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'50s Sexuality Research Still Causing a Stir

The new movie on controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey has sex experts and protesters talking about what he did for human sexuality -- and morality -- in the U.S.

Human Sexuality Legacy Looms Large continued...

William Howell Masters, MD, a gynecologist, and Virginia Eshelman Johnson, a psychology researcher, teamed up in 1957 to build, rather fruitfully, on Kinsey's initial work.

As a result of Kinsey's work, "there are less unintended pregnancies and more women do know how to have an orgasm," she says. But more work is still needed. "We do need a new study as this study is 50 years old and things have changed," she says.

What has changed most is not what Kinsey found, but how he found it, explains Laura Berman, PhD, LCSW, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago, and director of the Berman Center in Chicago.

"The methodology has changed the most," she says, "I don't know that what he found is that different but now we have the technology and the scientific ability and we know how to do things in a more scientifically rigorous way," says Berman, who has yet to see the movie. "Instead of interviewing people, we have access to random samples, phone numbers, addresses, and we can do surveys by mail, in person, or online."

Kinsey "set the foundation for taking human sexuality out of the realm of morality," she says. Before his work, "the only discussion was what sex should be or is supposed to be, not what actually happened." In a nutshell, Kinsey said there was a wide gap between what people thought was normal and what they actually did in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Human Sexuality Research Still Flourishes

So much sexuality research is going on now, she says. "One of the goals that I have that is similar to Kinsey is to demystify elements of sexuality as well as to remove taboos and misunderstandings around sexuality."

Berman recently completed two projects that aim to do just that. The first is a national study of women looking at the health and sexual benefits of sexual aids and devices. "We want to get the conversation started that this is not dirty and embarrassing and that 30% of women are using these devices," she says. According to her work, women who use such aids report higher levels of sexual function and overall quality of life.

The other study is a national survey about how women feel about their genitals and how these feelings impact their sexual life and overall quality of life.

"Higher-educated African-American women have the best genital self-image," she says. "One of the biggest predictors of poor genital self-image is usually based on having a partner who said something negative [about the genitals]," she says.

Genital self-image is connected to overall body image and plays a role in sexual function, Berman says. And "genital self-image is something that most obstetricians don't think to address with patients." Berman's latest project is a big study on the role of vaginal lubricants in younger women.

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