Sexuality researchers in the United States were not always, as one observer put it, refugees from the social sciences. At one time research in this area was almost lavishly funded. In 1921, the paucity of scientific knowledge about human sexual behavior led the National Research Council to form the Committee for Research in Problems in Sex, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Between 1922 and 1947, the Committee received approximately $1.5 million for the “scientific study of sexuality as a biological phenomenon distinct from the limited study of human social problems of a sexual nature.” More than $1 million was also provided in direct financing to five universities for sex research projects approved by the committee. Efforts supported during this period ranged from studies of hormones and the biology of sex to the pioneering social research of Alfred Kinsey and his collaborators. Following the controversy that erupted after the publication of the Kinsey studies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, funding of research that utilized national samples and focused directly on sexuality decreased steadily, culminating in the rejection of two largescale sexuality studies by the federal government in the early 1990s.“As a cohesive field of inquiry and investigation, sexuality research has remained largely underdeveloped.”
The lack of support for this work within the disciplines in the wake of the Kinsey uproar has had significant effects. As a cohesive field of inquiry and investigation, sexuality research has remained largely underdeveloped. Sexuality researchers have often found themselves isolated within their respective disciplines, and their work has typically been viewed as illegitimate, unimportant, or invisible, only coming to public attention during periods of controversy. Nor has there been any coordinating mechanism in the social sciences to provide financial, logistical, or political support to professionals conducting sexuality research. For generations of researchers, this situation has created enormous disincentives for entering the field. The fact that sexuality research is relevant to a variety of disciplines but prominent in none is evidenced by the lack of comprehensive, specialized training, peer support, and professional recognition for those conducting research in this area.
Nevertheless, some current developments within the field of sexuality research offer significant promise for field development. Research in family planning has in recent years moved beyond contraceptive issues to larger developmental and life-course concerns relating to sexual and reproductive health. A substantial body of research on adolescent sexuality from the 1950s to the 1990s has been accumulated in a variety of disciplines, although with little efforts to integrate these findings into policy formation.
Since the advent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, most of the information about sexuality has been extrapolated from research on the transmission and prevention of the HIV virus. As a result of the epidemic, numerous high-quality research programs relevant to sexuality have been undertaken by well-recognized researchers representing a variety of disciplines including epidemiology, sociology, psychology, and medical anthropology. Several of these programs in the 1990s developed a strong interdisciplinary orientation. Such programs, both domestic and international, have included: the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs of sexual behavior change; sexuality surveys at the local and national level; HIV/AIDS prevention in various populations and fieldwork studies of sexual patterns in afflicted groups.
The field of sex therapy grew rapidly after the introduction of behavioral therapeutic approaches by Masters and Johnson and others during the 1960s and 1970s. While usually conducted by clinically-trained psychologists, social workers, and others, sexual therapy for individuals and couples has increased considerably, yet often without adequate moorings in scientific research and evaluation of treatment modalities. More recently, cognitive behavioral techniques have been applied to the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, and there have been concomitant advances in the study of physiological measures of sexual functioning and in the understanding of sexual problems, especially in those areas of hormonal development in humans and lower animals. At the same time, the field of sex therapy has become somewhat isolated from other areas in sexuality research, with little impact upon the implications of clinical work for other areas of research (e.g., experimental, developmental, survey).
Scientific advances in the treatment of intersex patients have led to a greater understanding of psychosexual differentiation through an integration of psychological, endocrinal, and genetic contributions. Clinical research in this area has led to basic behavioral studies of the formation of gender identify over the life course. Spontaneous errors of sexual differentiation in patient populations have exemplified the interplay among chromosomes, hormones, body build, sex of assignment, and a list of factors involved in the social process of childrearing. Meanwhile, the social and cultural conditions of sexual and gender development, including the rise of transgender identities, has precipitated an increased attention to the “social construction” of sexuality in the social sciences.“The second wave of the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian movement have shifted and transformed research models of and cultural thinking about issues of gender and sexuality, both in and out of the academy.”
