The article cites an anonymous NIH official stating that the situation for sex disease researchers has become much worse under the Bush administration. One researcher said that he was "struggling with how to write the grant proposal" about a study of HIV testing among homosexual men without mentioning them in the abstract.
The United States have a strong empirical tradition. Science enjoys a positive reputation, and the public generally expects laws to be rationally justifiable. Sex and social science therefore should have influence on policies regarding disease control, sex education, pornography, child sexual abuse, and so on. The tried and tested process of transition from science to policy cannot work if science is silently suppressed and only ideological messages that resonate with pressure groups are disseminated.
But this recent act of secret pressure on scientists does not stand alone. In the US, sex science has frequently come under fire from conservative politicians. On October 21, 2002, 12 Congressmen, led by Henry Waxman, have expressed concern over "a pattern of events at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suggesting that scientific decisionmaking is being subverted by ideology and that scientific information that does not fit the Administration's political agenda is being suppressed." Specifically, the letter (772K PDF) said:
On the NIH website, information has been removed discussing scientific findings of the National Cancer Institute that, contrary to popular myth, abortions do not increase the risk of breast cancer. On July 9, 2002, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives wrote to you
seeking an explanation for the removal and asking that you contact the NIH to have this information re-posted. We agree with those members, who
wrote to you that "women must have access to scientifically accurate and unbiased health information." To date, they have received no reply.
In at least two cases, scientific information has also been removed
from the CDC website. First, information concerning educational programs
that have been shown through scientific studies to be effective in
reducing risky behavior among adolescents has been taken down from the
website. At the request of schools, the CDC created a web page, called
"Programs That Work," to identify for educators "curricula with credible
evidence of effectiveness in reducing health risk behaviors among young
people...to help inform local and state choices." The website did not
recommend any particular program, instead stating that "the choice to
adopt a curriculum ultimately rests with local decision makers and must
address community standards and needs." Yet despite this objective,
science-based approach, the entire "Programs That Work" page has been
Second, fact sheets regarding the effectiveness of condoms have been
removed from your website. These fact sheets which were based on an NIH
working group report stated the following: "Latex condoms, when used
consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing
transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, consistent
and correct use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of other sexually
transmitted diseases...[and]...has been associated with reduction in
risk of HPV-associated diseases, such as cervical cancer." Having
evidence-based information on preventing pregnancy and
sexually-transmitted diseases is critical to the health of our young
people. Removal of this information from the website strongly strongly
suggests an ideological, rather than scientific, agenda at work.
Furthermore, the authors worried that critical health officials were replaced with abstinence-only fundamentalists and industry lobbyists.
Previous controversies include the 1994 resignation of Clinton-appointed Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders who stated that "masturbation .. is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it is part of something that perhaps should be taught", and who criticized the Catholic Church for opposing abortion and contraceptions. Another case where Congresspeople were involved is the Rind & Bauserman controversy. A 1999 meta-analysis by these two authors found the effects of child sexual abuse to be much less severe than typically considered. The study was unaninmously condemned by Congress, an event which has been called a "return of the Inquisition" by some authors. This comparison may seem extreme, but Rind & Bauserman's scientific career, at least in the US, was effectively destroyed.
Fundamentalist groups like the Family Research Council or Focus on the Family also engage in heavy lobbying, funding groups like Restoring Social Virtue & Purity to America which aim to discredit past sex science efforts.
Porn and criminal behavior
Speaking of which, the classical example of a political sex science scandal is of course the 1968 Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which, when it was taken over by Richard Nixon, was suppressed in order to avoid having to change pornography laws. The $2 million Commission found porn to be, for the most part, harmless and possibly beneficial: Sex criminals were exposed to less, not more, pornography than the average population, and had usually very little knowledge about sex; furthermore, specific criminological evidence suggested a decline in specific sex crimes in Denmark after the legalization of pornography.
Nixon tried to avert a public relations disaster. He appointed Charles H. Keating, Jr. of the "Citizens for Decent Literature", a well known anti porn crusader:
By 1960, Keating was testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives armed with, according to a Cincinnati Enquirer article, "hundreds of books and magazines -- purchased at newsstands throughout the country -- describing and depicting a variety of perverse sexual activities." After Keating's testimony, in a scene that must have been right out of a Nazi propaganda film, the House subcommittee burned the mass of material. [source]
For his involvement in a banking scandal, he was later sentenced to 151 months in prison (Keating, not Nixon; Nixon just resigned for spying on the competition). At the time, however, he did his best to suppress the porn report through court action (which failed), and prepared a "minority report" along with two other anti-porn members of the commission, one of them a Catholic priest and cofounder of Morality in Media.
