designLearning from the Past--Looking to the Future

by Susan Moke

From its inception, the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction has addressed our need for reliable knowledge about human sexuality.

The institute had its beginnings in 1938 when Indiana University responded to women students' request for a marriage course and asked Alfred Kinsey, a professor of biology, to develop a class that would educate women students and their husbands and fiancés about sex. But when Kinsey, a taxonomist who had spent most of his academic career studying a species of wasp, examined the existing scientific studies in psychology, biology, and medicine, he discovered what he saw as "a gap in our knowledge that was sufficient [reason] for any scientist to undertake research." Now, fifty years later, the institute's research programs, database, and extensive collection of textual and art materials provide scholars, policy makers, and medical doctors with unique opportunities to increase our understanding of sexuality. Commenting on the similarities between the early days and the present moment, the Kinsey Institute's current director, Dr. John Bancroft, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at Indiana University Bloomington, notes that "at each stage of his work, Kinsey was responding to overwhelming ignorance caused by a lack of discourse on the subject of sex. Sex just wasn't talked about. There was a fear of knowledge about it. Kinsey's research blasted a hole in that. It demystified the subject. Now we are faced with a situation in which we talk about sex until we are blue in the face, but the fear of knowledge is still there."

Kinsey began to fill what he had identified as a gap in knowledge by developing a set of 350 interview questions designed to elicit sexual histories from the male and female students enrolled in his marriage class. With the taxonomist's trust in inductive reasoning that he had applied to collecting two and a half million gall wasps, Kinsey had soon gathered all the histories he could from the enrollees in his marriage class. He then began to seek out other contributors for his growing database. Henry Remak, a professor emeritus of Germanic studies, comparative literature, and West European studies at IUB, who during his years as a graduate student worked as a translator at the institute, gave his history to Kinsey in the 1940s. Remak notes that Kinsey's use of the face-to-face interview was effective: "The reason Kinsey did interviews rather than questionnaires was that it was hard to lie to him. If you faced him, you realized he was too good to be cheated. He made you feel like you were a co-researcher with him. He was a man of intense integrity."

Soon Kinsey's marriage class drew criticism from the local clergy. Dottie Collins, former personal assistant to University Chancellor Herman B Wells and a former research assistant at the Kinsey Institute, describes the incident: "The ministers in town were raising cane about Dr. Kinsey teaching this course on marriage. They complained to Nellie Showers Teter [IU's first female trustee], who went to Dr. Wells [who was then president of the university] and said, 'Do you think he really should be doing this?' Dr. Wells advised her to take the course and see for herself. So she took it, and afterwards she came to Dr. Wells and said, 'You know, Herman, I wish I had known those things when I got married.'" The university offered the marriage course six times in successive semesters with Kinsey serving as coordinator and primary lecturer for the course. But criticism of the course and of Kinsey's practice of counseling students and of recording their sexual histories grew. Faculty from the Indiana University School of Medicine suggested that Kinsey was practicing medicine without a license; other IU faculty members asserted that Kinsey's research role conflicted with his teaching of the class.

Eventually, Kinsey had to choose between continuing with the marriage class or pursuing his developing research project. He chose the research. In a statement intended for Wells and the university trustees, Kinsey explained why investigation of human sexual behavior should be supported by Indiana's institutions of higher learning:

Objection to a scholarly analysis of the problems of marriage is a challenge to the University's right to engage in research and to transmit the results of such research to our students. Obviously, it arises from a fear that some of the problems which have hitherto been considered theological may become matters for legal criticism, for sociological study, and for biologic investigation. . . . interference from clergymen with studies by students in these other fields is a challenge to the University's right to provide the scholarly leadership which the people of this state have a right to expect.

Wells continued his staunch support of Kinsey's right to conduct unpopular research and to provide the scholarly leadership to which Kinsey refers in his letter. Dottie Collins notes that Wells' demonstration of an ethical commitment to academic freedom in his protection of Kinsey drew many faculty members to IU who might otherwise not have come.

By 1940, Kinsey's research had won financial support from the prestigious National Research Council (NRC), then funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Increasing the scope of his project, Kinsey hired a team of researchers whom he trained to conduct interviews. Paul Gebhard, an anthropologist who joined the institute in 1946, comments that "Kinsey wanted as wide and diverse a sample as he could get, so we literally worked from coast to coast." Eight years after Kinsey had begun to conduct interviews with his students, he and his staff had collected more than ten thousand sexual histories from geographically and socially diverse individuals. Along the way, they had also begun to build what is today the world's largest collection of scholarly texts, art objects, photographs, and other materials relating to sexual behavior. In 1947, to safeguard the confidentiality of interviewees, to avoid any ambiguity about ownership of the interview records, and to provide permanent sanctuary for the growing collection of books, biographical materials, and art objects, the Institute for Sex Research established itself as a not-for-profit corporation affiliated with Indiana University.

