- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

In the past year, congressional critics have demanded to know why the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) is funding sex research projects.

Among other things, the NICHD spent $147,000 in taxpayer money for a study that paid women to watch porn flicks while measuring their arousal levels with a device called a plethysmograph.

But the head of NICHD — a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — says the federal agency has been involved in sex research since its creation.

“The earliest [federally funded] research involving sex, sexual development and so forth … actually started before NICHD was established,” Dr. Duane Alexander said in an interview, noting that the institute is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“We inherited from the National Institute of Mental Health a grant looking at psychosexual development and various influences on it … whether development proceeds as male or female based on chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, physical appearance sex, or sex of assignment and rearing.

“This was very important research. It was a whole new field that was opening up. And why was it important? There are kids born with what we call sex errors of the body, or another term for it is ambiguous genitalia.”

That original “inherited” research grant sought to determine appropriate treatment for such disorders and “really has been continuously funded ever since,” Dr. Alexander said.

“Basically, what this research showed — that has determined the management of these kids ever since — was that the most important factor wasn’t the chromosomes, wasn’t the gonad, it wasn’t just the appearance, it was how the kid was raised by the parents,” he said. “And if the parents accept this child as a female and raised it as a female consistently, gender identity was female. If they accepted it as male, raised it as male consistently, gender identity almost always was male.”

Yet that earliest NICHD sex research also has been the subject of intense criticism in recent years. Many of those born with “ambiguous genitalia,” who prefer to be called “intersex,” say they have been victimized by childhood sex-reassignment surgeries performed without their knowledge or consent, and which have left them with impaired sexual functioning.

One of the most famous cases involves a Canadian boy who was severely injured as the result of a botched circumcision. At 19 months, he underwent treatment directed by John Hopkins University researcher John Money — a major NICHD grant recipient — designed to make him a girl.

Though Mr. Money reported the case as a success that proved his theories of sex identity, the subject — David Reimer — never accepted his assigned female identity and instead sought treatment to become a man.

Profiled three years ago in a best-selling book, “As Nature Made Him,” by John Colapinto, the Reimer case has been viewed by many as discrediting Mr. Money’s theories. Dr. Alexander defends the NICHD-funded research.

“There are no 100 percents in medicine … but 80 to 90 percent success in medicine is really good,” Dr. Alexander said, acknowledging that the Reimer case is “one that did not turn out well.”

A major reason for that, he said, is that Mr. Reimer’s parents “never made the switch in their minds. They were not consistent in raising him as a female instead of a male, and there’s really lots of explanation for why this didn’t turn out well.”

More recent NICHD grants have been criticized repeatedly by House Republicans in the past year:

• In December, Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, denounced as “disgusting” the NICHD’s decision to fund a Northwestern University study to determine “what types of audiovisual erotica women find sexually arousing.” Women participating in psychology professor J. Michael Bailey’s project 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.”

• In May, a House subcommittee demanded information about a $137,000 NICHD grant for a three-year study to “provide the most comprehensive picture to date of the sexual behavior of aging men.” House members asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to explain “how this provocative data about aging men’s sexual fantasies and activities will benefit hapless children afflicted with pediatric diseases.”

• In June, House Republicans complained about a $26,000 NICHD grant for a conference on sexual arousal at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind. “If this conference needs funding, they ought to hit up [pornographer] Larry Flynt, not taxpayers,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

• This month, congressional investigators disclosed that NICHD gave $263,038 in research grants to the Kinsey Institute during the past five years. Citing use of information from child molesters in sex research by Alfred Kinsey, Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, said it was inconsistent that “an institute dedicated to child health” was “providing support for any institution built upon Kinsey’s hideous legacy.”

Dr. Alexander says the institute’s sex research is part of the “human development” aspect of his agency’s title.

“We were directed to focus on all the problems of human development in the mandate that Congress used to establish the institute,” he said. “We were also directed to look at reproductive health, so we look at factors related to fertility and infertility, to sexual behavior in relation to fertility and infertility, intended and unintended pregnancy, to disorders and problems with sexual behavior. And so all of that comes with the mandate to this institute from the Congress that fall within our obligations to study.”

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