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Why Sex Research Is Worth Funding With Public Money

• March 28, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: saknakorn/Shutterstock)

Sexuality is a fundamental component of the human experience, and it’s one we need to have a better understanding of.

Sex is good. But not always. And that’s kind of the point.

Let me back up.

Like that bad-for-you ex from whom you just can’t seem to make a clean break, the reoccurring “news” story about how the federal government funds questionable sex studies has come back a-knockin’ at the door (a classic example). We’re supposed to be totally horrified that our tax dollars are going to fund studies that find out what turns people on and what makes people loose.

Are there some stupidly designed, rather useless studies happening in sex research? Yup, which distinguishes sex research not at all from other academic fields. I admit, it was at a sex research conference that I conceived The Duh Award, an honor which would be given annually for the study constituting the most effort put into finding the most obvious conclusion. (The study that directly inspired The Duh Award was one showing that alcohol lowers sexual inhibitions.)

Studies have shown that many patients want to ask their doctors about sex because it is such an important component of their lives. Doesn’t the public deserve evidence-based sex advice?

But the truth is, every field sometimes accidentally funds poorly conceived or useless research, and that isn’t reason to get rid of a field’s funding, nor to micromanage it. Why is sex research worth funding with public money?

Because such inquiry helps us try to understand everything from how older folks can continue to enjoy sex to why it is that some educated gay men still have high-risk sex with multiple anonymous partners.

In short, sex isn’t always good, but sex can be made better through research.

What about the studies that look into things like which kind of pornography stimulates women versus men? Useless and prurient? I don’t think so. I know this sort of research horrifies conservatives, but they should really wake up to the fact that research into sexual stimulation can actually help promote family life by helping married couples understand how to have satisfying sex lives within the context of monogamy. (Is it better that a guy cheat on his wife with a prostitute, or better that he learn a vibrator and some massage might make his wife a lot more receptive? I vote for the latter.)

Likewise, research into sexual orientation can help people avoid ending up in ill-conceived relationships that are likely to result in unnecessary suffering. Such studies can help people understand, for example, that there is no good evidence that you can make a gay man straight, and perhaps that kind of knowledge can lead to more responsible life choices.

Indeed, maybe funding more sex research would ultimately even help politicians find a way to stop getting caught with their pants down. Of course, that would require not only the research but dissemination of the research—which is to say, honest, sex-positive sex education, which really bothers the folks who don’t like sex research in the first place. But the truth is, all sorts of people are hungry for knowledge about sexuality. Studies have shown that many patients want to ask their doctors about sex because it is such an important component of their lives. Doesn’t the public deserve evidence-based sex advice? Sure seems worth at least a bomber or two.

OK, so applied sex research can be good. What about basic research into sex? Well, you never know when basic research is going to lead to applications. Basic research into pedophilia might help us understand how to successfully stop pedophiles from committing offenses. But beyond that, sexuality is a fundamental component of the human experience. Most of us have sex (at least with ourselves), most of us think about sex, and sex is how we got here in the first place. If we are going to use science to understand what it means to be human, then we need scientists who study sex.

And that means that sometimes those scientists will study things that make some of us—even most of us—uncomfortable. But science isn’t really about comfort. For that, I’d recommend good sex, followed by some nice cuddling.

Bottom line? Fund sex, not war.

This post originally appeared on Bioethics Forum.

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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