For most of us, sex plays a positive and important part in our lives. It enables us to establish and maintain intimacy in key principal relationships. It is the human factor around which marriage and the family are organized. It is woven into the fabric of our existence in myriad ways, as the collections of the Kinsey Institute so vividly demonstrate. Yet the human race faces a number of major problems that relate to sex. Although these problems are present throughout the world, the United States has more than its share of them when compared to most other industrial countries.
Sexual behavior can result in reproduction. While the creation of a new human being is an awesome and wonderful experience, it can nevertheless be associated with significant problems. The world population is growing at a staggering rate; whereas it took several million years before the human population reached a billion, the next billion took only 180 years, and now we have an additional billion every eleven years. It is frightening to consider the consequences of this trend for our planet and our civilization. This increase is not because individuals are reproducing more, but because they are dying less quickly, with the most dramatic reduction in mortality being among infants and small children. This positive change in infant and child mortality has not been translated into a reduction in reproductive behavior. The population will continue to increase unless people either reduce their sexual activity or use effective methods of birth control. Although the major part of this population growth is in nonindustrial countries, the United States has a substantially greater rate of population growth than either Europe or Japan. The limited availability of effective methods of birth control that are acceptable, and hence used, remains a problem of worldwide proportions. The United States has a particular problem with teenage pregnancy, with nearly ten percent of teenagers between the ages of fifteen and nineteen getting pregnant in any one year. This is ten times the rate in the Netherlands or Japan.
A further global problem is the epidemic of HIV and AIDS. It is estimated that eighteen million people are infected with the virus; by the end of this century, maybe thirty to forty million may be infected. Already there are four and a half million people who have developed AIDS. Once again, the problem is of significant proportions in the United States. AIDS was first reported in the United States. One and a quarter million individuals in the United States are infected with HIV, and more than half a million have developed AIDS, of which more than three hundred thousand have died. There are other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to take seriously. Again, the United States stands out, with ten to fifteen times more reported cases of STDs than other developed countries. In the United States, two thirds of reported cases of STDs occur in individuals under age twenty-five. Chlamydia is now the most commonly reported disease. The highest rates for chlamydia and gonorrhea are among fifteen-to nineteen-year-olds. Thus, adolescence is a sexually troubled time for many young Americans.
Problems of sexual exploitation remain a major concern. Ranging from rape to sexual harassment, we see the abuse of power in male-female relationships. Worldwide, the lack of control that women have over their sexual lives and hence their reproductive health and well-being is formidable. The sexual exploitation of children by adults is all too common, and at the present time, there is genuine confusion about how we should regard the "normal" sexuality
Although the list of important issues relating to sex that face society today could easily be extended, we are exceedingly ill-prepared to deal with these problems. In each case, there are crucial questions about sex that we are unable to answer. There has been a long-standing fear in our culture of knowledge about sexual behavior. It was this fear that prompted the negative reactions to Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking reports on sexual behavior in the United States; "it would be better that we didn't know" was the prevailing attitude. It was the same fear that blocked federal funding of the recent University of Chicago survey of "Sex in America," which was finally completed, in reduced form, with the support of private foundations.
The best chance of controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic is by persuading people to change their sexual behavior. Yet we understand little about why some individuals persist in high-risk sexual behavior even when aware of the risks. We need good and acceptable contraceptives, yet we know precious little about how steroidal contraceptives influence a woman's general or sexual well-being, effects which could be crucial to her acceptance of the method. Surveys tell us how many adolescents engage in sex and at what ages, yet we know little about why some youngsters do and others do not. In spite of the fact that adolescence is the time of maximum sexual responsiveness, particularly in boys, and in spite of the fact that young people are getting married later in their lives, the prevailing attitude is that unmarried teenagers are not meant to have sex, so their sexuality has not been closely studied. The recent decision to spend large sums of federal money to promote complete abstinence (and this means abstinence from masturbation, as well as from everything else) until marriage, and in the process to deny youngsters the important information they need about sex, is as absurd as it is socially irresponsible.
The intellectual challenge in furthering our understanding of human sexuality is to integrate our fragmentary knowledge of the fundamental biological processes involved with the complex array of sociocultural influences that shape our sexual development and expression. It is in the promotion of such interdisciplinary scholarship that the Kinsey Institute has a vital leadership role to play.
In this issue you will read about some of the ways the institute is fulfilling its mission. You will hear about our research programs, with examples of interdisciplinary research breaking new ground--assessing the effects of oral contraceptives on women's sexuality and well-being, and new concepts about male sexual response that might help us understand individual differences in sexual risk taking. You will learn about important work in adolescent sexuality. You will see how our collections are serving scholars from a wide variety of disciplines in the sciences, arts, and humanities. You will become acquainted with our crucial information services role and how we link scholars from widely disparate fields. You will be introduced to the Kinsey Institute clinics, which provide care for individuals with sexual and reproductive health problems.
This is an exciting time for the Kinsey Institute. As we enter the next millennium, the institute will have consolidated its position as the foremost center in the world for the serious study of human sexuality and its relationship to gender and reproduction.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
Indiana University Bloomington, and
Director, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction