AMERICANS may think they know an awful lot about sex. After all, It is everywhere. If "L.A. Law," "Pretty Woman" and advertisements for perfume haven't already clued you in, peruse one of those magazine polls: This percent does It in a plane. That percent does It upside down. The other percent does It during Carson.
Got the picture?
Not at all, according to embattled sex researchers, who say there is a sad lack of reliable scientific data on the demographics of sex in America. Conservative political opposition, they say, is preventing them from gathering basic data during a health crisis caused by AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and teen-age pregnancy.
Not fun topics at all.
"We make more movies about sex and prostitution than we fund research to understand it," says John Gagnon, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is co-investigator for a proposed $1.2-million sex survey of 2,500 adults by the University of Chicago that was denied federal funding in September.
"In order to change behavior, we have to understand it," Gagnon said. "But one side doesn't want to know."
Opponents, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., say they already know enough. Conservatives believe asking Americans about intimate sexual matters is inappropriate and harmful and promotes promiscuous behavior. Such surveys are part of "the homosexual movement's agenda to legitimize their sexual behavior," Helms said on the Senate floor.
Under conservative pressure, both houses of Congress have approved an appropriations bill barring federal funds for two large-scale studies initially requested by the U.S. Public Health Service: One survey, of 20,000 adults, debated in Washington for three years, was designed originally by the University of Chicago team. (Its 2,500-person study was rejected by National Institutes of Health officials in September without a vote in Congress.)
The other survey, of 24,000 teen-agers, already had begun at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan killed it last summer. The vote in Congress was the final blow to the $18-million project.
"We told the administration that we'd make sure Bush is known as the sex president [if the studies go through]. It's plain politics," said Paul Mero, Dannemeyer's spokesman and a key ** player in conservative lobbying groups. "The assumption is that this information is necessary to stem the problem. We say it's not. We know how sexually transmitted diseases are transmitted -- sexually. We know how teens get pregnant.
"Their game isn't a science game," Mero said of sex researchers. "It's a PR game for the sexual revolution."
Researchers say it's PR for knowledge in a time of ignorance.
Who visits prostitutes? Who cheats on their spouse and with whom? Who has multiple partners? Who has anal sex? To estimate, researchers say they must rely on isolated small-scale studies or statistics gathered by Alfred Kinsey 50 years ago. No nationwide scientific research has been conducted since. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, have based their projections that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans are infected with the AIDS virus on Kinsey's estimate that 4 percent of the population is gay.
"Kinsey did a nice job for white, middle-class, college-educated America, but it wasn't the kind of study we would do today," said June Reinisch, director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. "We know nothing about the rest of our population. That's a large proportion. We don't know anything."
Though timid compared with their conservative rivals, leading public health experts and scientists have deplored the political suppression of studies of sex. In an unprecedented move, the entire National Advisory Council to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development wrote a letter to Secretary Sullivan objecting to his cancellation of the teen-age survey.
"In a rather high-handed way, the National Institutes of Health was directed to stop the study," said John Griffith, a former vice president of health sciences at Georgetown University who sits on the advisory council. "This is not the American way."
But it depends on which American way. Anti-sex feeling has a long tradition in this country, cropping up in unexpected places. In the 19th century, John Harvey Kellogg's cornflakes and Sylvester Graham's crackers were originally created as a libido suppressant. Common medical thought then held that sex and the "secret vice" (you know the one) caused ill health, according to John Money, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.
The popular suspicion that people who study sex are perverted has been a constant since Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, the late 19th and early 20th century English psychologist and author of the seven-volume "Studies in the Psychology of Sex."
"We're still viewed as oddities on the Oprah, Donahue, Sally shows," says Howard Ruppel, executive director of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. "We're ratings getters, but we're not taken seriously as academics. People say: 'Why study sex? You'll just wreck it if you study it.' "
Conservatives trace their opposition to sex research to Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana zoologist who studied gall wasps be
fore turning to human sexual behavior in the 1930s and '40s.
Kinsey's reports on male sexuality (1948) and female sexuality (1953) were revolutionary for asserting that reality did not match moral dictates. In 800 pages of tedious, academic language, Kinsey reported that 50 percent of women and 68 to 98 percent of men had sex before marriage; 26 percent of women and 50 percent of men had extra-marital affairs; and 58 percent of women and all men masturbated.
"This is the driest book in the whole world and the question is, Why did it become a best seller overnight?" said Reinisch of the Kinsey Institute. "It's because the majority of people felt they were abnormal." If the Joneses were doing it too, then how abnormal could it be?
Who decides what is "normal," in fact, underlies today's fight over whether sex should be studied at all.
Conservatives think morality should take precedence over practice. "If you have an authority figure do a survey about sexual activity, they're asking these questions as if it is normal sexual behavior," said Charmaine Yoest, a former speechwriter in the Reagan administration who is a policy analyst for the Family Research Council, a pro-family lobbying group. The surveys include questions about anal and homosexual sex. "You have to look at the survey as a political document."
On this point, both sides agree.
"In fact, the Right is correct," Gagnon said. Knowledge opens the door to new ways of thinking and acting, he said. If you learn about something, it becomes an option.
For backing, opponents look to the 1990 book "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People," published by Lochinvar-Huntington House in Lafayette, La. The author, Judith Reisman, who lives in Arlington, Va., holds a Ph.D. in communications studies and researched anti-pornography issues for the Meese Commission on Pornography.
In her book, Reisman argues that Kinsey was part of a continuing liberal conspiracy to justify "aberrant sexual behavior" like child abuse, sex with animals and homosexuality -- some of the many subjects in his landmark report.
Voicing another longtime objection to Kinsey, Reisman argues that his methodology, based on a self-selected sampling of volunteers, exaggerated the number of homosexuals in America.
Sex researchers say they couldn't agree more and that's their reason for requesting new studies. A more rigorous nationwide survey would most likely lower Kinsey's estimates, for example, on homosexuals from 4 percent of the population to perhaps 2 percent, according to Gagnon.