As part of its "Brilliant Peoples" series, Science Blog commissioned author and journalist Luke Ford to interview Dr. Julia R. Heiman, author of Becoming Orgasmic: A Sexual and Personal Growth Program for Women and the sixth director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, Bloomington. Below is a transcript of their wide-ranging discussion, which touches on subjects from the sexuality of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon characters to why we still don't understand rape.
Science Blog: "Hi, I was calling for Dr. Heiman (I pronounce it HI-man)."
Dr. Heiman: "This is she."
Science Blog: "Did I pronounce your name correctly?"
Dr. Heiman: "Yes, you did."
Science Blog: "What do you love and hate about your work?"
Dr. Heiman: "Love/hate is not usually a dimension I think in with this work. What I'm really interested in is how sex fits into society. I'm interested in the body-mind connection, how people function and think and struggle with sexual issues. These times when the culture sees sex as a problem, no matter what form it comes in, make [it] interesting... and more difficult."
"I don't like the difficulty of studying normal sexuality. We're always being pushed to study atypical sexual patterns or sexual patterns of smaller minorities. Smaller minorities are very important but we always have to leave out what happens to the majority of people a lot of the time. We don't understand basic things such as the structure and function of female physiology and sexuality. Things like why orgasms occur in women. I and other sex researchers have to struggle to understand the full range of sexuality across a broad range of people and there are no easy funding mechanisms."
Science Blog: "What about administration, political and funding issues taking time from your work?"
Dr. Heiman: "That is a given. It's not what I prefer to do, to take time away from research. The Institute is not a political organization. It's intended to produce information from a research base. It's a research institute. These other things take away from that. At the same time, it is impossible to do this work without having to deal with that. That is not a surprise. Nobody tricked me.
"What's different about the Kinsey Institute is that, by definition from certain parts of the culture, it takes more hits than other places who do sex research. That's unavoidable.
"It is surprising that the same kinds of arguments are made even though they don't hold water. The same kinds of accusations are made about what is good and bad about sex research even though we need to know more for everybody's sexual health to have a society that works well in this area. We're not very good in that in the United States. We have a very high teen pregnancy rate. We've got a relatively high STD rate even though it has dropped a lot. These things shouldn't be happening in an industrialized country that has good information available to it. That those messages that would protect people don't have an easy forum can be frustrating."
Science Blog: "Do you have to work through gritted teeth and bite your tongue that much?"
Dr. Heiman: "I don't think so. Even though some things aren't pleasant, there is a sense that this is an effort worth engaging in and the difficulties need to be addressed. If it were easy, it would've been done. This is a good struggle. Whining isn't part of the picture. Sometimes we get whacked up side the head with something, but our job is to bounce back and figure out how to keep doing the work. People doing cancer research have other obstacles. It's just more acceptable to do, for example, cancer research. You're thought of as unquestionably doing the right thing."
Science Blog: "Which countries would you say are wiser about sex than we are?"
Dr. Heiman: "Let me give you one example. One of the countries
that has solved more of their sexual problems. The Netherlands. They have
a much lower rate of STDs. They have a low rate of teen pregnancy. They
don't have a high rate of abortion. We have a higher rate of abortion.
It's not like they are wildly sexual and the way they control it is by
not making things happen on the other end or getting good treatment. They've
addressed the sexual problems a society worries about. They do it by heads-up,
from early ages, giving honest, straightforward sex education. Information
about bodies. Information about sexuality and sexual health early on.
They've worked out a way for them that is successful. One country can't
just adopt another country's ideas. But to act as if no other country
has solved some of these problems is just not accurate. That we're so
special and so important that we couldn't possibly learn from another
country is iconoclastic and not fair to our citizens who may want to benefit
from the ways other countries have solved their problems."
"One country can't just adopt another country's ideas. But to act as if no other country has solved some of these problems is just not accurate."
Science Blog: "Professor, I'd wager that the descendants of the Dutch in the United States, and, say, the descendants of Scandinavian countries, have those same statistics in the United States."
Dr. Heiman: "That's a great question. I don't know if that is true. That would be a great question to solve. I mean, to answer. I would wager that that is probably not true. A country is a culture. Unless you stay in your own cultural group, or are a recent immigrant, you may be right for recent immigrants, but I wonder if you are right for Dutch descendants. I'm not sure if we have enough Dutch and Scandinavian descendants to really count them. It's a great question."
