The Field of Sex Research:
It has been traditional in the "International Academy for Sex Research" for the President, at the end of term, to offer an hour review of those research efforts which marked his or her life's work. I have taken three-quarters of my time to do so. For the last quarter of an hour I would like to offer these reflections.
It has been an honor for me to offer for the Academy a review of some of my scientific work for the past 40 years in the field of sex research. I would like to put all of those efforts into the context of my having had intellectual fun in following my curiosity while, on a second level, trying to unravel some specific questions on sexual development.
I would now like to address some ideas in general which I think are of importance to all of us interested in sex research. These ideas are not new nor thought up just for the occasion. I've thought about them for some time and personally tried to put some of them into action. These ideas are not unique to me but I believe worth emphasis. Academy Presidents in the past have voiced ideas somewhat similar in nature (e.g., Tiefer, 1994).
The first and most important point I would like to emphasize is the need to establish Sexology firmly and unequivocally as a full fledged field of study. This is not to be a branch of Biology or Medicine or Sociology, or Psychology or any other discipline. Yes, professionals of those areas may have a professional interest in sex but those trained and training in Sexology will be individuals aware and knowledgeable of the relevant factors in each of those other fields so that they can integrate, evaluate, produce and otherwise further the overall subject. My own graduate studies in Anatomy had me learn histology, physiology, embryology, endocrinology, biochemistry, and some electron microscopy, as well as neurosciences, statistics and more. But it still provided a limited view of sex. I also did a graduate minor in Psychology to augment my knowledge from that perspective and took medical training as well and passed basic boards in that discipline. Even that was not enough and over the years I've tried to add knowledge of sociology, anthropology and other fields. I don't think that was the best way to approach our discipline. It would have been better to get all the needed courses in one department. I see a Sexology department doing that.
Subjects in a Sexology department can and should range from clinical to philosophical, from ethics to religion, literature, and history, from psychology to sociology and anthropology, from art to pornography, prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases and public health matters, to medical conditions, to women's and men's studies. The potential scope is perhaps greater than that for most existing departments and the talents needed to support such a program are diverse.
In the present case I'm calling for those of you in each of your disciplines, particularly the younger members with your careers still ahead of you, to come together for the benefit of yourselves and for future generations. I am not simply speaking of holding a joint course of Sexology 101 where contributions come from different departments. I'm calling for the full establishment of departments of Sexology to offer a set of courses which, after Sexology 101 and 102 can carry the student into any of 10 or so directions for specialization up to the Ph.D. degree. I'm asking that those who come together in such a department do not do so just in token affiliation but for true collaboration, mental enrichment, and support in research, teaching and other directions; for your own professional and intellectual growth.
There are Universities in the U.S. which offer many courses but not yet a single department in any fully accredited University where an individual can pursue a doctorate in one of a dozen or more aspects of Sexology. It can be anyone of you to take the lead in your own Institution to bring the relevant parties together. I understand this is presently a goal at the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana, and with programs at the University of California at Northridge and the University of California at San Francisco. I truly hope these programs succeed. These and additional ones are needed. There is little doubt that the students enrolling in such courses will benefit personally in immeasurably more ways than they might from most other courses they take.
I'm further asking that those of us here, for certain, and those who would join or form such a department, to proudly identify as sexologists even while remaining in your present departments. One can be the sexology expert in a psychology department, or a sociology department or at a medical clinic and so on. Colleagues will be infected by the enthusiasm in which you embrace the calling and realize that studies of all aspects of sex is legitimate and a professional interest in sex is not prurient but as worthy as any other academic, scientific or clinical interest. But more importantly it will establish in the minds of the administration, students, fellow faculty and eventually the community at large, that the study of sex, its teaching, research and other endeavors are as fully legitimate as any other discipline listed in the Institution's catalog. It will foster the recognition that "academic freedom" in research and teaching is not only for orthodoxy but for ideas that perhaps challenge the status quo, as well. Parenthetically, I would add that calling sexology sexual science, to me, is a pretentious attempt at upgrading the field. It is a testimony to insecurity. We don't need terms like psychological science, or sociological science. Psychology and Sociology do nicely, and so does Sexology.
Yes, continue to attend psychology or sociology meetings if your area of interest is such, or neurobiology meetings, or history society conferences or medical clinical symposia or women's study programs if they are to your taste. But bring the information and expertise to bear within the broader discipline of sexology so that the challenges, even debates and arguments of colleagues that see the world differently, can be put to the strongest tests. Do not avoid interdisciplinary challenges, seek them. Discussion with those with whom you intellectually disagree will provide the best way to perfect your own thinking and theory construction. It would make what ever evolves that much stronger. I've always told my students "Don't aim at straw men or weak arguments to disprove, but find the strongest arguments of others and strive to better them." Don't do only what is easy; do what is difficult. It's probably not been done before.