Over the past two decades, the second wave of the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian movement have shifted and transformed research models of and cultural thinking about issues of gender and sexuality, both in and out of the academy. Women’s studies programs have influenced conceptions of gender and sexuality within the more traditional disciplines and have increased research interest in many areas, including sexual rights/discrimination, sexual violence/harassment, and commercial sex work. Scholars in the gay and lesbian movement have influenced both gay and lesbian studies programs and the traditional disciplines by encouraging work that identifies the complex relations among social movements, community structure, personal identity, and sexual practices in the United States and abroad. These influences have been particularly evident in the discipline of history, which has produced considerable new work on the history of sexuality.
Beyond disease prevention
Despite these developments, the primary driving force currently generating sexuality research remains a preventive health agenda that defines sexuality as a social problem and behavioral risk, as in HIV/AIDS or STD transmission or teen pregnancy. This definition typically translates to a disease prevention model of sexuality encompassing medically defined categories of analysis, epidemiological assessments, and/or pharmaceutical interventions. While there can be no doubt that behavioral research is needed to help prevent social problems and/or disease, the ramifications of a limited, preventive approach are significant. First, the research questions are focused primarily on identifying high-risk sexual behaviors and/or motivating behavioral change, and second, sexuality is often conceptualized solely within a negative and problematic context.
In moving beyond the disease prevention approach, a number of priority areas for further research investigation emerge. First, there needs to be a strong commitment to examining biological and social/cultural interactions that impact sexual life. Second, intrinsic factors such as hormonal influences and genetics should be studied in a social and cultural context that reflect the complexity of human sexuality. Third, the influence of cultural differences on sexuality and sexual functioning needs to be understood through careful descriptive and contextual research. In identifying priority areas, an essential question is: On sexuality research topics and issues should investigators and funders concentrate their resources and energies to both advance the field of human sexuality research and provide findings with potential application to society? An emerging list of needed areas of research include:
- Sexuality, social inequality, and injustice is a pervasive theme underlying several needed lines of inquiry. Connected to this, what is the link between specific risk behaviors and social factors such as poverty and limited access to services that increase the rates of STDs and HIV transmission among specific ethnic groups. Some important questions here are: What impact do the social hierarchies reflecting class, race, gender, and sexual orientation have on sexuality and sexual functioning? What is the effect of being excluded from the “mainstream” community by any of those factors?
- Aging and sexuality. The public health of a sexually active aging population is affected by both HIV and other STDs, but also by issues associated primarily with aging, such as: social norms and expectations; biopsychosexual developmental changes of maturation; stigma and discrimination; presence or absence of social and psychological support; loss of relationships and obstacles to forming new, perhaps same-sex, relationships; and retirement.
- Sexuality of women. Given the recent emphasis of research on the sexuality of men in the wake of Viagra, investigations on female sexuality are needed to identify the interactions of biological factors (such as hormonal state) and psychosocial factors (such as power differentials and fear in negotiation of sexual interactions, stress, and/or positive or negative feelings about pregnancy) and their effect on women’s sexuality.
- Relationships and the importance of the dyad (either romantic or parent-child). Given that the nature of “a couple” has changed over the last several decades, research is needed to understand these changing relationships, addressing such questions as: How is the couple viewed differently by each partner within the context of gender script theory? How do people form, maintain, and dissolve relationships? What is the romantic ideology involved? Is it the same for a same-sex relationship as for an opposite sex one? What are the contributions of gender differences to these issues? What impact do these factors, in turn, have on gender violence? A major barrier to the investigation of this type of relationship has been the absence of both appropriate methodologies with which to collect data from couples and statistical models to analyze quantitative data.
- Adolescent relationships. Knowledge is particularly lacking about how adolescents go about forming partnerships, and how success in this regard can contribute to their feelings of competency. How do children conceptualize gender scripts and the development of relationships?
- The impact of same-gender relationships warrants investigation, especially in light of recent changes in public policy, e.g., the recognition of civil unions of same-sex couples in Vermont. Here, the questions are: Will the legalization of such unions have a positive outcome on sexual and mental health? What impact will it have on opposite gender, i.e., heterosexual, couples that choose to forgo marriage in favor of other partnership or family structures? What effect will other social changes, such as the recent growth of the “out culture,” have in terms of personal self-esteem and self-efficacy, sexual behaviors, and the formation of new sexual scripts?
