Sexology’s Little Death

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Sexology's Little Death


If the controversy over Fox Searchlight’s forthcoming biopic Kinsey indicates anything, it is that sexual habits of the average American aren’t half as interesting as sexologists themselves. Family-values firebrand Judith Reisman and radio shock-jock Dr. Laura Schlessinger have recently mounted a media campaign against the makers of Kinsey, attempting to place an attack ad in Variety, condemning Kinsey as "a man who produced and directed the rape and torture of infants and children."

        In an open letter, Reisman warned Kinsey star Liam Neeson that the film portrays Kinsey in "a hideously inaccurate role, much like playing the monster Mengele [the Nazi doctor who conducted brutal experiments on children] as a mere controversial figure." As radical as Reisman’s rhetoric sounds, many in the sexology field say they hear it echoing from another quarter: Congress. Last year, a Republican-backed bill to strip $1.5 million of National Institute of Health funding for sex research was narrowly defeated in the House, 212-210.  While controversial research projects often draw scrutiny — the studies in question focused on the sexual habits of truckers, Asian prostitutes in San Francisco, and gay Native Americans — they are seldom canceled once funded. The last instance of a sex study’s defunding occurred in 1989, according to University of Wisconsin sex researcher John DeLamater, when a group of congressmen led by Jesse Helms succeeded in gutting the largest survey of American sexual habits since Kinsey.  It is a sign, say sex researchers, that outside the liberal precincts of Hollywood, their field may be in trouble.

    These days sexologists’ fears go beyond defunding, says DeLamater, editor of the Journal of Sex Research, a publication of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. "Two former students of mine are blacklisted," says DeLamater, referring to a list of 150 NIH-funded scientists whose work was attacked by Republicans last year in Congress. Some of DeLamater’s other students have decided to enter less controversial fields. "I was blacklisted myself three years ago," he says, "for writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper saying that abstinence doesn’t work."

Sexology has never been easy to justify to the American taxpayer. Before Americans became sufficiently aware of their sexuality to support public funding of its study, sex research largely survived through private donors, such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Strings have always been attached, but many sexologists say that under the Bush administration, those strings have been jerked taut.  For many, the choice is between fighting and fleeing. 

    Margaret Scarlett, an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recently quit the agency after fifteen years. "We’re seeing a clear substitution of ideology for science, and it is causing many committed scientists to leave the agency," she said in a report released by another scientific protest group, the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Opposition to the Bush agenda has mobilized researchers, some of whom have formed a sex-studies advocacy group, the Coalition to Protect Research. Another organization, the International Working Group on Sexuality and Social Policy, alleges that NIH staff has advised grant applicants to avoid using words such as "condom effectiveness," "transgender," "needle exchange" and abortion in their applications, so as to elude conservative scrutiny. 

    Rafael Diaz, a San Francisco State University sex researcher whose name appeared on the blacklist, is one of them.  "I’ve thought about toning down things by their names in my abstracts," he says, explaining that although he receives support from SFSU, researchers in his field rely heavily on politically vulnerable organizations such as the NIH for funding. "The politics interfered with my work."

    Ironically, says DeLamater, federal funding for sex research has increased by three to four percent during the Bush administration.  Although this is a difficult claim to verify, given the disagreement over what constitutes sex research — HIV research is a gray area, for instance — a National Institute of Health spokesman estimates that funding for sex studies has increased from $220 million to $232 million over the past two years, most of it devoted to tackling

Interest in the theoretical mysteries of sex has been subverted by politics, money and public misunderstanding.


    But NIH money isn’t the whole story: university budgets for sex research have steadily declined since the 1970s. According to the Department of Education, state aid accounted for 10% less of university budgets in 2000 than in 1980, as a result of cutbacks.  At the University of Wisconsin, where DeLamater is tenured, the state only pays 25% of the budget; a little more than twice what the national average was in 1980. Meanwhile, another important funding source, the National Institute of Mental Health, recently announced that it will shift funding from basic behavioral and social research to neurological diseases and major mental illnesses — effectively cutting most sex research out of the pie.

