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SURFING FOR SEX:

STUDYING INVOLUNTARY CELIBACY USING THE INTERNET

Elisabeth O. Burgess, Denise Donnelly, Joy Dillard, and Regina Davis

Department of Sociology, GeorgiaState University,Atlanta, GA 30303 (soceob@langate.gsu.edu)

The Internet offers possibilities for sexuality research that could not have been imagined even a decade ago. Although Internet users are not representa- tive of the general population, they are easily accessible, and the openness with which they discuss sensitive topics has created a tremendous and largely untapped pool of respondents for sex research. Moreover, the web provides access to populations that are largely hidden and difficult to reach using traditional methods. In this article, we explore such issues as sampling, re- search design, data collection and management, and the ethics of web-based research. In doing so, we review past research, investigate the advantages and disadvantages of using the Internet in sexuality studies, draw examples from our web-based study of involuntary celibacy, and recommend guidelines for future web based inquiries.

Introduction

The World Wide Web offers a unique and heretofore largely untapped opportunity for sexuality researchers. Internet research has the potential to reach a wide array of respondents, can be conducted quickly and inexpensively, and eliminates many of the problems of in-person mail or phone interviews. Because of the interactive nature of the Internet, the illusion of anonymity (real

The authors would like to thank Kim Ainsworth-Darnell, Hugh Potter, Jaynette Shaner, and Debra Van Ausdale for their helpful comments and critiques. We would also like to thank the Department of Sociology at Georgia State Uni- versity for providing space on their web page for our survey.

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or virtual), and the potential for instantaneous communication, some people feel more comfortable discussing sex on-line than in real life. In some ways, the Intemet provides the perfect forum for sexu- ality research, especially with difficult-to-reach, hidden, or stigma- tized populations. Few guidelines exist, however, for conducting Intemet-based studies. Thus, in this article, we explore key methodological is- sues involved in web-based studies of sexuality, focusing on sam- piing, research design, data collection and management, and the ethics of Internet research. In doing so, we examine past Intemet research, explore the advantages and disadvantages of using the Intemet in sexuality studies, and draw illustrative examples from our own web-based survey of involuntary celibacy (Donnelly, Burgess, Anderson, Curry & Dillard, 2001). We conclude with recommendations for others interested in Internet research.

Background

Our study used the Internet to gather information from 300 involuntary celibates, persons who had not had sex during the six months prior to our survey, but strongly desired a sexual partner and were disturbed by the lack of interpersonal sexuality in their lives. Respondents were recruited and interviewed solely through electronic media such as search engines, e-mail, listservs, and web pages. The Internet proved perfectly suited to our re- search for two reasons. First, involuntary celibates are notori- ously difficult to locate. The intensely personal nature of their predicament means that there are no formal organizations for involuntary celibates, and certainly no lists of persons in celi- bate relationships. Recruiting over the Internet allowed us to locate this population fairly quickly and easily. Second, the Internet provides an opportunity to discuss this very sensitive issue in an anonymous and private manner. Thus, respondents were more likely to disclose their situations, and to be forth- coming about the circumstances of their celibacy. In the follow- ing sections, we use our study of involuntary celibacy to highlight and illustrate some of the most common challenges of on-line

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research, and to offer suggestions to those considering the Internet as a research tool.

Research Using Internet Populations

Sampling Internet Populations

Internet Users. In the early days of the World Wide Web, the majority of users were white, well-educated, technologically savvy, young males (Taylor, 1999; U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 1999; Kehoe, Pitkow, Sutton, Aggarwal & Rogers, 1999). The profile of the on-line population is constantly changing, however, as the cost of personal computers decreases and the accessibility of Interrlet portals increase. The growth of Internet Service Provid- ers (ISP), point-and-click technology, and graphical user inter- face has made computers (and the Internet) more user-friendly and more accessible to the general public than ever before. With the advent of computer stations in public schools and libraries, the Internet is available even for those who are unable to afford their own computers. According to one survey, there were six times as many users on the Internet in 1999 as in 1995 (Taylor, 1999). The U.S. Department of Commerce (1999) found that 32.7 percent of Americans have access to the Internet, while another study estimated that 56 percent of U.S. adults are on- line, representing approximately 115 million people (Taylor, 1999). Worldwide there were approximately 259 million users in 1999, nearly 43 percent of whom were in the U.S. (CyberAtlas,

2000).

The difference between those who have access to the Internet (and other forms of technology) and those who do not have ac- cess is often referred to as the "digital divide." Income is the best predictor of this divide (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2000; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999). Those with incomes under $15,000 are the least likely to have Internet ac- cess, and those over $75,000 are the most likely. As more middle class persons gain access to the web, at home or at work, it is likely that the poorest Americans will be left further behind.