- Norms. How and to what extent culturally-based religious and social norms influence a range of behaviors relating to sexuality over the life course would be an important line of inquiry, including sexual negotiation, gender roles and gender scripts, contraceptive use and HIV/STD protection, and same sex-behaviors and sexual identity.
- Religious beliefs and prohibitions. The impact of religious beliefs and prohibitions on sexual behaviors and the role of religious communities and religious leaders in this regard is little understood. Considering that humans now mature sexually at an earlier age and marry later than in the past, and that marriages often end in divorce leading to another period of single adulthood, an important question is: What are the ramifications of religious prohibitions against premarital sexual intercourse that allow for no discussion of protection against sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancy? What is their impact on policy in this regard?
- Media, information technology, and sexuality. The advent and acceleration of communication technologies presents new research questions and challenges as the Internet becomes an increasingly significant conduit for “sex education” and the arena in which new relationships are initiated (either in actuality or in cyberspace). Research is needed to address the usefulness and impact of the media and of IT for information production and dissemination and its link to sexual socialization, behavior, and practices. Some important questions to address are: What is the role or responsibility of the media in promoting sexual health? What is the significance and importance of the internet as a new sexual conduit for men and for women? What is its significance for research design and implementation with the possibility of new methods of data collection and multisite studies?
The way in which sexuality is conceptualized has significant impact on the research undertaken, the funding available for its support and its links to advocacy, service provision, and public opinion; as well, it directs researchers to prioritize specific topics, approaches, and issues, prompting them to compete with other researchers for the small amount of funding available for work in this area.
Acceptance and legitimization of sexuality research and recognition of its potential contribution to public policy is affected by various factors including the political climate, public awareness, funding, and the participation of diverse professional organizations and networks. Currently, there remains considerable public misperception of sexuality researchers as flag bearers of the “sexual revolution,” and substantial work is needed, both within and outside of academic arenas, to promote the research and its potential impact as well as those who conduct it.
Some significant policy issues
Although the US public is generally uninformed about the value and contribution of sexuality research to discourse on important topics, there is a “silent and diffuse majority” that is receptive to information about human sexuality linked to the quality of life health status and promotion, relationships, and family well-being. Juxtaposed to this group are the relatively vocal extremists (an “intense minority,” e.g., the religious right) who have proven their skill at grassroots organization, lobbying, and interfacing with the media. Effectively able to shape public opinion, this group continues to promulgate via diverse channels that research questions about human sexuality should not be asked and that human sexuality is not a legitimate area of research inquiry, forcefully hindering support for this work.“Researchers need to incorporate the ‘concerns’ of the public by making use of the data they produce in ways that the public can identify.”
In order to be effective communicators of their findings, researchers must tell a potentially complex story in a simple way. This is not a matter of “scaling down” research findings, but of waiting until the emerging picture is sufficiently mature to allow for the appropriate identification of a central message—a process useful to the academic and lay communities alike. Such simplicity can emphasize relevance, and in so doing, can be more compelling to the public consumer. Major tasks for researchers, then, are: to understand the social contexts within which various segments of the public interacts (e.g., religious, ethnic, cultural, and familial arenas), present compelling data to the public via diverse and customized dissemination activities, and be able to effectively address concerns raised during public discourse. Moreover, researchers need to incorporate the “concerns” of the public by making use of the data they produce in ways that the public can identify. Life or situational “stories” can have a significant effect in this regard, such as “case study” stories of couples or dyads that powerfully communicate important issues, in many instances much more effectively than current methods of dissemination based solely on reiterating statistical data.
