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For Sex Information, Try the Kinsey Institute


by Lucianne Englert

Depending on which search engine you use, you can find anywhere from four million (word count) to thirty-five thousand (Web pages) entries on the Internet for sex. Clearly, there is a lot about sex on the World Wide Web. However, there is little research-based information related to sexuality. That is, unless you point your browser to http://www.indiana.edu/~kinsey/, the address of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction Web site. A review from New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com) calls it "a good place to start looking for serious scientific investigation of human sexuality."

"Over the years during which the institute has existed, people have felt they could turn to the Kinsey Institute to find reliable, nonjudgmental information about their sexual concerns that was difficult for them to request from their local librarians, family physicians, or other professionals," says Margaret Harter, an associate librarian and head of reference and information services for the institute. In an effort to keep that tradition going, the Kinsey Institute has adapted the traditional means through which information was provided (by phone or a visit to the library) to give answers and dispense information through the Web and e-mail.

While Harter and her assistant treat all questions seriously and confidentially, and attempt to provide information to all who ask, the primary focus of the department lies in providing research support. "We handle about 1,400 information requests every year," Harter explains. Queries come from faculty and students at Indiana University and other institutions, researchers and writers, the media, mental health professionals, public officials, and individuals contacting the institute for personal reasons. "Our answers tend to fall into three categories. Most often, we act as a 'ready reference' for callers from the general public and the media, providing brief answers and referrals to better sources," Harter says. "But we emphasize our efforts to serve as an in-depth reference for professionals with research questions related to the mission of the institute and to provide assistance to institute researchers and other researchers," she says.

Requests for information from those who are not researchers come from diverse sources. The office fields about two calls, e-mails, or letters each week from people considering studying sex therapy. When Congress was discussing gays in the military, several legislators called the institute for statistics and background information. Psychotherapists and lawyers sometimes call with specific questions that come up in their practices. Such requests require locating specific but limited information. Researchers, in contrast, are often looking for more extensive information. "Within two weeks of when I started here, we got a call from someone writing a bibliography of every published work by a particular artist," explains Kath Pennavaria, a reference technical assistant for the institute. "She asked if she could set a phone appointment for me to describe each of the 30 prints we had; she said a long-distance call would be much cheaper than a research trip from Connecticut," Pennavaria continues. "So there I was, describing in great detail these scenes as they got increasingly sexually explicit."

Simpler queries often can be answered by information contained in the institute's Web site. Before the Web site was developed, the institute developed a Gopher information server for sexuality research, and before that, the institute compiled and updated bibliographies on over four hundred sexuality-related topics. "When I started the Gopher server for sexuality research, there was very little to link to in terms of other sexuality-related research resources on the Internet," Harter says. "We were pioneers and were active in encouraging other professional organizations to develop Internet sites. Then when the Web exploded, sexuality on the Internet quickly began to be synonymous for many people with pornography and pedophiles," she continues. "It was important for the institute to establish the legitimacy of sexuality research sites and their importance for educational and research purposes." One look through their guest book indicates that they achieved this goal, as there are many positive comments about the information available on the Web site.

Harter has also taken on a major revision of the institute's thesaurus of sexual nomenclature, originally created in 1976 with National Institute of Mental Health funds. This thesaurus is the only published thesaurus for the field of sexuality, and its updating is being funded by an IU Librarians' Association research grant, an Office of Research and the University Graduate School research grant-in-aid, and the IU Libraries White Professional Development Award.

"Since I came to the institute almost seven years ago, we have moved from serving as an information line to focusing on developing information products for wide electronic dissemination, and to working to add value to electronic and print resources that already exist, tailoring them to the needs of sexuality researchers," Harter says. "Since sexuality researchers are spread among many disciplines, we want Information and User Services to be a place where researchers can find out what is going on across the field, and across the world."

Harter concludes, "I think Dr. [Alfred] Kinsey would approve of our new initiatives. The primary aim is to assist researchers at the institute, at Indiana University, and elsewhere to accomplish what he set out to do more than fifty years ago: to fill the gaps in our scientific knowledge about human sexuality, and so to benefit humankind." Kinsey

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