The US Senate rejected the majority report 60-5 (35 abstentions). The political attitude towards sex science was perhaps best summarized by Richard Nixon's response to the report: "So long as I am in the White House, there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life." Imagine you are a sex researcher -- now imagine what effect such a reaction by a US President will have on your future work and on your findings. What will you publish and what will you avoid? To say that such public condemnation is not a danger to science is, at the very least, hopelessly naive.
Regardless, the report's results continued to be cited as a defense against media censorship, and in 1984 the purely political Meese Commission was formed to create a new antiporn consensus. However, when several researchers distanced themselves from the effort (which did not fund any original studies), it lost all credibility with most critical observers.
Why care about it? It's just sex!
Perhaps the biggest scandal of them all is the 1970s coverup of the scientific results produced by a research team led by Dr. James W. Prescott, then Health Scientist Administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Prescott's team conducted research into the origins of violence, which consisted of several components:
- Studying the effects of isolation on primates (monkeys reared in isolation, orphaned children)
- Studying the human brain's aggression and pleasure regions in the limbic system and its effects on behavior
- Comparing data on "primitive" societies, their child rearing methods and behavioral patterns. This data had just been digitized and is still in use.
Regarding isolation, Prescott's team refined earlier findings by Harry Harlow on the essential nature of mother/child bonding, specifically touch, in primates. The symptoms of sensory deprivation are many, among them an aversion to touch, self-injury, aggression and head-rocking. Sound familiar? Look at a US high school. Self injury has become a rite of passage among many US teenagers, something I am sure conservative observers will explain with an increase in media violence, drug use and premarital sex. Meanwhile, hundreds of US schools have rules against "Public Display of Affection" such as hugging and kissing.
Prescott's team discovered that besides touch, movement (cradling) of the child was crucial. The reason for this is probably that cradling developed through a process of natural selection as a means for the primate mother to indicate to the child that it is safe (close to the mother). If the child does not feel safe, it must call attention to this fact, since it is still too young to care for itself. Therefore the child must scream -- and to scream it must feel bad. (Evolution tends to arrive at simple solutions.) Cradling does not occur naturally, so besides touch and the mother's heartbeat, it is a good indication for safety. In addition, it stimulates the child's vestibular pathways, therefore training the sense of balance, crucial for learning spatial orientation. In association with Time Life, Prescott produced the film Rock A Bye Baby, which called attention to these facts.
Push that button one more time
The studies of the human brain are perhaps most fascinating to technically minded readers. These were led by Dr. Robert G. Heath, and they involved the implantation of electrodes into the brains of usually schizophrenic patients. This type of direct brain research has received much negative publicity, which is perhaps not coincidental. Among other things, Heath inserted electrodes into the so-called septal region of the human brain in the limbic system. Whether this region is "the pleasure center" or just one of several such centers is unknown, but when activated, it produced feelings commonly associated with sexual pleasure. Previously depressive patients suddenly felt wonderful and became flirtatious. Not surprisingly, any previous violent/aggressive behavior stopped immediately. More unexpected was the discovery that patients did not become addicted to the positive stimulus, but just used it to maintain a general good feeling, which increased, not decreased, their work productivity.
Stimulating the pain/aggression centers of the brain produced the opposite effect. Notably, these two effects cancelled each other out, which Prescott later called a "reciprocal relationship" between pain and pleasure. A good summary of the research can be found here, and some of the actual studies are archived on my site. Heath's research has been almost forgotten. Today, researchers are slowly rediscovering "brain pacemakers", electrodes inserted into the brain which act as neural stimulators to perform regulatory functions. The pleasure region of the brain, however, has turned into uncharted territory: scientists now prefer less problematic brain areals such as the subthalamic nucleus, the stimulation of which can diminish the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
The most intuitively accsesible results, which I have discussed here before, came from Prescott's cross-cultural research. Using the HRAF data, he could predict with certainty the violence of a society by merely looking at two factors: the treatment of infants (physical punishment vs. physical affection) and of juveniles (permissive attitude regarding premarital sex vs. punishment). Affectionate, permissive societies were largely free of violence, while punitive ones were violent and theocratic. You may wish to read this comment I posted to a previous story for some elaboration, specifically on the "correlation vs. causation" argument which is thrown against every study that works with correlation.
In addition to his publications in scientific journals, Prescott wanted to carry his message to the general public in order to influence decision makers. He appeared in TV shows advocating massage parlors and criticizing spanking. His 1975 publication Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence (which summarizes all the above research) was reprinted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and read by Carl Sagan, who mentioned its insights as enormously valuable to the human species in his book "Cosmos". Prescott seemed to be destined for the Nobel Prize.
Then he was fired.
The 1980 dismissal ("Removal for improper use of official position and resources to promote research on 'Developmental Origins of Violence' and 'Child Abuse and Neglect', subjects that are not within the mission of the NICHD, as part of the program of this institute") came after years of obstruction of Prescott's research after a change in leadership in the NICHD. Funding for child abuse research was cut, even computer time for basic data analysis was denied. Prescott wanted to study prison population, in spite of willingness to cooperate by prison officials, this, too, was denied. Conference proceedings were not published. Had Prescott complied with the new "research guidelines", as current NIH officials are so willing to do, he would have kept his job. Instead, he criticized his superiors and demanded a continuation of the research program.
This 1980 Federal Employee article summarizes the case, and this page presents a collection of internal NICHD memos, damning evidence for a long history of cover-up. Note that Prescott's research was never challenged -- in fact, it continues to be favorably cited in social science papers up to today (most recently in the Scientific American). But after his dismissal, Prescott became a pariah, ostracized by his peers. He received funding from porn magnate Larry Flynt and led editorship of a humanist magazine, The Truth Seeker, where he continued to publish his findings, until his atheistic and anti-monotheistic views clashed with the owner. Today, many of his publications are archived on my website, The Origins of Peace and Violence, and have been viewed more than 50,000 times. Prescott's 1975 paper has been translated by volunteers into French, German, Dutch, Finnish and Spanish (to be posted). A CD-ROM collecting and presenting much of his work, including several videos, is being sold by a group called Touch the Future (I can only recommend it for the videos, however, since the PDFs which were generated from my website are incomplete). I am very proud of my contributions to these efforts and hope that they will soon reach a new level.
Of course, new research has been conducted since Prescott, and others have carried on his efforts. The practice of spanking has been much examined, and the results validate Prescott's data: The more severe the punishment, the more lasting and substantial the negative effects. Primatology has since discovered and learned to love (and hate) the bonobo chimpanzees, who use sexuality to mediate in conflicts. Primatology is in the enviable position of not being taken seriously by the general public: It's just monkeys. The fact that humans like to view themselves as superior to and strictly separate from the animal kingdom has always been easily exploitable.
As such, primatology has been relatively unharmed in carrying out its research (although the scientists demanding legal protection for chimps have become a bit bothersome). The other side of the coin is, of course, that these results do not lead to any policy changes, or spur substantial research on humans, the state of sexology being what it is.
The negative effects of sexual abstinence education have by now been well documented, although the critical meta-analysis by DiCenso et al. has been essentially ignored (the French AFP published a good summary, but the US media didn't pick it up). Routine infant circumcision (a US peculiarity), at last, is increasingly frowned upon by the medical establishment, although it is still a long way to its abolition, with some religious groups firmly defending the practice.
One bright ray of hope comes from an unlikely publication and the least expected event: After September 11th, the debate over a clash of Islam with Christianity was renewed. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have published an interesting analysis of the World Values Surveys which links anti-homosexual and anti-woman attitudes to domestic instability. It argues that a prosexual, secular approach is necessary for dictatorships and corrupt regimes to turn into stable democracies. It is not our attitude towards democracy that separates our cultures, it is our attitude towards sex -- and we are walking into the wrong direction. This article should be read in full, its approach is similar to Prescott's cross-cultural research.
Whether it is brain research, sociology, primatology or psychology: The knowledge that sex is a positive, powerful and necessary part of human nature, that touch and affection are the cure for the social diseases of violence and fundamentalism, has been solidified in recent years. It is so strong that billions of dollars by religious fundamentalists have failed to eradicate the findings by a small group of scientific outsiders who stumbled upon aspects of human nature that must remain taboo.
