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Thread: Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex

  1. #1

    Default Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex
    November 9, 2004
    Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex

    In a scene from the movie "Kinsey," opening in theaters on Friday, government agents seize a box of study materials being shipped by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the pioneering sex researcher, and impound the contents as obscene.

    The scene portrays a time in American history, the 1940's and 1950's, when marital relations were rarely discussed and frank reporting about sex was greeted with a collective anxiety verging on horror. In 1948, when Dr. Kinsey published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," he was called a pervert, a menace and even a Communist.

    Much has changed in the years since then. But scientists say one thing has remained constant: Americans' ambivalence about the scientific study of sexuality.

    Decades after the sexual revolution, sex researchers in the United States still operate in a kind of scientific underground, fearing suppression or public censure. In a culture awash in sex talk and advice in magazines and movies and on daytime TV, the researchers present their findings in coded language, knowing that at any time they, like Dr. Kinsey, could be held up as a public threat.

    Social scientists say that for all its diverse tastes and freedoms, the nation that invented Viagra and "Sex and the City" is still queasy about exploring sexual desire and arousal, even when this knowledge is central to protecting the public's health.

    In July 2003, for instance, Congress threatened to shut down several highly regarded sex studies, including one of emotion and arousal, and another of massage parlor workers. And last summer health officials refused to finance a widely anticipated proposal backed by three large universities to support and train students interested in studying sexuality.

    As a result of this continued hostility, researchers say they still know precious little about fundamental questions, including how sexual desire affects judgment, how young people develop a sexual identity, why so many people take sexual risks, how personality and mood affect sexual health and how the explosion of sexual material on the Internet and trysts arranged online affect behavior.

    Perhaps the strongest protests have arisen in response to efforts to treat - or even to study - deviant sexual behavior like pedophilia, opposition that has grown only fiercer in the wake of the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

    "I have been in this field for 30 years, and the level of fear and intimidation is higher now than I can ever remember," said Dr. Gilbert Herdt, a researcher at San Francisco State University who runs the National Sexuality Resource Center, a clearinghouse for sexual information. "With the recent election, there's concern that there will be even more intrusion of ideology into science."

    He added, "But then, this country has always had a troubled relationship with sex research."

    Much of the suspicion is rooted in religious belief. Many devout believers see any effort to catalog sexual behavior as akin to publishing a field guide to carnal sin, an invitation to deviancy.

    "We know the formula for sexual health, which is sex within a monogamous lifelong relationship," said the Rev. Peter Sprigg, director of marriage and family studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group based in Washington. "Studying permutations of it, we think, is an effort, like Kinsey's, to change the sexual mores of the society so that what most people consider deviant behaviors look more normal."

    Although religious conservatives have always objected on principle to sex research, several things have changed since Dr. Kinsey's time, said Dr. John Gagnon, an emeritus professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of "An Interpretation of Desire."

    "Back then, white small-town Protestants' morality was American morality, and it spoke with one voice," he said. "Now they no longer solely define the conversation; there are competing secular voices talking about sexual health, about pleasure, feminism, the gay movement and so on."

    In response, Dr. Gagnon said, the critics of sex research have become more organized and politically connected. Mr. Sprigg agreed that conservative groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have coordinated their critiques of sex research to bring more public scrutiny to the projects. Late last year, the Traditional Values Coalition, an organization of 43,000 churches, publicly objected to some $100 million worth of government-backed research, much of it on sexual behavior, and compiled a roster of more than 150 researchers who had done sex studies. That roster has circulated widely among both critics and scientists, who call it a "hit list."

    "We've all learned to play the euphemism game, where we use code words to disguise the studies," to avoid showing up on such a list, said Dr. Thomas Coates, a sex researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. Women who work in massage parlors are "high-risk women," and one recent survey of sexual behavior was titled "Social Aspects of Fertility-Related Behavior."

    In 2003, a small federal grant for a study called "Mechanisms Influencing Sexual Risk Taking" put Kinsey's institute itself, now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, back in the fray.

    The research addresses a question that public health officials say is critical: Why do some people knowingly take sexual risks that could be avoided with simple precautions, like wearing a condom?

    "All of the public health messages teaching people safe sex are designed on the presumption that people behave rationally," said Dr. Erick Janssen, a psychologist at the institute, on the Indiana University campus, and the principal investigator on the study. "But many of them don't, and so the message isn't helping them. In order to understand how best to design these messages we need to understand how they are thinking."

    In Dr. Janssen's continuing investigation, adults enter a small screening room at the institute, where they sit alone and watch film clips on a computer monitor. In one experiment, the participants see a short segment from the movie "Silence of the Lambs," meant to elicit anxiety. They then watch a few minutes of a pornographic video. By measuring arousal, with genital, heart and muscle sensors, Dr. Janssen expects to learn more about how waves of emotion affect arousal, and which states prompt the most reckless sexual behavior.

