In its storied past, the University of Minnesota Medical School has built a reputation for discoveries — the world’s first open-heart surgical procedure, the first pancreatic and bone marrow transplants and the place where the pacemaker was developed.
In the future, it may be known for its scientific breakthroughs on how seniors can keep the sizzle in their sex lives.
“Sexuality beyond the reproductive years has not been studied,” said Eli Coleman, director of the university’s Program on Human Sexuality. “We’re living longer, but there’s very little research about what would help people maintain or restore their sexual lives as they age.”
Coleman hopes to change that. With the backing of a TV reality show personality, a transgender billionaire and a team of world-renowned sex scholars, Coleman and the interdisciplinary team that he leads — 30 faculty physicians, clinicians, therapists and researchers — are hoping to make Minnesota the nation’s leader for the academic study of sex.
The Program on Human Sexuality, which has the nation’s inaugural endowed professorship in sexual health education, is now raising money to endow the first — and only — university chair devoted to the study of sexuality and aging. It already produces scientifically sound clinical research that’s being used by providers around the world. Last year alone, researchers affiliated with the program published more than 50 studies in academic journals.
The meaty articles illuminate sober topics like “Investigating clinically and scientifically useful cut points on the Compulsive Sexual Behavior Inventory,” “Using emotionally focused therapy to treat sexual desire discrepancy in couples,” and “Single versus 3 doses of intramuscular benzathine penicillin for early syphilis in HIV.”
‘We need to find out’
The next step for the program is raising $10 million from donors to sustain its initiatives, including the professorship specifically devoted to the academic study of sexuality and aging.
“We know that people who are sexually healthy are happier over their life span. Data show they live longer,” said Dr. June La Valleur, a retired faculty OB-GYN who serves on the program’s leadership council. “Medicine ignores sexual health as part of aging. The research stops at age 50; we need to find out about sex at 70 and 80. Sex is more than the absence of disease; it’s having joy and fulfillment.”
The Sexuality and Aging chair will be endowed in the name of Dr. Pepper Schwartz. The Yale-trained researcher and author of 25 books on love, sexuality and commitment may be best known for matching strangers to be spouses on the Lifetime show “Married at First Sight.”
“Most sex research is on reproductive capability, looking at bonding and intimate relationships in family building,” said Schwartz, who serves on the program’s advisory board. “Studying relationships later in life is an appropriate mission for science.”
Scientific study of human sexuality didn’t begin in earnest until after World War II, when Indiana University biologist Alfred Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research. In 1965, the Journal of Sex Research premiered. The next year, William Masters and Virginia Johnson published their first bestseller, “Human Sexual Response,” based on their research at Washington University in St. Louis.
‘Prepare future physicians’
In Minnesota, sexuality research began in 1968, when the U collaborated with the American Lutheran Church on coursework to guide clergy in sexuality training to enhance their work with couples. It later held the nation’s first seminar on human sexuality for medical school faculty and students and founded the Program in Human Sexuality.
At that time, dozens of universities had science programs on human sexuality. But in the past few decades, most of those programs have been eliminated or hollowed out, Coleman said, their focus narrowed to HIV or other diseases.
“If you look at the curriculum at medical schools around the country, students don’t get anything meaningful like we can offer them here,” he said. “We need to prepare future physicians much better to address the sexual needs and concerns of their patients.”
To serve a broader population, the university established the National Center for Gender Spectrum Health, with the support of Jennifer Pritzker, a transgender woman who is the CEO of a private wealth management firm and an heir to the Chicago-based Hyatt Hotel fortune. Pritzker serves on the program’s leadership council and has committed more than $6.5 million to the University of Minnesota.
“Our society needs a place that studies all aspects of human sexuality,” she said in a statement. “We need to invest in research to advance our understanding so that all patients can have an enhanced quality of life.”
Despite the fact that Minnesotans have a reputation for being reserved about what goes on behind the bedroom door, Coleman said he sees plenty of support for more sex research at the U.
And researchers with the program point out that a healthy lustiness is also part of the state’s legacy.
“We may be the home of bachelor farmers, but we are also the home of Prince,” said Jennifer Connor, an associate professor in the Program on Human Sexuality.“That’s who I got most of my sex education from.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.