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For Mature Audiences Only

By Lawrence B. Finer

I HAVE always been fascinated by sex. My fascination involves more than hormonal impulses. I have an academic interest in sexuality and sex roles, the field I have chosen to research as a junior psychology concentrator. Unfortunately, as I found out last semester, Harvard encourages undergraduate research into sexuality about as much as it encourages keg parties in Harvard Yard.

At the beginning of the term, I enrolled in Psychology 1000, "Methods of Social Research," and submitted a proposal to study the relationship between parent-child communication about sex and adult sexual attitudes and behavior. My teaching fellow responded with tentative approval.

In order to begin my research, I headed for Widener Library to review the relevant literature--and ran smack into the bars of the "Erotic Cage." This room is a restricted-access area in the bowels of Widener containing journals on sexuality. Why aren't these journals in the regular stacks? The library employees I asked didn't know, but I presume it's because the University considers them too dirty for undergraduate minds. A typical excerpt from the Journal of Sex Research:

"Subjects were asked if they had ever participated in any of the following activities:


.French Kissing.

.Manual manipulation of clothed breast.

.Manual manipulation of. . .

You get the idea. In other words, this stuff is less graphic than the innuendo in "Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind." Yet prim Harvard librarians hide these journals away in the Erotic Cage, effectively keeping them from the perverts (psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and the like) who want to read them.

The only way to get a journal from the cage is to turn in a request card and come back fifteen minutes later, in which case a library employee--wearing rubber gloves, I imagine--will retrieve three journals per hour for you.

That's assuming they can get to them. One journal request was rejected because the shelf holding that particular journal was blocked by stacks of chairs.

Can't you picture it? "Hey Harry, what should I do with this furniture?" "Oh, just stack it up in that room with the dirty books."

Despite Widener's archaic storage system, I managed to find a significant amount of previous research on communication and its relationship to sexual attitudes and behavior.

But a larger hurdle still stood in my way: Harvard's Human Subjects Committee. This standing committee, consisting largely of members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is responsible for reviewing and approving any research on humans.

After I turned in the second phase of my proposal, the same teaching fellow who previously gave me the go-ahead suddenly began to "suggest" that I revamp my study to avoid the sensitive "Have you ever..." questions. Evidently, he was acting on orders from above. His general unease in discussing the issue made me suspect that his office was bugged with a direct line to Big Brother.

His written comments on my research proposal were just as disturbing. He indicated that if I kept the sexual-history questions in my study, it would probably be nixed by the Human Subjects Committee.

When I submitted a list of topics for one section of my survey, it was returned with the terms "masturbation" and "orgasm" underlined, accompanied by the comment "Be careful."

Commenting on the questions about sexual behavior, he wrote "I advise you to think carefully about this study." The words were nebulous, but the message was clear. Don't ask people about their sexual behavior.

I seriously doubt that my teaching fellow is all that squeamish about sex; he was simply handing down the unwritten code of his superiors on the Human Subjects Committee.

Although I was effectively forbidden to ask the questions I wanted, at least I was allowed to continue pursuing my original topic. Another student in the same course was not so fortunate.

She planned to study people's beliefs about the origins of their sexual orientations. After turning in her proposal, she was "asked" to change her topic completely. Her TF told her that it was not unreasonable to assume that any study involving sexual orientation would be canned.

OUT of concern for my continued ability to work in this area of sexuality, I waited until my study was graded before I investigated the working of the Human Subjects Committee. I asked Dean R. Gallant '72, the executive officer on human subjects research, to find out what boundaries the committee sets for acceptable research.

According to Gallant, the Human Subject Committee's primary goal is to protect subjects from any sort of "risk."

I asked what sort of risk was involved in researching sexual behavior. Gallant replied that the committee was concerned with ensuring confidentiality, since information about individuals' sexuality and sexual behavior are very sensitive.

He insisted, however, that the committee did not suppress scientific inquiry. "As long as someone has a legitimate interest and a legitimate instrument, we are not in the business of preventing people from asking questions."

So why can't I ask subjects whether they are virgins, if the answer is crucial to my research? Why do I have to obscure my scientific inquiry in a plain brown wrapper?

Despite the Human Subject Committee's insistence that it will allow responsible research into sensitive subjects, the department conveyed a clear signal to the students in Psych 1000 that the committee will squelch any proposals that know.

Harvard students will find it impossible to conduct efficient and useful research on sexuality as long as this neo-Victorian sensibility prevails on the Human Subjects Committee. The committee should recognize that undergraduates are capable of producing valuable scholarship on sexuality and allow us to responsibly conduct the necessary research.

Until it does, I think I'll just run some rats through mazes.

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