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From the Desk: Executive director Sue Carter reflects on 70 years of the Kinsey Institute at IU

Apr 26, 2017

On April 8, the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University celebrated a milestone: 70 years of sex research.

Founded in 1947 by Dr. Alfred Kinsey as the Institute for Sex Research, the Kinsey Institute is recognized today as one of the premier sex research institutes in the world. Every day, our researchers work to uncover new insights into human sexuality and the science of love, and to provide scientific context for the dynamics of relationships and sexuality that impact our daily lives.

The Kinsey Institute’s legacy began at IU in the 1930s, when Dr. Kinsey was studying gall wasps as a zoology professor in the biology department. He collected 7.5 million specimens, now housed at the American Museum of Natural History. What Kinsey was finding was variation – the seemingly endless series of small differences that could be found among individuals in the same species.

In 1938, as an instructor of Indiana University’s Marriage Course, Kinsey began collecting sex histories from his students, and he discovered a diversity of behavior and physiology as varied as the specimens of his wasp collection, and his intellectual curiosity was piqued.

Kinsey and his research team expanded their data collection in the 1940s to off-campus sources including hetero- and homosexual populations in northern Indiana, and then across the country. They were gathering the initial data that would grow to be more than 18,000 personal sexual histories and would form the basis of two massive publications: “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” (1953) – popularly called the Kinsey Reports.

In the socially conservative atmosphere of the 1950s, discussion of sexual freedom and variety of sexual behavior was not universally welcome. The 1953 publication of the female volume, in particular, attracted critics who equated sex research with moral decay. Under Herman B Wells’ leadership, Indiana University staunchly supported the work of Dr. Kinsey and the institute despite repeated calls for Kinsey’s resignation.

For Wells, the university’s defense of Dr. Kinsey’s scientific research into sexuality became a hallmark of Indiana University’s integrity and its commitment to the principle of academic intellectual freedom:

“Looking back over the experience, I am now convinced that the importance we attached to the defense of the Kinsey Institute was not exaggerated. Time has proved that the defense was important, not only for the understanding of sexual activity, but also for the welfare of the university. It reinforced the faculty’s sense of freedom to carry on their work without fear of interference, and it established in the public mind that the university had an integrity that could not be bought, pressured, or subverted.”
- Herman B Wells, “Being Lucky” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 187.

The groundbreaking Kinsey Reports caught the world’s attention when they described the nature of human sexual activity. Over the decades since their publication, the field of sexology and Kinsey Institute researchers have turned their attention to the behavioral and physiological mechanisms underlying human sexual behavior.

Today’s Kinsey Institute employs the tools of neuroscience, psychology and biology to study a spectrum of sexuality issues that affect people around the globe: to map the influence of hormones like oxytocin on love and human bonding; to analyze changes in dating behavior brought on by technology; to investigate the long-term effects of sexual trauma on the body; to identify the cultural and structural factors that affect a woman’s medical decisions; and to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault education campaigns on university campuses, including education initiatives.

We seek to uncover the motivations and biological imperatives that shape human sexuality and relationships. The more we understand the impact of these factors on human relationships and bonds, the better equipped our society becomes to foster positive health outcomes and emotional resilience in the people who experience them.

The Kinsey Institute will mark our 70th anniversary with several events on the IU Bloomington campus in the fall semester including an open house in September, a fall lecture series and the unveiling of a new history exhibit. You can stay up-to-date by visiting our website or our Facebook page, and by signing up for our email list.

Sue Carter is executive director of the Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University.


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