    The findings, he and other researchers say, will help scientists understand not only who is likely to risk his health or marriage by taking sexual risks, but when and why.

    "Then we can begin to intervene more effectively," he said.

    Congress, however, intervened first. In July 2003, Representative Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment to withdraw financing from Dr. Janssen's study and several others. The proposal fell short on the House floor by two votes, but not before the studies were criticized in The Washington Times and ridiculed on conservative blogs and talk shows..

    Mr. Sprigg said: "Using government dollars to pay for people to watch porn? I wonder how many Americans would be comfortable with that."

    Another reason many Americans are uncomfortable with sex research is that surveys and genital sensors cannot capture what for many people is a deeply emotional experience.

    In striving to be neutral, Dr. Kinsey, who trained as a zoologist, described and cataloged human sexual behaviors in the same way he might have with lizards or the gall wasps he studied before turning to men and women.

    Yet sex for humans is far more complex. It can feel like the cement that binds a romantic relationship, or like a lonely embrace, a listless act. It may enliven a friendship, unsettle a marriage or cause a timid nature to glow with confidence.

    "Studying sex through physiology, as if it were just another behavior ignores what's going on in people's minds, their own fantasies, their conflicted wishes," said Dr. Leon Hoffman, co-director of the Pacella Parent Child Center in New York. "Using measuring devices, sensors, reduces it to just a physical act, when most of what's going on is mental and not always conscious."

    Nor is sex always an act between equals. Some sexual acts - harassment and molestation, for example - beg for judgment, not scientific neutrality, especially when a difference in power or age is involved.

    That is why almost any discussion of sexuality in minors has been politically radioactive, experts say. In a public condemnation that stunned many sex researchers, Congress in 1999 voted unanimously to denounce a research article in an arcane journal that concluded that some victims of childhood sexual abuse suffered little long-term emotional damage.

    The article was not an original experiment but reviewed previous surveys.

    The American Psychological Association, which had published the paper, decided to have an independent panel "re-review" it - a decision that outraged some of the group's own members and led some scientists to resign from the organization. Although many experts say the paper was scientifically sound, few have dared even propose a study of sexuality involving minors since then, scientists said.

    Pedophilia in particular is off-limits. Psychiatrists and psychologists have studied and tried to treat people imprisoned for sexual crimes, with limited success. But it is not clear whether these convicted felons are representative of all people who have sexual fantasies involving children.

    People do not choose to become pedophiles, experts say, but usually discover as adults that they are afflicted with unusual desires, and many long resist the urge to act on them. Researchers know that boys who are sexually abused themselves may be at increased risk of developing pedophilia later on, but they still know little about how these urges develop, or in whom.

    "The intensity of the emotion on this issue is so high that it is heresy to express any concern about a person with pedophilia," much less study treatment, said Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins University sexual disorders clinic. He added, "Since the Catholic Church scandal, I don't know anyone who has even had the nerve to suggest that some in the church are ill and need help."

    A concern for privacy, which some trace to the small-town morality of Kinsey's time, also has contributed to the wariness many Americans feel when asked to reveal sexual preferences they know may be perceived as quirky or strange.

    Kinsey's original sex surveys revealed the diversity in Americans' sexual behavior: many heterosexual men reported having homosexual experiences. A teenage rock guitarist down the street might stick to conventional monogamy, while her neighbor, an accountant, might prefer role-playing games with multiple partners.

    Often people themselves are not entirely aware of what most arouses them sexually, studies suggest. In one recent experiment, psychologists found that women could be as aroused by images of homosexual sex as by films of heterosexual sex. This is a provocative finding and may offer important clues to improve sexual health, but it is often not something the woman next door wants to talk about with a researcher, even anonymously.

    Sexual taste is a wild card, in short, and one that many people would prefer be kept face down.

    "A lot of high level people in government and politics are very sensitive to the kind of sexual surveys we do, not so much for religious reasons, but because they just say, 'Look, I would never answer those questions,' " said Dr. Edward Laumann, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

    In 1994, Dr. Laumann and a team of researchers published "The Social Organization of Sexuality," a comprehensive survey of Americans' sexual behavior, which won praise from people on each side of the sex research debate for its integrity, and updated Dr. Kinsey's original work.

    They found that about 75 percent of the people they surveyed did agree to answer detailed questions about sex, but many did so only after being convinced that their answers were absolutely anonymous and critical to science. It was only last-minute financing from private foundations that allowed the study to be completed at all, Dr. Laumann said, after the government reversed a decision to support the survey.

    Scientists who have spent their lives studying sexual behavior say that the political climate tends to be cyclical, with periods of cold hostility followed by thaws that are often driven by bursts of public concern, like increased worry about sex among young people in the 1960's and teenage pregnancy in the 1970's.

