Work It! Sexuality Educator and Researcher Dr. Debby Herbenick

Work It! is an interview series on MsBehaved featuring fascinating folks who work outside the traditional 9-5, to amuse, inspire, and light a fire under your butt to start pursuing the career of your dreams.

This Work It! is kind of personal, because Dr. Herbenick is my academic advisor at the School of Public Health in Indiana University, Bloomington. IU Bloomington was where Dr. Alfred Kinsey did his pioneering sexuality research in the 1940s and 1950s, leading to the establishment of the Kinsey Institute, which is still active today, as well as the Center for Sexual Health Promotion where Dr. Herbenick is co-director. It is truly amazing to be part of an academic environment where sexual health is discussed openly and positively. 


Photo by Bernard Gordillo

Name: Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH

Location: Bloomington, Indiana

What do you do, in your own words, and how long have you been doing it?

I work full time at Indiana University as a research scientist who studies sex (in the School of Public Health) and as a sexual health educator and columnist for The Kinsey Institute’s Kinsey Confidential program. I also write books about sex and love, blog about sex, and am involved in a number of creative projects.

What was your first job?

As a small child, I used to take things from around the house and sell them back to my parents for spare change. And I also used to make and sell newsletters about our family, again back to my family members (circulation was relatively low). My first job outside my family, however, was as a babysitter.

Debby Herbenick Kinsey Confidential

Dr. Debby working on the Kinsey Confidential podcast. Photo by Bernard Gordillo.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

I don’t know that any of my jobs have been particularly “weird” though I imagine some people think working as a sex researcher/educator is interesting.

What led to you pursuing your current career? Did you have mentorship or special training for it?

My college background was in child development and it’s what led me to apply for, and accept, a position at The Kinsey Institute as a research scientist. It wasn’t long before I realized how little I actually knew, there in my early 20s, about sexual behavior and the body and I decided that – rather than pursue a graduate degree related to child psych – I wanted to stay in sex research. I continued working on research studies at The Kinsey Institute and then returned to grad school at Indiana University. I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors at The Kinsey Institute who taught me a great deal about conducting research, teaching others about sexuality, and who encouraged my interest in writing as a means of translating scientific information about sex to the general public.

debby herbenick and vanessa schick signing read my lips

Signing “Read My Lips” with co-author Dr. Vanessa Schick. Photo by Sean Molin.

What projects are you working on currently?

My newest creative project is called Make Sex Normal which invites people from all over the world to share what they are doing to make sex normal. For example, some people talk to their kids about puberty or sex. One woman wrote that she gives sex-positive books, like It’s Not the Stork, as baby shower gifts. Other people blog about sex (or sex toys; or sex during pregnancy) and one woman is dedicating her time, in retirement, to work in her daughter’s feminist sex toy store. The site just launched in late March and already it’s been picked up by various media outlets and is gaining tons of new followers each day, so that’s exciting. Research-wise, I’m focused on trying to understand more about how orgasm works. I’m also writing papers from a new study our team conducted about the sexual practices and sexual health of Americans ages 18 through 9o+. Every day is different at work and I love it.

What are you most proud of in your career?

By far, the most rewarding work I’ve engaged in has been teaching college-level human sexuality classes at Indiana University. It’s important to teach them information about sex. However, I think it’s even more important to engage with students around issues of critical thinking, compassion, empathy, and humanity. I’m also happy to know that, by taking a human sexuality class, many students have become more comfortable talking with others about sex in ways that help them access health care and talk with their friends, family and/or partners.

What do you love most about what you do? 

I’m energized by coming up with new research questions. I like working as part of a team with other researchers. And I think it’s genuinely fun to sift through data. I also enjoy finding ways to merge science and art together, particularly for a topic like sexuality which has so much to do with both passion and reason.

Which research projects have been the most rewarding/interesting for you?

A colleague and I conducted the first-ever study on exercise-induced orgasm (EIO) and, when it received a great deal of media attention worldwide, it meant that many women and men who experience EIO saw their experiences described somewhere for the first time. We heard from dozens of women and men who read about our study and wrote to us to share their experiences. Many of them said they’d never before told anyone about their experiences and some had felt “strange” or “alone” until they read about our study, so that was affirming to see how our work impacted others.

Debby Herbenick vulva puppet Bloomington Sex Salon

Hanging out with the vulva puppet at the Bloomington Sex Salon. Photo by Randy Hubach.

What is one of the most memorable moments working as a researcher?

I’ve had a chance to meet some incredible people. I work with colleagues who inspire and challenge me, in very good ways. I’ve also had a lot of fun sharing our research with the general public, through the media. For example, I got to take my vulva puppet on Tyra Banks television show and teach her viewers all about female genitals. How awesome is that? More recently, I had a chance to meet authors EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Suzy Spencer (Secret Sex Lives) and Katie Couric, while filming Katie’s new daytime talk show. I love meeting people who had different careers and experiences than I do, but who are all passionate about connecting with other people.

What triumphs and challenges have you faced as a female research scientist (especially in a field as culturally fraught as sexual health), and what advice would you give to other women pursuing work related to sexuality education or research?

Most of my experiences have been very positive and rewarding. However, there have certainly been a few instances when older men, in particular, acted a bit creepy toward me about my work. But they’re rare. I’ve found a very supportive group of colleagues here at IU and at conferences. As for advice for other women, I’ll paraphrase from something Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues) said, years ago, at a workshop I attended. She was talking about the so-called Queen Bee phenomenon that happens in some groups of women where a woman may be perceived as “taking over” and getting jealous if another woman is perceived as smart, funny, talented, or successful, and so on.  She advised against that mentality and said something like, “There’s enough light for everyone”. It’s something I’ve shared with friends and colleagues because I believe in it. I truly believe there is enough attention, praise, and success available to us all and the more we can help each other, and include each other, the better it is more everyone. Certainly in a small field like sex research and education, we need as many bright and brave thinkers as we can attract – whatever their gender, age, or background.

Bloomington Sex Salon poster designed by Erin Tobey

Bloomington Sex Salon poster designed by Erin Tobey

What future projects and long term goals do you have in store?

I have a few creative projects coming up soon that I’m particularly excited about. I’ve written a few books (Because It Feels Good, Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva, Sex Made Easy, Great in Bed) and will probably write a few more. Right now I’m having a lot of fun with Make Sex Normal and the Bloomington Sex Salon, a monthly series I started in Bloomington, Indiana (where I live) to foster conversations about sex research in community spaces. My  long term goal is simply to live a meaningful life with lots of love in it.

Follow Dr. Debby Herbenick on Twitter, like the Bloomington Sex Salon on Facebook, and submit your photos to the Make Sex Normal Tumblr!

Read more Work It! interviews here. 


  1. Great article…. Love her work 😦

  2. I couldn’t put the book down! You have a flair for fioticn please write more if the muse comes to you. I do have one question the Maguffin you used concerning the secret ingredient to Pixie Dust did you ever have a specific ingredient in mind when you were writing?


  1. […] incredibly sad, however, is that this shaming permeates our sex lives, to: your vagina is gross. (Debby once had me print out all the Someecards that contained the word “vagina.” Most of them […]

  2. […] sad, however, is that this shaming permeates our sexual bodies as well. Your vagina is gross. (Debby once had me print out all the Someecards that contained the word “vagina.” Most of them made me […]

  3. […] sad, however, is that this shaming permeates our sexual bodies as well. Your vagina is gross. (Debby once had me print out all the Someecards that contained the word “vagina.” Most of them made me […]

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