Michael Perelman began his career during a time of upheaval in sexual mores.
Question: Is your sex research from the 1970s still current?
Michael Perelman: Remarkably, actually. I was one of the clinical investigators and the advisors for Johnson and Johnson, who, over the last three or four years, have been attempting to develop a drug pharmaceutical for premature ejaculation in men. While it is frequently the punch line of a joke for late night comics, the fact of the matter is men who have these problems suffer severely emotionally because it has a very negative affect on their relationships, in particular what we found was that these men tend to isolate themselves. In general, in fact, men with sexual problems will withdraw from their partner, so it’s not just that they are not having sex with her, under the heading of who wants to do what they do well, they are also avoiding affection and intimacy for fear that that be mistaken as a sexual initiation. So, having said that, this continues to be a profound problem. So I was doing this research for Johnson and Johnson while they were working on the development of this drug, and as we were talking amongst the other advisors what kind of patient reported outcomes we should use, how do you measure change? What I found is I could actually go back to my doctoral dissertation from, at this point it is 35 years, and be able to find some guidance as to how one might examine these issues. So in that sense, you know, it’s one of these the more things change the more they stay the same stories and the information, because it is so universal remaining problem, quite relevant today as well. And, obviously, the pain caused by, to both men and women, from having sexual problems is something again that has been written about for millennia, and there is very old text describing people’s attempts to cure themselves or other healers, both religious and medical, tends to help facilitate the procreation primarily, and then, later, the notion of how to improve quality of life because we have learned that good sexual health frequently goes along with good physical health and well being in general. Studying sex, you know, I actually started doing it about probably I guess about 1969-70, and it is funny, I was a National Institute of Mental Health Fellow, but I was only 22 years old, and I was very sort of used to the faculty telling, you know, the teacher tells you what to do type of thing. And my first term paper as a graduate student at Columbia, I actually asked permission if I could do a review of Masters and Johnson’s new book called “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” and that book, in 1970, launched sex therapy as a phenomenon, that there really were ways to help people, and direct immeasurable ways, who were suffering from sexual problems. But at the time we were still coming off of certainly an age of rebellion in terms of the “counter culture” of the time and the sexual liberation movements and the identity movements, political identity movements, in terms of feminism developing, homosexuality, racial freedom, freedom from discrimination, all this against the backdrop of the youth rebellion that was taking place, sex, drugs and rock and roll and the protesting of the Vietnam War, so things were in change and in flux, but if you were a graduate student being supported by the government, I felt that I was supposed to ask permission. Nonetheless, they told me, “You are an NIH Fellow; the whole idea is you pick out what you want to study and study it.” So I told my then girlfriend, now wife, this is a riot, you know, they are actually paying me to learn about sex and become a sex expert, I can’t believe this. And so I did.
Question: When did you know you were going to specialize in sex research?
Michael Perlman: It actually gained momentum fairly slowly because I did not really realize at the time how prescient I had been by identifying a new field, and one of the ways to be successful, I would suggest to any young people listening, is identify something new that you are really feeling passionate about and get to know it extremely well. When I was a little boy there were some really, really smart kids in my sixth grade class and one of them was already taking college math. And he seemed to know everything there was to know about math, so I went to the library and I thought, well, what can I learn about and I will know everything about that, too. I was somewhat competitive, so I took out all the ten chemistry books that were there, and, of course, the next week I brought them back unread. So I had the right idea, that you need to become an expert in something, but it was not until I was in my 20s and began to do these term papers on Masters and Johnson. And later, Helen Kaplan wrote a book in 1974, called “The New Sex Therapy,” and Helen actually became my mentor. She founded the program at Cornell that I am now the co-director of, and I was one of her first students. And the remarkable thing was that that whole field was brand new then, so that provided me an opportunity to present at meetings, participate with the people who were the thought leaders of the day and really be in on this from the very, very beginning. So when the sexual pharmaceuticals like Viagra came along, and it is the ten-year anniversary right now, March of 1998 is when it was launched and approved by the FDA, I had already been studying this for 20 years. So in that sense I was very well positioned to become an expert at a time where this whole area went public because of all the commercials that these pharmaceutical companies are doing, and by then I really was an expert.