The founding father of sexology in the US was researching wasps until he was assigned to teach sex-ed.
In 1938, Indiana University asked a professor of zoology called Alfred Kinsey to lead the school’s ‘marriage course’. US colleges had been offering such programs since the 1920s. They were a response to social anxiety over a feared ‘marriage crisis’ caused by shifting sexual and romantic norms. The women’s suffrage movement, increased use of birth control, and the growth of a distinct youth culture were all part of the zeitgeist feeding this paranoia.
Marriage courses typically sought to promote a conservative ideal of conjugal life by imparting traditional religious teachings on marital relations. But at Indiana, Kinsey took a different approach. He had risen to prominence as a scientist through his work observing and measuring hundreds of thousands of gall wasps and systematizing the data. At Indiana, he used the marriage course as an opportunity to apply this scientific method to the study of human sexuality.
Kinsey assembled a detailed, scientifically-informed curriculum. He drew on academic staff from a range of disciplines across the university to shed light on different aspects of human sexuality. And he developed a practice of interviewing students about their sexual histories and concerns, using these ‘conferences’ both to offer counseling services and to collect data about sexual behavior.
By 1940, Kinsey had stopped teaching the marriage course. But he continued to develop his research into human sexuality based on interviews with people about their sex lives. His findings were presented in two landmark books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Popularly known as the Kinsey Reports, the books were co-authored with Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and (for Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) Paul Gebhard. Their frank and objective treatment of non-heterosexual experiences and women’s sexuality caused a sensation.
Alfred Kinsey died in 1956. Today, his torch is carried by the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The Institute seeks to carry forward Kinsey’s multi-disciplinary research project exploring every aspect of human sexuality. It employs academics across disciplinary lines, from neuroscientists to law researchers. “I can have a question and run up and down the hall and get takes on it from different standpoints,” says Executive Director Justin R. Garcia. “But we’re unified by what Kinsey was interested in: variation in human sexuality, and sexual diversity as expressed through individuals.”
The Institute isn’t just a group of researchers. It houses the Kinsey Institute Special Collections, the world’s largest research collection of sexuality-related materials. There are over 600,000 items including print materials, film, fine art, and photography. “The internal joke is that the only place that has more sexual art is the Vatican,” says Garcia.
Alfred Kinsey isn’t without his critics. Scientists have pointed out major shortcomings in the research methods he employed. But Kinsey is also revered for the liberalizing effect his work had on sexual culture in the US. The Kinsey reports were one of the first attempts to document homosexual behavior and women’s sexuality without moral judgment. For this, Kinsey is regarded by many as an important figure in women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights struggles. It’s a legacy that would have been difficult to predict during the early, gall wasp years of Kinsey’s career.