A federally funded study has paid women as much as $75 to watch pornographic videos to determine "what types of audiovisual erotica women find sexually arousing."
Women participating in the $147,000 study at Northwestern University funded through the federal National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) were paid to "watch a series of commercially available film clips, some of which will be sexually explicit, while we monitor your body's sexual arousal," according to a flyer seeking volunteers for the study.
Funding for the research comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, which has more than doubled in the past five years.
The two-year study began in September 2001 and is intended to "assess the subjective and genital arousal of 180 lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual women as they watch erotic video clips of lesbian, gay, or heterosexual interactions," primary researcher J. Michael Bailey explained in a description of the project.
"We have some really great results on it, and I think it's going to make a big splash," Mr. Bailey said of the research, which he said he hopes to publish soon.
In 1991, Mr. Bailey made headlines as one of the first researchers to say homosexuality is "substantially genetic," a conclusion based on studies of twins.
Previous studies have shown that male sexual arousal is "target specific" that is, that heterosexual males respond to depictions of females, while homosexual men respond to images of males, Mr. Bailey said.
"There has been inadequate attention to the question of whether female sexual orientation is target specific," Mr. Bailey wrote in a grant proposal. "However, some research including our own preliminary data, suggests that target specificity is much weaker for women than for men."
Early reports of the study, including in Northwestern University's daily newspaper, indicate that women's responses to the pornographic videos did not differ whether the images were of male-female couples, lesbians, or homosexual men.
Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, cited the Northwestern study as an example of misplaced research priorities, saying he asked NICHD three years ago to study whether the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was associated with autism.
"The NIH couldn't find the money to look into this relationship between kids with regressive autism and the mandatory MMR vaccine, but they can pay people $150,000 to watch pornography," Mr. Weldon said. "This is disgusting, and is a clear example of distorted priorities at the NIH. The NIH message to parents of autistic children: Don't look to us for help."
Funding for NIH has increased from $13 billion in fiscal 1998 to $27.2 billion sought by the Bush administration for the current fiscal year. The White House proposed raising NIH funding by $3.7 billion a year, which would be a 16 percent increase. That increase is reflected in the $27.2 billion NIH budget that has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but House appropriators have yet to mark up the appropriations bill.
A spokesman for NICHD said the agency "covers all aspects of human development."
"Our institute does things that are not directly involved with children's health. So it's a misnomer to say that it's just child health."
Reports of Northwestern's video sex research have prompted some ridicule, landing the study a spot in the nationally syndicated "News of the Weird" feature, but Mr. Bailey said it's no laughing matter.
"I think it's extremely important research, and I think it's pathetic how skittish the government is about funding research about sex," Mr. Bailey said.
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