Media & Culture

One Simple Rule For Determining Whether a Sex “Expert” Is Legitimate

September 21, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

A lot of people claim to be “experts” on sex and relationships. However, as you probably know, being an “expert” isn’t an official title—anyone can claim expertise if they want to. So how can you tell whether someone who touts themselves as an expert on sex or love is likely to be legitimate and knows what they’re talking about?

Taking a peek at their credentials is, of course, always a good clue. However, you don’t necessarily have to do detective work in order to figure out who you should and shouldn’t take sex or relationship advice from. In fact, there’s one simple rule I follow that you can use, too: pay attention to how often any so-called “expert” makes broad generalizations when they speak. By this, I mean statements along the lines of “X always causes relationship problems” or “when it comes to sex, men want Y and women want Z.”

The more of these sweeping generalizations you hear, the more cautious you should be about accepting what this “expert” has to say.

Why? If being a sex scientist has taught me anything, it’s that there are no universal rules or principles about anything. If you look at any given study, what you’ll see is a lot of individual variability. While there’s usually an overall trend, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that underneath any trend in a lot of variation in responses. In other words, while a trend might tell us what a certain group of people does on average, it doesn’t tell us how everyone in that group thinks or feels.

And even in cases where a trend appears to be pretty robust, it’s still important to be cautious about generalizing it broadly because all scientific studies have their limitations. For instance, most sex studies are based on convenience samples of college students instead of representative samples of the broader population.

Rather than making sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications, the people I consider to be the true experts on sex and relationships use a lot of tentative language. For example, instead of saying “always” and “never,” they’ll say “more likely” or “less likely,” or “it depends.” They’ll also acknowledge that individual variability exists and that what works well for one person might not work so well for others. They’ll also be mindful of the fact that any studies they mention have limitations.

In short, you can often tell whether someone really knows what they’re talking about simply by listening carefully to their choice of words. You’d do well to tune out the overgeneraliers and, instead, look for folks who have more nuanced stories to tell.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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