May 7, 2010

Tiptoeing Through Sex Research Funding

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

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Funding research can be a challenge, especially when it comes to controversial topics. And sometimes the challenge doesn’t end there.

Heather Rupp, Assistant Scientist at the Kinsey Institute, had already secured funding for a study looking at sexual decision-making in women across the menstrual cycle—then she was asked to make a change. The word “sex” needed to be taken out of the public abstract about the research.

“The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports sex research, but some interest groups and politicians might not,” she said, “and there is a general lack of information.”

According to Rupp, that trend is partly the fault of the researchers themselves for not being proactive when it comes to informing the public about their research. People might be more supportive, she said, if they understand that “we’re not just having people watch porn for fun.”

This research was based on a smaller study done at The Kinsey Institute. When seeking funding from the NIH to take the study to a larger scale, the concept was tied in with alcohol dependence. Rupp said that extending the research to a more relevant population helped acquire funding and helped tie the information in with other relevant problems.

“Sex does have a lot of social implications and it can reach every aspect of every person’s life,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Sexual aspects of social problems shouldn’t be excluded just because people are uncomfortable with it.”

By combining their research interests with other health issues that might be of more general interest, scientists like Rupp not only obtain funding, but also conduct research that more people can understand and support. For example, when she wanted to study hormones and how they alter women’s brain responses to sexual stimuli, she designed a study of women during the postpartum period.

When these two projects received funding, Rupp said she and her team were surprised. Controversial research comes with roadblocks, but she’s realized it’s not always so difficult.

“I think maybe it’s not as bad as we sometimes think,” she said. “There are many examples of how research grants have been politicized, but I think most people recognize the critical role that sex plays in people’s lives.”

Guest blogger Jenny Porter is a Master’s student in Journalism at Indiana University.