participants in relatively new relationships, and I would like to explore these questions in older and more established couples as well.