Is a Federally Sponsored Homoerotic Website Wasteful?

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Conservatives are highlighting the project as part of their ongoing small government crusade. Here's why their approach is flawed.

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Traditional Values Coaltion

Over at the National Institute of Health, staffers working on HIV and AIDS in America had a problem: research showed that when sexually active gay men read specific material about disease prevention, they'd engage in less risky behavior. But how best to reach and educate the people at highest risk? In an attempt to figure that out, NIH funded researchers at the University of Minnesota, who reached out to gay men on the Internet. Hey guys, they asked, what would it take to get you reading material that educated you about preventing sexually transmitted diseases?

Respondents gave an honest and predictable answer: if you want to attract the eyeballs of gay men who are soliciting sex online, best to package what you want them to read next to images of sexy men. So that's what the researchers did. They created an interactive site, aimed at high-risk gays, that included information on disease prevention, naked men, and silly Internet games.

Enter the Traditional Values Coalition. They've got a petition:

We have no business funding "measurements" of the male anatomy, pornography and other bizarre behavioral research that seeks only to fund, credential, and prop up the loony Left. 

I join the hundreds of thousands of Americans in support of Traditional Values Coalition and their efforts to stop the National Institutes of Health's wasteful, offensive funding of bizarre and ridiculous -- and in some cases, truly horrific -- rewarding of grants that serve no purpose other than to fund liberal projects and oddities America simply cannot afford. 

Their effort is being covered at Fox News.

The National Institutes of Health has spent millions of dollars over the past decade to fund the construction of an HIV-prevention website that, among other sexually explicit features, includes a graphic image of homosexual sex and a Space Invaders-style interactive game that uses a penis-shaped blaster to shoot down gay epithets.
 

The grant money went to a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota that created a site called Sexpulse. The goal was to draw in what are termed MISM -- or "men who use the Internet to seek sex with men" -- in order to educate them and ultimately reduce their risk of contracting HIV. But the site used unorthodox methods to get subjects' attention and keep them interested. The site includes pornographic images of homosexual sex as well as naked and scantily clad men. It includes several risqué interactive features, like the Space Invaders-style arcade game. 

There is a glaring problem with that characterization: using sex and silly Web based games to get the attention of male Internet users isn't unorthodox at all. It's pretty much the default method!

The story goes on:

The conservative Traditional Values Coalition, which flagged the government-backed research and described it as "gay porn," complains the website and studies are a multimillion-dollar waste. "We can't spend money on this. America is broke," coalition President Andrea Lafferty said. "People are losing their homes, they're losing their jobs ... and what we're doing is we're funding year after year these cockamamie grants by people at NIH." 
As someone sympathetic to the notion that the federal government wastes a lot of money, let me explain why I'm so put off by this approach to diagnosing and fixing the problem. It's an undeniable opportunity to grab headlines. "Government funds gay porn!" But if we're going to fund HIV prevention efforts, something I presume has broad support, best to do it in the most efficient way - and while I don't know that the NIH is doing so, I see no reason to reflexively dismiss the notion that reaching their target population is most effectively done with naked men, any more than I have a hard time believing Cindy Crawford in cut-off jean shorts was once the most efficient way to sell Pepsi.

If the Traditional Values Coalition wants to make a moral argument against the NIH approach, they should do so without invoking the struggle against government inefficiency, for in this case it is they who are probably on the wrong side of it. If there's an argument that NIH could more effectively achieve its ends -- a possibility to which I am very open -- critics ought to point out how.

That isn't what the Traditional Values Coalition or Fox News is doing. They're using discomfort with gay sexuality and erotic images generally to make the government look silly. Their method isn't going to result in less money spent on HIV prevention. Its effect, if anything, is going to be a public health infrastructure that shies away from efficient seeming methods when they judge that sensationalistic portrayals of those methods in the media might make enough Americans squeamish. In other words, they'll make efficiency subservient to right-wing political correctness.

The larger problem with taking on spending by highlighting an obscure NIH-funded Web site is that it can only fail to result in anything resembling a solution to America's alarming spending problem. Entitlements (especially Medicare) and military spending are where it's at, and if we eliminated all discretionary public health research tomorrow, which might well cost money in the long run, it still wouldn't make any significant difference in the fiscal trajectory of the nation or the tax burden of its citizens. In this effort to complain about waste, the Traditional Values Coalition has pretty much wasted the time and resources of its funders with this particular campaign. It's no wonder that the American right has been so unsuccessful on these issues for so long - in instances like this one, "winning" might well mean less efficiency in the short term and no difference at all in the long term.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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