Sex-Toy Research: Nothing Wrong With a Little Controversy

Conducting research with all due attention to regulations and ethical standards doesn’t automatically insulate it from criticism and controversy. Nor, for that matter, should adherence to rules & regs necessarily imply that one’s research cannot be the subject of ethical scrutiny. Even when researchers are careful not to cross those lines, there’s often still plenty of room for disagreement about what is ethically better and ethically best, and about what research is minimally useful versus what research really makes a significant contribution. And as we’ve blogged about here before, research on sex is liable to garner more that its share of critical attention.

Now, according to the Associated Press, Sex-toy study at Duke raises some eyebrows:

DURHAM, N.C. — A campus religious leader is unhappy about a study at Duke University that invites female students to attend parties where they can buy sex toys.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Friday that the director of the Duke Catholic Center has lodged a complaint with researchers. The Rev. Joe Vetter says the study doesn’t promote relationships.

Here’s a longer version of the story, from The News & Observer of Raleigh: Sex toy research causes a stir at Duke.

(Note: I’m not a fully disinterested commentator, here. The principal investigator in the study under discussion is a Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, where I’m also a Fellow.)

The first thing to note is that the criticism is off-target. University-based research studies are not typically aimed at promoting relationships, or promoting anything at all; they’re about generating generalizable knowledge. Of course, the job of the ethics board that approved the Duke study is to make sure that the risks to which participants are exposed are reasonable, and that those participants understand those risks prior to participation. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one seriously argues that ethics boards should be contemplating whether the conducting of a study in itself contributes to the social good, independent of the knowledge it is likely to generate. (Then again, to his credit, Rev. Vetter isn’t complaining to the ethics board; he’s complaining directly to the researchers.)

The other thing to note is the (rightly) timid tone of the headlines above. There’s no implication of scandal here. This is about a study that is causing “a stir” and raising “some eyebrows.” Those things are in fact healthy. If university researchers never caused a stir or raise eyebrows, it might just be that, collectively, they’re not doing their job.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s VP for public affairs, quoted here, gets it right:

“Not all research will make people comfortable. In fact, there’s a lot of things, there are a lot of questions, there are a lot of issues that are studied at a university that make people uncomfortable,” Schoenfeld said. “That’s how we get an understanding of things like ethics (and) behavior.”

p.s. here’s a useful blog entry over at Science Blogs that tells a bit more about the controversy, as well as about the scholarly reputation of the study’s P.I.: Response to Dan Ariely’s Duke Sex Toy Study

~ by Nancy Walton on November 7, 2009.

One Response to “Sex-Toy Research: Nothing Wrong With a Little Controversy”

  1. We really need to get past our societal sexual inhibitions. Sexual health is something that should be celebrated and sex toys are like the party favors of that celebration. One thing that I found out recently was that sex toys can contain toxins in them and I was truly shocked. Seems that we should be educated about such things. I found some really great articles on the Holistic Wisdom sexual health site that covered which sex toys are safe and which ones are not. People need to be proactively involved in their sexual health… not just their health.

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