Sex toy research causes a stir at Duke

Staff WriterNovember 6, 2009 

— At Duke University, a school that likes to tout its cutting-edge research, a sex toy study being conducted by a behavioral economist and student health workers has roused criticism.

For much of October, researchers recruited female Duke students to take part in a "sexually explicit" study on Tupperware-style parties in which sex toys, not kitchenware, are the draw.

The ads, which were posted around campus and on a research study Web site, sought female students at least 18 years old to "view sex toys and engage in sexually explicit conversation with other female Duke students."

Participants will be asked to complete online questionnaires about their sexual attitudes and behaviors and visit the lab for a "one-hour party" with seven or eight women. Not only will the students be asked to complete a second questionnaire a couple of months later, they will receive a gift bag and be given the opportunity to purchase items at a significantly reduced rate, according to the ad.

Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Center, was so troubled by the ads that he contacted researchers at Duke student health services and Dan Ariely, the professor of behavioral economics at the Duke business school and senior fellow at the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics involved in the study.

"My understanding is there is a concern on campus about promiscuity," Vetter said.

In recent years, some university health centers have touted sex toys as alternatives to risky sexual behavior and serial promiscuity. The study, Vetter said, was designed by health care workers to see whether such approaches work.

"I'm concerned about promiscuity also," Vetter said. "And to be honest, I don't have the solution. ... My concern is these students are in this developmental phase, and I don't think it's a good developmental practice to just tell somebody to just sit around and masturbate. I don't think that promotes relationships."

Vetter hopes to take up the topic on Sunday with students. He wrote for the Sunday bulletin: "Can We Talk About Sex in Church?"

Efforts to reach Ariely and others in charge of the research project were unsuccessful Thursday. The ad no longer appears on the Web site, Duke officials say, because the study is filled.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs, said that all kinds of research are important on university campuses and that the sex toy party project went through a peer review process before any students were sought.

"Not all research will make people comfortable," Schoenfeld said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 932-8741

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