There's one "honor" researcher Elaine C. Hatfield, PhD, doesn't list on her curriculum vitae: In 1975, she earned Sen. William Proxmire's (D-Wisc.) very first Golden Fleece Award for supposedly wasting taxpayers' money with a National Science Foundation-funded study of love.
Now Hatfield and other researchers fear those days are back again. They're worried about the removal of condom effectiveness information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Those doing research on sexuality education report trouble getting funding for efforts that don't conform to the Bush administration's emphasis on abstinence. And at least one congressman is on the attack.
"On every ground, it's a triumph of ideology over reality," says Hatfield, who's now concentrating on cross-cultural research on love as a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "It's like a throwback to the 15th century."
A touchy topic
Of course, sex has never been an easy topic to study. Mark F. Schwartz, DSc, clinical co-director of dissociative disorders and compulsivity programs at Masters and Johnson, a St. Louis-based sex research and treatment center, can attest to that. He says he's seen the field enjoy the success of such early researchers as William Masters, Virginia Johnson and Alfred Kinsey, get "murdered" by Sen. Proxmire and then rebound in the 1980s and 1990s.
Schwartz says he's not sure sex research would have survived if it weren't for two factors.
"With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, it suddenly became essential to know something about sexual behavior," he explains. "The second thing that's made a difference is Viagra, because the pharmaceutical companies suddenly became very interested in the fact that they can make huge amounts of money off the genitals."
Try doing research in any other areas of sexuality--or getting federal funding to do it--and the situation doesn't look so rosy, say Schwartz and other researchers.
Many of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality's approximately 1,000 members are especially concerned about the Bush administration's rejection of comprehensive sexuality education in favor of programs focusing solely on abstinence.
"That's one area where there's been a big influence on what can be studied and what data can be disseminated," says the society's president, Beverly Whipple, PhD, a Rutgers University professor whose background is in psychobiology. "That's been somewhat of a stymie to people doing sexuality education research."
According to David L. Fleming, executive director of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, society members also fear that ideology will shape federal funding streams. The society has joined other groups in urging the government to fund research on comprehensive sexuality education. Says Fleming, "We would like to see decisions at the Department of Health and Human Services based on science and good medicine, not just on values and political considerations."
Some sex research topics are almost guaranteed to provoke controversy no matter who's in the White House. Take sexual orientation.
J. Michael Bailey, PhD, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has had his work attacked by critics on the right and left. His current research on lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women's arousal (see page 51) recently attracted the ire of Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who publicly denounced the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded study as an example of misguided research priorities.
These kinds of incidents crop up periodically, notes John Bancroft, MD, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Ind. "In the meantime, we soldier on," says Bancroft. "It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. Sexuality is such a vitally important aspect of the human condition, and there are so many things we don't understand about it."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.