    "When the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980's," said Dr. Anke A. Ehrhardt, a Columbia University professor and director of the H.I.V. Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, "the government had to do research because sexual behavior is at the core of the problem."

    Since then, the climate for doing sex research may have become even more hostile, she and other researchers said, particularly outside the context of H.I.V.

    Dr. Laumann, for example, finally managed to find financing for a recent study of sexual behavior and the risk of sexually transmitted disease that should help public health officials contain the spread of chlamydia, a common infection. Where did he conduct the study? In China.

  2. #2


    In a public condemnation that stunned many sex researchers, Congress in 1999 voted unanimously to denounce a research article in an arcane journal that concluded that some victims of childhood sexual abuse suffered little long-term emotional damage.
    What's next - voting on the value of Planck's constant?

  3. #3


    December 12, 2004


    The Plot Against Sex in America

    WHEN they start pushing the panic button over "moral values" at the bluest of TV channels, public broadcasting's WNET, in the bluest of cities, New York, you know this country has entered a new cultural twilight zone.

    Just three weeks after the election, Channel 13 killed a spot for the acclaimed movie "Kinsey," in which Liam Neeson stars as the pioneering Indiana University sex researcher who first let Americans know that nonmarital sex is a national pastime, that women have orgasms too and that masturbation and homosexuality do not lead to insanity. At first WNET said it had killed the spot because it was "too commercial and too provocative" - a tough case to make about a routine pseudo-ad interchangeable with all the other pseudo-ads that run on "commercial-free" PBS. That explanation quickly became inoperative anyway. The "Kinsey" distributor, Fox Searchlight, let the press see an e-mail from a National Public Broadcasting media manager stating that the real problem was "the content of this movie" and "controversial press re: groups speaking out against the movie/subject matter" that might bring "viewer complaints."

    Maybe in the end Channel 13 got too many complaints about its own cowardice because by last week, in response to my inquiries, it had a new story: that e-mail was all a big mistake - an "unfortunate" miscommunication hatched by some poor unnamed flunky in marketing. This would be funny if it were not so serious - and if it were an anomaly. Yet even as the "Kinsey" spot was barred in New York, a public radio station in North Carolina, WUNC-FM, told an international women's rights organization based in Chapel Hill that it could not use the phrase "reproductive rights" in an on-air announcement. In Los Angeles, five commercial TV channels, fearing indecency penalties, refused to broadcast a public service spot created by Los Angeles county's own public health agency to counteract a rising tide of syphilis. Nationwide, the big three TV networks all banned an ad in which the United Church of Christ heralded the openness of its 6,000 congregations to gay couples.

    Such rapid-fire postelection events are conspiring to make "Kinsey" a bellwether cultural event of this year. When I first saw the movie last spring prior to its release, it struck me as an intelligent account of a half-forgotten and somewhat quaint chapter in American social history. It was in the distant year of 1948 that Alfred Kinsey, a Harvard-trained zoologist, published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," a dense, clinical 804-page accounting of the findings of his obsessive mission to record the sexual histories of as many Americans as time and willing volunteers (speaking in confidentiality) would allow. The book stormed the culture with such force that Kinsey was featured in almost every major national magazine; a Time cover story likened his book's success to "Gone With the Wind." Even pop music paid homage, with the rubber-faced comic Martha Raye selling a half-million copies of "Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!" and Cole Porter immortalizing the Kinsey report's sizzling impact in a classic stanza in "Too Darn Hot."

    Though a Gallup poll at the time found that three-quarters of the public approved of Kinsey's work, not everyone welcomed the idea that candor might supplant ignorance and shame in the national conversation about sex. Billy Graham, predictably, said the publication of Kinsey's research would do untold damage to "the already deteriorating morals of America." Somewhat less predictably, as David Halberstam writes in "The Fifties," The New York Times at first refused to accept advertising for Kinsey's book.

    Such history, which seemed ancient only months ago, has gained in urgency since Election Day. As politicians and the media alike pander to that supposed 22 percent of "moral values" voters, we're back where we came in. Bill Condon, who wrote and directed "Kinsey," started working on this project in 1999 and didn't gear it to any political climate. The film is a straightforward telling of its subject's story, his thorniness and bisexuality included, conforming in broad outline to the facts as laid out by Kinsey's most recent biographers. But not unlike Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," which transports us back to an American era overlapping that of "Kinsey," this movie, however unintentionally, taps into anxieties that feel entirely contemporary. That Channel 13 would even fleetingly balk at "Kinsey" as The Times long ago did at the actual Kinsey is not a coincidence.