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As reflected in Table 1, the demographic profile of Intemet users is more complex than it was a few years ago. For the first time, surveys are reporting almost equal numbers of women and men accessing the Internet (Taylor, 1999; Media Mark Research Inc., 2000). Although Internet users are still disproportionately white, the percentage of Blacks on the Net increased from 2 to 7 percent of Intemet users between 1998 and 1999. Age and education, how- ever, remain very skewed. Eighty-five to 90 percent of users are under the age of 55, and between 30 and 40 percent are college graduates. Moreover, Internet veterans, those who have been on- line for three or more years, spend more time on the Internet and use it for a wider variety of activities than the newcomers (Pew Intemet and American Life Project, 2000).

Table 1

Profile of Internet Users in United States 1

GVU

10 th

Harris PolP

Cyberstats 4

U.S. Adult

Survey 2

 

Population 5

Sex

Male

66.4%

50%

49.8%

48.0%

Female

33.6

50

50.2

52.0

Race/Ethnic

White

87.2

81

--

76

Black

1.9

7

--

12

Hispanic

--

9

--

10

Other

10.9

--

--

--

Age

18-34

42.2

--

39.7

32.5

35-54

41.2

--

47.4

39.9

55+

10.6

--

12.7

27.6

Education

College Grad

59.2

32

38.0

22.5

Some College

28.5

32

34.8

26.5

HS or Less

11.3

35

27.2

51.0

Income

$25,000

or less

--

14

--

25

$25,001-50,000

--

29

--

29

$50,001

or more

--

41

--

32

Marital Status

Married

47.6

--

61.6

57.2

Single

31.7

--

27.5

23.7

Other

20.7

--

10.9

19.1

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Sampling Issues. As with all forms of survey research, Internet research is only as good as the sample upon which it is based. Previous research on Internet sampling focused on three issues: (1) identifying and collecting representative samples; (2) targeting spe- cialized groups; and (3) strategies for approaching Intemet users for research purposes. One of the major concerns of previous Internet research has been to identify and collect representative samples of the on-line popula- tion. Traditional random probability sampling techniques are not well suited to the Internet because there are no listings of addresses of all Internet users. Even if there were, the time and cost of sample selection would be prohibitive. Thus, researchers have had to de- velop techniques specific to the medium (Bradley, 1999; Witmer, Coleman & Katzman, 1999). The most common method of obtaining a representative sample of users has been to create a list of all newsgroups, discussion groups, and chat rooms on the Internet. Then, a sampling frame of regular posters to these groups is created, or solicitations to partici- pate in the survey are posted to a stratified sample of users (Brad- ley, 1999). One problem with this strategy, however, is that not all Internet users participate in online newsgroups or discussions. A second is that with the dramatic increase in the number of newsgroups, public chat rooms, and web-based bulletin boards, just finding and listing all the groups has become a gargantuan task in itself. Thus, it is doubtful that this strategy will remain a viable method of obtaining representative samples of Net users. Another technique is to gather a large sample and weight it based upon national population statistics. The National Geographic Society's (NGS) Survey 2000, relied upon just such a strategy (Witte, Amaruso & Howard, 2000). In 1998, the NGS Survey was on the organization's website for two months, collecting over 80,000 responses worldwide. The survey was publicized in print and elec- tronic media, and respondents were solicited through posts to newsgroups and listservs. Although the survey was by no means ran- dom, representativeness was measured and validated through com- parison with multiple items from U.S. Census and established surveys such as the General Social Survey. The sample was weighted to reflect the U.S. population.

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The Internet is also well suited to those who are interested in targeting hard-to-reach populations, such as drug users (Coomber, 1997) or others engaged in deviant activities. The Internet allows researchers to capture a broader segment of these populations than generally available through in-person convenience samples (Coomber, 1997). Indeed, sample bias may be less of an issue for researchers interested in studying a rare-element or difficult to ac- cess group, because the problem is not randomly distributed through- out the population (Coomber, 1997). Studies designed to explore or describe emerging trends and topics also benefit from the low cost and quick turnaround of on-line research (Schmidt, 1997). Regardless of sampling procedure used, the manner in which potential respondents are approached is an important issue. Sub- jects can be recruited through internal, Internet-based, strate- gies such as newsgroups and listservs, hyperlinks on web pages and links from search engines or through external strategies such as press releases, advertisements, and magazine or newspaper ar- ticles (Bradley, 1999). A combination of internal and external meth- ods is most likely to create a broad sample base by recruiting respondents from diverse locales (Witte et al., 2000; Bradley, 1999). How participants are approached can also be a sensitive issue. Internet users can be contacted directly through an e-mail or indi- rectly through web pages or discussion lists. In both cases, the pre- ferred method is to send an introduction to the research and an invitation to participate, instead of sending an unsolicited question- naire. With a separate introductory message, respondents are less likely to perceive the survey as junk mail and are thus more likely to respond (Witmer et al., 1999). Another problem for sampling is individuals with multiple e- mail addresses. For instance, the same individual may have dif- ferent e-mail addresses at home and work. With an increasing number of sites providing free e-mail, the number of potential e-mail addresses for each individual is increasing. This is a prob- lem because in random probability samples it increases the like- lihood of an individual being chosen. In addition, the same individual could respond multiple times to the same survey by using different e-mail addresses.