When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the world there should have been a clamor for sexologists to provide answers or directions of attack to the problem just as there was a call on physicians and public health professionals. Yes, those professionals were and are needed in the fight. But, as it turns out still today, the best medicine for this catastrophic disease is prevention and sex education, not a pill nor a potion nor a form to fill out. It is sexologists, drawn from all the fields mentioned above, that must, until a vaccine is available, integrate the behavioral-social-cultural factors which might eventually penetrate the individual and collective consciousness to slow down the spread of this dread disease with appropriate sex education. If pure water were the antidote for HIV infection, most of those with the disease could not afford it and for those in risk of the disease, any vaccine's cost would keep it out of reach.
The formation of our discipline into a front-line one will not be easy. Aside from the institutional arguments of budget and administrative red tape there will be fights over territory, course content and negative publicity. There will be scrutiny which few other fields have. And there might be ridicule. But there can also be support for dynamic teaching ideas or research efforts. There will certainly be help to students in helping them understand some important aspects of their lives. There can be a legitimization for providing input to administrative and social matters which would otherwise not seem appropriate both on and off campus.
The second point, which goes along with the first and in many ways is supported by it, is to, as individual professionals, proudly involve ourselves in public discourse and even the political process. The research findings of many of us are useful, and in many ways, crucial in helping matters of everyday life. Unfortunately publication in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Science or even the New England Journal of Medicine doesn't easily get translated into public thinking or action. What is at least needed is calling relevant findings to public awareness. This can be via institutional public relations offices or directly to the media. This can be by letter writing or offering public testimony when appropriate. It is certainly of use to do so in organizational advising and such. Most of us are relatively humble and conservative in this regard. I think to hide our lights under a bushel is self defeating and of less value to the greater social good than it might be. Moreover, the improvement of society is one justification for research. Brian Gladue wrote of the American Psychological Association and some of its roles and the push to initiate a Division of Sexology within that organization [Gladue, 1997]. I strongly support his efforts and the idea that a Division of Sexology be formed within the American Psychological Association (APA) and in many other organizations as well; say the American Medical Association.
While we are all super busy our results might be important for civil rights, say for gays, bisexuals, transgendered or intersexed individuals; for those who might be called to task for displays of dress, images or behavior considered "inappropriate." Our work can be useful in the fight for the right to control one's reproductive potential and to have children by choice. Our work can advise on matters of pornography, rape, the treatment of sex offenders or sex abuse victims and on the structure of sex related laws. Our work can be instrumental in increasing the public's understanding and dealing with questions of prostitution, child rearing, individual sexual differences, relationships, love, marriage, child rearing, censorship and more. In short, the topics we investigate every day have wide ranging importance to society. I think we need to have society come to see our value as sexologists and that is done by ourselves first demonstrating our own pride in what we do and by our willingness to present our findings for public consumption.
Do I think that all of us would agree with the solutions we might offer for societies sexual concerns? Or do I think we would all agree on how to approach socially sensitive and important sex-related issues? Of course not. But I think our open discourse and debate over the issues, with cogent critique and analysis, would be better than gut feelings and recourse to tradition or religion. And the final result will be instructive to the general public. I don't think we ought to surrender the discussion or sound bites to those whose motives are sexophobic and whose knowledge of sex is minimal.
The third matter I would like to stress is in regard to our organization within itself, our meetings and functioning and our relationship to the communities in which we exist. John Bancroft gamely tried to tackle some of the weighty and thorny issues involved therein and his report will be part of our Business meeting. One of the precipitating factors in this introspection was the formation of a new organization spawned by one of our members Gil Herdt. This new society is called the "International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society." This organization is holding its first conference in 1999 in Manchester, England, and now has its own journal-- "Culture, Health & Sexuality" --the first issue of which was recently published. I myself have not seen the issue or really know much about the organization. While I wish it luck it is obvious that its focus seems diametrically opposed to what we in the Academy hope to achieve and be part of. One of the strongest draws to our own organization for me is that we strive to integrate rather than separate, we want to encourage the meeting of minds not mentally separate Us from Them.
For me, research is some-what like intellectual solitaire where the game is enhanced by difficulty, not by "cheating" by using only easy card sorts. It is naive of any society to think it can understand sexual culture and society without considering how biology, medical conditions, or evolution might be influential. In so doing, it throws out the baby with the bath water. Just to give a personal example, I recently spent 6 months trying to better my understanding of sexual development by researching intersexuality in Gaza, Israel where, due to intrafamilial marriage and a genetic inheritance, there is a large intersex population ( see e.g., [Rösler, 1983 #913]. There is no way the intersex condition can be looked at and comprehended without fully considering both the biological and socio-cultural parameters of Arab-Islamic family, kinship, social and cultural situations in which these individuals are raised and live. And this micro culture is only understood by recognizing some of the biological factors with which these people have to deal and those which shape their lives.
I fear that new organization will suffer for its narrow focus and am thankful that we are more cosmopolitan and broader in thinking. What would be regrettable from the point of view of our own organization is if it splinters off some of our current members so they do not again participate in the cross-fertilization of ideas, comments and cogent critiques here and receive the views of others so all mutually benefit.