But thanks to the influence of those who desire theocracy or at least a certain degree of ignorance and servitude, it remains elite knowledge, an epiphany that is reserved to the few who dare to question authorities and who are not afraid to enter the deep water in this ocean of human wisdom. The majority, on the other hand, will always rationalize what the mass media present as truth -- afraid that they will otherwise drown in conspiracy theories or dangerous ideas like atheism and communism.
What can be done?
Political suppression of sex science is nothing new. What is new is the dimension of such suppression. It is hardly surprising that lawmakers have not embraced a legalization of pornography, or a more lenient approarch toward the issue of child sexual abuse. The Clinton dismissal/resignation of Jocelyn Elders was already a new level, as conservative Reagan-appointee C. Everett Koop had previously taken a similarly liberal stance on teenage sex, seeing condom distribution as a safe defense against AIDS.
However, the abstinence-only stance of the current administration, which it carries to an international level through the United Nations, is a reactionary program of unprecedented proportions in recent US history. Multi-million dollar abstinence propaganda in schools (usually accompanied by scare pictures of sexual diseases) and "faith-based" initiatives are contrasted with self-censorship in institutions like the NIH -- and not only regarding taboo topics like pornography and pedophilia but also concerning STDs and abortion. Most liberals will see these trends as slightly disturbing, but not much more. One is reminded of the tale of the boiling frog, who does not notice his own demise as the temperature increases little by little.
With traditional media being heavily regulated by the FCC, pixelized breasts and beeped out swearwords, perhaps the last bastion of freedom that has survived all conservative onslaughts is the Internet. Not that they haven't tried -- but laws like the Communications Decency Act are routinely repealed by the Supreme Court. There are now primarily three strategies used for heavier Internet regulation:
- Copyright. Laws like the DMCA have been abused for censorship (specifically its "Notice and Takedown" provision, which exempts ISPs from liability if they shut down controversial sites immediately), and the content industry will continue to lobby for stronger laws until piracy is eradicated, i.e. indefinitely. So far, anti-sex conservatives have not realized that this is their opportunity to combat smut and sex ed as well, with much backing from industry lobbyists. Wait for it.
- State-level action. State-level Super-DMCAs are much more restrictive than their federal equivalent. Establishing such laws is easier since less money and less media exposure is involved. We will probably see more state level censorship laws in the future.
- Kiddie porn. Europeans and Americans alike have realized that child pornography is the right hook to get the public to accept almost any censorship measure. As soon as child porn laws are successfully implemented, they can be used as leverage to build more restrictive censorship indices. The state of Pennsylvania already has a law in place which forces ISPs to block child porn sites, and refuses to disclose the list.
Meanwhile, as traditional media are mostly supportive of the Bush administration and give little airtime to critical views, the Internet is also the best chance to stop the cultural decline of the US into a theocratic, feudal state. Preserving this freedom should therefore be our highest priority. If we fail, our children will ask us what we have done.
My personal contributions to this struggle are my websites, infoAnarchy one of the leading sites on the issue of IP-related censorship, and violence.de, the above mentioned archive of suppressed scientific data that is crucial for the survival of our species. I am in the process of building the latter site into a news/discussion weblog, to be called The Touch Society, which will cover many of the issues mentioned in this article. From a technical perspective, this is a bit of a challenge, as the news part of the site has to be well-integrated with the archive. If you want to help me, the best thing you can do is donate some money which will allow me to spend more time on these efforts (a direct Paypal link is on the violence.de frontpage, if you are willing to contribute a larger sum, I will do my best to detail how the money is used). Once this project is up and running, supporting it through donations will hopefully become easier.
On a personal level, existing groups like Attachment Parenting International provide good guidance on raising happy, healthy children. I also highly recommend NoSpank by Jordan Riak, who has with tremendous energy fought state-level corporal punishment laws in the last decades, and has documented more evidence against the unnatural and barbaric practice of child spanking than you can shake a stick (or paddle) at. If you don't want to support my efforts, you should support his.
I would recommend political action as well, but this can only happen effectively within larger frameworks like the aforementioned organizations. Effectively, all I can try to do is raise awareness of the issues and the history behind them. What you do or don't, what conclusions you arrive at remains your responsibility. If you think US issues do not concern you, think again -- I am from Germany myself, but I know that the old adage still holds true: Falls Rome, falls the world. Believe me, you do not want World Targets in Megadeaths in the hands of religious fundamentalists. But if you think that the temperature isn't hot enough for you to worry yet, think of the frog. Dare to jump.
Public domain content. But you knew that already.