If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you're probably a fan of sex research. But have you ever wondered who is behind the fascinating studies and theories discussed on this site? How did those folks get into this field in the first place? Where do their research ideas come from? And what is a day in life of a sex researcher really like? From time to time, I interview prominent sex researchers, scholars, and therapists in order to give you some insight into these and other provocative questions.
Today's interview is with Dr. Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist based in Los Angeles. Below is the full text of a recent email interview I had with her.
Lehmiller: What’s the story behind how you became a sex researcher? What is it that attracted you to this field?
Prause: Studying sex was almost accidental. I followed a boy to Indiana University, Bloomington and was amazed that I could get course credit for helping with a study of the sexual effects of a menopause drug using physiological responses at The Kinsey Institute. However, it was quickly apparent how strongly that area of science is discriminated against in the USA. I was inspired not only by the big-science questions that were still open in the field of sexuality--but also the incredible suppression of sexual information in this country--to be a part of a change merging sexual psychophysiology with psychophysiological science generally.
Lehmiller: You have published research on a wide range of topics over the years, including female sexual arousal and response, asexuality, penis size preferences, and “pornography addiction,” among others. Please tell us a little bit about what you’re working on right now.
Prause: Now, I am focused on using brain stimulation to permanently alter sexual responsiveness in men and women. The theme underlying my research has always been on understanding what influences human sexual motivation and what that sexual motivation then influences. Brain stimulation moves my research from associative and experimental studies that reflect what is happening in the brain to actually influencing what is happening in the brain.
Lehmiller: Your research challenging the concepts of “pornography addiction” of “porn-induced erectile dysfunction" has cause quite a stir online, including in the comments section of this very website! In my reading of your research, you seem to be arguing that some people do indeed have problems regulating their porn use, but that this doesn’t stem from an addiction and that porn itself isn’t necessarily harmful to sexual functioning. Why do you think your research in this area has generated so much resistance?
Prause: I think there are many reasons why my research in this area has generated resistance. The most obvious are financial incentives, where some of the resistance comes from therapists who provide services to "sex addict" patients, and bloggers who are selling books or trying to establish their therapy practices. Another is religious fanaticism, where several Latter Day Saint organizations have specifically targeted my research. Another major group is the (overwhelmingly) very young men who have been misled that our research claims they do not have a problem. Of course, we have never made that claim (in fact, our last study suggests the opposite), but they do not have the science background to be able to investigate the claims themselves. Scientists generally have rejected the idea of porn, and largely sex, as addicting, so the scientific community actually has not generated any unusual resistance. In fact, several conference organizers have asked me to participate in debates concerning porn addiction and have been unable to find any scientist willing to take the "pro" addiction position!
Lehmiller: The people who have resisted your research findings haven’t just attacked your work, they have also attacked you personally. How have you dealt with this, and what would you say to young sexuality scholars who are hesitant to study a given topic because it is controversial?
Prause: The personal attacks have been strongly sexist and pretty outlandish (e.g., faking data), so they mostly do the work for me. For example, two bloggers wrote the chancellor of UCLA six times claiming that I had falsified my data and insisted I be "investigated" or they would sue UCLA, a sex therapist requested my funding at UCLA, and another blogger wrote the editors of two journals requesting a retraction of my publications at their journal. I ignore them and just let the professionals handle them. Young scholars should be aware that the political climate in the USA is such that an already challenging academic career, especially entering as a female into a more mathematical sexuality field, you need a strong will and stronger science. I generally encourage students to go into a different area and just add sexuality as a component (see below). For example, most of my graduate training was in a neuroscience laboratory studying schizophrenia, and that gave me a very novel perspective to approach problems in human sexuality.
Lehmiller: A growing number of sex researchers (you and me included) are becoming actively involved in social media and using it to disseminate scientific research to the public. What do you see as the main benefits/risks of doing so, and are there any “best practices” you would recommend?
Prause: Having a "public face" in science depends on your situation. Many academics regard publishing popular books, blogs, and appearing in media as a waste of time. Some universities enjoy the exposure of press, while other universities consider it too risky for their institution. You need to talk to your colleagues to know the climate of the place to determine what is reasonable (and allowed). In my case, I did almost no social media until I started publishing in sex addiction. I realized that, if I didn't take the interviews, do press releases, and make the television appearances, Dr. Random a "sex therapist from New York" would accept them and misrepresent my research. The benefits are certainly helping to make sure your work is accurately portrayed, but you may be personally attacked. A media office can help greatly with accurate dissemination and police can help with online threats. I needed both.
Lehmiller: Last question: what advice would you offer to students who are considering careers in sex research or who are just getting into the field? Is there anything you know now that you wish you would have known earlier on?
Prause: I would discourage anyone to go into "sex research" per se. Become a good, great, no an AMAZING scientist first, then apply your excellent methods and background to sexuality down the road. The sex research field is still facing too much discrimination to enter it as a new faculty member in the USA, and some of the best "sex" researchers I know had no background in sex to start. Alternatively, consider a move to Canada or Europe.
Read other interviews with sex scientists here.
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Image Copyright Neal Preston
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