Science Blog: "Have you heard of Garrison Keillor?"
Dr. Heiman: "I'm a fan of Garrison Keillor."
Science Blog: "He talks about the descendants of a Scandinavian country..."
Dr. Heiman: "He focuses on Norwegians."
Science Blog: "I suspect that the group he is fictionalizing in Minnesota have many of the same values and behaviors of their Norwegian ancestors."
Dr. Heiman: "Wouldn't that be interesting ? You should call him up and say you had this idea while talking to the director of the Kinsey Institute and would he care to imagine this theme in one of his Lake Wobegon stories... I can't speculate.. The things he portrays about the Norwegian-combined-with-Mid-Western-values have much more to do with a sense of privacy, how you comport yourself, of not complaining much, under-exaggerating, and tremendous practicality. It is in the intersection of practicality and some of the issues around sexuality that I think we need stay focused on sexual health issues. Practical people may not want to discuss sex a lot, but if a problem exists they want to do the right thing to fix it, as opposed to the thing that simply incurs the most judgment. If you listen to the tales of Lake Wobegon, there are a lot of different characters in there and different characters would have different ways of solving our sexual problems. But wouldn't it be a great topic for us and them ?"
Science Blog: "The characteristics of restraint must inevitably carry over to the ways people conduct themselves sexually."
Dr. Heiman: "I don't think that's true. It's an assumption we have. How people are in private and how they are in public isn't always one to one."
Science Blog: "Do you remember there was a famous University
of Chicago sex study [released in 1994]?"
"If somebody says they go to church a lot, are they more likely to be more forthright or more hidden about what they do sexually?"
Dr. Heiman: "Yes."
Science Blog: "It concluded that Jews had the most sex partners and Catholics the fewest."
Dr. Heiman: "I remember vaguely."
Science Blog: "That would kinda correspond with what we were just talking about. Protestants are more buttoned-down and Jews are more verbal."
Dr. Heiman: "But Catholics aren't Protestants. It would be worth looking at that again. I know they divided their Protestants into fundamentalist and mainstream. What they did find in that study that was surprising was that people who said they were religious had very similar frequencies of partnered sexual activity as non-religious respondents. It's complicated. It's also people and what they report and what they do. If somebody says they go to church a lot, are they more likely to be more forthright or more hidden about what they do sexually?"
Science Blog: "Does your Institute delve into race and sexuality?"
Dr. Heiman: "Not directly. John Bancroft, who just retired from here... They are writing up the results of a study of a national sample of women looking at sexual distress that may or may not be connected with their sexuality. That study includes a sizable sample of African American women. But we are not race and sexuality as a focus."
Science Blog: "Different 'races,' and we'll just use that word [race] as though it has meaning, have different rates of birth out of wedlock, which is a significant fact in the life one leads. You'd think that would be important to study."
Dr. Heiman: "Yes, it is. Other people (Alan Guttmacher Institute) tend to study that more than we do. They commented some time ago that African-American girls go into puberty earlier than European-ancestry white women. That also may be influencing their earlier entry [into motherhood ]. Not that that causes it, but puberty makes everybody more aware of sexual changes. It's complicated.
"If you look at the Chicago data, they did find modest differences but not significant differences [between races], with Hispanics reporting slightly higher rates of sexual activity than Caucasian whites or African-Americans."
"It's not that we're not interested in that. We need to do that kind of work with someone who is of a different ethnicity otherwise it is not wise to do this. We have some possibilities coming up. You need someone working with you who can watch out for any biases you might inadvertently bring to the table.
"Yes we need to improve our diversity and have been trying to do so. In research, we've been more focused on the theoretical basis of sexuality and predicting risk-taking. We're not large and our goal is to grow and look for a variety of ways to add diversity as we do.
"We've been more focused on the theoretical basis of sexuality and predicting risk-taking. We're not large. It's not that we're against that. First, to get funding, you need to get someone on board where that is their major interest and they have a track record."
Science Blog: "I'm looking at a picture of your staff. It's lily-white, which you would expect for Indiana."
