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Sex, Love and Science


The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The institute’s newest director is exploring the very subject its founder didn’t think could be measured — the science of love.


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Dr. Kinsey, Clyde Martin, and Wardell Pomeroy sit on the steps of the first home of the Kinsey Institute. /Photo courtesy of Indiana University Archives

Summer 1938: “S-T-I-M-U-L-A-T-I-O-N” the professor writes on the chalkboard. He faces the audience seated in the Chemistry Building auditorium and asks which part of the human body enlarges 100 times. Not one of the 70 women or 28 men know.

The pupil of the eye, the Indiana University instructor says, where visual stimulation begins.

“In an uninhibited society, a 12-year-old would know most of the biology which I will have to give you in formal lectures as seniors and graduate students,” he continues.

Students hold their breath as Professor Alfred C. Kinsey pauses momentarily to consult his lecture notes. The room is rapt. No one speaks when “Prok,” an affectionate conjunction of “Professor” and “K” for Kinsey, has the stage. No one wants to miss a fact about male or, yes, female orgasms.

Prok tells the students in his marriage course that sex is the glue holding societies together, and nearly 90 per cent of all divorce cases involve difficulties in the bedroom. Prudish, Victorian morals, he claims, inhibit sex education and discussion.

“It is quite possible,” he says, “to know all that need be known about the anatomy and physiology of reproduction and still grasp nothing of its art.”

Beyond the walls of the auditorium that summer, the world was changing. Soon, the young men listening to Prok would be in uniform fighting in Europe and the South Pacific. Many of the women would take jobs in factories building tanks, planes and ships. After the war, the soldiers who came home would marry, build new homes in the suburbs and conceive – artfully or not – the largest generation in history, the baby boom.

But in this classroom on a steamy Bloomington summer night in 1938, students only know they are a part of something radically different. In just a few short years, the rest of America would know it, too.

This year, the renowned institute for sex research that bears Kinsey’s name is marking its 70th anniversary. Faculty will revisit Kinsey’s early work that shocked the nation and put him on the cover of Time magazine. Kinsey historian Judith A. Allen is exploring how the institute’s early publications changed its founder’s perspective on sexuality; research that is guiding her upcoming book, Kinsey and the Feminine: The Making of the Second Kinsey Report. And Sue Carter, the first biologist to lead the institute since its founder, will continue her research into another of life’s most intimate relationships – love.

Kinsey historian Donna J. Drucker says Kinsey would probably be surprised by that. Not necessarily that the institute is researching love, but that love can now be studied scientifically. But, she adds, he believed all new knowledge should be celebrated.

One of Carter’s colleagues put it another way. Understanding love, like understanding sex, is critical to understanding the human condition, says Kinsey sex researcher Justin Garcia. “People live and die for love.”

Sex, love and science. And it all began that sultry summer in Bloomington.

DR. KINSEY: From gall wasps to sex.

For Harvard doctoral student Alfred Kinsey, it started with gall wasps. In 1919, over the course of one year and 18,000 miles, Kinsey classified and measured individual differences of the insects for his thesis. Studying individual distinctions in wasps was one of his specialties. The other would present itself 18 years later.

Intellectual curiosity and zeal for fieldwork sparked Kinsey’s interest in the social insects. Before he began his research, gall wasps had been relatively unstudied.

By train and foot, Kinsey collected nearly seven million specimens from the southern and western United States, earning him the nickname “Get-a-million Kinsey.”

A large sample size was the cornerstone of Kinsey’s scientific method. To yield credible results, he believed a research project needed a broad geographic distribution, many subjects and data collected from observation. The bigger and more diverse the sample size, the better.

With a doctorate from Harvard and a feverish passion for research, Kinsey landed a position in the zoology department at IU in 1920 as an assistant professor of entomology. A year later he married one of his students, Clara McMillen. For several months, they were unable to consummate the marriage. But Clara underwent surgery and gave birth to a son nine months later.

