Has The 70-Year-Old Kinsey Institute Gone Soft?
Critics worry the world’s leading sexperts are neglecting the cold, hard science of its revolutionary founder for something more touchy feely. Turns out, the dirtiest four-letter word in sexology might be “love.”
Justin Garcia is playing to a packed house. Each of the three dozen or so chairs that have been crammed into this classroom, on the second floor of Morrison Hall on the IU Bloomington campus, is occupied, leaving people sitting on the carpet, leaning against the walls, or lining up outside the open doorway to get within earshot. All told, there are more than 50 university faculty, administrators, students, and curious community members of all adult ages, many sipping Oliver wine and craft beer or snacking on Mexican turkey meatballs, rapt by Garcia’s PowerPoint presentation. Not a bad turnout for an academic lecture on a bright fall Saturday afternoon in Southern Indiana. The five-word title of Garcia’s talk explains the interest. “Orgasm: Biological and Social Constructs.” Garcia is an evolutionary biologist, sex-research scientist, and one of two associate directors of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. This is one of a slate of 20-minute open-house exhibitions throughout the day designed to let the public in on the various studies going on here. It’s a sort of State of the Institute to commemorate Kinsey’s 70th anniversary.
Garcia is fresh-faced, bald, and bespectacled, cutting a lanky figure in a gray blazer, blue jeans, and brown boots. He embraces the role of entertainer. He doesn’t cheapen his research with snide jokes or lewd language; he understands that the material itself will hold the audience. After all, he’s talking about the female orgasm, one of science’s and philosophy’s great mysteries. He’s explaining the method of observing men and women—straight, gay, and bisexual—engaged in deep kissing, genital fondling, oral sex, and penetration. And he doesn’t forget to throw in a few stories from the field, like collecting saliva samples from patrons at a Las Vegas swingers club for an experiment on pheromone exchange, complete with the visual aid of a photo slide of The Green Door club’s circular stage and stripper pole. “We just walked right in with our white lab coats and our gear and walked out,” he explains, pausing for the giggles that come rolling in, prompt as a sitcom laugh track.
When Alfred Kinsey first opened what was then dubbed the Institute for Sex Research in 1947, the first of its kind, the appearance of a curvaceous “s,” a buxom “e,” and a lascivious “x” in such a title might draw nervous laughter in respectable circles. Much has changed. Today, sex is everywhere, flashed onto every screen, slapped onto every page, and thrust into every daily human interaction. Accordingly, the Kinsey Institute is no longer the only player in the field, having spawned and inspired generations of scientists, researchers, and educators across the globe. Practically all of these descendants defer to Kinsey as an alpha institution, whether it be as cutting-edge academics, a trusted authority on subject matter, or at least as an invaluable resource for other scientists, with its vast collection of art, film, and literature spanning two millennia of human sexual history. Even at 70—to stick with a metaphor—Kinsey can still perform.
Once Garcia climaxes, the crowd doesn’t stick around to snuggle. They quickly file out to re-up on hors d’oeuvres or catch some autumn air, leaving behind seats that will remain mostly empty during some of the other presentations throughout the day. Other, less titillating sessions are more sparsely attended, such as biologist and Kinsey director Sue Carter’s expounding on her research of oxytocin, a hormone released during sex that, Carter believes, leads to a biological attraction between participants and might point to a chemical explanation for what we think of as love. Many attendees choose this time to get a drink.
But while the visitors show mere indifference to Carter’s life’s work, her line of study has many experts in the world of sex research and education up in arms. Critics are concerned that Kinsey and its director are squandering their street cred at a time when meaningful discourse about sex, both in terms of personal pleasure and in the context of social justice, such as gay and trans rights and sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, are as taboo ever. Just when the world might need Kinsey most, some in the field worry that the institute is ignoring the bedrock behavioral sex research of Alfred Kinsey and focusing too much on biology, specifically that which might explain attraction and relationships. It’s as if they have caught Kinsey’s heirs fooling around and falling in love—with love.