Dr. Heiman: "That's something we're really working on. We're getting some people of color on our board of governors. It's an issue given the demographics of Indiana. If we're trying to attract people here, the person invited wants to feel like he or she is not the only one. I just came here a year ago from Seattle, a much more diverse [place].
"Bloomington is a town of 80,000. We need to learn more about rural America. That's almost an advantage. The disadvantage is engaging people to work with us who are people of color and who are invested in sex research and doing it in the Midwest Also, people of color in this day and age are being stretched pretty thin as everyone wants to work with them.
"It's good of you to point that out. It's the right question."
Science Blog: "There's a motto on the front page of the Kinsey Institute web site from Alfred Kinsey: 'We are the recorders and reporters of facts - not the judges of the behaviors we describe.' How do you feel about that motto?"
Dr. Heiman: "It's a good basic motto. It's not the only motto but it is the motto for the year. Because of all the public exposure around Kinsey the man, who really did die in 1956. The things that he faced in that time had a lot of reverberations in the things that were said when this movie came out. The demand in today's culture to judge every sexual behavior as good or bad instead of just trying to study them and understand them. Once you start labeling good and bad, who's going to tell you about their bad behaviors? If we don't know about bad behaviors, how are we going to figure out ways to impact them? That is the conundrum. Particularly for this year, we've had to come back to that position. Other people can judge these behaviors but if you're researching them, you have to gather the information and try to understand...
"There are some behaviors that we can all agree on that shouldn't be happening, that are dangers to society, but while you're studying them, you have to figure out why they continue to happen. Why do we have fairly high rape rate? If we understand why somebody would be a repeated rapist, that does not mean we approve of that behavior. That is where things get confused in the public dialogue. If you study coercive sexual behavior or risky sex, in some way you are seen as supporting those behaviors. I don't know why that continues to happen, except that people may not appreciate why a scientific understanding of this is as important as social regulation.
"It is important for every society to socially regulate sexual behavior.
That can't always overlap with a scientific understanding of it. We see
this in different areas in the public eye. Understanding conception is
different from trying to regulate it. Understanding the development of
life is different from trying to regulate it. But at certain points of
intersection, they tend to be hot ticket items."
Once you start labeling good and bad, who's going to tell you about their bad behaviors? If we don't know about bad behaviors, how are we going to figure out ways to impact them?
Science Blog: "Everything you just said seems self-evident. What's interesting is to contrast that with the strong ideological commitments of some members of Kinsey."
Dr. Heiman: "Such as?"
Science Blog: "Let me read [from the Summer 2004 issue of Kinsey Today] the farewell column by Dr. John Bancroft: 'When the conservative opposition challenges our intentions, as well as our funding, we shall all be better prepared.'
"Immediately there, he is identifying his opposition as on one side of the political spectrum. Then he says, 'It is also a troubling time with the current controversy over gay marriage. Many of us are deeply disturbed by this renewed campaign to alienate and ostracize those whose love and commitment is to someone of the same sex, and are appalled by the attempt to incorporate such prejudice into the Constitution. But there may be benefits. This debate may help many to see that gay and lesbian men and women are no different from the rest of us in needing and wanting binding relationships, if society would only give them a chance.'
"This is a strong ideological statement [by the then-director of the Kinsey Institute in the Kinsey Institute bulletin]."
Dr. Heiman: "John at that time was not speaking for the Kinsey Institute. He was heading out. Obviously, there can be people at an institute who have strong feelings about it, but I don't think you would see that reflected in his actual research. What you'd see is someone trying to understand something from the perspective of how does sex work.
"To come to an example of that, John Bancroft and Eric Janssen have tried to work on this model of inhibition and excitation, particularly in the brain, but also more broadly in behavior. There are inhibition forces and excitation forces. If you thought of somebody being a sexual liberal, you might think they were only interested in studying excitation. But in fact what John Bancroft and Eric Janssen said was that you need forces to check and control sexuality. And that's on the inhibition side, in the brain and in the behavior. You don't need sex running amok. You don't need people being sexual all the time.
"You can find strong support for someone saying, 'Sexuality in and of itself is not good or bad. It can be good or bad depending on what happens. Therefore, society needs regulatory mechanisms to manage sexuality.'