Possibly piqued by his own marital difficulty, Kinsey published a widely used high school biology textbook in 1926 that included chapters on sexual education. He published a teacher’s manual in 1937 that addressed what he saw as an underlying flaw in current sexual education. “Under the guise of science,” Kinsey wrote, “we too often have sex instruction which is a curious even if a well-intentioned mixture of superstition, religious evaluation, and a mere perpetuation of social custom.”

Kinsey hadn’t forgotten about his gall wasps. But a trend away from fieldwork dampened his enthusiasm. Clutching his scientific method, Kinsey was ready to dive into another unexplored field.

“He was very loyal to his methods, and that was a domino falling in the direction of sex research,” says Drucker, author of The Classification of Sex. “He realized that no one had really done ‘scientific research’ the way he would have, and that’s what kicked off his interest.”

By the late 1930s, the campus was also beginning to change. A new pension program encouraged older teachers to retire, bringing in a wave of young professors. Newly appointed President Herman B Wells was determined to reinvent the campus as a leading public research university and cultural center for the Midwest. At 33, he was the country’s youngest university president.

Still, campus administrators expected students to follow strict standards of behavior. Recent crackdowns, like the closure of the popular Nick’s English Hut, had lowered morale. But students still found ways to sneak moonshine and homebrew, and co-eds also lit up even though women were forbidden from smoking on campus. Even the heavily regulated dorms and the ban on student cars didn’t stop young lovers from spending steamy nights inside their automobiles.

In May of 1938, the Association of Women Students petitioned Wells for a marriage and family course. A national syphilis outbreak escalated the demand for education the University wasn’t providing. The only resource for sexual education at the time was a required “hygiene” class that gave vague, religion-oriented advice. Former student Cecilia Wahl told Kinsey biographer James H. Jones that “everybody loathed the course, thought it was a total bore, and made all manner of jokes about it.”

Reluctantly, the Board of Trustees appointed biology professor Kinsey as the lead instructor for the new course. Based on his sexuality lectures in biology classes, the women’s group thought him to be the most appropriate faculty member to spearhead the modern marriage course.

Kinsey accepted. “I trust history will justify its existence,” the zoologist wrote to Wells.

The next month, the Indiana Daily Student ran an announcement for the course wedged between ads for the junior prom and Twilight Hour. The non-credit marriage course, offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., was open exclusively for seniors and married students. Some lowerclassman gained entrance by crossing their fingers and swearing they were engaged to the person standing next to them.

Students walking down Science Row on April 15, 1939. /Photo courtesy of Indiana University Archives

A handful of teachers took turns lecturing on different aspects of marriage, like legal guidelines for marriage and divorce and the psychology of sex and love. However, student evaluations later made it clear that Kinsey’s seven lectures on sexual education were fan favorites. Ninety-seven out of the ninety-eight respondents said the biology section was most significant to them.

Echoing Kinsey, one student wrote that “frank discussion never leads to so many maladjustments as repression.” Former student Glenn V. Ramsey told Jones, “You could hear a pin drop during his lectures because every member of the audience was trying to get ahold of every piece of information that he was dispensing.”

Prok concluded every lecture by offering personal conferences to anyone seeking sexual advice. All he asked in return was that they provide him with case histories of sexual behavior, a request that would prove consequential.

Soon, Kinsey expanded his case histories by obsessively interviewing everyone he could. If faculty members or students asked him to present a lecture, he would oblige with the understanding that every club member would give him a case history. When he wasn’t teaching or tending to his Bloomington iris garden, Kinsey scoured the streets of Chicago in search of anyone willing to talk to him.

“By creating an auditing of a large number of people, Kinsey could see that there was a lot going on in the world that hasn’t been acknowledged, and this made his work quite monumental,” Carter says.

Criticism of the marriage course grew along with the histories. The frank treatment of sex that students appreciated was ironically its ultimate demise.

Outraged by private interviews he saw as exploiting students and encouraging them to engage in premarital sex, the former hygiene class professor Thurman Rice petitioned President Wells to remove Kinsey from the class.

