Sex, drugs and research grants

A bit of salacious science can arouse our curiosity and ignite exciting new ideas.

Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka


This is an editorial for Issue 16 by Lateral deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill, whose browser history gets more and more questionable by the issue.

It can be tempting to think of science as a pure and noble pursuit, driven only by curiosity and the neverending quest for knowledge. The reality, of course, is somewhat less ideal. As almost every scientist I’ve ever spoken to has been at pains to express, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got funding (not my best). And as we know, science doesn’t exist in a vacuum – research is subject to social pressure and values, just like everything else. Where this funding and pressure comes from and where it takes us can be two very different things, and the forces that dictate the direction of future innovation can be completely unexpected.

In our first issue, we covered the significant impact of World War I on scientific research and development. War is a well known catalyst for immense scientific and technological innovation, as money and necessity drive progress. Likewise, our sport issue highlighted some of the ways the physical pursuit of sporting success can incorporate or influence some of the highest academic goals, and our drugs issue examined one of the biggest money makers in science (and the world). This month, it’s time to talk about sex, baby, and to examine some of the perhaps surprising ways that sex and the sex industry have pushed the boundaries of science and technology. 

First of all, the internet seriously is for porn. Video streaming, live chats, faster broadband, secure online payments — many of your favourite things to do online were originally innovated for or by the porn industry. In fact, it probably can’t be understated how much online porn shaped the internet we have today, for better or worse (I could live without the pop ups). And thus it has always been — even the progression from VHS to DVD can be put down to porn, along with pay per view and interactive television. 

The adult industry is still booming, especially in the online space — and its growth relies on constantly changing and churning out new products and gimmicks. The fact that it’s one of the only corners of the internet still making big bucks means it remains an important influence over science and technology, and research and innovation. As James O’Connor writes this month, porn has more recently lead to the development of virtual reality technology, driving innovations to make scenes more interactive and immersive, and allowing couples to experience it together. As the technology becomes more mainstream, you could sure enough end up playing a game or watching a movie through a virtual reality device originally developed for sexy times. Such is the power of porn. 

As the sex industry grows and diversifies, it also gives science a new motivation to study aspects of sex and sexuality that haven’t been previously examined. It’s no mistake that one of our most fundamental biological processes has been shrouded in mystery for so long by the scientific establishment, with an inclination and incentive to study only the supposedly necessary (ie reproductive) aspects. Thus, it is the year 2016 and scientists still don’t know what female ejaculation is, and only recently was the G-spot found to be an internal part of the clitoris, causing women all around the world to say “well duh, I could have told you that.”

As Emma Beckett writes this month, females are underrepresented in medical research, with women often excluded from drug trials and considered more complicated to study. When it comes to sex, female sexual pleasure has generally been considered functionally redundant, with research efforts focused instead on what can be medicalised, pathologised and monetised – things like infertility, or male erectile dysfunction, where big bucks are to be made from drugs and therapies. The mystery of our curious lady bodies clearly had to wait. But with a shift in social pressure and a growing interest in a traditionally under-researched area, along with the fact that a deeper knowledge of women’s bodies could lead to new sexy applications and products (aka $$$), there is a push to further study and understand female sexuality and desire. 

Science might not be the most traditionally sexy occupation (although I must admit, plenty of scientists and science communicators I know are evidence enough to the contrary), but it is always, always dependent on funds — and sex, obviously, sells. We should embrace the intimate connection between sex and STEM research and development, and the ways both contrasting industries pushes the other further. And if it means a few extra dollar bills tucked in our lab coats, all the better. 

This month we have a particularly sexy take on our ongoing exploration of the relationship between science and society, all the way from sex robots to sex discrimination in research — there’s plenty here to turn you on. Intellectually.