But sex researchers say the health of their field can’t be measured in dollars alone.  Even before the recent political attacks, they worried that interest in the theoretical mysteries of sex, as opposed to developing policy solutions and therapies, has been subverted by politics, money, and public misunderstanding. 

    "We need to get more meaningful information about sexuality," says Leonore Tiefer, a professor at New York University’s School of Medicine. "Relative to what we could know, we barely have any at all." 

    Tiefer and other researchers say that important areas have been systematically neglected: child and adolescent sexuality, healthy homosexual relationships, the influence of upbringing on sexual orientation, and the interface between psychology and the physiological mechanisms of arousal (i.e., how does the brain interpret some stimuli as arousing?) and the role of culture, not just environment, in sexuality.

    As a result, Tiefer says, it’s no wonder that a great deal of sex research is being done by the media itself. Informal magazine polls for a self-selecting group can provide the American public with a skewed view of what is normal or common.  As sex-savvy as most educated Americans might consider themselves, a recent Yale study found that regardless of education, most readers are highly biased by the way newspapers report the causes of gender difference (as biologically determined or socially constructed).

    So as sexology increasingly becomes a tool for solving problems, rather than engaging the mysteries of sex, what is the cost? Could it be that science’s enthusiasm for sex as a human enigma, rather than a public or private health problem, has waned? 

    Whether or not Americans spend more time talking about it than doing it, as is often proposed, there’s no denying that we get off on the discovery of sexual knowledge as much as its application.  We stand in supermarket checkout lines, anxiously skimming the pages of Cosmopolitan’s Sex Secrets issue, vainly hoping to learn something new. We distinguish The Joy of Sex and Kama Sutra from magazines like Barely Legal or Stud, but something in the former arouses us on a deeper level than ordinary porn.  Could it be that we yearn for the kind of ars erotica that the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault describes in The History of Sexuality

    "In the erotic arts," he writes, "truth is drawn from pleasure itself . . . not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility . . .  On the face, at least, our civilization possesses no ars erotica.  In return, it is undoubtedly the only civilization to practice a scientia sexualis."

    For Foucault, one major difference between other civilizations’ ars erotica (sex secrets, not images of sex) and our scientia sexualis is who seeks the knowledge. The former involves knowledge passed down from a master to student, via secret initiation.  The latter passes the knowledge of sex up from subject to researcher, via the West’s favorite ritual for producing truth: the confession.  Or, as most of us know it now, the sex survey. 

    And surveys are problematic. Ethical guidelines, influenced by cultural politics, often dictate how a study must be presented to its subjects, thereby influencing the results.  "In the ’80s, you would be a potential participant in a study on porn," says Charlene Senn, researcher at Canada’s University of Windsor.  "I’d have to tell you that some of the images you would see could be sexual or violent, and then you could decide whether or not to participate.  Now I have to tell you that this could cause you to

The AIDS epidemic and political conservatives scuttled many of the lines of investigation inspired by the work of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson.

be upset or disturbed, so I’m essentially tainting the results." 

    Studies have also shown that the gender of the interviewer and the perception of the profession itself can influence a subject’s answers. Because many of the first sexologists gathered data from their own experiences, it is no coincidence that some of the first theories of sexuality were produced as confession. In the nineteenth century, the first admitted homosexual, German Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, issued a series of pamphlets admitting his own orientation, which he argued was innate, and demanding more rights for homosexuals. Although Ulrichs largely failed in that pursuit, the ensuing debate led fellow German researcher Albert Moll to conclude that "it was the failure of sexologists to study normal sexuality that lead to their disagreements about abnormal forms," according to Science in the Bedroom, a seminal work by sex historian Vern Bullough.