While research dissemination of issues and data increasingly takes place in the context of community outreach and education through providers, service organizations, and advocacy groups, the media remains the most far-reaching and powerful means of public communication available to researchers—for the dissemination of their work, to convey credibility on sexuality research, to change public opinion and, ultimately, to affect public policy. And yet, this arena remains a woefully underused mechanism for most researchers who are typically trained not to engage in public discourse and shudder at the prospect of working with the mass media (knowing that the experience is often one in which they are unexpectedly “set up” in a false debate, misquoted in print, or rushed through radio or television interviews with loss of the crucial context of their messages).
The sexuality research field in the United States has not, and currently is not viewed, as an effective force in policy development and implementation, and an important factor in this regard is the lack of effective leadership in the field. Moreover, sexuality researchers have little participation in the political arena so visibly dominated by conservative organizations, effectively able to bring their ideological views, unsubstantiated by research, to bear on legislators or other policymakers. Yet the political arena can present positive opportunities of which the research community must take advantage. An example of this is the forthcoming Surgeon General’s report, Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior (January 2001), which provides a comprehensive definition both of individual sexual health and a sexually-healthy society, supports training for all professionals whose work relates to sexuality and a comprehensive sexuality research agenda and promotes research evaluation/ dissemination to practitioners, policymakers and educators. The planned, extensive distribution of this report to individuals and organizations at the community level nationwide will significantly encourage a more constructive public discourse about sexuality. Researchers should be ready to clarify and discuss the implications of the report, thus not only providing this essential public service but in so doing, publicly demonstrating the significance and relevance of the work.“Policy forum series in which sexuality researchers, politicians, government representatives, and policy planners participate would provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and dialogue on relevant health issues.”
In order to ensure the effective translation of research into applied work relevant to the general public, communities, NGOs, and individual practitioners, sexuality researchers must be able to play a more active role in the development and implementation of policy. The creation of both a national commission of research experts and a coalition of research and policy organizations would exert a much-needed leadership in that it could periodically issue data-based recommendations and/or executive summaries concerning sexuality research, education and funding, testify before legislative and other policymaking groups, and monitor media coverage of emerging policies. Policy training workshops provide important formalized opportunities for accumulating skill in providing quick, accurate responses to public policy changes, and to effectively disseminate research findings relevant to sexuality in general and sexual health in particular. Policy forum series in which sexuality researchers, politicians, government representatives, and policy planners participate would provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and dialogue on relevant health issues. These forums would include politicians, legislators, and journalists and could occur in the form of breakfast meetings or monthly working groups. In this exchange, researchers would have the opportunity to educate politicians about the significant and potential impact of current research findings (including public health and mental health consequences) and in turn, policymakers can apprise researchers of ways in which they can become a part of the policy development process. They may be able to move toward working alliance of mutual respect and understanding.
Participants in Roundtable Discussion on Sexuality Research and Training
Social Science Research Council, June 1–2, 2000
Craig Calhoun, Social Science Research Council
Eli Coleman, University of Minnesota
Sarah H. Costa, Ford Foundation
John Delamater, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Diane di Mauro, Social Science Research Council
Anke Ehrhardt, New York State Psychiatric Institute
John Gagnon, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Lisa Goldberg, Revson Foundation
Julia R. Heiman, University of Washington
Margaret Hempel, Ms. Foundation for Women
Gilbert H. Herdt, San Francisco State University
Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood of New York City
Edward O. Laumann, University of Chicago
Shirley Lindenbaum, City University of New York
Deborah L. Tolman, Wellesley College
Sharon Thompson, Ford Foundation
Martha Vicinus, University of Michigan
Kim Wallen, Emory University
Patricia Warne, New York State Psychiatric Institute
This article is based in large part on the discussion at several meetings, in particular a roundtable on the trends and future directions of sexuality research and training held at the Council offices on June 1–2, 2000.
This archive piece was originally published as “Current Trends and Future Directions in Sexuality Research.”
Diane di Mauro has worked over 20 years in the field of human sexuality, specializing in the areas of sexuality research and education. She served as the director of the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Program (SRFP), which was active from 1996 to 2005. Di Mauro is the author of Sexuality Research in the United States: An Assessment of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (SSRC, 1995.)
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 2, No. 3–4 in the fall of 2000. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.