Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Between the Sheets

empty-bedroom

(Photo: saknakorn/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Alice Dreger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.