    Interestingly, Bullough writes, it was here that capital began to play a role. One reason Freud’s work gained dominance over those of two prominent, more empirically-oriented twentieth-century colleagues, Magnus Hirschfield and Havelock Ellis, was that Freud’s theories of sexuality suggested possible treatments for many disorders, giving practicing psychiatrists a reason to study them.  Leaving aside a few "closet researchers," most sexologists in the States were compelled to justify their work by emphasizing negative aspects of sex, either for the individual or society: prostitution, homosexuality, and the spread of STDs. 

    As the twentieth century progressed, the need for data finally became apparent, at least to some.  Meanwhile, as women joined the work force, anxiety about the

future of marriage led to the creation of university-level sex education courses. One benefit was that a group of research subjects — students — became available to scientists interested in sex.  With few sex educators to teach the courses, however, professors from other disciplines had to be recruited. Enter Alfred C. Kinsey, expert on the gall wasp. 

    According to Julia Heiman, present director of the Kinsey Institute, Kinsey’s training was critical to a more intellectually honest approach to sex. "Without naming what’s pathological or not, Kinsey looked at the rare and frequent," says Heiman.  "For someone in his field, it is the variability of a species that makes it interesting."  

    Using eighteen thousand interviews, Kinsey published his two famous volumes on human sexuality, earning the fascination of the American public, and the criticism of moralists and even some scientists.  "He talked to white middle-aged people, not seeming to realize that ethnic minorities would be uncomfortable talking to a white, middle-aged man," says Gail Wyatt, associate director of UCLA’s AIDS Institute. 

    Nevertheless, Kinsey’s data suggested that homosexuality was far more prevalent than had been previously thought — the ten percent figure came from his reports — as were other taboo phenomena, such as female orgasm.  In doing so, he paved the way for subsequent studies of arousal, such as those performed by Masters and Johnson, and challenged psychoanalysis’ century-long reign over sexuality.  Suddenly, sex therapy was born. 

    But even as his work and the development of better contraception sparked the sexual revolution, Kinsey’s opponents spread claims, some of them well-founded, of his bisexuality, wife-swapping and sexual experimentation with colleagues.  "Billy Graham cut his eye teeth on Kinsey when he was starting his ministry," says University of Chicago sex researcher Edward Laumann. The tradition continues today. Ironically, in de-medicalizing and humanizing sex, Kinsey made himself a vulnerable specimen for analysis.

    According to some sex researchers, the AIDS epidemic and political conservatives scuttled many of the lines of investigation inspired by the work of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. "The Reagan perspective really dampened things, and a lot of college-based projects were ridiculed on the floor of the Senate. The Golden Fleece award comes to mind," says Tiefer, referring to the prize for "wasteful" government initiatives paid for by watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

    Even as sex researchers scrambled to collect epidemiological data to guide AIDS prevention policy, they met resistance from the right. In 1989, Edward Laumann was on the verge of doing the most comprehensive survey of American sexual habits since Kinsey. "In January of ’89, the beginning of the first Bush presidency, Science announced that we were going to do this project, and someone chose to illustrate the article with a picture of Bob and Alice and Ted and Carol in bed together," says Laumann. "The Washington Times went ballistic, and the survey was defunded."

    With the support of Playboy magazine, the survey was eventually completed on a much smaller scale, says Laumann — 3,700 subjects instead of 20,000.  Ironically, some of the data it returned made conservatives happy, lowering estimates of the frequency of homosexuality.  Though Laumann’s anecdote demonstrates that no area of sexology is immune to political antagonism, AIDS became a haven for sex researchers, by establishing an area of research that a broader political spectrum could see as important. 

    "Unless you want to do AIDS work, you can’t get money," says Wyatt, an AIDS researcher herself. 

    Like Wyatt, Diane DiMauro, director of the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program, says that other important areas of research have paid the cost.  "I don’t think sex research should be only policy-relevant," DiMauro says.  "You want to keep expanding the knowledge base.  We don’t know a lot of developmental information because it’s not always policy-relevant."

    Even before Viagra, the health-care crisis affected the way sexual problems were treated, and it limited non-pharmaceutical approaches to dysfunction.  "Most of the training programs have gone out of existence," says Wyatt.  "Sex therapy is very expensive, and it’s not covered by insurance, so we have fewer researchers who are trained in sexuality."

