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 from the clergy.
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.
The study is being led by Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics in the Fuqua School of Business. He declined to discuss the purpose of the research, saying it could taint the results. A spokesman for Duke said the sex-toy party project went through the peer review process.
Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Center, was so troubled by the ads that he contacted 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. The ad no longer appears on the Web site, Duke officials say, because the study is filled and is no longer accepting volunteers.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs, said research is an important part of the university's mission. All studies using human subjects go through a rigorous peer review process before they can begin, he said.
"Not all research will make people comfortable. In fact, there's a lot of things, there are a lot of questions, there are a lot of issues that are studied at a university that make people uncomfortable," Schoenfeld said. "That's how we get an understanding of things like ethics (and) behavior."
Academic freedom and the need for research doesn't shake Vetter's belief that Duke would be better off ending the sex toy study.
"It's not fostering relationships, and it seems to me that one of the things that we want young people to do is to figure out how to have deep, intimate friendships and relationships," he said. "I would draw the line at a different place. I don't think that it's a good idea."
Sophomore Taylor Sites said she heard about the study from her roommate and said she didn't see anything wrong with it.
"Anyone who is interested, sure, why not?" Sites said. "(It's) not that big of a deal."
Graduate student Christopher Nafis said he was surprised Duke would conduct such a study.
"I wouldn't think college students would be particularly interested in that kind of thing," Nafis said. "It seems like it might be embarrassing for a lot of people to talk publicly about what kind of sex toys they are buying."
"I think it can give the impression that the university is endorsing behavior that I don't think the university should endorse," Vetter said. "I don't think that's the intention of the university, but I think it can be perceived that way."
(“In recent years, some university health centers have touted sex toys as alternatives to risky sexual behavior and serial promiscuity. The study was designed by health care workers to see whether such approaches work.” Bravo to the Duke Blue Devils! I think studies that try to find the truth, especially from young adults, about their sexual behavior to better improve and promote safe sex should be lauded, not attacked! Behavioral studies do not INFLUENCE human behavior they RECORD it, for God’s sake. Should we do nothing to learn and just accept more and more unwanted pregnancies, AIDS, and other STD's? Time we stopped being so freaked out by anything and everything related to the most natural human act there is. The conservative right has had way more than their 15 minutes of fame. It’s time we make decisions that are in people’s best interest, not mindlessly follow in lock-step behind anyone who claims they speak on behalf of religion!
— The Curator)