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Sampling Involuntary Celibates on the Internet. Unlike other researchers who specifically chose Internet samples, ours was serendipitously thrust upon us. Our project began in August 1998, when a member of an on-line listserv for involuntary celibates approached one of the authors via e-mail asking for current infor- mation on involuntary celibacy. As this conversation ensued, it became apparent that very little current scholarly research existed on celibacy, particularly the involuntary type. The contact person then went back and talked to other listserv members about the lack of research, and after some debate, the list members (as a group) volunteered to participate in a research project on invol- untary celibacy. A research team was created to study the issue, and one of us joined the listserv, announcing her presence as a researcher and her desire to learn more about involuntary celi- bacy and participate informally in listserv discussion. No data was collected directly from the listserv, but our presence assisted in establishing relationships with future informants and potential respondents, and in garnering feedback on initial versions of the questionnaire. After several months of talking with informants and constructing and pre-testing the questionnaire, the research team posted a message to the listserv soliciting participants for our study. Initially, we e-mailed an informed consent form and question- naire to each person who had indicated a willingness to participate. By returning the completed questionnaires they were agreeing to take part in the study. Original participants in the study were all listserv members. Interest in the project grew, however, and addi- tional respondents were recruited through links on web pages for married and single celibates. Initial listserv respondents also be- came "key informants," informally recruiting others through dis- cussing the survey with on-line friends and in other discussion groups. Finally, several major search engines picked up the survey, and respondents found it by searching on terms such as "celibacy" or "involuntary celibacy."As interest in the project grew, collecting data via e-mail became too time consuming. Thus, we converted the informed consent and questionnaire to HTML format and posted it on a web page hosted by our department.

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The survey remained on the departmental web page from June 1999 through June 2000. During that time 300 involuntary celi- bates successfully completed the questionnaire. Fourteen percent of respondents were current or former members of the original listserv, while 25 percent came to us from links on celibacy web pages. Fifty percent located us through surfing the Net or using a major Internet search engine, and 11 percent were referred by word of mouth or postings on discussion groups or web pages. Thus, our sample was a self-selected non-probability sample of involuntary celibates using the Internet. Even though the sample was non-ran- dom, our project is the only one to date to examine the dynamics and characteristics of involuntary celibates (See Donnelly et al., 2001), and it has provided us with a great deal of descriptive infor- mation. Given the hidden nature of involuntary celibacy, the Intemet proved to be one of the few viable methods of accessing this group. The final sample of involuntary celibates consisted of 192 men and 108 women who are described in more detail in Table 2. Sixty- four percent of respondents were age 34 or under. Twenty-seven percent were married or living with a long-term partner. Less than 5 percent had not completed high school, while 88.3 percent had attended or completed college. Eighty-two percent of the sample were white and 7 percent were of African descent. Seventy-four percent resided in the U.S., with 26 percent of respondents living outside the U.S. (primarily in Western Europe or in nations for- merly colonized by the British). Even though access to the Internet is becoming more wide- spread, our sample characteristics were reflective of the group of persons traditionally most likely to have access to computers. The majority were young, male, white, well-educated persons who held professional jobs and enjoyed middle class lifestyles. As illustrated in Table 3, they were skilled in computer usage and spent substantial amounts of time on e-mail, web-surfing, chat rooms, and on-line gaming. Respondents averaged 17.5 hours a week on recreational computer activity and 16.9 hours a week on work-related computer activity.Although our sample may be comparable to that of other studies of Internet users, it is none- theless not representative of the U.S. population, or of involuntary celibates, and should not be generalized to other groups.

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Table 2 Involuntary Celibacy Sample

Early Responders

Late Responders

Total Sample

(3/15/99 to 11/31/99)

(12/01/99to 6/30/00)

 

%

N

%

N

%

N

Sex

 

Male

68.9

104

59.1

88

64.0

192

Female

31.1

47

40.9

61

36.0

108

Age

 

18-24

26.5

40

30.9

46

28.7

86

25-34

35.8

54

34.9

52

35.3

106

35-44

23.2

35

20.1

30

21.7

65

45-54

11.3

17

8.7

13

10.0

30

55-64

3.3

5

4.0

6

3.7

11

65+

0

0

1.3

2

0.7

2

Race

 

White

85.0

125

78.6

114

81.8

239

African Descent

5.4

8

9.0

13

7.2

21

Hispanic

1.4

2

1.4

2

1.4

21

Asian

2.7

4

1.4

2

2.1

6

NativeAmerican

0.7

1

1.4

2

1.0

3

Multi-Racial

3.4

5

6.2

9

4.8

14

Other

1.4

2

2.1

3

1.7

5

Marital Status

 

Single

71.5

108

74.5

111

73.0

219

Matried/Parlnered

28.5

42

25.5

38

27.0

81

Education

 

less than HS

3.3

5

6.0

9

4.7

14

HS Grad

6.0

9

8.1

12

7.0

21

Some College

30.5

46

34.2

1

32.3

97

CollegeGrad

28.5

43

21.5

32

25.0

75

Some Grad Work

6.0

9

8.7

13

7.3

22

Grad/Prof Degree

25.8

39

21.5

32

23.7

71

Residence

 

