Despite its undisputed status as one of the world"s preeminent centers for sex research, the Kinsey Institute is not an easy place to find. I became lost on Indiana University"s sprawling Bloomington campus on my way to visit the institute last year, and few of the students I asked for directions admitted to knowing of the institute"s existence, let alone its location. Several young men mumbled red-faced excuses of "I don"t know anything about that place" before I found a biology student willing to drop me off outside the institute"s unsigned entrance on the way to her next class, though she said she didn"t really agree with "the kind of work that goes on there."
The Kinsey Institute is located in a stately old building called Morrison Hall, which is also home to the Hoagy Carmichael archives. Ironically, Carmichael"s name is perhaps more familiar in Indiana today than Dr. Alfred Kinsey"s, though the latter"s work has had a much more profound and lasting impact on our romantic lives than love songs like "Stardust." Fifty years ago, Kinsey"s name was on everyone"s lips. A biologist who spent the first two decades of his academic career studying gall wasps, Kinsey became a scientific superstar in 1948, when he and his colleagues at IU"s Institute of Sex Research (known today as the Kinsey Institute) published the groundbreaking study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Among the more controversial findings of Kinsey and co-authors Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin and Paul Gebhard were that 50 percent of married men had affairs; that as many as 10 percent of American men were predominantly homosexual; and that 37 percent had engaged in a homosexual act of some sort during their lifetimes. Most unsettling of all was the introduction of the "Kinsey scale," which measured sexual orientation on a scale from 0 to 6, with 0 as absolute heterosexuality, and 6 absolute homosexuality. Contrary to steadfast assumptions going back centuries, Kinsey suggested that sexual identity was fluid, and could change during the course of an individual"s life, and that this flux was a healthy part of the human experience. Kinsey himself began as a 1, but his colleague Gebhard estimated that Kinsey became a 4 (bisexual) during his later years. While some conservatives accused Kinsey of being part of a Communist plot to undermine the American family, a Gallup poll found that 78 percent of people surveyed felt Kinsey"s work on male sexuality was "a good thing." The media compared the effects of the "Male volume" to the explosion of the first atomic bomb three years earlier, and America waited eagerly to see what discoveries Kinsey would make about the sex lives of women. Kinsey the collector Alfred Kinsey"s interest in human sexuality is often traced back to 1938, when he was asked to teach a course on marriage for IU students. According to Kinsey biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Kinsey was appalled at how little his soon-to-be-married students knew about sexuality, and was convinced that a better understanding of sex would lead to healthier marriages and better relations between the sexes. To broaden his own scientific knowledge of sexuality, Kinsey began developing a detailed system of recording the sexual histories of individuals, and asked his students to volunteer for the project. Kinsey had become a world expert on gall wasps - tiny ant-sized insects that could neither sting nor fly - by amassing millions of specimens, and he was to apply this same mania for collecting to his study of human sexuality. Kinsey developed a survey of 300 to 500 questions, which took several hours to complete, and was so intricate that it took interviewers a year to master the method. To ensure subjects" confidentiality, the details of their sexual lives were recorded in a secret code, the key to which was stored inside the minds of Kinsey and his team, and transcribed on paper only after Kinsey"s death. The most important aspect of Kinsey"s method was his insistence that interviewers convey a non-judgmental attitude towards sexuality, which allowed subjects to discuss any and all sexual behaviors without fear of embarrassment or shame. Today, Kinsey"s preoccupation with secrecy might seem unwarranted, but in the 1930s, almost all sex acts other than marital coitus were still illegal, and many carried stiff penalties of fines and jail time for those who were caught. "On a specific calculation of our data, it may be stated that at least 85 percent of the younger male population could be convicted as sex offenders if law enforcement officials were as efficient as most people expect them to be," Kinsey wrote. By the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published, Kinsey and his colleagues had used their interview method to collect over 10,000 detailed sexual histories. Kinsey had ceased teaching at IU entirely to devote himself full-time - often working 90-hour weeks - to researching human sexual behavior. It was also during this period that Kinsey began to collect erotic photographs, artifacts and fine art. Kinsey believed that pornography, sexual ephemera and ancient artifacts held important clues about human sexuality, and could also be used as valuable "visual data" in his research. "If Kinsey could find a work of art - such as a piece of Peruvian pottery from 1,500 years ago - that showed a couple having oral sex, for example, those materials were a way of showing that those behaviors had been practiced for a long time, and that perhaps they shouldn"t be illegal," explains Catherine Johnson, curator of the institute"s art and photography collections. Though these items are rarely mentioned in his studies, Kinsey acquired them at a rapid rate, amassing what remains one of the world"s largest collections of erotic art, and over 48,000 photographs. Debunking the myth of the vaginal orgasm Sexual Behavior in the Human Female culled data from the sexual histories of 5,940 white females, holding such varied occupations, wrote Kinsey, as "art critic, berry picker, burlesque performer, bus girl, cigarette girl, dice girl, dramatic critic, Girl Scout executive, glass blower, inventor, judge, male impersonator, mannequin maker, poet, puppeteer, riveter, truck driver, U.N. delegate, welder Ö" However, the sample lacked diversity in other areas: Seventy-five percent of the women interviewed had attended college, as compared to only 7.5 percent of American women at large in 1953; 58 percent were unmarried, and the subjects were disproportionately middle or upper class, Jewish and urban. "The sample of women was short on black people, and lower socio-economic groups," says Dr. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute. "I still think the data is of considerable value. One has to be cautious about extrapolating to the whole population, but I think the findings are still valid." Despite this shortcoming, Kinsey"s data was the most comprehensive available at that time, and from it came a series of stereotype-shattering conclusions: ï 50 percent of women had engaged in premarital sexual intercourse, and 66-79 percent had no regrets about it; ï 26 percent of married women had an extramarital sexual experience by age 40; ï 20 percent of women had a homosexual sexual experience by age 40; ï 62 percent of women masturbated, although 47 percent felt some guilt about doing so; ï married women reached orgasm in 75 percent of sexual acts, nearly half after less than three minutes of sex; ï the average woman reached full sexual peak much later than men, at around age 30, and maintained a healthy sex drive into her 50s and beyond; ï and most significantly of all: The vaginal orgasm was a myth, a biological impossibility. Kinsey found that the clitoris functioned similarly to the male penis, and was the primary source of orgasm in women. These and other findings largely ran counter to the post-war ideal of American women as chaste, passive and, while accommodating to their husbands" sexual desires, largely frigid and disinterested in sex other than for the purposes of procreation. At the time of the "Female volume"s" publication, the accepted consensus among physicians was that 75 percent of women suffered from "frigidity." Kinsey anticipated that his discoveries to the contrary would challenge many of the basic assumptions about sex and gender around which American society was organized, and he carefully orchestrated the book"s release to generate maximum publicity for his findings. In the summer of 1953, Kinsey invited groups of journalists to Bloomington to read the Female volume under top-secret conditions, on the condition that they would withhold publishing articles until Aug. 20, dubbed "K Day." "The most feverishly anticipated book in history" Cosmopolitan dubbed Sexual Behavior in the Human Female "the most feverishly anticipated book in history," and indeed, reports on the 800-plus-page study grabbed more headlines on Aug. 20, 1953, than Russia"s hydrogen bomb. Although one grandmother told The Indianapolis News, "They ought to put that crackpot behind bars," mainstream media coverage was largely favorable. Life called Kinsey"s work "perhaps the most important discovery ever made in the field of human behavior," while Collier"s proclaimed, "If years had names, 1953 might be called The Year of the Second Emancipation of Women." Social progressives hailed Kinsey as a feminist (even suggesting him as a pro-woman presidential candidate), but his basic thesis for the Female volume was essentially apolitical: "Males and females are basically alike and would understand each other better if they realized this." His primary goal throughout his career as a sex researcher was to de-stigmatize sexual behaviors across the spectrum, and while he advocated premarital sex and contraceptive use for women, he did so in the belief that it would lead to improved marital relations, for he seems to have viewed female sexuality primarily through this prism. While Sexual Behavior in the Human Female simply articulated changes that had been taking place in women"s sexual lives since the 1920s, Kinsey himself became a convenient scapegoat for conservatives. Neither a feminist nor a Communist, Kinsey is described by Dr. Bancroft as a "socially aware scientist who wanted his work to be of value to the society in which he lived." Nonetheless, Kinsey further inflamed his detractors with his charge in the Female volume that "it is the church, the school, the home, which are the chief sources of sexual inhibitions, the distaste for all aspects of sex, and the feelings of guilt which many females carry with them into marriage." Though Sexual Behavior in the Human Female continued to sell well, attacks against the Institute for Sex Research and Kinsey personally began to mount. The institute had been partially funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the money was abruptly withdrawn in 1954. A high-profile dispute with U.S. Customs over some erotic materials Kinsey had illegally tried to bring into the country raged on, generating negative publicity about the institute"s collections, and costing IU as much as $1,000 a day in legal fees. Despite the constant support of IU President Herman Wells, Kinsey worried about the future of the institute. He continued to work and travel incessantly, despite pleas from his wife Clara, Wells and his colleagues that he slow down; Kinsey insisted he would rather die, and he did, of heart complications, on Aug. 25, 1956. The sexual revolution Kinsey did not live to see the true realization of his research in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Citing