During the Saddleback Civil Forum, if Rick Warren had asked the candidates about funding sex research, it might have gone like this.
Warren: What is your position on researching sex?
McCain: (with resolve and without hesitation) – Missionary!
Obama – Uh, well, it depends on how you define “sex” and “research.” Scientifically and politically, it is above my pay grade to determine what my position is in that arena.
Pure fiction, of course. I doubt sex research will come up in this year’s election. However, the topic has become a concern to some politicians. According to an ABC News report, “Sex, massages and taxpayer dollars,” some legislators are bothered by some NIH grants to universities to study sexuality. Some of Michael Bailey’s work aroused more than curiosity. To wit:
A few years ago, NIH gave a $147,000 grant to a Northwestern University psychology professor who was paying women to view pornography while a device measured their sexual responses.
That study didn’t go over too well in the halls of Congress.
Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake was among 20 Republicans to sign a letter to NIH’s director asking for an explanation for why taxpayer money was going for such a study. They called it “a bizarre spending decision.”
Today, Flake believes Congress has failed to properly oversee NIH and its spending.
“It’s Congress’ job to set guidelines for how NIH and other agencies spend taxpayer money and then exercise oversight to ensure that those guidelines are being followed. “However, over the last several years, Congress has neglected its oversight function,” Flake’s office told ABC News. “It’s difficult for Congress to criticize NIH for wasteful grants when Congress itself is earmarking billions of dollars every year on similarly wasteful pet projects.”
I have to disagree with Rep. Flake and his colleagues. As a social conservative, I am very interested in research which helps us better understand how sexuality works. Regarding sex research, I think Guggenheim Fellow Alice Dreger raises a valuable point when she argues:
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.)
Of course, an unexciting sex life does not force anyone into seeking prostitutes, but I think Dr. Dreger’s argument should be taken seriously. Counselors know that otherwise solid couples, yes even very religious couples, are not exempt from sexual questions and concerns. Better that counselors are armed with good science on sexuality than the latest issue of Cosmo. Reading the Song of Solomon, while quite, uh, interesting, might not be enough to help overcome issues which would benefit from basic information. Lay people might be surprised that research is needed to better understand sex and attraction, but such science is important for reasons that might not seem apparent.
In my work, I have found the research coming out of the Bailey lab to be very helpful. His research informs my work with people on a regular basis. I often consult with heterosexually married, same-sex attracted men who wish to maintain their marriage. Bailey’s (and other researchers’) brain research, for instance, provides significant insight into how the brain responds to sexual cues. This is valuable information for those who seek insight into why they respond as they do. And many of them use this information to pursue their values and beliefs to avoid sex with men and enhance their marital adjustment with their wives.
I guess the bottom line for me is that funding sex research doesn’t mean advocating an anything-goes stance toward sex. Studies done solely for prurient interests should be questioned, but basic science of sexual attraction and arousal can have positive, and even conservative, applications.