Within the US

7.7

112

75.5

111

75.6

223

Outside the US

24.3

36

24.5

36

24.4

72

Member of

CelibacyListserv

 

No

81.1

116

90.9

130

86.0

246

Yes (Current

or Former)

18.9

27

9.1

13

14.0

40

Found Us

 

Celibacy Listserv

27.3

24

5.9

8

14.3

32

Web page

19.3

17

28.7

39

25.0

56

Other Web page

12.5

1l

10.3

14

11.2

25

Surfing the Net

40.9

36

55.1

75

49.6

111

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Table 3 Computer Usage (Hours Per Week)

Early

Respondents

Late

Respondents

Total Sample

 

Mean

(SD)

Mean

(SD)

Mean

(SD)

Leisure

 

E-mail

4.2

(4.7)

4.2

(5.2)

4.2

(5.0)

Surfing

5.8

(5.2)

6.8

(6.6)

6.3

(5.9)

Games

1.9

(4.5)

1.8

(3.3)

1.8

(3.9)

Chatrooms

2.1

(12.1)

1.5

(4.3)

1.8

(9.1)

Word Processing

2.1

(5.3)

2.4

(4.8)

2.3

(5.1)

Data Management

0.8

(2.7)

2.3

(7.0)

1.5

(5.3)

Total

17.1

(16.4)

18.0

(15.0)

17.5

(15.7)

Work

 

Total

17.7

(16.5)

16.1

(16.2)

16.9

(16.3)

Lessons Learned. Our experience with web-based research raised several questions about sampling. First, our sample was self-se- lected and non-representative. Given the exploratory and descrip- tive nature of our research, this was not an insurmountable problem. We were interested in exploring the issues surrounding involuntary celibacy, building theory, and creating a typology of involuntary celibates. Had we planned to generalize to the U.S. population, or even to the population of all involuntary celibates, this sampling consideration would have been much more serious. The latter would have been impossible regardless of the sampling scheme used, since we had no way of knowing the characteristics of the entire popula- tion of involuntary celibates and since there was no way to enu- merate this group. The sample that we obtained using the Internet is probably much larger and broader than we could have reached by contact- ing them through more traditional methods, such as snowball or convenience sampling. Similar to Coomber (1997), we found that the Internet provided access to a geographically diverse, hid- den, stigmatized, and difficult to specify population. In fact, the Internet may be the perfect place to locate involuntary celibates, since previous research shows that they tend to be shy, reserved, and socially isolated individuals--just the type of persons who may

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be drawn to the anonymity of computer usage. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that our sample tells us little about how people of color, poor people, less educated persons, and older adults experi- ence involuntary celibacy. Since our survey was on-line for a year, we realized that early and late responders might differ substantially. Unlike persons responding to a one-shot mail or phone-based questionnaire, our respondents could have been affected by events occurring over the year in which the survey was in place. Previous research has shown that the population of Internet users is changing rapidly, thus we analyzed differences in our respondents over time to tap into developing trends. Despite these trends, as Table 2 shows, the characteristics of the respondents remained fairly constant over time. Had there been a body of previous research on involuntary celibacy, we could have compared our findings back to these to determine the reliability of our sample. Our previous research has shown (Donnelly et al., 2001), however, that few studies of involuntary celibacy have been undertaken, that none defined the problem in the precise terms that we used, and that none used representative samples. Thus, there were no comparable samples to evaluate ours against.

Research Design

Prior Research. When designing an electronic survey, re- searchers must be concerned with survey construction and tech- nological expertise of respondents. As with traditional survey research, respondents who feel burdened by the questionnaire will either refuse to complete the survey or will not participate at all. In mailed surveys, longer questionnaires are generally perceived as more burdensome to respondents, but Witmer et al. (1999) did not find a significant difference in response rates be- tween long and short e-mail questionnaires. Thus, e-mail may be the preferred medium for more in-depth questionnaires. In addition to design concerns common to all studies, electronic research raises the issue of the most effective format for presenting

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the questionnaire. For instance, surveys can be embedded in e- mails, attached to e-mails, or linked to web pages. Dommeyer and Moriarty (2000) found that surveys embedded in the text of an e- mail received higher response rates than those sent as e-mail at- tachments, but that there were no differences in response speed or item omissions. This raises a design issue unique to the Internet--that of the tech- nological experience of potential respondents. Previous research has suggested that simpler text-based questionnaires result in higher response rates and more completed surveys (Smith, 1997). This is based on the belief that only the most technologically savvy Internet users will be able to interact with complex documents. While this may be true with e-mail-based surveys (because of the need to down- load and manage attachments), web-based survey forms may actu- ally be more user friendly to the general public. Ideally, the respondent will click on a link to the web page, type in responses, and submit the information directly to the researcher. Unfortunately, there is little previous research on the design and effectiveness of web-based research instruments (Smith, 1997).

