The potential benefits of neuroscientific research into sexuality are great, but neuroscientists must participate in debates over the social, forensic and therapeutic implications of their findings.If serious research in sexuality is to be supported by the public, researchers must continue to earn society's trust with responsible and thoughtful presentation of their work.The history of sexuality research over the last century or so is not admirable; neither, for that matter, are large swaths of the history of neuroscience.
For a century after the development of sexology in the late 1800s, for example, medicine almost uniformly defined culturally unacceptable sexual behaviors as pathological, and often as brain disorders.
Suggested remedies for activities such as masturbation, homosexuality or fetishism included castration or hysterectomy, hormonal therapies, electroshock and other forms of 'heterosexual rehabilitation.' The Nazis experimented with psychosurgery for homosexuality, whereas post-World War II approaches included the more 'humane' aversion therapy.
Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his development of the prefrontal lobotomy, which Walter Freeman in the US tirelessly promoted until it became a medical technique recommended not only for schizophrenia, but also for 'hereditary defectives' and 'moral degenerates.' (Between 19, doctors performed more than 60,000 psychosurgical procedures in the US.) Of course, history is also filled with laudable science, groundbreaking discoveries and thoughtful therapeutic applications.
But given the abuses, it is not just squeamishness that makes people wary when scientists claim to be uncovering empirical truths about our sexual nature.
Recent advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology portend a period of renewed interest in the brain.
Brain imaging, psychopharmacology, implantable brain chips, computer-brain interfaces and other emergent technologies have caught the attention of the media and the public at large.
Newly minted fields such as neuroethics, which tries to apply insights from the brain sciences to social interactions, are highlighting the challenges of translating the rapid developments of neuroscience into useful therapies and thoughtful public policy.
With increased interest, however, comes increased scrutiny.
Particularly in sensitive areas such as sexuality research, neuroscientists must concern themselves with the political, religious and cultural context of their work, both because it leads to better, more thoughtful science and because it helps scientists become more effective advocates of their own research.
Scientific inquiry into sexuality is among the most ethically charged of all behavioral research.
All three Western Abrahamic religious traditions have developed systems of ethics based largely on the nature and types of proper sexual relationships.