Friday, April 13, 2007

Sociology of sex: Then and now

Q. How has your field changed over the decades?

A. For one thing, studying sexuality has become more acceptable. Back then, it was like if you studied sexuality, it meant you had a sexual problem. Everyone thought there’d have to be some bizarre reason why you’d studied it.

Another thing: there’s more money for research now. Research into sexuality had been poorly funded. But in the 1980s with H.I.V./AIDS, there was, suddenly, money. Epidemiologists understood that you couldn’t contain AIDS without understanding why people engaged in certain practices, why they took risks.

What didn’t change much was the difficulty of finding governmental money to study pleasure. If you wanted to discover why some women didn’t have orgasms, for instance, you were likely to have a tough time finding funding.

Q. Is that still true?

A. Yes and no. There’s a lot of pharmaceutical money now in sex research. Viagra. Once Viagra earned millions of dollars, the pharmaceutical companies saw how sexual pleasure could be monetized. I think the industry discovered there was a longing for sexual performance throughout the culture.

Viagra could work for some men because, for them, the ability to have performance created desire. The companies wanted to find something similar for women. For most women, however, sex wasn’t a performance issue. Female sexuality is more complicated. So the drug companies funded many large studies into desire in both men and women. They’ve created much new literature and new professional societies to meet and discuss it.

From this interview of Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist of sex at the University of Washington.

This interview is a part of NYTimes's series on Desire. The other articles are here and here (with a video of an interview with Helen Fisher, Rutgers anthropologist and author of Why We Love).

Here's another interview with Pepper Schwartz.