Designing the Involuntary Celibacy Survey. Our questionnaire

contained 13 closed ended questions assessing demographic characteristics and 58 open ended questions regarding such ar- eas as: past sexual experiences, current relationships, initiating relationships, sexuality and celibacy, non-sexual relationships, and the consequences of celibacy. It was organized so that de- mographics appeared first, followed by the loosely chrono- logical, open ended questions. The first 30 respondents were e-mailed the informed consent form and questionnaire. Depending upon the preferences of re- spondents, the questionnaire was sent either as an attached docu- ment or embedded text and returned to us in a similar format. The remaining 270 respondents filled out the web page version of the questionnaire (which was nearly identical to the e-mail version). The web page questionnaire was designed using simple HTML programming instead of special survey software. The design in- cluded radio buttons for closed-ended questions and textboxes for open-ended questions.

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The flexibility of the Web-based questionnaire allowed respon- dents to complete the survey at their own pace. Because of the open-ended nature of the questionnaire, completion times ranged from under an hour to around four hours. Our respondents accessed the survey at different times of the day and week. Seventy-seven percent of respondents retumed the survey on weekends. Fifty-six percent of our respondents retumed the survey between six in the evening and six in the morning. The majority of respondents were employed full time, therefore they were more likely to have leisure time at night or on weekends. Lessons Learned. During the course of our study, several is- sues arose around research design. First, since almost 25 per- cent of our respondents resided outside the U.S., some respondents had difficulty interpreting questions designed for the U.S. audi- ence. For example, designations of race and political orientation do not translate easily across cultures. One solution to this problem would be to have separate surveys for the U.S. and intemational respondents, such as the design used by the NGS research team (Witte et al., 2000). Another issue of research design was questionnaire construc- tion. Our on-line questionnaire underwent several revisions as we experimented with formats to determine which worked best. Two of the most persistent problems were questions that did not allow users to have multiple responses and people assuming that they could only enter responses that would "fit" in textboxes (not realizing that they could scroll up and down within the box). Had we used some of the newer questionnaire design software, both of these problems could have been avoided. In addition, the original "skip" directions, which instructed re- spondents to move to later sections of the survey, were unclear, and some respondents became frustrated when they thought they were being asked questions that did not apply. Skip patterns are interpreted differently on paper, flipping pages, than on the computer screen, scrolling up and down. A more dynamic or interactive program might have relieved the respondents of some of this burden. Again, the use of web questionnaire design software would have allowed us to avoid these problems (Witte et al., 2000; Schmidt, 1997).

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A final problem was how to make the questionnaire accessible to a variety of Interuet users. Most web-browsers were able to dis- play and submit the questionnaire without any problem, but some who attempted to complete the survey using WebTV had difficulty maneuvering through the survey and answering questions. More- over, for all respondents, there was no way to save the survey and come back to it later. Some persons simply got tired, and were faced with the choice of closing the questionnaire and losing their responses or finishing the survey and submitting it as quickly as possible. Since some respondents gave longer answers at the be- ginning of the questionnaire than at the end, we speculate that the "tiredness" factor was a major contributor to this response style. In addition, if someone were interrupted while taking the survey, or an ISP disconnected,all prior answers were lost. Several enterpris- ing respondents got around this problem by downloadingthe ques- tionnaire and e-mailing their results, but we have no measure of how many potential respondents simply gave up because they were disconnected, interrupted, or simply became tired. More sophisti- cated software and programming would have allowed the respon- dent to take "coffee breaks" or save their responses (Smith, 1997).

Data Collection and Management

Prior Research. One of the most appealing aspects of Internet research is that it saves a considerable amount of time and money. There are no publishing or distribution costs. Data collection and data entry are facilitated by computers (Schmidt, 1997). Once the survey is designed, however, the problems of data manage- ment arise. The technological expertise of the research team can influence the success of data collection. The convenienceand cost effectiveness of electronic research is meaningless if the research team does not have an understanding of the technological com- plexity of web-based research or lacks web support. For instance, if researchers cannot easily modify the questionnaire, access data from completed surveys, or move data from one location to an- other, the advantages of the Internet are outweighed by the time, effort, and frustrations of data management.

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Another data management issue is security. If the web page is not on a secure host and not regularly monitored by the research team, the fear arises that mischievous Internet users might at- tempt to alter or hijack the questionnaire or responses (Hewson et al., 1996). More serious still is the problem of intruders who gain access to sensitive personal information contained in com- pleted surveys. Involuntary CelibacySurvey. During the course of data collec- tion for this project, we collected quantitative and qualitative data from 300 respondents resulting in over 1,400 pages of text. Re- viewing and monitoring the incoming data was an arduous task. Responses were sent to the e-mail address of one of the researchers who reviewed the quality of each survey and distributed it to the research team. When responses were not processed and downloaded several times a week, the e-mail account could become overbur- dened. We dealt with this issue by having other team members monitor the e-mail account when the primary team member was not available to manage the data collection. In order to address the quality and authenticity of responses, we set up the survey so that only one response was accepted from each e-mail address. To assess the quality of surveys, the researcher managing the surveys read each before downloading. Suspicious responses were flagged for examination by other research group members, and were discussed in research meetings. We looked for answers that contradicted previous responses, seemed extremely outlandish, or made no sense in the context of the question asked. For example, one respondent answered the survey but was cur- rently sexually active and went into great depths to describe his sexual exploits. Finally, SPSS was used to make sure that no two respondents were identical in terms of demographic information (a sign that someonehad responded multiple times). Because a mem- ber of our research team belonged to the listserv on involuntary celibacy and maintained a regular correspondencewith several ac- tive involuntary celibates, we felt that we began with a better un- derstanding of the issues surrounding involuntary celibacy than the general public. In addition, approximately the first thirty responses to the survey came from known participants on the listserv or refer-