    At the same time, researchers say that the focus on sexual risk-taking and the transmission of STD’s may have contributed to a negative view of gays.  "In my area, gay male sexuality, most of the big questions are about what gay are men doing wrong, not what gay men are doing right," says Carrington, currently engaged in a study of gay male circuit parties.  Given how conservatives have used (or misused, to most scientists) sexologists’ data on HIV transmission and "gay bowel syndrome," Carrington worries about what kind of impact the focus on studying negative behaviors will have on the present gay marriage debate.  "The last study of the emotional and psychological aspects of gay relationships

was done in the late 80’s.  I haven’t seen anything get funded since."

    The re-medicalization of sex goes beyond specific groups, says James Elias of California State University Northridge’s Center for Sex Research.  "One way to see it is the number of medical articles being written, as opposed to the number of non-medical.  I think the medical articles on sexual disorders began to exceed all the other types."

    If the last few years have seen a return to the pathologization of sex, pharmaceutical companies may be partly to blame.  Effective as Viagra is at producing erections, its discovery was accidental — Bob Dole’s little blue wonder was initially developed to cure arterial blockage. In the past few years, however, there has been an exodus of researchers from dwindling university

"Any study of remedies for sexual problems, other than drugs, doesn’t get funded."

payrolls to the growing ones of pharmaceutical companies. "Any study of remedies for sexual problems, other than drugs, doesn’t get funded," says Tiefer, who has blamed companies like Pfizer for a "tidal wave of reductionism, wherein sex is pelvic vascular function."

    Much has been written, of course, about the dangers inherent to this reductionist, profit-oriented approach to sex, and many of those dangers are to public health themselves.  Only one of the fifteen questions on the International Index of Erectile Function, used to test Viagra’s effectiveness, dealt with satisfaction in the partner relationship.  Homosexuals were excluded from clinical trials, even though recreational nitrate use (which interacts harmfully with Viagra) is more widespread in the gay community. 

    Scientists who perform studies for pharmaceutical companies are typically contractually bound not to share their results, making it easier for the companies to censor bad results.  This may explain why one British study found that a lower percentage of pharmaceutical industry research ends up published than non-sponsored research.  One analogy may be found in tobacco company research.  A 1997 survey of 91 behavioral studies found that tobacco industry-supported studies almost universally found smoking to improve cognitive performance, while the non-industry studies were evenly split.

    While follow-up studies on the after-effects of sex drugs typically only last six months, follow-up research for non-pharmaceutical solutions to sex problems averages five years, according to one study.

    And much like companies such as Phillip Morris, Pfizer’s social irresponsibility may hurt the reputation of the scientists who work for it, according to Elias.  "The moment Viagra hit the market, Pfizer looked at who was buying it and found out that it wasn’t just the older population, so they changed the ads," says Elias.  "Now they have baseball players, people in their thirties and forties.  There’s no disorder, they’re not having a problem, they’re just using it to help out."

    According to some, the research community is beginning to respond.  "In Montreal next year, women are organizing an international counter-conference," says Senn, "to counteract pharmaceutical companies’ vested interest in defining women’s sexual dysfunction as a problem to be solved with a pills."

    Almost all sex researchers agree that the health of their field cannot be quantified in dollars or erections.  Even as funding increases, most researchers see the direction of their research increasingly constrained by Congress, the pharmaceutical industry, and the public’s desire to have its money spent on solving social problems such as AIDS, rather than merely "expanding the knowledge base," as DiMauro puts it. 

    Does research always lead to solutions?  No.  Sex science may never be a modern ars erotica. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of sex researchers, politicians, and lovers to make sure they find as much pleasure in the truth as they do truth in pleasure.





Justin Clark & Nerve.com



A recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Justin Clark has written for L.A. Weekly, Psychology Today, Black Book, Architecture, Fuse, and The Fader, among other publications. He is currently researching a history of the American child prodigy, and writing a mystery novel set in Los Angeles.