“Kinsey needs to keep its eye on sexuality,” says Susan Stiritz, associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and incoming president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). “They’re not only losing the sociological and psychological components of the research, but they are not even looking at sex—they are looking at love. You can have sex for a myriad of reasons. I’m worried that Kinsey is going to lose the fabulous edge it has had in important sex research.”
Sex historian and author Hallie Lieberman puts it another way. “I don’t think Kinsey would be happy with a move toward love,” she says. “Studying love within the confines of relationships? He wouldn’t be happy. Anytime anyone had an orgasm, he recorded it—whether it was with a person or into a potted plant. He didn’t care if you had a personal relationship with that plant.”
If the Kinsey Institute wasn’t stirring up at least some controversy, it really wouldn’t be fulfilling its mission. Its namesake is synonymous with “scandal.” In fact, one could say that the institution owes its notoriety, if not its prestige, to the shock and outrage sparked by Alfred Kinsey’s earliest work. And any white coat alarmed at the current institute’s focus on physiology might do well to remember that its founder was, himself, a biologist.
More specifically, Kinsey was a zoologist who spent much of his career studying the taxonomic variations in and mating practices of gall wasps. It wasn’t until he came to IU to teach a course on marriage and family to upperclassmen and married students that Kinsey began gathering personal human sex histories to bolster scant research on the topic. He interviewed volunteers, sometimes co-workers, and observed and filmed them engaged in sexual acts in the attic of his Bloomington home.
These studies became the foundation of the Kinsey Reports—two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Both titillating volumes were New York Times best-sellers and are still considered pillars of the study of human sexuality across the field and something of a manifesto for the institute. Both had the prudish masses gasping and clutching their pearls. The Human Male introduced the Kinsey Scale, which claimed men and women were not necessarily exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, but rather fell on a spectrum of mixed sexual orientation. It is still used today. The Human Female was especially risqué, discussing masturbation, pre-marital sex, and adultery, claiming that half of women had had sex before they were wed and one in four had cheated on their spouse at one point during the marriage.
Churches decried the books as smut. Schools and some countries banned them. And, of course, fellow academics tore the research apart, with some critics maintaining that Kinsey was too focused on the biology of sex at the expense of psychological and clinical analysis.
Facing this furor, Kinsey enjoyed the vocal and steadfast support of IU, led by President Herman B Wells, a staunch crusader for academic independence. Still, both Kinsey and the administration thought it best to insulate the new Institute for Sex Research by incorporating it as a privately funded nonprofit organization with its own board of trustees. The reason was twofold: First, it would relieve pressure from prudish state politicians on IU. Second, it would provide another layer of protection for the sensitive personal data being gathered inside its walls.
In fact, even the institute’s very location on campus was somewhat of a mystery. (The ISR moved from Swain Hall East to Wylie Hall to Jordan Hall before landing at its present location in Morrison Hall.) In the 1940s and 1950s, Alfred Kinsey’s work had to be hidden to protect both the confidentiality of his subjects, who agreed to have the most intimate parts of their lives dissected in a lab, and also the reputation of a state university that depended on the support of a conservative Midwestern legislature.
As the field of sex research grew up around Kinsey, the researchers were soon forced to come out from behind their limestone walls. In order to secure funding from grants, the institute, like all institutions, had to prove itself relevant, and in order to do that, it had to continually adapt to its social and political surroundings. “The institute has only lasted because of the agility to respond to national and regional health needs,” says Brandon J. Hill, a former associate researcher at Kinsey who co-authored the book The Kinsey Institute: The First Seventy Years. “In order to be longstanding, you have to be a key player in the times.”
In the late 1960s and 1970s, that meant focusing on the sexual behaviors in the increasingly open gay community. Awareness of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s opened floodgates of National Institutes of Health funding for studies of high-risk sexual behavior. And in recent decades, Kinsey’s mission has tended to follow the focus of its director. John Bancroft, who was appointed in 1995, was a physician and psychiatrist, so Kinsey offered more external services, including psych training and a sexual health clinic open to patients. His successor, psychologist Julia Heiman, took over in 2004, and honed in on the psychological impact of sexual assault and aggression and healthy long-term relationships. “The director is literally the captain of the ship,” says Hill, “and they can point that ship in a different direction.”