Kinsey"s research as his inspiration, Hugh Heffner began publishing Playboy, which brought erotic publishing into the mainstream media. With the FDA approval of Enovid, the first birth control pill, in 1960, women could finally begin to enjoy the kind of sexual freedom Kinsey advocated with considerably less fear of unplanned pregnancy, though it was not until 1965 that birth control was legalized in all 50 states. Betty Friedan"s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique helped usher in the second wave of the American feminist movement, advocating equal rights for women in the bedroom and the world beyond. In 1966, sex researchers Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Response, continuing Kinsey"s goal to keep the public informed of new research findings on human sexuality. Kinsey would doubtless have found these profound changes in America"s sexual climate invigorating. Perhaps most heartening to him personally would have been the gay rights movement that coalesced following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. While Kinsey did not begin his scientific career as a reformer, Bancroft believes that Kinsey"s work led to substantial changes in the American sex laws: "Around that time, the legal system was undergoing review of [sex] laws, and they paid a lot of attention to Kinsey"s findings, revising the laws to bring them more into line with reality. The law was completely out of line with what people were doing at that time." While Kinsey"s research perhaps most directly affected the women"s rights and gay rights movements, his findings about the wide range of healthy human sexual behavior provided evidence of the need for increased tolerance and understanding of sexual diversity in all its forms. Kinsey"s legacy In the years since Kinsey"s death, the institute has withstood numerous attacks from people attempting to discredit his work, and by association, the institute itself. "There are groups, most of which you would consider to be from the conservative religious right, who are not very happy with what goes on in this country regarding sex, and they look at Kinsey as the source of this moral decay," says Jennifer Bass, head of information services at the institute. "It was difficult to talk about sex in 1953, and frankly, it"s still difficult in 2003." To some critics, Kinsey"s personal life is more contentious than his research. In 1997, the book Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life revealed intimate details of Kinsey"s sexual history, including his open marriage, his partner-swapping with colleagues at the institute and his homosexual relationships. Did Kinsey"s own sexual experiences bias his work? "It wasn"t irrelevant," Bancroft says. "Kinsey grew up in a very repressive, sex-negative environment; he was probably a reasonably sexual guy, but very inhibited about his sexuality. That motivated him to find out more about sexuality, and fueled his compassion for people who suffered from the sex-negative society in which they lived at that time." The Kinsey Institute remains dedicated to assisting people with sexual problems, and operates a sexual health clinic, a menstrual cycle clinic and a Web site providing information on sexuality for IU students. Women"s sexuality continues to be a focus of the institute"s research, and Bancroft is a prominent authority on several aspects of women"s sexual well-being. Recent research at the institute has included: factors determining sexual distress and sexual well-being in women; focus groups on women"s sexual turn-ons and turn-offs; effects of oral contraceptives and hormonal changes on women"s sexuality; and the role of fragrance in women"s sexual response. For decades, the institute went quietly about its work, but in recent years has become more visible, thanks in part to the fresh spate of accusations about Kinsey, but out of a desire to communicate Kinsey"s legacy to the public. "We have a lot of delightful things in our collections that we"d like to share with people," Bancroft says. "We wanted to open the institute up and let people know what"s going on here. We want people to know what we"re doing - we have nothing to hide, and we"re proud of what we"re doing." The institute has sponsored more than a dozen exhibitions of material from its immense collections in the past decade; today its holdings include some 8,000 pieces of art and artifacts, from works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, to a medieval chastity belt and a series of novelty condoms preserved in nitrogen gas. "Through his books, and the work that came after that, society changed to the point where an exhibit like this was possible," Catherine Johnson says, "whereas in his day, you could not have had one of our shows. The police would have been there immediately." To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the institute has coordinated a year-long, community-wide series of cultural events, exhibits and discussions on the theme of women"s sexuality from a vast array of perspectives. "We thought this was an excellent opportunity to look back over the past 50 years, and how far we"ve come in understanding female sexuality," Jennifer Bass explains. "Sex influences every part of our lives, and almost every field of study." Bancroft points to many positive changes that have taken place in women"s lives - sexual and otherwise - in the 50 years since the publication of Kinsey"s landmark work, but he cautions, "There are a lot of things that still need to change. I"m very much hoping that we will be moving towards a society which is much more gender equal. When we get a society where men and women are genuinely equal in terms of their power and influence, I think we will have far fewer problems related to sexuality."
