Sex, Research and Community

A Conference Report

On November 1, 2002, more than sixty researchers and service providers from across the United States gathered in Manhattan for a conference on Sex, Research, and the Community: Focus on Integrating Research in Community Settings. The conference was organized by HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, Columbia University with funding from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

In the opening remarks, the Program Coordinator at HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Research, Dr. Lucia O'Sullivan, focused the attention of participants to the theme of the conference: improving sex research through partnership and effective collaboration. She spoke of the need to foster partnership, not only between research and program, but also between research colleagues working in the area of sexuality and AIDS. Subsequent speakers tackled such subjects as: current and emerging issues in sex research; the need to work collaboratively to "recharge" sexuality education research; and the impact of cultural differences in language, philosophy, goals and outcomes between researchers and service providers.

Examples of sex research conducted in the community were either delivered in presentation format or displayed as posters. Some of the topics covered include the effectiveness of delivering health education through teen theatre, challenges of conducting needs assessment among rural African American men who have sex with men, needs assessment of commercial sex workers, access to health services for HIV-positive women, and patterns of sexual interaction in a university setting. Other presentations focused on actual negotiated research involving research and programs and on mechanisms for securing funding.

One of the lessons learned from this is that successful collaboration begins right from conceptualization through data analysis, interpretation and dissemination. It requires total involvement of all the stakeholders. Following is a summary of key issues raised at the conference.

Sexuality Education and Policy

  1. Participants saw a compelling rationale for "recharging" sexuality education research in the United States, and for expanding its focus (e.g., going beyond too much emphasis on female adolescents to the exclusion of their male counterparts).

  2. There is need for programs targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are often marginalized in "traditional" programs. Experience has failed to support the assumption that their problems are part of adolescent development that would soon "go away."

  3. There is also a need for "sex-positive" education to empower individuals, especially youths, and provide them with the skills necessary for making rational choices.

  4. Studies have shown there are significant age differentials between adolescent girls and their sexual partners, often leading to unhealthy relationships such as sexual assault and other forms of physical and emotional violence. Service providers should be aware of this problem and must provide appropriate interventions to deal with this problem.

  5. Policy decisions should not be guided by politics, but by theory-driven research and programming that show best results. The "abstinence only until marriage" was criticized as a poor and inadequate response to HIV/STDs infections and/or unwanted pregnancy.

Research-Community Program Partnership

  1. Although the presentations included innovative sex research in community settings, effective partnership remains a challenge to sex research and sexuality education due to deep-seated differences in philosophy and immediate goals of intervention.

  2. Despite these challenges, participants agreed there is a compelling need to blend research and program agenda as a means of advancing sexuality research agenda. The following ingredients of successful collaboration were identified:

    1. Collaborators must recognize that each side has power through its specific domains of knowledge. This helps to create an atmosphere of mutual respect, equitable power sharing and empowerment that are necessary for effective collaboration.

    2. Honest discussions and acknowledgment of differences in agenda should serve as a means of fostering confidence, trust, and responsibility. Conflicting research and program agendas, including methods and processes of implementation, must be carefully negotiated by the stakeholders.

    3. It is important to avoid designing programs that ignore research altogether, or conducting research that is not grounded or based essentially on ego.

Peter C. Nwakeze, Ph.D. is Director of Research and Evaluation at the Hunter College Center on AIDS, Drugs and Community Health.