Kinsey's first nationwide publication of his data provided both the scientific community and the public at large with startling information about what went on behind bedroom doors. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, observed that more than ninety percent of the nine thousand males questioned said they had masturbated and more than a third said they had had homosexual experiences. The volume, which Kinsey and his collaborators filled with scientific tables and technical data analyses, became one of the least read best sellers of all time. Although it sold out in bookstores, the volume was not easy reading: its scholarly explanation of male sexual behavior targeted readers in the scientific community rather than in the public at large. Five years later, in 1953, the institute published a companion volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. In the era of what feminist Betty Friedan would later call the "feminine mystique," half of the six thousand women who contributed their sexual histories for the book said they had not been virgins when they married and one-quarter reported they had engaged in extramarital sex. A wide array of establishment intellectual figures, including Lionel Trilling and Margaret Mead, reviewed Kinsey's books. Perhaps it was the sexual double standard that motivated more strident criticism of the female volume. Kinsey's finding that only nine percent of his six thousand interviewees had never experienced orgasm contradicted psychiatrists' widely held beliefs about the predominance of female passionlessness and frigidity. In her book, Kinsey: A Biography, Cornelia Christenson comments that "the figures on premarital and extramarital intercourse were taken by many as a besmirching of American womanhood. The revelation that the range of women's biological sexual capacities was greater than men's may have been felt as an affront to male sensibilities. There was the fear that the curtain of conventional sexual morality would be permanently pushed aside."

Sensitized by McCarthyism, political conservatives argued that "under the pretext of making a great contribution to scientific research," Kinsey was "hurling the insult of the century against mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters." They said Kinsey's findings undermined the structure of the American family and would thus prepare America for a communist takeover. In 1954, a year after Kinsey's publication of the female volume, a special House committee established to investigate the use of funds by tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations called upon the Rockefeller Foundation to account for its support of Kinsey's research. Under considerable political pressure, the foundation withdrew its support of the project. However, as a gesture of belief in the scientific value of Kinsey's work, the NRC continued for several years to provide the institute with token grants. Subsequent to this national indictment of its contributions to knowledge about human sexuality, the institute again came under attack from local contingencies that questioned whether Indiana University was "still a fit place for the education of the youth of our state." In response, Herman Wells issued a public statement declaring that only through scientific knowledge could the cures for the emotional and social maladies of our culture be found. Wells asserted that while the university administration neither approved nor disapproved of Kinsey's findings nor of any of its other scientists' research, it staunchly defended their right to investigate every aspect of life based on a faith in knowledge rather than ignorance. The university's board of trustees steadfastly supported Wells' statements.

Although the Institute for Sex Research could rely for some time on the funding provided by royalties from the male and female volumes, Kinsey recognized the need to secure new financial support for his project. At the age of sixty, he undertook the task of fundraising. Judith Allen, a social historian, director of the Women Studies Program at IU Bloomington, and a current trustee of the institute observes that Kinsey, "the detached man of science, was not a schmoozer--not a man constitutionally well suited for fundraising." Nevertheless, he felt that failure of funding must not stop the institute's research. Thus Kinsey spent the last two years of his life trying to raise financial support in a national environment hostile to his principles. Paul Gebhard notes that as Kinsey made the rounds, his former supporters "would flatter him and the whole time they'd have a gentle hand on his shoulder guiding him to the door. This really hurt him. His health was failing badly by then. The stress of this fund-seeking got to him and hastened his death." In August 1956, pneumonia followed by cardiac failure ended Alfred Kinsey's life.

Gebhard, who had been one of the key members of the Kinsey research team, assumed leadership of the institute, but he felt as though he had been appointed captain of the Titanic. "Kinsey was a hard act to follow," Gebhard says. "My first concern was to keep the place going. Everyone assumed we would collapse after Kinsey's death. I had hardly been director for more than a few weeks when I called up building and grounds because I wanted some extra chairs. And they said, "What do you want more chairs for? You're not going to be in business very long." Until the Red Scare subsided, the institute survived on royalties from its publications. Then Gebhard's attempts at fundraising paid off in a series of grants from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). By this time, the cultural climate had changed.

At the time of his death, Kinsey had plans for at least twenty more books. Gebhard continued with Kinsey's agenda by producing books based on the institute's previously accumulated data. Learning from the difficulties the institute had experienced at the hands of the national media, Gebhard encouraged a low public profile. Thus Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion (1958); Sex Offenders: An Analyses of Types (1965); Sexual Deviance (1967); The Sexuality of Women (1970); and the volumes that followed were all deliberately crafted to be scientifically excellent but dull for the average reader. The 1960s brought a new liberalism toward sex (of which Gebhard believes Kinsey would have approved), and in this cultural climate the institute enjoyed a period of calm and productivity. In the second decade after Kinsey's death, the institute staff produced scores of journal articles and book chapters and undertook several major new research studies. Chief among these were several studies of homosexuality, a subject Kinsey had planned to pursue, and one that the institute's major funder, NIMH, encouraged the institute to investigate. In the 1970s, with NIMH funding, the library and collections were opened to qualified scholars. In recognition of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of sex research, the institute began an annual summer program in human sexuality designed for health care professionals. Gebhard served as director of the institute from 1956 to 1982. Clearly a practical man, Gebhard sums up his directorship in matter-of-fact terms: "Basically, we kept the place alive, reasonably productive, and honest. I think that's what matters."

