Duke University is proving that research can be sexy — by studying how sex toys affect women’s sensual lives.
The study, which aims to reduce instances of unprotected sex, has already caused controversy among several of Duke’s religious groups.
But campus officials have stood behind the study, citing its possible benefits.
“We have a serious problem, and STDs are really on the rise,” said Dan Ariely, a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the leader of the study.
“People have tried all kinds of stuff. We’ve tried sex education, we’ve tried the pledge and we’ve tried the free condoms, but nothing has seemed to work.”
The study recruited female students to participate in “Tupperware” parties where a sales representative brings a variety of items to sell to a group — except the study substitutes sex toys for Tupperware.
The toys are for sale at a discounted price, and each participant is compensated with a gift bag.
Ariely would not give many details about the content or aim of the research to maintain the reliability of the results.
The study has raised some eyebrows about its appropriateness, but Ariely said the study is by no means sensational — it’s science.
He said he is still unsure whether it is an effective approach because they aren’t finished with the research.
One of the main opponents to the study on Duke’s campus is the Rev. Joe Vetter, the director of the Duke Catholic Center. He declined to comment on the study Wednesday, although he spoke out against the study in earlier reports by WRAL and the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
The Christian Action League, an organization headquartered in Raleigh that represents conservative evangelicals, has also expressed concern about the study.
The Rev. Mark Creech, the group’s executive director, said his main concern is that the study might contribute to women engaging in “hook-ups” rather than building deep relationships.
“It certainly sends a message that the university is endorsing such behavior,” Creech said. “This is not what parents send their children to learn in college.”
But Ariely said he was not dissuaded by the criticism from the religious community.
“It’s very easy to do a lot of useless science, but when you do things people care about, it becomes much more difficult,” Ariely said.
Despite the religious organizations’ opposition and posters recruiting women for the study on campus and on Duke’s Web site, many Duke students are still relatively clueless about the study.
“I’m not sure what the study is actually looking at,” said Duke sophomore Angelica Ahrens. “But to be honest, I’m not sure it’s something I would be interested in.”
Others who saw the ads didn’t seem too shocked by them.
“It doesn’t bother me that they’re doing it,” said senior Brittany Duck. “I think it’s actually kind of cool.”
Ariely said the sensational nature of the media coverage so far has made him concerned that the study’s results could be tainted by people misunderstanding it.
“We were going to finish by December,” he said. “Now these people come and they don’t really know what the study is about.”
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