A Billion Wicked Thoughts

The world's largest experiment on human desire.

Why Sex Research is The Toughest Field of Science

A comparison of Alfred Kinsey to Galileo Galileo.

[ At the end of this article is a link to the second video in our series about erotic tastes. ]

In February 1633, Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani in the Holy See in Rome to stand trial for his heretical research in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. For those of us in the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to imagine the oppressive moral constraints—and the potentially ruinous consequences of provoking society’s moral outrage—in the world Galileo inhabited. Galileo had used patient observation and thoughtful mathematics to argue that the earth revolved around the sun like the rest of the planets. It was an idea that had been accepted by many secular scholars for more than a century, including most likely Pope Urban VIII himself, yet the Catholic Church’s power was so pervasive that the Church’s moral convictions had the force of near-absolute authority, reaching even into scientific investigations into the nature of the universe. 

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Galileo was found morally guilty and his book was banned. As punishment he was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” its contents. He was placed under house arrest and ordered to read seven penitential psalms once a week for three years. But what makes Galileo a great scientist is not just his creative research, but the fact that despite this devastating public censure and his new life as a social pariah, he continued on writing works that laid the foundation for modern physics.

We live in an age when we take heliocentrism for granted and look back the Catholic Church’s trial of Galileo with bemusement, and it’s easy to imagine that if had lived in the seventeenth century that we would have stood on the side of science instead of sanctimony. Though there remain scientific debates that occasionally develop into public battlegrounds where moral piousness takes precedence over research—climate change is the premiere example in the twenty-first century—there is no longer a major field of science which attracts the same oppressive moral scrutiny that Galileo experienced in the seventeenth century or Darwin experienced to a somewhat lesser extent in the nineteenth century… with one exception. The science of human sexuality 

That is why we would argue that Alfred Kinsey deserves a place in the pantheon of valiant scientists alongside Galileo and Darwin. Like each of them, Kinsey was the first to peer deeply into a previously inscrutable domain of Mother Nature and peer deeply into her unveiled face. This glimpse into the beguiling unknown was fraught with danger, risking savage moral backlash like Lot’s wife turning to look at the destruction of Sodom. Yet Kinsey courageously pushed on, like Galileo and Darwin, investigating even further a proscribed domain.

Today, it’s easy to mock and disparage some of his methodological choices—recording videos of his colleagues having sex in his attic, interviewing incestuous pedophiles, pursuing extramarital sexual relationships in the name of research—but when he discovered an entire landscape of terra incognita spread out before him, unknown to science and therefore lacking in even the most rudimentary of methodological sign posts, he boldly plunged in doing whatever he could to chart these new vistas.

This spirit of discovery in the face of moral oppression, to our mind, is true science of the highest sort, and what ultimately accords Kinsey the same plaudits as Galileo and Darwin and others who pursued their investigation of nature despite the social costs they incurred. Of course, in the twenty-first century the scientists in the fields established by Galileo and Darwin enjoy near-universal acclaim and billion dollar budgets, while the scientific descendants of Kinsey still inhabit a world as morally oppressive as the one which arrested Galileo. Non-profit foundations and the federal goverment are reluctant to fund research projects that involve human sexuality except for those done in the name of sexual health or epidemiology. The notion of basic sex research provokes the same queasiness and moral skepticism as it did during Kinsey’s time. If a young scientist wants to know what it was like to propose that the Earth revolved around the sun in Galileo’s era, just look at the work that many sex scientists do today.

It is probably going to be much harder to eliminate the moral discomfort with sex research than it was getting rid of the discomfort associated with astronomical or biological research. Heliocentrism and the theory of evolution are ultimately rather abstract ideas with little direct connection to people’s personal lives. Their controversy is bound up in culture-bound beliefs. But our feelings about sex are deeply-rooted in our brains; we appear to be designed to become powerfully emotional and self-righteous when it comes to sexual behavior. Evolution shaped the neural mechanisms of our sexual brain to keep us away from sexual behaviors that did not promote reproduction, with the result that it will always be much easier to fire up human passions regarding the proper time and place for sex than the proper time and place for astronomy.

Changing public attitudes towards sex research, therefore, will always be a struggle but there is reason to hope. The past half-century has seen the gradual acceptance of homosexuality, transsexuality, and expanded sexual roles for women. Another wondrous development is the rise of female sex researchers, capable and courageous women who are willing to endure the inevitable moral slings and arrows of skeptical colleagues, family members, and the public. Today it’s difficult to imagine a new Galileo or Darwin will emerge who is willing to stand up for scientific discovery in the face of society-wide moral opprobrium since there is so little opprobrium remaining in an age that broadly accepts science. But if such a scientist does emerge, my bet is that she will arise from the science of sexuality.


Here is the second video in our series about our surprising research into erotic tastes:

Video #2: WHY do these things turn us on?

Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., studies computational neuroscience. He is co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts.


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