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rals from the list. As a result, we quickly developed a knowledge base that allowed us to identify fraudulent responses. Also, we were concerned whether our respondents (especially those not recruited from the listserv) trusted us enough to reveal very sensitive personal information. In order to address these issues and assuage their concerns, we provided an introduction of ourselves and our project on the web page. This clearly estab- lished our reputations as experts in sociological research and our affiliation with an established research institution. We found that most appreciated the assurance of anonymity provided by the Net. Their trust was evident in lengthy responses that in- cluded painful details about insecurity and shyness, childhood sexual and emotional abuse, and embarrassing interactions with potential sexual partners. Lessons Learned. Overall this was a very successful endeavor, but data collection was not without its challenges. Initially, we were unprepared for the number of responses to the survey. This project began as an exploratory survey and we had no intentions of collecting hundreds of responses. We clearly underestimated the popularity of Internet research. As demonstrated in Table 2, nearly 50 percent of our respondents found us because they were surfing the Net for information about sexuality and/or celibacy. Moreover, respondents continued to contact the research team long after the data collection process ended. Because our re- search team did not have access to the many links that strangers and search engines had to our survey, we had no way to inform everyone that data collection was complete. Eventually, we placed a paragraph on the department web page, thanking respon- dents and summarizing the initial findings of the study. Another set of problems arose in on-going data management. When flaws in the questionnaire were discovered, it was diffi- cult to fix them because of limited access to the host web page. For reasons of cost and convenience,we relied on our institution's server and web page to host the survey. Because only certain per- sons had passwords and could access the web page, none of the research team could easily make changes to the questionnaire.When the departmental computer assistant changedjobs, we were unable

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to access the questionnaire at all until a new person was hired. As a result, we were only able to upload a revised version of the ques- tionnaire once during the data collection period. Despite these problems, respondents found taking the survey to be a pleasant experience. A remarkable number of people thanked us for conducting research on this topic. Many respondents had investigated involuntary celibacy on their own and were aware of the dearth of research on the topic. They often asked for copies of results or research reports and encouraged us to publish results for the general public. Several remarked that taking the survey was a helpful or even enjoyable experience. A few also commented that taking part in the survey and reading the questions made them real- ize that they were not alone as involuntary celibates.

Ethics

Prior Research. When dealing with sensitive information such as sexuality, there are several ethical issues to consider; (1) ad- hering to Netiquette; (2) gaining informed consent; (3) issues of confidentiality and privacy; and (4) gathering sensitive infor- mation. Early in the development of the Internet, several rules of etiquette, commonly referred to as Netiquette, were created to make the Web a more pleasant environment. Researchers us- ing the Internet should be aware of basic Netiquette to avoid angering potential respondents. Spamming, which is defined as unsolicited or repeated mass mailings, is frowned upon by Internet veterans and newcomers alike. Mehta and Sivadas (1995) found that users tend to be suspicious of unsolicited mailings and attach- ments. Witmer et al. (1999) received such harsh responses when they e-mailed an unsolicited questionnaire to USENET newsgroup members that they halted their research and revised their method to send an introduction and invitation to the potential respondents. Wariness regarding unsolicited e-mail is only likely to increase as the fear of computer viruses spreads. Another ethical concern for Internet researchers is gaining in- formed consent. In accordance with Institutional Review Board (IRB) codes at most universities and research institutions, re-

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searchers are required to inform subjects of potential benefits, dis- close possible risks, and clearly specify how the data will be used. Because of the illusion of anonymity surrounding the Internet, re- spondents may feel more comfortable disclosing information via electronic media than in real life. Thus, researchers should remind respondents about privacy issues, clearly state how the information will be used, and give them the opportunity to control how much they disclose (Shaft, 1999; Binik, Mah & Kiesler, 1999). Research- ers must also be careful not to use the material collected in ways that were not consented to by respondents (Shaft, 1999).

A third issue is the maintenance of confidentiality and privacy.

The Internet allows researchers the technological ability to monitor who turns in surveys and who does not through the use of embed- ded codes. This is often necessary to avoid duplicate responses or false responses, but some respondents fear that researchers will use this information for other purposes (Binik et al., 1999). No matter how comfortable you try to make them, some people are afraid to

provide identifying information or address sensitive issues on the Net for fear that their identities will be disclosed, that they will be solicited by marketers, or that they will be the victims of on-line scams. With the increase of identity theft, some are hesitant to give out any personal information on-line.

A final concern involves the collection of sensitive information.

