Impact success story: Sexuality

With Sexpert, Ghent University researchers collected representative data on sexual health in Flanders for the first time. Five years later, the results still regularly form the basis for training and campaigns.

A few years ago, there was little data available on this subject for Flanders and the existing data was largely outdated or based on small-scale, fragmented and non-representative research. Sexpert wanted to correct that. The data obtained were used to develop a sexual health strategy for Flanders. The researchers even presented the results in the Flemish Parliament.

Together with professionals in the field

Already in the preliminary phase, that is, before the file was submitted, stakeholders were contacted to ensure that the research questions used in Sexpert were socially relevant. The project provided for a full-time liaison officer who was responsible for the close relationship between the research and professionals in the field. “This helped us to ensure that the results were not only relevant to sexologists, but also to large organisations such as Sensoa (the Flemish expertise centre for sexual health), our ultimate stakeholder to help translate the research results into action.” Alexis Dewaele, coordinator of the project and now point of contact for the IDC PSYNC that is a grouping of expertise on mental health, explains:

“The main promoter of the Sexpert study, professor Ann Buysse, was chair of Sensoa at the time. That helped enormously in translating the results into action.” And it continues to bear fruit to this day.

Sexpert has indeed transformed a number of issues that are relevant to prevention workers and health professionals and the research results are still being used.

Dispel myths

“For example, Sensoa is now running a campaign to disprove ten important myths about sexual health. One of the most well-known is that men and women are very different. You know the cliché: men come from Mars and women from Venus. It has been instilled in the collective minds of people that these differences are irreconcilable in the area of sexuality. But based on the Sexpert results, we see that there are a lot of similarities when it comes to sexual satisfaction, how often people have sex and how important men and women find sex. 
Copyright foto Dries Luyten

The Sexpert researchers have also disproved other myths about sexual health. Issues such as ‘sex must be spontaneous, sex drive must come naturally’. We now know that this is not the case. For many people this is sometimes a problem. Sex is not always easy, but it does not always have to be perceived as problematic.

Sexpert also collected a great deal of basic data, for example about the most popular contraceptives or about HIV and STDs in Flanders. Because these issues remained largely misunderstood in Flanders. There were indications, but the Sexpert team collected a large body of data for the first time.

Vulnerable target groups

Some target groups received special attention from the Sexpert team. The Turkish and Moroccan communities, for example. But it turned out to be time-intensive to collect representative samples. “We hadn’t correctly estimated this and invested much more time and energy than planned. We had to make the research available in different languages, something that was difficult for the Moroccan community because Berber is not a written language and only the highly educated can read and write Arabic. We recruited special interviewers for this purpose who could go to people’s homes.”

Media strategy

Sex is a theme that everyone wants to write about. The Sexpert researchers used that fact to their advantage with a carefully prepared media strategy. Sexpert had to be reported in a nuanced way, without stereotypes. “Your research can be approachable and even a bit juicy in the media. As a researcher you also have to sell your subject to your target audience, but without betraying your work. It must remain correct,” Alexis Dewaele concludes.

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