We are now celebrating our 25th Anniversary and that concept of multi-disciplanary representation has been one of our Academy's founding principles. I think the cross-fertilization and interactions offered here is one of the organization's strengths. Biological ideas are leavened by those of sociologists and vice versa, the clinical approaches of psychologists are augmented by those of medical clinicians and vice versa, the concerns of philosophers and ethicists are placed in juxtaposition with reality as seen by behaviorists, zoologists or lawyers. In short, our meetings and organization provides a venue, not where we preach to the choir but where we discuss, dispute and even argue with peers of different expertise; sexology is not a religion where everything is settled by dictum or holy writ. It is a spirited field where I see challenge and debate as positive as is the combining of our brain power to achieve broader understanding.
That said, how can we improve as an organization? How can we better offer our members what it is they want or need? I offer some of my insights and preferences for consideration. The first set of ideas is in regard to our meetings, the second is in regard to efforts aside from the meetings.
Members: One simple suggestion is to invite those whose work you respect or often quote to become members of the society. They do not have to be individuals you know personally. All you have to know is that they have a serious interest in sex research, have demonstrated so with publication and you think they have something to offer.
Meetings: I would strongly recommend that symposia be structured so that different views are offered to cover any topic. A presentation on homosexuality, for instance, can include a talk on how atypical orientation effects society and another talk can discuss ethical or philosophical issues related to such studies while a third offers a review of what is known of the genetic and neural components to sexual partner choice.
Posters: I would suggest that our meetings display any poster any member cares to present. Membership in our society, by itself, testifies to the caliber of the member so that any idea he or she wishes to present deserves consideration and viewing, acceptance, debate or rejection, by the other members. And time and place must be given for full and honorable attention to these posters so that they are considered a valuable academic presentation on a par with oral presentation.
Another suggestion is to possibly have a "Hot Seat." This is where someone volunteers to present a controversial thesis or some findings for challenge or to ask for help on attacking a research problem. It might take the form of a 5 minute presentation followed by 10-15 minutes of exchange with the audience. For instance someone may have a controversial theory or set of results to be explored in depth. These can be philosophical or data oriented (e.g., Why are men more often fetishists than women?; Is religion good or bad for sexual activities?; Does the G-spot and female ejaculation really exist?) The volunteer, of course, can be invited.
The Rest of Year: With Mike Bailey's agreement, as keeper of the listserve, I would encourage and welcome all IASR members and other sex researchers to participate or at least lurk on Sexnet <email@example.com> to offer whatever input is felt worthy, to contribute so we can all learn from the discussions.
A more difficult suggestion:
We must find a way to deal with the scurrilous and ridiculous remarks of individuals like Judith Reisman and the ranting of Dr. Laura. Their comments smear not only practices they find offensive but individuals as well. The pro and con actions of the American Psychology Association has also made the news. I think it is our responsibility as a field and surely as a Society to defend our colleagues right to academic freedom, and, after having passed peer review, to protect their integrity and their work and to expose to the media and elsewhere, those whose thinking on the matter is unschooled and wrong. Doing so as a professional society has weight that a critique by only one or even several of us, would not have. And I think we could have voiced our opinions about the firing of Journal of the American Medical Association editor George Lundberg for publication of sex survey results and at so many other times when a rational voice would be of value to counter all the misinformation the public hears that colors their views of what is right or correct or even true or false about sex.
I think we, as a society, should defend academic freedom for Ed Miller, Rile et al. and those others who present unpopular but research or theory defensible ideas, or write of child-adult sexual activity or other issues. We need, as an organization, to defend the Kinsey Institute, the person Kinsey, John Bancroft, Vern Bullough and other serious researchers. The answer to charges of bad research and thinking is a call for better research and better thinking. We ought to defend academic freedom as an organization. For surely, if we don't hang together, we will hang separately.
I would like to see the Academy offer itself for Amicus briefs or position papers, either directly or via consultation with appropriate legal firms or organizations, for many sex related matters. In short, I think we need venture outside of our ivory towers, not to make money but to better society and Sexology as a field. We must make other professional organizations and the media know we exist and have intellectual weight. The mechanisms for how to do this can be worked out.
For this Presidential talk, I've tried to go beyond the usual recitation of some research efforts of my past and talk of my vision for the organization's present and our field's future. Thank you all for allowing me the opportunity to do so. The past 25 years of the Academy is filled with prideful years. I trust that much before the Academy for Sex Research comes together for its 50th Anniversary we can look back on many of my suggestions as having been long accomplished and look forward to ever greater achievements for the field of Sexology.
Gladue, B. 1997. Update on Planning Process. Fri, 18 Jul 1997 06:39:35 -1000; <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Rösler, A., and G. Kohn. 1983. Male pseudohermaphroditism due to 17B-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency: studies on the natural history of the defect and effect of androgens on gender role. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry, 19:663-674.
Tiefer, L. 1994. Three crises facing sexology. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23:361-374.