This issue is twofold, involving protecting the respondent's pri- vacy and assisting the respondent if a crisis should occur. Collect- ing information about sexual activity, personal history, and attitudes over the Internet raises concerns regarding protection of the sub- ject. Thus, it is important to assess the security of the network. Who has access to the data being transferred electronically? Are e- mails and servers monitored by a third party? If so, can they be trusted to respect the confidentiality of the respondents? Research- ers must be vigilant in their efforts to manage and store the data in ways that protect their respondents (Shaft, 1999). As with collect- ing any sensitive information, the possibility also arises that a re- spondent might experience distress over issues discussed in the survey. Vulnerable populations may feel overly burdened or threat- ened by electronic research, since the researcher remains virtually

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anonymous, and asking for assistance may involve phoning or e- mailing someone totally unfamiliar to the respondent (Sharf, 1999; Coomber, 1997).

Ethics and sexuality research. In conducting research on this

sensitive topic, we were concerned with all of the ethical issues mentioned earlier. First, we made sure to adhere to good Netiquette. To avoid sending unsolicited e-mail, we sent an in- troduction letter and invitation to participate in our study to the listserv, and only mailed copies of the questionnaire back to persons requesting it. Later in the study, our solicitations in- cluded the web address of the survey, and were posted to the listserv and several Internet bulletin boards, but were never sent to individuals. We e-mailed the informed consent along with the questionnaire to early respondents. For web page respon- dents, we layered the web page so that the survey was only ac- cessible after later respondents had read an introduction and informed consent form and clicked on a button indicating their agreement to participate. Confidentiality was maintained by set- ting up the survey so that the headers were stripped from re- sponses, which were then e-mailed back to us. Finally, general information about the sensitive nature of the questions was included in the informed consent, as well as con- tact information for the primary investigators. We also noted that assistance in locating counseling would be given to persons expe- riencing discomfort or crisis situations while answering the ques- tionnaire. Because the research team had contacts across the country in the area of sexuality counseling, we were able to meet any re- quests for counseling that arose. Lessons Learned. Overall, we avoided many ethical problems by preparing for them in advance. Two respondents were provided with referrals to qualified therapists in order to explore ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy and interacting with potential partners, but apparently the survey precipitated no emergencies. We did, however, experience several other interesting situations. Because the survey was on the Web, we encouraged respondents to e-mail us with any questions or concerns. The majority of corre- spondents were courteous and informative. Unfortunately, one re-

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spondent became a bit too attached, asking personal information of one of the researchers, and attempting to engage her in on-going dialogue. In this case, the researcher carefully but assertively dis- engaged herself from the correspondence by noting that her role as researcher made it unethical for her to have personal correspon- dence with research subjects. Another respondent sent a rather dis- jointed and disturbing note to the research team, detailing the emotional difficulties that she had experienced because of the in- teractions of involuntary celibacy and physical handicaps. She was given a referral to a psychologist in her area, and the IRB was provided with a copy of her correspondence and the research team's response. Finally, a number of respondents shared suicidal thoughts in the text of their responses. Because involuntary celibacy is such an isolating experience, often interacting with issues of shyness or social anxiety, some respondents were severely depressed. To our knowledge, none of these respondents attempted to contact us in- dividually. Because their responses did not contain any identifying information, we were helpless to intervene. Other respondents were not suicidal, but their completed surveys contained graphic sexual content or very emotional stories that touched us as individuals. Working together as a research team, we spent many hours de- briefing and processing this difficult information. Over the course of the two years we spent conceptualizing and designing this research and collecting the data, our research team learned many lessons about Intemet research. In that same time period, the environment of the Internet developed considerably, and a body of literature on Internet research methods began to appear. In the concluding section below, we use our experiences and knowl- edge gained to make recommendations for future scholars inter- ested in conducting sexuality research on the Internet.

Recommendations for Future Research

Sexuality scholars interested in conducting research using the Intemet need not only be well versed in traditional research meth- ods, but they must also be aware of the unique issues of conducting

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research in this environment. We suggest that researchers consider five dimensions before conducting research on the Internet. First, researchers must determine the suitability of this method to their research questions. Despite easy access to respondents and the low cost of Internet research, not all topics are appropri- ate. Internet research is especially suited to exploratory or de- scriptive research: projects that do not require representative samples. Moreover, some topics likely lend themselves easily to fraudulent responses, and other topics are too sensitive or complex to address without face-to-face interaction. Issues of Internet access also contribute to suitability of a project. Some population samples are not likely to be accessible on-line because of the digital divide. Children, older adults, poor people, and people of color are less likely to be readily acces- sible on-line. Also, the population must be literate and computer literate. In addition, the research design needs to be appropriate for the Web. If the research necessitates visual clues or subtlety in tones of voice from the respondent, the text-based environ- ment of the Internet would yield incomplete results. Second, by identifying on-line forums, researchers can gain ac- cess to informants and subjects. Because virtual communities are significantlydifferent from real life communities, researchers should interact with them as part of their information gathering stage. Web pages about the topic of interest and web page managers can be instructive in identifying whether there is already a discourse about the topic on the Internet. Given the way information is networked, web pages can lead to pertinent listservs, newsgroups, and discus- sion boards on the topic of interest. By observing on-line discus- sions, formally or informally, researchers can grasp the complexity and depth of an issue in a way not possible in real life. Engaging in on-line discussion or querying participants can pro- vide insight into their concerns, and allows the researcher to estab- lish a rapport with future subjects. Earlier informants who have assisted in questionnaire construction may be willing to have hyperlinks to the survey placed on their web pages, and to contact on-line friends and acquaintances about the project. Other strate- gies for recruiting subjects are to query major search engines about

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Table 4 Suggestions for Future Internet Research

Determine the suitability to this method:

Is the topic appropriate? Are subjects on-line? Can the research design be adapted for Internet?