Women"s Sexualities: Portrayals and Perspectives Some highlights of the year-long celebration:
Photograph by Albert Arthur Allen, from the Vacation series, 1920s. Courtesy of the Kinsey Institute
Keynote Address by Gloria Steinem Feb. 6, 7 p.m., IU Auditorium, Indiana University Feminist activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem will deliver a speech highlighting the changing face of women"s sexualities and gender equality over the past half-century. Art Passion & Purity: American Women"s Sexualities Through March 23, Lilly Library An exhibition of books looking at women"s sexual lives, ranging from An Act Against Adultery and Polygamie (1694) to Erica Jong"s Fear of Flying (1973). Oh! Dr. Kinsey! Media Reaction to Kinsey"s Report on Women Feb. 1-April 30, Monroe County Historical Society Museum A collection of magazine covers and news articles from 1953, chronicling the public upheaval stirred by the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Feminine Persuasion Feb. 14-March 14, School of Fine Arts Gallery, Indiana University Featuring works by contemporary female artists and selections from the collection of the Kinsey Institute. Invited artists include sculptor Nancy Davidson, video artist Patty Chang, painters Nicole Eisenman and Ghada Amer and photographers Laura Letinsky and Renee Cox. From the Kinsey collection come pieces by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Leonor Fini, Otto Dix, Clara Tice, Frank Yamrus and a new acquisition by Judy Chicago. Gallery Talk: Renee Cox Friday, Feb. 14, 5:30 p.m., School of Fine Arts Gallery, Indiana University Photographer Renee Cox will present a gallery talk at the SoFA Gallery preceding the opening of the art exhibition Feminine Persuasion. "Women in Erotic Art": An illustrated lecture by June M. Reinisch, Ph.D. Tuesday, March 4, 6 p.m., School of Fine Arts Gallery, Indiana University June Reinisch, Ph.D., director of the Kinsey Institute from 1982-1993, will discuss what erotic art reveals about women"s sexual lives. The Feminine Persuasion exhibition at the SoFA Gallery will be open for viewing following the lecture. "Women, Sexuality & Culture: Representations from Asia" Friday, April 11, 4:15 p.m., Morrison Hall, Indiana University A panel discussion on the impact of culture, sexuality and gender in representations of Asian women. Radhika Parameswaran of Indiana University will analyze the controversial film Fire, particularly its rendering of lesbian sexuality; Andra Alvis of Indiana University will discuss the erotic comic books of Japanese manga artist Uchida Shungicu; and Chen Xiaomei of Ohio State University will explore revolutionary posters in Mao-era China and their impact on young women"s sexuality. Theater Lysistrata Feb. 7-8 and 10-15, 8 p.m., Ruth N. Halls Theater A Streetcar Named Desire March 28-29 and 31-April 5, Ruth N. Halls Theater, Indiana University Film Under the Radar: Women in Cinema in the Kinsey Era Feb. 14-16 and 20-23, various locations in Bloomington This week-long film festival will highlight women directors, lesbian films and female stars who challenged convention in their portrayals of sexuality and gender. The festival will include a special screening of historical erotic films from the Kinsey collection. Law "Forum on Academic Freedom: Alfred Kinsey and IU President Herman Wells" Thursday, Feb. 20, 3:30-5 p.m., Moot Courtroom, IU School of Law Kinsey"s research could never have come to fruition at IU without the support of IU President Herman Wells, a passionate champion of academic freedom. Guest lecturers will discuss contemporary legal issues in academic freedom. Science Kinsey Institute Research Panel March 6, 7 p.m., Monroe County Public Library Auditorium Kinsey Institute Director John Bancroft and Associate Director Stephanie Sanders will discuss the implications of new research findings about the nature of female sexuality and sexual problems. Women in Science Lecture: "Sexual Selection: What We Can and Can"t Learn about Sex from Animals" April 10, Morrison Hall, Indiana University Marlene Zuk, Ph.D., from the University of California, Riverside will lecture on sex and gender in the animal kingdom, sharing stories of animal behavior, and challenging assumptions and politics about human behavior and evolution. Women"s Health March 12, Bloomington Convention Center Women"s History Luncheon: "Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Origins of the Women"s Health Movement" Wendy Sanford, co-founder of the Boston Women"s Health collective and editor of the seminal women"s health book Our Bodies, Ourselves, will be the guest speaker at the annual Women"s History Luncheon. A complete listing of events is available online: www.kinseyinstitute.org/services/ or by calling 812-855-7686. More about Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Institute Sex: the Measure of All Things, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Indiana University Press, 1998 Peek: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute, Arena Editions, 2000 Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon is making a film on Kinsey"s life and work; starring Liam Neeson and Ian McKellen, it will begin shooting in Toronto later this year. -SW