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What are some examples of ethical issues surrounding the research on human sexuality?

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All research that involves human subjects requires ethical review. For example, one of the most infamous examples of a study concerned with human sexuality was the Tuskegee experiment, in which black men with syphilis were left without treatment and just observed so that doctors could learn more about the course of the disease. In response to the ensuing scandal, President Clinton apologized to the victims and established the Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. In an earlier experiment, US researchers in Guatemala deliberately infected people with syphilis so that they could study the disease—something also ethically problematic.

Another issue involves studying young people. For example, even if the study is just a written survey, researchers must balance the importance of confidentiality with the need to protect children who might be engaged in risky behavior. Also, when dealing with minors, parental consent is always needed, but many adolescents might not be comfortable with speaking freely when parents are involved in any way. Also, on the subject of privacy, as there is still prejudice against many LGBTQ people and, to a different extent, those who are involved in the BDSM community, an important ethical issue is ensuring privacy. Privacy also becomes a problem when studying pedophiles, as the need for accurate information conflicts with the need to report pedophiles and protect children.

In the case of studying STDs, there is a question also about confidentiality. Patients might only agree to be studied or treated if information is kept in confidence, but researchers might also feel an obligation to inform or warn people who might be infected by the person with an STD engaging in unprotected sexual activities.

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There are many ethical issues that could be associated with research into human sexuality.  This is because most of this research has human subjects.  Research with human subjects is ethically very tricky.

For example, research into human sexuality often involves survey interviews in which researchers try to determine what sexual experiences a person has had in their life time or what their attitudes are about various issues relating to sex.  This is an intensely personal subject and many interviewees may be reluctant to answer.  Ethical issues then clash with the needs of the study because the researcher is not supposed to push people to give information they do not wish to give.

Another issue arises when researchers study illegal sexual activity such as prostitution.  Researchers are often funded by grants from government agencies.  If they are and if government agencies (like the police) then want information from them about the illegal sexual activities, what are they to do?  This is an ethical concern because researchers are generally not ethically allowed to divulge information (without permission) that would identify the subjects of their studies.

Research into human sexuality is fraught with ethical issues because of the personal and private nature of the subject matter being studied.

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