Conducting Interviews in Sexualities Research: seminar + workshop

By Karen Cuthbert

As part of the Gender and Sexualities forum’s seminar series, Dr Sabine Grenz (University of Göttingen) visited Glasgow recently to speak about conducting qualitative research in sexualities studies. The central theme of Sabine’s presentation was the importance of considering and negotiating power relations within the research encounter. She discussed how feminist sociologists were the first to draw attention to the research relationship as one structured by an unequal and exploitative power dynamic, whereby the researcher dominates the encounter, ‘extracting’ information from the researched (particularly so in the case of interviews). Figures such as Ann Oakley (1981) argued that any properly feminist research must involve an attempt to dismantle any hierarchies, and instead aim towards a more co-operative and reciprocal exchange, in which the interviewer must also give some part of herself. However, as Sabine noted, feminist research methodology is characterised by a strong commitment to self-critique and reflexivity, and this had lead to the recognition that egalitarianism within the research relationship is never completely possible, given that (for example) the researcher ultimately retains ‘interpretive control’ over the participant’s words (e.g. Stacey, 1988).

Sabine went on to argue that thinking about power within the research encounter is particularly important when it comes to researching sexualities. Sexuality remains a somewhat sensitive subject, and so researchers working in this area must take special care with regards issues of confidentiality, trust and disclosure. Sabine also argued that it is important to also consider the historical context: sexuality research has up until relatively recently been conducted from within the paradigms of medicine and psychiatry, where particular desires, bodies and ways of relating have been pathologised and subsequently targeted for intervention. Although social scientists’ aims have generally been more characterised by what Weber called ‘verstehen’, it is incumbent upon us as researchers to be aware of this history, and the not inconsiderable costs that talking about sexuality has had (and in some cases still continues to have) for people outwith the charmed circle of sexual, relational and bodily normativity.

However, drawing on her doctoral research in which she conducted interviews with male clients of (female) sex workers (Grenz, 2005), Sabine argued that we cannot assume that power always lies with the researcher. Here it is important to consider one’s own situatedness as a researcher – in Sabine’s case, she experienced the interview encounter not only as a researcher interviewing heterosexual men on their personal experiences of sex work, but as a woman researcher. Sabine made the interesting point that interviews in themselves might be seen as a threat to hegemonic forms of masculinity, given the ensuing sense of being-looked-at, or as ‘under inspection’ in some way. She suggested that this subverted the ‘normal’ situation of the man-as-looker and woman-as-looked-at, particularly when the researcher is a woman, as well as undermining the dominant construction of men as in-control, autonomous and rational. Additionally, Sabine suggested that heterosexual men have not typically been the object of sexualities research, given that heterosexual (and also, I would add, white, able-bodied and middle-class) men have been the norm underlying and directing the ‘sexual sciences’. Indeed, even within sociology, the focus has tended to be on those who somehow deviate from this norm – as Liazos (1971) crudely but effectively put it: our focus has tended to have been on ‘nuts, sluts and perverts’ (although the extent to which men who are clients of (women) sex-workers are socially constructed as ‘perverts’ -or whether this is still part of hegemonic masculinity – is debatable). Turning the gaze back upon those who are usually the ‘absent presence’ of research can therefore be experienced as a upset in power dynamics. Sabine discussed some particular encounters in which she became acutely aware of this, and described ways in which her participants would utilise certain techniques in order to re-claim this power, and thereby reassert masculinity. This included processes of sexualisation where Sabine was sexually propositioned by participants, or where participants made sexist or homophobic comments, or more mundanely, by offering only short responses to questions. However, Sabine discussed how she would then draw on these as data-in-itself, as a way of further ‘getting at’ how masculinity is ‘done’ through social interaction. As West and Zimmerman remind us: ‘any social activity can be pressed into the service of doing gender’ (1987: 137) – which must include the research interview. But as Sabine herself reflects in her 2005 article, in using these encounters as data meant that she was not just a passive and powerless recipient: ‘I challenged them because my listening had an intention of its own’ (Grenz, 2005: 2106). In this way Sabine shows us how power in the research encounter  is not just a case of having or not having ‘it’, but is rather complex, multiple and fluid.

As part of her visit, Sabine also facilitated a workshop for postgraduate research students working in the areas of sexualities and gender research. (My own research concerns gender and asexuality). Those of us present were afforded a space in which we could reflect upon the themes raised by Sabine’s lecture (as well as three very helpful accompanying texts Sabine suggested beforehand (Schwalbe and Wolkomir, 2001; Ryan-Flood, 2010; Walby, 2010)), and how these might relate to our own doctoral research. Among the many topics covered, of particular interest to me were our discussion of researcher self-presentation; being an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ as a researcher; being a feminist and the political and moral implications of researching sex work, and how particular norms of femininity regarding social interaction might affect our interviewing styles as women. I came away from both the seminar and workshop with some new perspectives on some problems I had been facing in my own work, as well as some reading recommendations, and more broadly, a much more nuanced understanding of the research encounter.


Grenz, S. (2005) ‘Intersections of Sex and Power in Research on Prostitution: A Female Researcher Interviewing Male Heterosexual Clients’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 30(4): 2091-2113

Liazos, A. (1972) ‘The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts and Perverts’ Social Problems. 20(1): 103-120

Oakley, A. (1981) ‘Interviewing Women: A contradiction in terms’ in H. Roberts (ed.) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge

Ryan-Flood, R (2010) ‘Keeping mum: secrecy and silence in research on lesbian parenthood’ in R. Ryan-Flood and R. Gill (eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process. London: Routledge

Schwalbe, M. and Wolkomir, M. (2001) ‘The Masculine Self as Problem and Resource in Interview Studies of Men’ Men and Masculinities. 40(1): 90-103

Stacey, J. (1988) ‘Can there be a Feminist Ethnography?’ Women’s Studies International Forum. 11(1): 21-27

Walby, K (2010) ‘Interviews as encounters: issues of sexuality and reflexivity when men interview men about commercial same sex relations’ Qualitative Research. 10(6): 639-57

West, C. and Zimmerman, D.H (1987) ‘Doing Gender’ Gender and Society. 1(2): 125 –51


After finishing an MRes in Sociology & Research Methods in 2013, Karen Cuthbert is currently in the first year of her PhD. Karen’s research explores how gender is ‘done’ or ‘lived’ in the context of asexuality.