    As for the right-wing groups that have targeted the movie (with or without seeing it), they are the usual suspects, many of them determined to recycle false accusations that Kinsey was a pedophile, as if that might somehow make the actual pedophilia scandal in one church go away. But this crowd doesn't just want what's left of Kinsey's scalp. (He died in 1956.) Empowered by that Election Day "moral values" poll result, it is pressing for a whole host of second-term gifts from the Bush administration: further rollbacks of stem-cell research, gay civil rights, pulchritude sightings at N.F.L. games and, dare I say it aloud, reproductive rights for women. "If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them," wrote Bob Jones III, president of the eponymous South Carolina university, to President Bush after the election. "Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil." Such is the perceived clout of this Republican base at government agencies like the F.C.C. that it need only burp and 66 frightened ABC affiliates instantly dump their network's broadcast of that indecent movie "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day.

    In the case of "Kinsey," the Traditional Values Coalition has called for a yearlong boycott of all movies released by Fox. (With the hypocrisy we've come to expect, it does not ask its members to boycott Fox's corporate sibling in the Murdoch empire, Fox News.) But such organizations don't really care about "Kinsey" - an art-house picture that, however well reviewed or Oscar-nominated, will be seen by a relatively small audience, mostly in blue states. The film is just this month's handy pretext for advancing the larger goal of pushing sex of all nonbiblical kinds back into the closet and undermining any scientific findings, whether circa 1948 or 2004, that might challenge fundamentalist sexual orthodoxy as successfully as Darwin challenged Genesis. (Though that success, too, is in doubt: The Washington Post reports that this year some 40 states are dealing with challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools.)

    "Kinsey" is an almost uncannily helpful guide to how these old cultural fault lines have re-emerged from their tomb, virtually unchanged. Among Kinsey's on-screen antagonists is a university hygiene instructor who states with absolute certitude that abstinence is the only cure needed to stop syphilis. Sound familiar? In tune with the "moral values" crusaders, the Web site for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has obscured and downplayed the important information that condoms are overwhelmingly effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. (A nonprofit organization supporting comprehensive sex education, Advocates for Youth, publicized this subterfuge and has been rewarded with three government audits of its finances in eight months.) Elsewhere in "Kinsey," we watch desperate students pepper their professor with a series of uninformed questions: "Can too much sex cause cancer? Does suppressing sex lead to stuttering? Does too much masturbation cause premature ejaculation?" Though that sequence takes place in 1939, you can turn on CNN in December 2004 and watch Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council repeatedly refuse - five times, according to the transcript - to disown the idea that masturbation can cause pregnancy.

    Ms. Wood was being asked about that on "Crossfire" because a new Congressional report, spearheaded by the California Democrat Henry Waxman, shows that various fictions of junk science (AIDS is spread by tears and sweat, for instance) have turned up as dogma in abstinence-only sex education programs into which American taxpayers have sunk some $900 million in five years. Right now this is the only kind of sex education that our government supports, even though science says that abstinence-only programs don't work - or may be counterproductive. A recent Columbia University study found that teens who make "virginity pledges" to delay sex until marriage still have premarital sex at a high rate (88 percent) rivaling those that don't, but are less likely to use contraception once they do. It's California, a huge blue state that refuses to accept federal funding for abstinence-only curriculums, that has a 40 percent falloff in teenage pregnancy over the past decade, second only to Alaska.

    No matter what the censors may accomplish elsewhere, the pop culture revolution since Kinsey's era is in little jeopardy: in a nation of "Desperate Housewives," "Too Darn Hot" has become the national anthem. A movie like "Kinsey" will do just fine; the more protests, the more publicity and the larger the box office. But if Hollywood will always survive, off-screen Americans are being damaged by the cultural war over sex that is being played out in real life. You see that when struggling kids are denied the same information about sexuality that was kept from their antecedents in the pre-Kinsey era; you see that when pharmacists in more and more states enforce their own "moral values" by refusing to fill women's contraceptive prescriptions and do so with the tacit or official approval of local officials; you see it when basic information that might prevent the spread of lethal diseases is suppressed by the government because it favors political pandering over scientific fact.

    While "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" was received with a certain amount of enthusiasm and relief by most Americans in 1948, the atmosphere had changed radically by the time Kinsey published his follow-up volume, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," just five years later. By 1953 Joe McCarthy was in full throttle, and, as James H. Jones writes in his judicious 1997 Kinsey biography, "ultra-conservative critics would accuse Kinsey of aiding communism by undermining sexual morality and the sanctity of the home." Kinsey was an anti-Soviet, anti-New Deal conservative, but that didn't matter in an America racked by fear. He lost the principal sponsor of his research, the Rockefeller Foundation, and soon found himself being hounded, in part for his sympathetic view of homosexuality, by the ambiguously gay homophobes J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. Based on what we've seen in just the six weeks since Election Day, the parallels between that war over sex and our own may have only just begun.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  4. #4


    Haven't seen the movie - but planning on it. I have a friend who just loved it and highly suggests it. Prolly will go see it this weekend and will report back if I do.

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