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"Sex authority" isn't exactly the reputation that comes to mind when you think of prim and proper Canadians.

But it's now undeniable: Year in, year out, Canada dominates the field of sexuality research, leading the way in groundbreaking and urgent studies into everything from consent to female desire to sexual dysfunction to orgasm.

Canadians are running the show at the world's top sexuality associations, including the International Academy of Sex Research (the University of New Brunswick's Sandra Byers is president) and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (president Terry Humphreys hails from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.).

This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where funding bodies are squeamish around research that doesn't focus strictly on disease and prevention – the scariness of sex, in other words. For years, top researchers feared their work wouldn't land American funding, so they migrated to Canada and built robust investigative teams here instead.

Which isn't to say sex research is free of stigma north of the border. Not wanting to court gawking, discomfort or kneejerk dismissiveness ("We're funding what?"), Canada's best scientists often don't discuss their jobs at dinner parties. The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski spoke with some of them about what they're delving into now and about the vast expanses of sexual life that remain misunderstood.


Sari van Anders


Toronto-born associate professor of neuroscience, psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan and editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research

Focus: Intimacy and sexuality, gender and sexual diversity

Van Anders, who continues to receive Canadian grants, is studying the ways stereotypical masculinity affects how heterosexual men treat their partners' orgasms. "We find that some men seem to see an orgasm in a woman partner as less about her pleasure and more about their own masculinity and achievement," said van Anders, who published a paper recently on the subject with graduate student Sara Chadwick.

They found that guys who were particularly fixated on their masculinity felt they'd failed as men if women didn't orgasm with them. When women did climax, these men felt their manhood was bolstered. The whole experience veered away from shared intimacy into something more transactional: Men gave orgasms and women received them as passive agents.

Prior research has found that sex is less satisfying and more saddled with performance anxiety when it's treated as a means to an end. Van Anders points out that pleasure has value even without the end zone of orgasm. She wants a linguistic rethink – "experiencing" orgasm instead of "achieving" it.

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

"When I fly and people ask me what I do, I often say I'm a behavioural neuroscientist. I don't tell them I'm a sex researcher and I also have stopped saying I'm a hormone researcher because I get all sorts of stories I don't want either: 'My kid's going through puberty!' or 'Let me tell you about menopause.' I don't want to sound uninterested or uncaring, but it's personal information. I just want to read my book sometimes."