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50 Years On, Research On Sex Can Still Be A Lightning Rod

Virginia Johnson in 1997. She never graduated from college but became an authority on sexuality.
James A. Finley
Virginia Johnson in 1997. She never graduated from college but became an authority on sexuality.

The world has changed a lot since a divorced mother of two teamed up with a St. Louis gynecologist to study the physiology of sex.

Masters and Johnson's first book, Human Sexual Response, made Virginia Johnson and William Masters household names in the 1960s. More than any other scientists before them, they approached sex as a biological process to be observed, measured and analyzed.

Virginia Masters diedthis week at age 88. Her work is credited with dispelling many long-held myths about sex, from the thought that penis size matters to the notion that old people don't do it.

"We've gone through tremendous change," says Eli Coleman, director of the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota. He says he remembers when Masters and Johnson couldn't get their work published in medical journals. "That just isn't the case any more," Coleman told Shots. "Masters and Johnson were pioneers, and they legitimized the field. We're seeing the results of their courage and labor."

But research on sex can still be a tough sell, even in an age when Internet porn has made it possible for people to view every imaginable form of sexual conduct.

Research projects that have the word "sex" somewhere in them continue to run into trouble with critics in Congress and advocacy groups.

They include a project at the University of Minnesota funded by the National Institutes of Health that was designed to reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases for homosexual men who looked for sexual partners on the Internet. The Traditional Values Coalition called that a "government-funded gay porn site."

"Did you know that your paycheck was hit in order to fund a study on how to use condoms correctly?" Fox News pundit Sean Hannity asked this spring. He was talking about a $423,500 study at the Indiana University's Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction on barriers to condom use. Hannity claimed the project, which got federal stimulus funding, failed to create jobs. The university says that in fact about nine researchers were employed for three years, and the research is studying how to increase proper condom use to reduce STDs and pregnancy.

"Sex is still a very volatile subject," says Jennifer Bass, director of communications for the Kinsey Institute. "The questions we had 50 years ago are different, but some of those questions still remain. Why do people do what they do even though they know about the consequences? Why do smart people get involved in dangerous situations? How does sex influence people's lives and choices?"

With the NIH research budget shrinking, scientists who study sex will find the hunt for funds no easier. "But I think there is a lot of support of basic science research in the area of sexuality," Coleman says — at least from other scientists.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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