April 21, 2010

Sex Research Is No Work For Wimps

This is the first in a 3-part series by guest blogger Jenny Porter on politics and roadblocks in informing the public about sexual research.

Print More

Sex research can be an easy target for special interest groups and the mass media. Just ask researcher Erick Janssen, and join him in shaking your head at “coverage” of his condom study on the FoxNEWS program “Red Eye.”

Janssen and Stephanie Sanders received a grant this year to study why men lose their erections when they put on condoms. It’s not a study about how guys don’t like condoms, but more about a specific group who use condoms inconsistently and finding out why.

Extra ‘attention’ when the subject is sex

It’s not the first time Janssen has run into this kind of attitude. His grant to study the role of mood and sexual arousal in risk-taking behaviors also came under fire in 2003. It was one of five grants mentioned in an amendment to the Congress appropriation of funds to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations. The amendment was overturned by only two votes. Had the scales been tipped the other direction, it would have ended the project.

 “They can do searches on NIH sites and look for grants to ridicule,” Janssen said. “They’re not really interested in finding out what the research is all about.”

By looking at a study’s overall topics and key words like “arousal,” it’s easy to dumb it down to some inappropriate sex study. It’s also easy to plaster the news with eye-catching headlines about juicy sex topics.

Why is it important to use taxpayers’ money to fund this research? Because this study, among others, could lead to understanding and prevention of the potential negative consequences of sex.

“The sorts of things we look at have implications for the understanding of HIV/AIDS, STDs and unwanted pregnancies,” he said. “You can give people information about how to be more responsible, you can give them condoms, you can tell them to just not have sex, or to be smarter and wiser about it.” But some people still take risks they may later regret, and “to leave it at that would not be good enough. We need to understand better what goes into that behavior.”

Carrying on the good work

Misunderstandings and attacks from different groups haven’t stopped Janssen from studying sex. In fact, he said it’s only made him become more determined.

“It shows me how much misinformation is out there,” he said. “We know very little about sex, other than very superficial things.”

Unfortunately, several branches of research sciences can be vulnerable to attacks from both the left and the right. By seeking a greater understanding of what researchers hope to accomplish, we can see what these studies will do for society as a whole.

Jenny Porter is an M.A. student in the School of Journalism at Indiana University.