“Sand, sun, sea and sex with strangers” paper did not need human subjects research protection approval, says author

Sand dunes in the Canary Islands, image by Klaus Stebani from Pixabay

A now-temporarily retracted paper about how gay men seeking sex on the beach is damaging dunes that was criticized for its language — and for not mentioning any ethical approval — did not need such approval, one of the study’s authors said.

The study was carried out in 2018. But the Human Research Ethics Commitee at ULPGC did not weigh in on the work until September 2021. Luis Hernández-Calvento, the corresponding author of the paper and a professor at Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC), explained to Retraction Watch:

The project in which the article is framed was not initially evaluated by the Human Research Ethics Committee (CEIH, initials in Spanish) of our University because the project did not breach any of the conditions specified for this type of evaluation. In this regard, the favorable opinion of the CEIH is a legally established requirement to initiate any investigation regarding human beings, with biological samples of human origin and with personal data. In our case, the object of our research is the natural environment, specifically the arid coastal dune systems, so the impacts that human actions may have on them are also considered.

In 2021, I decided to send the CEIH not only the project (including the surveys used) but also the draft of a scientific article, for its evaluation, because the subject that was being dealt with in that article was sensitive (the impact that certain human actions -sexual activities- could produce in the natural environment).

The CEIH’s response was that this form was not necessary, since the individuals who carried out these actions were not identified in any way (no personal data was registered), but rather the impact that these actions produced on the natural environment. At my insistence, the CEIH issued the report that you have.

Alan McElligott, who flagged the controversy over the paper to us and studies animal behavior and welfare at the Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences at the City University of Hong Kong, found that explanation wanting.

As you know from the paper, their data collection period only centred on Gay Pride week, so they clearly knew in advance what data they would be collecting. To suggest that the focus of their research was purely the “natural environment” is very misleading. Data were collected in May 2018, so usually that would mean applying for ethics approval in the second half of 2017 or very early in 2018.

A thorough ethical review process would have looked at the potential wider impacts of the research…

The paper raises interesting issues, said Arthur L. Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University’s School of Medicine. For Caplan, the study brought to mind The Tearoom Trade, in which an ethnographer tracked gay men’s sexual practices in public toilets using deception. That example of “surreptitious observation of vulnerable groups” led to a great deal of criticism.

The Canary Islands study is a reminder that bioethical frameworks tend to be designed to protect individuals, not groups, Caplan said — so it may be understandable that the authors didn’t think a study of the environment that didn’t identify individuals required any ethical approval.

“I’d like things that might stigmatize a group to be reviewed, but it’s not clear when exactly that should happen,” Caplan said. “It’s just not part of how IRBs think. Maybe they should.” 

“Obviously we all want to stand for the right to inquire about all sorts of things,” he said. “But do you need to say something, or balance what you write. That’s worth thinking about.”

Still, “It gave me the feeling that it’s not paying attention to the history and the potential stigma you create,” he said. The paper doesn’t mention that “maybe the reason people are going to the dunes is that they can’t go where hetersexuals can congregate,” he said. “Seems like something worth asking or mentioning: ‘How did this use of the dunes begin and why?’”

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9 thoughts on ““Sand, sun, sea and sex with strangers” paper did not need human subjects research protection approval, says author”

  1. Seems fair, not all ethics approval systems are set up the same. I get that people are upset or worried about stigma, but homosexuality is now widely accepted. Same sex marriage has been legal in Spain for over 15 years and was made legal in Australia a few years ago following a popular vote. I just don’t buy the idea that pride month can happen, people can travel and book hotels but feel so excluded that they are having sex in sand dunes.

    If the study was conducted while the area was popular with, say, young people celebrating finishing highschool or on break from college, this paper would receive 0 criticism.

      1. Sadly there are homophobic people in all societies, however in Australia majority opinion preceded legislative change – there was a national vote.

        Anyway, there is just no way that the claim that “maybe the reason people are going to the dunes is that they can’t go where hetersexuals can congregate” makes sense. I don’t see how someone can be so scared that they would feel safer having sex in public rather than in the privacy of their home or hotel room. If you were scared of homophobic violence or stigma, wouldn’t you be seeking privacy rather than attending Pride and having sex in public places?

        And Caplan does not suggest that any ethics violations occurred here, only arguing that perhaps they should have had to get ethics approval. To me, the lack of ethics approval would be the only reason to pull this paper. It seems that specific criticism is not well grounded.

  2. This matter of retracting papers is approaching McCarthyism. Gay men have sex on the sand dunes in The Canary Islands because they like it, not because they need it. There have been not restrictions at all for LGTBI community to book rooms in 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 stars hotels in Spain since 15 years ago at least. So, if their actions are damaging these gorgeous dunes, this paper was welcome for all of us who care and work in nature environment. But now, oops, it no longer exists! I would say exactly the same about hetero having sex massively on these dunes.

    1. Spare us the hand-wringing, you can get atv or 4×4 and ride on dunes, but people having sex is ruining them. And this paper didn’t show any causal link, it was a bad survey.

      And your comments are approaching real Mccarthy-ism

    2. The issue addressed is not gay men having sex on beaches. The issue is people destroying the environment through thoughtlessly discarding trash while having sex on the beach. They should drop the reference to gay men and republish.

  3. The notion that ALL research requires IRB approval is incorrect. There are many ethicists who are concerned that IRB over-reach and IRB extension of required clearance is becoming a problem. For instance, some hold that journalists need IRB approval for interviews with politicians and other persons. This means that a journalist investigating a dodgy person doing something wrong would need to get IRB approval of that investigation prior to the interview, and a signed consent from the interview target. That’s clearly nuts. Another example of data collection which would NOT require IRB approval would involve observation of behavior in public.

    There are many activities which do not require IRB approval. In this case, the IRB seems to be a weapon of those who don’t like research into the gay sex area. This is also a problem about research into transgender issues.

    1. Paul, there is journalism as a profession (e.g., a journalist investigating a dodgy person doing something wrong ) and there is research on journalism as a scholarly/research activity (e.g., an interview study designed to create generalizable knowledge on, say, politicians’ views on a X topic). Depending on the details of the latter scenario, such an activity may require IRB oversight. But, an IRB that requires oversight of journalism work is not following accepted practices and, frankly, should be re-educated. Of course, that is not to say that journalism work should not have some sort of ethical oversight; it should, but certainly not by an IRB.

  4. Thank you. This is the most reasoned comment here. If the study showed no causal link, yet the authors implied / stated that there was AND needed to say that it was gay men having sex, I would say that the PURPOSE of saying that in the paper was not to study the dunes, but to cast aspersions on gay men. They could just as easily have said that non-specific human foot traffic was causing problems, w/ even greater accuracy (as I’m sure that walking there was more damaging than resting a while in one place). The inclusion of the characterization of a private sex act by a sexual minority was gratuitous and likely deliberately designed to increase ill feelings toward them in the primarily heterosexual environmentally conscious scientific community. (Shame on them!)

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