When the University of Minnesota last summer named Eli Coleman the academic chair in sexual health — the first chair of its kind in the world — the recognition was, in one sense, an acknowledgment of how far the science of sex had come over the past three decades.
In another, it was an indication of how far the field still has to go.
Coleman, the longtime director of the university’s human sexuality program, came to the U in the mid-’70s to complete a doctorate in psychology and thought of himself as more of a generalist until he had to pick a thesis topic. And that’s when he fell for the nascent field of sexual health.
“There were a million (research) questions and you could choose just about anything,” he said. There was “so much to learn, so much to study.” After graduation, Coleman accepted a position at the U and found himself in a field where research was largely defined either by the work of German sexologists in the early part of the 20th century (which the Nazis halted in the 1930s by destroying Berlin’s famed Hirschfeld Institute for Sex Research) or by Alfred Kinsey, the controversial iconoclast whose work still influences modern studies.
And most of that research was published not in respected medical journals, but in smaller journals dedicated solely to sexual health. When researchers shopped their studies, they struggled to convince others that their work was legitimate.
Career choice brought big risk, too
Coleman’s career choice was a risk: He knew he could spend his life studying what he found most interesting and watch decades of his work go largely unrecognized. But the U supported his department and its research.
“I could have gone elsewhere to start from scratch, but it was easier to build on things here,” he says. “This was the place to be and it still is.”
And over the years — both through incremental steps, such as sexologists consistently publishing solid research, and through leaps, such as the HIV epidemic and the discovery of Viagra — sexology began to move toward that word: legitimacy.
Now, as Coleman puts it, “Everyone’s publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine if they have something new and hot.”
Coleman became director of the human sexuality program in 1991. After spending years studying gay identity formation and the connections between chemical abuse and sexual health issues, he had turned his focus to compulsive sexual behavior. The attention his research received dovetailed with the increased attention given to the field as a whole.
Endowed chair key to department’s vitality
That’s when he decided on the next step to secure his department’s future viability: securing its first endowed chair to support research and education. But instead of seeking a high-profile donor to give the approximately $3 million to $5 million universities need to endow chairs, Coleman and the department searched for smaller gifts from hundreds of donors.
“People are establishing things in stem cell research or diabetes,” Coleman said. “People develop these problems or issues and are very willing to gift in these areas. The challenge we had in sexual health goes back to the legitimization issue.
“Sexuality, sexual health, is still, to some degree, stigmatized.”
In other words, people may not want to see their name connected to the academic chair devoted to studying sexual problems and issues.
The department lined up about 300 donors for the first $1 million, and found an individual — an anonymous one — who gave another $3 million.
So the U’s first endowed chair of sexual health is nameless.
Coleman, though, has seen his field come a long way in 30 years, and he’s an optimist when it comes to these things. His department will soon begin work on endowing a second chair and this one, he thinks, could have a name attached to it.
And even if it doesn’t, the funding — money that Coleman wouldn’t have considered asking for decades ago — will be there, and the chair will be another step forward, another step closer to a sexually healthier world.