Rice thought Kinsey didn’t have the appropriate medical background to teach sexual behavior, and he was appalled by the graphic slides Kinsey showed students. Rice thought giving people too much information about the mechanics of intercourse removed the element of mystery.

“Kinsey basically says the opposite,” Drucker says. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, then any sexual encounter can be not just unpleasant, but traumatic.”

Kinsey’s students fought back. Two former students and their mother wrote to Wells claiming, “Without this factual biological basis, the marriage course would be a vague emasculated travesty of its original self . . . . Without Dr. Kinsey’s contribution, the course would lose all force of appeal, all pertinence of service.”

Wells defended Kinsey but gave him an ultimatum. He could continue the marriage course in a watered down way or hand it over to Rice and the medical school and focus on his research. To Wells’ surprise, Kinsey chose the latter.

By this time, Kinsey had recorded several hundred case histories in Bloomington and Chicago, but he needed more variation, more subjects, more information. Now, he had the time to expand his research. The end, of course, was just the beginning.

The research project flourished from the ashes of the marriage course. A year after he left the marriage course, the Rockefeller Foundation funded his sex research. Kinsey’s growing collection needed a permanent and secure home. In 1947, Kinsey sold every case history, book and artifact related to his sex research to the newly created Institute for Sex Research for $1.

A year after the institute’s inception, Kinsey published the first volume of his research, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. It both shocked the country andsparked a national conversation on what men did behind closed doors.

A critic for The New York Times praised its candor. “Because we are all human, every individual is bound to interpret this study in terms of personal experience. For some it will be clarifying. Others it will confuse. Some will be alarmed, others will be shocked; a few will interpret the general findings as grounds for personal license,” he wrote. “The end results should be healthy. They should bring about a better understanding of some of our emotional problems, and the bases for some of our psychiatric concepts.”

Despite the dry, scientific way the 800-page book revealed that oral sex, adultery, homosexuality, masturbation and premarital sex were surprisingly common, it sold nearly 500,000 copies at $6.50 – about $57.60 in today’s dollars.

Not everyone applauded Kinsey’s candor. Many attacked Kinsey for not addressing love in regards to sex, for his sampling and statistical methods and for attempting to normalize homosexuality. Popular televangelist Reverend Billy Graham named him the man most responsible for the moral downfall of America.

The second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was published five years later during the Cold War, a different political climate. Some said the book tarnished the image or American women as wives and mothers who enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, democracy and freedom.

“The reports showed that so many women had premarital sex and masturbated, and that exposed a weakness in democracy,” Drucker says.

Congressman B. Carroll Reece assaulted Kinsey’s findings and organized a House committee to investigate tax-exempt foundations, targeting the Kinsey institute. The Rockefeller Foundation terminated its funding of the institute in 1954.

The institute survived off royalties from the books, but Kinsey worked harder than ever to procure funding. But while he was a genius at putting people at ease in interviews about their sexual lives, he was paralyzed when it came to asking them for money.

Biographer Jones captured a chilling conversation between Dr. Kinsey and the chairman of zoology at Indiana University in June 1956. Theodore W. Torrey urged Kinsey to take time off and rest.

“You look like hell,” Torrey said.

“If I can’t work, I’d rather die,” Kinsey retorted.

That was the last time Torrey saw the pioneer in sex research. Kinsey died in August 1956.

Whether an individual saw Kinsey as a moral degenerate or a liberator of sexual repression, he was a cultural icon who started new conversations, says Drew Clark-Huckstep, a historical consultant to the Kinsey Institute.

“He became the catalyst for making sexual discussion viral,” Clark-Huckstep says. “No matter his personal doings, his work stood out and changed the way Americans think about sexuality – and put Indiana University on the map.”

DR. CARTER: A crazy little thing called love

Love, Alfred Kinsey believed, was not a physiological response that a scientist could measure. It was a matter for philosophers, writers and poets.

