Masters of Sex and the ongoing stigma of sex research

Hesitance around sexuality studies isn't just a '60s thing

In the third season opener of Showtime's Masters of Sex, William Masters and Virginia Johnson — now ready to give their years of research its public debut — hold a press conference to discuss their findings. Over the course of the episode, they’re confronted with often skeptical and occasionally hostile commentary from the press, until Masters is finally inspired to give a stirring speech about the damaging effects of stigma and ignorance around sexuality. In response, one of the most antagonistic members of the press reveals that he’s only been hard on the pair because he believes their research is incredibly important — on par, he suggests, with that of Galileo.

It might be tempting to read this as a historical drama portraying a pivotal real-life moment in sex research; that from here on out, Masters and Johnson (and those who followed in their footsteps) found themselves welcomed with open arms, with sex research finally treated as a legitimate scientific field. But — as the season three will doubtless reveal — while the field continues to make positive strides toward mainstream acceptance, there are still a number of barriers and hurdles faced by academics interested in exploring the dynamics of sex, even in the present day. We may be a long way from the '60s, when this sort of research was completely unheard of, but scientists who study sex still find themselves coming up against a number of barriers.

Few individuals are willing to put their money behind sex-related research

Would-be sexologists have a great deal more avenues and opportunities than Masters and Johnson had: in the US alone, there are numerous institutions offering advanced degrees in the study of sex. But while it’s now easier to find a degree program to house your research, when it comes to finding funding for their research, the options are a bit more limited. "I don’t apply for federal funding for most of the work that I do," says Dr. Debby Herbenick, a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute. "There’s very little available for sexuality topics. I don’t put myself into that position very often where I feel I need to be on governmental funding." Private foundations can also be a hard sell: as Dr. Miro Gudelsky, a sex therapist who received her doctorate in Human Sexuality from the Institute For the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, explains, few individuals are willing to put their money, or their family’s money, behind sex-related research. "Grandpa worked really hard so that we can find out the most sensitive part of the penis" generally isn’t the sort of story family foundations want to tell.

Which is not to say that there’s no funding for sex-related research. Most of Herbenick’s work is funded by corporations that create products that benefit from her research on sexual behavior, safer sex, and pleasure — for instance, condom and sex toy manufacturers. But this avenue isn’t open to everyone. Herbenick’s work is a natural fit for this sort of partnership, but some of her peers — particularly those interested investigating more controversial or taboo aspects of sexuality — find themselves far less fortunate. Researchers who hope to delve into areas like pedophilia have a very difficult time finding financial support for their work; even those who merely want to study normal adolescent sexual development find that funding is rather scarce. Studies that focus on risks associated with teen sexuality (like adolescent pregnancy) are more successful, but anything daring to examine the more pleasure-focused aspects tend to be out of the realm of interest for funding sources.

Even researchers who, with adequate funding and support, may find that they’re not always taken very seriously because of the stigma still attached to sexuality. "You’re doing actual research... and people just see it as ‘Oh, it’s sex, how titillating,’" comments Gudelsky. And, unlike colleagues in other fields, sex researchers are often forced to contend with assumptions that their professional interests reflect their personal habits. Few assume that ornithologists harbor a secret wish to be birds, or that medical researchers are drawn to their field due to a history of illness, but sex therapists and researchers are frequently presumed to be incredibly adventurous in the bedroom, merely due to their field of research.

William and Virginia Masters

Virginia and William Masters in 1988. (Mark Caldwell/AFP/Getty Images)

And the effects of this stigma aren’t merely limited to those studying the act of sex itself: they can also impact the work of researchers looking to study populations who are publicly affiliated with sexuality. As a master's student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Tara Burns set out to study the human rights impacts of Alaska's prostitution and sex trafficking policy, but from the outset, she found herself facing some unique impediments. Finding committee members to support her research proved incredibly challenging: several department members automatically assumed that the institutional review board (IRB) would never approve her project, while others argued that she’d need psychological training to embark on discussions with sex workers — despite the fact that, prior to graduate school, Burns had spent two decades working in the sex industry. Still others suggested that the work might ruin her chances at a serious academic career.

Even after Burns found three incredibly supportive committee members who showed great enthusiasm for her project, she still came up against resistance. While securing approval to work with human subjects, she was informed that, due to the nature of their work, her proposed subjects were considered vulnerable. And even after she secured internal IRB approval, she was then required to secure additional, outside approval from a committee at Yale.

Burns did eventually get into the field, and the importance of her work quickly became clear. Through her research, Burns discovered that Alaskan sex workers faced an elevated risk of sexual assault at the hands of police officers, and, troublingly, were often discouraged from reporting crime due to the likelihood of getting arrested in the process of filing a report. Burns later took her research to the state legislature in Juneau where, again, she faced discomfort and prejudice due to the sexual nature of her work. "If I had been there [advocating for] some other category of people in our state that are turned away when they try to make police reports 80 percent of the time, they probably would have cared a lot more," she says. "But they don’t want to be perceived as being associated with the prostitutes."

While it's easy to assume the attitudes and stigmas on display on Masters of Sex are relics of the past compared to our enlightened society, Burns’ academic experience suggests we’ve still got a long way to go. But her current work offers a possible way forward for sex researchers looking to fund their work in creative ways. Rather than pursuing federal or foundation funding for her latest project — which takes the research she did on sex work in Alaska to a national level — Burns has turned to crowdfunding. Though this strategy has yet to gain traction in academic circles, there are definitely some who see its promise. "It’s going to push the research in such amazing directions, because now you don’t have to rely on university money or big corporations," says Gudelsky. And if it does manage to provide new sources of funding to research that’s often overlooked by the government, foundations, and even corporations — well, it could be as transformative for sex research as the work of Masters and Johnson.


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