July 22, 2011 -- A study on gay men's penis size and sexual health made headlines this week -- not because of its findings but, rather, its funding source.
The study, which linked penis size to sexual position preference as well as physical and psychological well-being, was published in the June 2010 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. But more than a year later, the Traditional Values Coalition, The Daily Caller and Fox News condemned the study as a frivolous use of taxpayer money.
"We've got nameless, faceless bureaucrats who thought this was a good use of taxpayer money," Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, told the Daily Caller. "But, at the end of the day, it was the NIH directors who signed off on it. These nameless, faceless bureacrats [sic] seem to think the American taxpayers are a limitless ATM machine."
But there's one big problem. The NIH did not directly fund the study, nor did it approve the research. It did, however, provide a training grant for research into AIDS and HIV prevention for the study's lead author, Christian Grov.
"This study was funded by the Hunter College Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training," a spokeswoman for the NIH told ABC News in an email. "Dr. Christian Grov was supported as a postdoctoral research fellow at the time the research was conducted by a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded training grant, which focuses on preparing behavioral scientists, especially racial/ethnic minorities, to conduct research in the areas of drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and crime. These funds can only be used to support expenses like stipends, tuition and fees. These funds cannot be used to support research projects."
The training grant supported Grov while he studied a range of sexual health issues among men who have sex with men -- a group that it is disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS.
Now an assistant professor of health and nutrition services at City University of New York's Brooklyn College, Grov defended his research, explaining that it has important implications for reducing HIV transmission.
"At the moment, the male latex condom is the best barrier to prevent transmitting HIV and [sexually transmitted infections]," he said. "The one-size-fits-all approach to condom distribution may not meet the needs of men who fall outside the range of the typical condom."
More than 50,000 people were infected with HIV in 2006, the most recent year that data are available, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. And more than half of the new infections occurred in gay and bisexual men.
Emphasizing what they consider a waste of money that turned out not by be taxpayers', The Daily Caller said a key finding of the study was that men who felt they had larger penises were more likely to identify themselves as "tops," or anal insertive. But given that previous research suggests penis size can impact correct and consistent condom use and, subsequently, the risk of HIV transmission, the finding does have public health implications, Grov said.
Grov and colleagues also found that men who reported above-average penis sizes were more likely to have viral sexually transmitted infections like herpes and genital warts.
"We believe the higher rates of herpes and warts may be because these men were experiencing improper condom fit, condom breakage or irritation," said Grov.
Jeffrey Parsons, chairman of psychology at Hunter College and senior author of the study, said the attack on gay sexual health research came as no surprise.
"Clearly, conservative groups like the Traditional Values Coalition have a vested interest in creating scandal around scientific research related to gay men, and sexuality research, in general, comes under particular scrutiny and is often cited as a waste of taxpayer money."
Parsons stressed that while taxpayer dollars did not pay for the research, studies of sexual behavior have a significant public health impact.
"This type of research has considerable value, and it is unfortunate that most of what has been reported about this one study is either factually inaccurate or focused on some of the least critical findings in terms of public health impact," he said. "Instead of highlighting the ways in which these research findings can and should guide health education efforts for gay men, the focus has been shifted to whether the study cost nearly $900K or over $9 million of taxpayer money -- when, in reality, the research was not NIH-funded."