Sue Carter, the Kinsey’s institute’s newest director, sees it differently. “I’m trying to understand the mechanisms through which social bonds are formed and what the consequences of having loving relationships are.”

On the third floor of Morrison Hall on the IU campus, it’s hard to avoid the bright yellow warning sign on the façade -- “Notice: Kinsey Institute is closed for repairs.” In summer 2016, a two-inch water main pipe burst, damaging offices, classrooms, lecture halls and some archival collections. After several months, the building is reopening for faculty.

The furniture and decorations will slowly make their way back home. Not everything could be saved, but what’s missing will soon be replaced with something new. Over the years, the institute has faced bigger obstacles than burst pipes and seen more changes than a pubescent teen.

Carter sits at the head of a long, wooden table in the room next to her office. A dark, turquoise kimono complements her white bob. It’s been three years since Carter was called to lead the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, a position in which she never imagined herself. During the yearlong search, a friend nominated Carter for the job. As she was teaching psychiatry and studying biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she had little interest in uprooting herself to move to Bloomington.

Ultimately, she was offered the job she said she wasn’t prepared for. “I doubt anyone is prepared to direct the Kinsey institute,” Carter says. It’s remarkable if anyone can truly be equipped to oversee the research, the library, the education and outreach programs and archives some say are comparable to the Vatican’s collections.

“I don’t know how previous directors did it,” Carter says.

But she’s not complaining. “I think I have the most interesting job in the world.”

While exploring sexual behavior was originally the core of the institute, several lenses – like gender and reproduction – have been added to that focus over the years. Today, like her predecessor and fellow biologist Kinsey, Carter is delving into uncharted territory to understand the science behind a fundamental aspect of life.

And just as Kinsey began his research with gall wasps, Carter’s work began with prairie voles. While studying the tiny field mice in the early ‘90s, she discovered the midwestern rodents were among the three percent of mammals that are socially monogamous. To her surprise, prairie voles were capable of forming human-like, lifelong bonds. Countless hours of observing them indicated that sexual interactions facilitated that bond, leading Carter to theorize there was an underlying biological explanation.

When she went into labor with each of her two sons, Carter remembered how puzzling it was that the pain of delivery disappeared as soon as the baby was expelled from her uterus. This phenomenon led to discovering the role the hormone oxytocin plays in human attachment and other social behaviors. Oxytocin was the glue holding the prairie voles — and possibly humans — together.

When a baby nurses, oxytocin released from the mother strengthens the attachment. Oxytocin helps us feel safe, Carter says, and that protects us from life-threatening conditions like isolation. The most serious punishment is solitary confinement, she adds, because the human nervous system doesn’t function well when it’s outside of a healthy relationship.

Science journalist Susan Kunchinskas couldn’t understand why she had so much difficulty forming steady relationships with men. Sex was the easiest way to bond with someone, but the initial excitement quickly died down, and she’d inevitably move onto someone else. “I was a romance junkie,” Kuchinskas says.

Then she heard about Carter’s work with social bonding. Kuchinskas was intrigued by a biological explanation for why she was unable to form relationships. She grew up without close family connections. So, when men tried to get close to her, she ran away.

Susan met with Carter and wrote The Chemistry of Connection, a book that explored the powerful effects that oxytocin has on our ability to form healthy romantic relationships. Lust and romance help us find our mates. But when the initial thrill is gone, it’s oxytocin that keeps people together to sustain a long-lasting relationship.

Today, Carter’s goals at the institute are to understand the mechanisms through which social bonds are formed as well as the consequences of loving relationships, both platonic and romantic.

“If we understand how sex works, if we understand how social behavior works, what its biological basis is, why we need it, and how our body encourages us to become connected towards others to have relationships,” she says, “it helps us to know how to live our lives.”

Sources for this story include: “A Noble Experiment”: The Marriage Course at Indiana University, 1938-1940; Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life, Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research; interview transcripts conducted by biographer James H. Jones; The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis; IU Archives; Indiana Daily Student archives; Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer Volume I: The Early Years; The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction website.