"What also happened to John Bancroft in the time he was here... (This is my first year. I'm firm for myself where I am and it is not on political issues. My goal is to do good research as good as we can do in the climate, in the conditions, in the funding mechanisms, because it is important for society.) He was pretty badly attacked. That could be my fate as well. In four years when you talk to me, I may be saying something different.
"With politics and the institute, we do not as an institute espouse political positions. But much of sexuality is politicized by the culture so it can appear as a political position. I am not so sure it would be just one position. I think it is a complicated situation. I think some conservative forces operating in the culture are good and positive and valuable. But it shouldn't be just one set of forces. I don't think it should be the pendulum in one direction if it prevents good information from getting out.
"For example, I think abstinence is a great idea. I'm a little worried about abstinence only and never giving any other information. Unless that has been proven to be the best system and best outcome for young people. You won't find something on our website that we are not in favor of abstinence. But abstinence only, without being tested, is a problem. Because that's not backed up by research."
Science Blog: "But it's impossible to just be scientific. I'm sure every person on your staff has strong ideological opinions going in many different directions."
Dr. Heiman: "That's probably true. But we don't talk about that. The question is, does the work always [show] that. I don't think it does. That simply is not our goal "
Science Blog: "I would expect that many of your conservative critics would say you are all a bunch of liberals."
Dr. Heiman: "I expect they would."
Science Blog: "Let's just take the issue of gay marriage. I would expect (and let's just say I know nothing about you guys as individuals) that someone who devotes himself to sex research would be in favor of same-sex marriage."
Dr. Heiman: "That would be an interesting study to do. I think you would find some mixture. Particularly the word 'marriage' is an issue. I know you would find some variability at the Institute on that point."
Science Blog: "I remember in the 1980s it became a hip thing to say that AIDS does not discriminate, even though the statistics we had for, let's say the United States, showed that AIDS did discriminate."
Dr. Heiman: "Discriminate in terms of gender or sexual orientation?"
We do not as an institute espouse political positions. But much of sexuality is politicized by the culture so it can appear as a political position. I am not so sure it would be just one position.
Science Blog: "Both. The people most likely to get AIDS are males who engage in male-to-male homosexual [anal] intercourse. Then IV drug users. Then women are more likely to catch it from men than the other way round. That's an example of political correctness flying in the face of facts. I'm curious how often you see PC overwhelm the research?"
Dr. Heiman: "It's too big a question. I don't know. It certainly happens some of the time. It happens in how people talk about their work.
"Coming back to your premise, worldwide, this is a heterosexual disease. Worldwide is where most people are dying. It's women in Africa. It's heterosexual transmission. That's not to say that people in this country can't say, 'It's just these behaviors. It is just those bad people doing it.' If you are in sex research, you see the ghastly toll that this disease has worldwide because you're just connected worldwide. Therefore, when the United States tries to reduce it to its own tiny issue about it discriminating towards men having sex with men, or drug users, therefore, these are just certain elements in our society, so why should we worry about it?
If you want to be ethnocentric about it, and certain people thinking about funding might be, it is increasingly difficult for us to separate ourselves from the rest of the world. When you have 20% of some African countries being wiped out, that is not being wiped out from same-sex transmission, that may be where yes, you are right in a way, when you say you are just being PC about the facts, what facts are people considering? It doesn't make sense.
"Many sex researchers are not talking to any media at all. Because they feel that they can't do it without exposing themselves to intense scrutiny and being harassed. That has happened.
"I'm afraid I can just take one more minute because I am keeping somebody waiting for a 4:30 appointment."
Science Blog: "Any trends in your field that have surprised you over the past decade?"
Dr. Heiman: "There's something that I'm surprised is missing -- sexual violence is under-researched. This is a worldwide problem. Lipservice is paid to that people don't like it, but there isn't enough research on knowing why, why it goes on, why it gets repeated under all sorts of conditions, whether it is in the general population, in prison, in war...
"The other category would be compulsive sexual activities... That would almost be seen as a middle class activity. Why people spend so much more time on the web looking at sexually explicit material."
Science Blog: "Thank you for your time. I will send you a transcript so you can check over your words."
Dr. Heiman: "Thank you. Pretty interesting interview."