Identify and recruit subjects and informants:

"Webpages and Web page managers Listservs, Newsgroups, and Discussion Boards Observe on-linediscussion Query informants Get listed on major search engines Announcecall for participationin the print media

Design research for on-line platform:

Identify host site Create informed consent and introductory pages Create a secure environment Design research with software for on-line surveys or hire a web consultant Use interactive skip patterns Pre-test survey on-line Make text copies available Consider separate survey for internationalrespondents

Data collection and management:

Filter for multiple submissions Have access to host for altering survey as needed Monitor survey for security Monitor incoming responses for fraud

Ethical considerations:

Create informedconsentform Clearly identify research team as scholars Provide resources for sensitive subjects or distressed respondents

the process of inclusion and announce calls for participation in the print media. Third, the research must be specifically designed for on-line plat- forms. Web-based surveys require a host server and web page. The host site should be a reliable one that will remain viable for the course of the project and be easily accessible to the research team. The environment should be as secure as possible from hackers or

Surfing for Sex: Studying Involuntary Celibacy Using the Internet

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vandals. In addition, special software for on-line surveys will pro- vide the ability to use interactive skip patterns and dynamic survey techniques and allow for breaks during the questioning process. Pre-testing the survey on-line will allow researchers to discern and deal with any technological problems. If the research team does not include an Intemet and computer expert, our experience sug- gests that it is well worth the additional cost to hire a consultant. When designing the survey, researchers should recognize that some participants may prefer alternative forms of the question- naire. If some participants may prefer to respond via e-mail or U.S. mail, then a text-based version of the survey could be eas- ily mailed to them. Because of the global network provided by the World Wide Web, respondents from outside the United States are likely to locate the survey. The research team should con- sider a separate survey for international respondents. Fifth, researchers must remain vigilant during the data collection and management phases of research. We recommend having a pro- cedure in place for data management, assigning team members re- sponsibility for downloading, saving, and handling data. At least one person should initiallyfilter responses for multiple submissions, and researchers should have methods in place for screening bogus responses and identifying persons in crisis. The team should regu- larly review responses for comments about technological flaws and alter the survey as needed. Additionally, it may be necessary to monitor the host site and on-line survey for security and fraud. Finally, researchers must address ethical concems. Because of the novelty of Internet research and perceptions of anonymity pro- vided by this form of communication, researchers need to take ex- tra precautions to protect subjects. Initially, the team should create an on-line informed consent, getting IRB approval as needed. When contacting potential informants or respondents, researchers should adhere to basic Netiquette. They should design introductory mes- sages to clearly identify themselves as scholarly researchers. More- over, at least one member of the team must have access to counseling resources if the subject is particularly sensitive and may cause dis- tress. If researchers need to develop a network of counselors we suggest they contact the American Association of Sexuality Edu-

28 Sexuality & Culture

cators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) or the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). In sum, this article has described past research, examined the advantages and disadvantages of using the Internet in sexuality studies, and suggested guidelines for future web-based inquir- ies. Because of our experiences with a web-based study of invol- untary celibates, we highly recommend the use of the Internet for future research on sexuality. The World Wide Web is recog- nized as a valuable tool for business, communication, and infor- mation gathering. As access to the Intemet continues to expand, more scholars will look to it as a tool for conducting research. We believe the Internet provides an excellent opportunity for sexuality scholars to conduct research as long as they take into account the special concems of this platform and the popula- tions that it serves.

Notes

1. Surveys do not necessarily represent comparable populations and vari- ables were not measured uniformly, but these are the most complete data available or Intemet demographics.

2. Georgia Tech Research Corporation GVU WWW Tenth Survey http:

//www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_survey/. Non-probability on-line survey of over 5000 Internet Users from October 10, 1998, to December 15, 1998. (Income:7.5% under $20,000; 30.0% $20,000-49,999; 45.2% $50,000 or more)

3. Taylor (1999) Harris Poll #76 Random probability telephone survey of 2000 or more adults conducted in October through December 1999. (Age:

28% under 30; 50% 30-49; 20% 50 or older)

4. MediaMark Research Inc. (2000) CyberStats. http:// www.mediamark.com/. No information available on survey methods or sample. (Income: 55.1% under $50,000; 44.9% $50,000 or more. Does not include measures of race or ethnicity.)

5. US Census Bureau (1999) Statistical Abstract of the United States.

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