Sue Carter arrived in October 2014. She was the first biologist to be appointed director since Kinsey himself. Like the founder, Carter had spent much of her career studying animals—in Carter’s case, prairie voles, one of the few mammals other than humans that bond, court, and mate with a single partner. Her research zeroed in on oxytocin, a hormone released during childbirth and breastfeeding that underlies trust between mother and child. Oxytocin is also released during sex. Since humans produce oxytocin, Carter believes—and is showing in her research—that the same process that triggers sexual pleasure is tied to the attachment between partners. In other words, sex and love are chemically connected—the mystery of love might be deeply physiological. “I thought I was the least logical choice they’d ever made,” says Carter of her appointment. “The other directors’ backgrounds were in the mainstream in the field of sexuality. Mine was attachment and love at birth. I believe I was selected for this job because I had this slightly different perspective on the important questions of this time and place.”
With Carter at the helm, the Kinsey Institute soon had a fresh new logo—the Flower of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love—and a spiffy website, where it dropped “Sex, Gender, and Reproduction” from the banner and added a new slogan: “Love, Sexuality, and Well-being.” Notice that “love” comes first.
Some of the institution’s longtime partners were less than thrilled with the makeover.
The rocky start to Carter’s relationship with some of her peers can be traced back to a botched, or in her view, misinterpreted pick-up line. On February 13, 2016, the day before Valentine’s and a mere 16 months into Carter’s tenure, The Indianapolis Star published an article headlined “Kinsey Institute Strives to Make Research Relevant.”
In her interview, Carter laid out a comprehensive agenda for her tenure, focusing Kinsey’s prestige and resources on studying sexual trauma, the transgender movement, and medical interventions early and late in life that may impact a person’s sexuality. She tried to clarify that it was not her intention to completely ditch the study of sex, gender, and reproduction, but rather to look at those issues through the lens of psychological and emotional functions. “I think human sexuality must be viewed in the context of relationships,” Carter told the Star. “Just working on sexual behavior to me is not sufficient. We need to understand how sex affects sex and how relationships affect sex.” Toward the end of the piece, the reporter describes a scene in Carter’s office where the director has turned a sculpture of a man with a giant penis around, facing the wall, so as not to risk offending visitors.
The story was picked up by USAToday and rerun in Gannett newspapers across the country. The response in the sex research community was swift and somewhat NSFW. “Be afraid kids, be very afraid,” railed Dan Savage, an LGBT activist, relationship columnist, and journalist in a blog for The Stranger, a Seattle alt-weekly. “Never have an orgasm in the presence of someone—or something (shout out to the objectosexuals!)—you wouldn’t want to spend the rest of your life with because … oxytocin and prairie voles and rats, oh my!” Sex researcher and author Alice Dreger took to Twitter with a calmer yet equally critical take: “1. Not all sex involves another person. 2. People are not voles. 3. There is nothing wrong with consensual sex outside of pair bonds.”
The backlash wasn’t restricted to the punditry. Susan Stiritz has taught sexuality at Washington University for more than 20 years and designs graduate courses there. Through her research, she has seen the societal impact of sexual disparities among minorities and the poor. She sees a sexual pleasure gap between genders that mirrors the pay gap; African Americans (in St. Louis, at least) using contraception at lower levels than the rest of the population, leaving them exposed to sexually transmitted infections and disease; and youths trapped in a rape culture and unequipped to talk about it. “Our sexual culture is leading us to have a less democratic social culture,” Stiritz says. “Kinsey needs to keep its focus on the politics of sexuality. When IU picks a director who is not a sexologist, something’s wrong. [Carter] is a brilliant researcher. But she’s not an educator. It’s like hiring an English professor to run a company.”