At a conference commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kinsey's death and honoring his enormous contributions to science, the institute was renamed the Alfred C. Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. When June Machover Reinisch assumed directorship of the institute in 1982, its name was again changed, and it became the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. A psychologist known for her research on the influences of drugs and hormones received prenatally on later sexual and psychosexual development, Reinisch broadened the institute's mission to include biomedical and psychobiological approaches to sex research. In the early 1980s, when gender studies were becoming a component of many disciplines, the Kinsey Institute extended its programs to foster integrated, multidisciplinary approaches to sex research. In a dramatic shift from the deliberately low public profile of Gebhard's directorship, Reinisch launched an aggressive public information campaign. Her internationally syndicated newspaper column, The Kinsey Report, provided research-based answers to readers' questions on topics ranging from coital frequency to sexual orientation.

During her eleven-year tenure as director of the institute, Reinisch organized conferences and symposia, negotiated renovations to Morrison Hall (which has housed the Kinsey Institute since 1967), and secured additional storage and display space for the ever-expanding collections. Research projects conducted during Reinisch's directorship reflected the institute's newly defined interdisciplinary focus. A project on prenatal development assessed the long-term consequences on offspring of maternal treatment with hormones and drugs, and reproductive cycles research, which continues today, examined physical and psychological factors related to women's menstrual health. Reinisch retired from the director's post in 1993. Stephanie Sanders, an associate scientist at the Kinsey Institute during Reinisch's directorship and currently associate director of the institute, served as interim director after Reinisch's retirement.

Dr. John Bancroft, a British psychiatrist who has done extensive work in reproductive biology and who had since 1983 been a member of the institute's Science Advisory Board, became director of the Kinsey Institute in 1995. Bancroft says that in many ways he is continuing with and expanding the focus of Reinisch's research agenda, with one significant difference. While he wants to enhance the institute's ability to serve as a resource to the academic and scientific communities, he does not see educating the public about sexuality as part of the institute's mission. "Other organizations," Bancroft observes, "are in a much better position to do that." Bancroft does believe, however, that the institute is uniquely suited to providing leadership in the academic community that will improve our understanding of sexuality. Noting that there is a long standing fear of knowledge about sex--as evidenced by the fact that the Kinsey Institute continues to come under attack from religious and political conservatives--Bancroft sees a need for the institute to inform policy makers, address the widespread reluctance to study sexuality in a scientific way, and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship in gender and sexuality. "An interdisciplinary approach," Bancroft explains, "is needed to address the fragmentation of the field into different disciplines and the lack of communication between disciplines. We are well positioned to deal with this question of cross-disciplinary sex research. Kinsey demonstrated in a variety of ways that you can't understand sexuality by just looking at culture, or by just looking at biology." Bancroft points out that the majority of scientists researching AIDS and HIV have no training or background in studying sexual behavior. The institute's current research programs (see "Working for Women's Well-Being", and "Reconceptualizing Sexual Arousal") model the interdisciplinary approach that Bancroft sees as essential at the present time.

This fall, a new research program focusing on investigation of normal childhood sexual experiences and their relationship to adolescent and adult sexual adjustment will begin. Both Bancroft and Sanders would like to see the institute become more involved in the teaching of human sexuality to IU students. And finally, Bancroft's vision of how the Kinsey Institute can most effectively use its considerable resources includes the cataloging and archival preservation of the institute's collections. Judith Allen underscores the urgency of this task. She points out that while the institute is still actively conducting research, "worldwide interest in the Kinsey Institute lies in its extraordinary collections of photographs, texts, and some of the most interesting correspondence. The institute's significance for myself and for others studying history in large part lies in the fact that it is a remarkable repository of information about the history of sex research itself." Unfortunately, much of the material in the collections remains uncataloged and thus unavailable to scholars who could study it. "The collections are a unique treasure, and they are deteriorating. This is a simple problem that money would solve," says Jim Madison, a professor of history, chair of IUB's Department of History, and an institute trustee. Fortunately, the institute's recent successful bid for Strategic Directions Charter funds (an internal IU funding program) will enable much of the basic structural and organizational work to be done. This work will pave the way for external grant applications, which, if successful, will enable the institute's archival collection to move into the modern age in terms of conservation and scholarly access.

As one surveys the body of knowledge about human sexuality, Kinsey and his colleagues emerge as pioneers of modern behavioral research in sexuality. The institute's work became the standard against which subsequent research is still measured. Kinsey's determination to make sex research a respectable topic worthy of scientific inv