When Dr. Pierre van den Berghe, a sociologist, gave his research partner the, ahem green light to spend some evenings in a Peruvian brothel with U.S. tax money, he knew there could be repercussions.
But Van den Berghe and his partner, Dr. George Primov, decided that their lust for knowledge would have to go ahead of the risk.
So the social sciences marched for ward, with an assist from their federal research grant, as Van de Berghe and Primov focused on brothel life in the Andean village of San Tuti, a wide spot in the road outside of Cuzco.
One of the results of their work was an article, written by Primov, called "The Peruvian brothel, a Sexual Dispensary and Social Arena." It was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior last year.
As part of a larger study of ethnic and class relationships in Peruvian mountain society, the research concentrated on the nonsexual functions of the bordello as a male gathering place for drinking and storytelling and, yes, as an attraction for "gringo tourists," as Van de Berghe put it.
Well, the repercussions came raining down yesterday on Van den Berghe and Primov and their benefactor, the National Institute for Mental Health.
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) laid his monthly Golden Fleece Award - a recognition of "the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic waste of taxpayers' money" - on NIMH for the $97,000 grant it gave Van de Berghe.
"I do not object if academic researchers, especially of Dr. Van den Berghe's or Dr. Privov's generally high reputation, want to study Peruvian brothels or even ancient Incavestal nonvirgins," Proxmire said.
"What I object to is the federal government paying for it. With federal research budgets so tight and the needs for mental health research here at home so great, it is unbelievable that NIMH would give this project such priority and fund the field trip to Peru," he said.
Primov, who handled the primary research at San Tuti, is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Van den Berghe is a full professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He also happens to be the author of one of the most explicit how-to books of our time: a tone entitled "Academic Gamesmanship," which tells the scholarly how to tap the federal treasury for grant money.
That little irony was not lost on Proxmire, who railed at NIMH for "a record of mismanagement and lack of control of taxpayer funds once the grant was issued."
NIMH grant managers could not be reached for comment last evening, but Van den Berghe was in his office in Seattle, loving every minute of his new notoriety.
"I'm flattered by all the attention . . . I'm amazed at how fair Sen. Proxmire is - this is above his usual standard for fairness," he said.
"I'm sure the senator gets some electoral advantage from this, but my reputation in the academic community will be enhanced. Six colleagues already have come in spontaneously to congratulate me for the Golden Fleece."
Actually, he continued, the brothel study was only a tiny part of the larger, 18-month project in Peru.
"My associate [primov] proposed this to me, and it was done with complete propriety. I was aware of potential repercussions, but I gave him the green light to do it on his own time," Van den Berghe said.
He said that Primov spent "about three weeks of evening work" on the study, making 20 visits to San Tuti and spending grant money only for gasoline.
"Fifty dollars would be a high estimate of what it cost the American taxpayers. Dr. Primov has made a significant contribution to scholarly knowledge. In terms of dollar return, it is damned cheap research," he said.
Primov's article reported that 21 prostitudes were "formally" interviewed and that "many more were interviewed informally . . . Prostitues were also observed outside the brothel. By visiting the brothel at various times, it was possible to obtain a good idea of its everday functioning."
As for the overall project, Van den Berghe said he and his associates returned about $1,500 to NIMH, with receipts and vouchers for everything.
"We accounted for every last dollar. I'm clean on the money and I have a clear conscience."
He said, however, that he had once regret. His book, "Academic Gamesmanship," is "unfortunately" no longer available at the very moment when his name is making the papers.