In addition to being upset at the idea of focusing on love-based sex at the exclusion of all other types of intercourse, academics also seem concerned about the very notion of reducing love to a chemistry experiment. They see a biologist like Carter studying hormones and express concern that the institute will now become one big microscope. “There are definitely some conversations in the field questioning whether the biological approach is the most accurate way to study sexuality,” says Chelsea Reynolds, a professor who studies gender and sexuality in the media at Cal State Fullerton. “Sexuality is so nuanced. Some folks in the field are concerned that this biological approach isn’t as comprehensive.” Reynolds says she certainly sees the importance of looking at the physical aspects of sex, the chemical building blocks that make us who we are. The key is context. “There are so many different views on how it works in culture, nature versus nurture …,” she says. “Biology is only telling one side of the story.”
“Kinsey started out studying behavioral issues,” says Mark Schoen, former director of sexuality education at the Sinclair Institute and a prolific Washington, D.C.–based producer of sexual health films for clinicians and educators. “While it’s important to study the biological, you shouldn’t set aside the behavioral—that’s a bad thing.”
The issues raised by Carter’s appointment and the subsequent Star article were compounded by the story’s depiction of Carter hiding the limestone phallus, giving rise to the lasting impression that a prude was now leading the world’s foremost authority on sex. Other researchers who had visited Kinsey before and after Carter told me that other artwork had disappeared from the walls. Schoen says that prior to Carter’s arrival, he had arranged a tentative partnership with the institute to digitize and prioritize Kinsey’s expansive video collection. But Carter scrapped the deal. “She was uncomfortable with having films out there that have to do with sexuality,” he says. “It was a real step back. [Carter] has no background in behavioral issues. And I think she’s uncomfortable with the issues related to sexuality.”
“Kinsey once had a whole organization that desired to help people gain the skills to talk about sexuality,” says Stiritz. “And I don’t know that that’s what they’re interested in anymore. In a culture that doesn’t talk about sex, I guess it’s not surprising that we pick a director who’s not about sex, either.”
Carter bristles at the mention of that Star article, as if it has been a recurring source of grief. First, she says that the idea that she is afraid to talk about sex is absurd. Before studying prairie voles, her work focused on things like the effects of hormones on the human male erection and the role of menopause on female sexuality. “But I felt those projects, personally, weren’t as interesting as the question of ‘What is this thing that keeps us together and so concerned about our sexual life?’” she says. “The assumption [among academics] is that there is one type of sex research. There are many. There are many variants in how people explore sex research. What I bring are tools of endocrinology and the nervous system.”
Second, Carter emphasizes that the study of pair bonds and oxytocin, the search for the biological definition of love, is only her personal work, housed under Kinsey, but in no way reflective or encompassing all of the things going on at the institute under her watch. “I’m not trying to turn the institute into my own laboratory,” she says. “We’re very interested in diversity. One of our consistent themes is to be accepting and listen to people and what their needs are. I like to think that we are responsive to what’s going on in the world and what people want to know.”
In addition to the oxytocin and pheromone research, the institute boasts of psychologist Amanda Gesselman’s landmark studies of hook-up culture through online dating apps. When the news ticker is crowded with headlines of sexual harassment and abuse, Kinsey is putting together a Sexual Trauma Research Consortium to study the impact of traumatic experiences like sexual assault, partner violence, bullying, and the stress that accompanies the treatment of the reproductive system. Jacek Kolacz, a neuropsychologist, is studying the chemical effects of childhood trauma, as with sexual assault and abuse, on the brain-body connection. The institute recently concluded a two-year study on the medical treatment and care of transgender service members in the military. Researcher William Kenkel is looking at how birth interventions shape offspring development. The aforementioned Garcia is investigating the effect of situational and environmental factors on the frequency of the female orgasm.
Carter is also encouraging Kinsey researchers to do more interviews with print, web, TV, and podcast outlets. In a similar vein, the institute enlisted popular blogger and social psychologist Justin Lehmiller from Ball State to help distill its work into lay terms, write articles with titles like “How do Alcohol and Marijuana Affect Sexual Performance?” and “How ‘Feeling Old’ Can Affect the Quality of Your Sex Life,” and disseminate the material to the masses. “There was a lot of untapped potential that they’ve sat on for a while,” says Lehmiller. “I’m excited that they have a director who wants to build on that and help Kinsey realize that potential.”
