The Pleasures of Sexual Science

Last week I had the honor of addressing the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. Everyone was very nice to me, and my talk was received enthusiastically.

But that wasn’t nearly the best part. For four days I got to listen to the country’s best sexual scientists. It was a festival of fact, tested hypotheses, and replicated data—actual information.

Leslie Kantor discussed sex education outcomes, demonstrating that scare tactics do not motivate young people, that accurate information is not dangerous, and that parents can shape their kids’ sexual behavior—if they’ll talk to them.

William Fisher dissected common government strategies for fighting HIV/AIDS–and showed why most common approaches are wrong if we want to minimize the spread of the disease.

Debbie Herbenick talked about why promoting sexual satisfaction is an important part of getting people to make responsible sexual decisions. She also showed that policy-makers underestimate men’s willingness to use condoms.

Mickey Diamond presented his long-term study on how children develop a sense of gender—and what happens when physicians or parents ignore this.

There was plenty of other science to go around, with data on the effects of pornography in real life (quite small), the dynamics of sex offending (very low recidivism), the most effective ways to teach medical students about sex, the impact of social media on sexual decision-making, and so on. Even former Surgeon General David Satcher gave a talk.

While sexual scientists were examining the fine points of sample size and research design, Republicans wanting to run for President were running away from science as fast as they could.

Rick Perry dismissed evolution as “just a theory” with “some gaps in it.” He also dismisses climate science as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart.”

Newt Gingrich, a brilliant, well-educated man who surely says different in private, calls himself “agnostic” on the question of climate change: “I actually don’t know whether global warming is occurring.”

Mitt Romney, who would gladly say Rhode Island is bigger than Texas if he thought it could help him get elected, now says he’s “unsure” about climate change.

Michelle Bachmann—who makes Sarah Palin look moderate, intelligent, warm, and conciliatory—has never met a scientific fact she couldn’t ignore or disagree with. On the “Today” show, she attacked vaccination. In speeches, she calls Emergency Contraception “the abortion pill,” even though a pregnant woman taking EC continues to be pregnant.

Gravity? Unfortunately, these candidates are not being asked if they believe in it. I’d love to hear them either deny that it’s real, or actually say the words “yes, I acknowledge the science.”

Of course, this is a country in which more people believe in the Rapture than in Evolution. Half of today’s Americans are like cavemen confronting fire for the first time—pointing at it with a combination of fear, wonder, and rage.

It all helps explain why sexual scientists spend so much time talking to each other, getting so little time to speak with policy-makers, bureaucrats, and elected officials. Maybe after the Rapture takes all the anti-intellectuals, it will be easier for the voices of scientists to be heard.

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