Dr. Ruth Westheimer, better known as “Dr. Ruth,” visited a crowd of over 300 fans at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater to discuss a life spent in sex education, as part of the Bloomington Sex Salon, a monthly community-based speaker series on the topic of sex research, education, and advocacy.
The lecture celebrated the 10th anniversary of The Center for Sexual Health Promotion, based in the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of Public Health-Bloomington. The center is a collaborative of sexual health scholars from across the university and partner academic institutions who work toward advancing the field of sexual health through research, education, and training initiatives.
“Dr. Ruth, for many people, has been an important figure in how the world views talking comfortably about sexual education,” said Debby Herbenick, host of the Bloomington Sex Salon and director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion. “She’s dedicated half her life to talking about sex and educating people about it. We are excited about the opportunity to have her here and to celebrate the anniversary of the center.”
The center was founded by Herbenick and Michael Reece, a professor in the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of Public Health-Bloomington, as a way to bridge the focus between sex research and public health research, and to shift the focus of public health research from focusing solely on the potential negative effects of sexual behavior, such as HIV or unintended pregnancy, to being more inclusive of the role sexuality plays in the human experience and the positive contributions sexuality makes to quality of life.
“We never believed you should be studying outcomes of sexual behavior without trying to understand the sexual experience more holistically,” Reece said. “We wanted to try to change the landscape of work in our field by focusing on these more comprehensive understandings of sexual behavior, not just its negative outcomes.”
Throughout the past decade, the center has made a name for itself through more than 150 publications, research conducted on five continents, courses taught on campus, and, most notably in 2009, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) – the largest nationally representative survey of Americans focusing on sexual behaviors and experiences. Through additional funding, the center will continue to conduct the survey annually through 2020 and is developing an online system to make the data more accessible to the public.
“The NSSHB will ultimately provide a decade of research on sexual behavior, with many of the same people surveyed over time given the study’s prospective cohort design,” Reece said. “That is something the world has never had. So we will continue to conduct groundbreaking research on sexual behaviors in the U.S. and we will make sure the data from those studies is more easily accessible not only to the general population, but with a special focus on data presented in a way that is useful to parents, educators, and policy makers who are committed to improving the sexual health of the nation.”
The center has also focused strongly on training graduate students, whose work has expanded the center’s influence at universities throughout the world.
“I’m proud that several of our Ph.D. students have gone on to work at other universities where they have created similar groups and used similar models,” said Herbenick, who first worked with Reece as a graduate student. “That allows our field to grow in these exponential ways.”
Both Reece and Herbenick said they are pleased with the work that the Center for Sexual Health Promotion has accomplished in the past decade, and they look forward to not only watching it continue to grow, but also seeing the expanding role it’s playing in the field of sexual research.
“Considering we are a small group, we’ve been able to make our mark in a big way,” Herbenick said. “My colleagues Michael and Brian Dodge and I care deeply about our community and the greater world, about how our work informs and educates people, and about what we can learn from those around us.”
To learn more about the Bloomington Sex Salon visit its Facebook page.