Of course, a quick glance at the Kinsey faculty roster reveals an abundance of biologists and neuroscientists, supporting Carter’s vision. Garcia, himself a biologist, concedes that Kinsey’s work has taken a bit of a turn toward the physiological. There are conscious reasons for the tonal shift, beyond the whims of a new director. One is money. Kinsey administrators know from experience that funding for sex research has always been hard to come by, and in the current economic climate it can be downright impossible—unless you can show some potential real-world benefit. “To keep the doors open in terms of grant funding or donors, work that’s associated with human health is what is getting funding,” says Garcia.
“That’s true across academic fields and not just in sexuality, but in any of the social sciences,” says Cal State Fullerton’s Reynolds. “Are you doing work that’s health-related and affecting human behavior? Is the research quantitative? That’s going to be more marketable to folks who don’t understand sexuality, but do understand numbers.”
Another reason is the emergence of what sex researchers call the “socioecological model”—the intersection of macro and micro, the blend of bio, psych, and sociology to arrive at a comprehensive approach to an issue and find a holistic solution. The technology and science behind the bio portion are just so new compared to the other, more traditional components that they stand out and make it seem as though hard science is being favored more than it actually is. “There will always be the traditional legacy research that Kinsey has done, focusing on the social-science aspect,” says Rick Van Kooten, vice provost for research at IU. “The addition of this hard-science component that Kinsey didn’t have before really expands the scope. And it’s a good time. I don’t think if you went back 10 or 15 years you could do this.”
Quietly, administrators at several institutions talk about a third factor in bio-centric sex research: politics. “Obviously you’re in Indiana—Mike Pence’s Indiana,” says Dreger. “It’s a very conservative state. It’s a very old-fashioned state. There’s always conservative political pressure. And it’s harder to argue with biology.” It probably won’t help that the federal administration is now led by a climate-change denier who relishes argument. “Right now, the landscape politically is changing day by day,” says Hill. “But if history repeats, basic biological science stands up well to conservatism and deniers of social science.”
In June 2016, around 8 p.m. on a Saturday, a water main burst inside 77-year-old Morrison Hall. All faculty and administrators were immediately called in on a summer weekend to find Kinsey’s home of nearly 70 years, their home, sitting in about an inch of water, which was still pouring down the walls, soaking ceiling tiles that crumbled and collapsed. Together, the entire staff and their spouses and friends hurried to save the Kinsey Collections—a priceless trove of 80,000 photos and negatives, 7,000 artifacts, 8,000 films, and volumes upon volumes of literature collected mostly by Alfred Kinsey himself. Damage to the articles was limited; nothing was lost. “It was a wake-up call for those of us who are there every day,” says Garcia. “We could be a little better with protecting our resources. We loaded truck after truck after truck with rare and one-of-a-kind materials—all tucked into this building. It was almost like opening the vault.”
But the lesson went deeper, reminding Carter and company that even more valuable than the collections is the
Kinsey name. It’s a trusted public authority in a world overwhelmed with sexual myth and misinformation. It’s a bankable brand that can’t hurt when applying for limited grant money. It’s also still a beacon in academia, the original resource for any researcher in the world looking to study sex in any form or function. “Kinsey is probably the foremost sex-research organization in the world,” says Reynolds. “Scholars of media and sexuality turn to them for reliable information on fertility, women’s health … the Kinsey name imbues the research with credibility. It’s the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We know they are trustworthy.”
Serving the needs of the public, as the director sees them, while also living up to the demands of their peers has turned out to be a precarious threesome to pull off. After all, Carter says, Kinsey is still a relatively small institution, with limited resources in an ever-expanding field. Even though Kinsey is still an alpha, it can no longer be all things to all would-be suitors. “Every time you meet somebody with any knowledge the institute, they have different ideas of what the institute has been doing and should be doing,” she says.
Garcia agrees. “One of the unique things about Kinsey is that because it has long been a beacon, there are often very big expectations of what Kinsey could and should be studying,” he says. “We get calls every week.”