BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Alfred Kinsey made history in the 1940s and '50s with books exploring "sexual behavior" in the human male and female. He became a cultural phenomenon, his name shorthand for enlightenment or perversity, depending on how you viewed his pioneering research. A University of California, Berkeley speech in 1949 drew an audience of 9,000, prompting the headline, "Sex Is More Popular Than Basketball." (For a photo of that huge Berkeley crowd, click here
It would still be a hot topic, even if Liam Neeson had not played Kinsey in a 2004 film
. At Indiana University
, Kinsey's base and home of the Kinsey Institute
for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, his work continues. Based on recent WomanUP
posts, the institute will be in business for a long time.
Our writers have considered a "desire" pill -- the female version of Viagra
– and countless articles that place the burden of achieving domestic and sexual perfection
on women. It recalls society in Kinsey's day, when a woman's search for sexual satisfaction was treated with both more scandal and less seriousness than a man's similar journey. Is female sexuality still a sideshow to the study of men's needs?
At the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists at IU, Debra Herbenick, a research scientist and sexual health educator at the institute, brought information, puppets and props less prurient than practical. (You will find her puppet stand-ins for body parts on Tyra Banks' show, not "Sesame Street.") She answered questions, submitted anonymously on pieces of paper; it seems we still get embarrassed about certain things.
Unlike audiences at some fact-heavy conference sessions, no one wandered away. To the credit of my fellow grown-up writers, no one giggled, either. It didn't hurt that Herbenick could be the twin of demure Charlotte, as played by Kristin Davis, from "Sex and the City"; "I get that a lot," she told me. Her message is far from the sarcastic, breezy approach of that show's best friends, despite writing the "Kinsey Confidential" column, the MySexProfessor.com
blog and a book titled "Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction." They allow her to get the word out easier than Kinsey, who, Herbenick said, responded to every single person who wrote to him -- and thousands did.
Information is as needed as ever, apparently. The undergrads she teaches still ask basic questions about how to avoid getting pregnant, having never gotten the message from schools or parents. She gives advice, but "we never, ever, ever tell people what to do," Herbenick said, and "never talk about our own sex lives."
Some of her findings don't surprise. Men really do look at porn more than women. Other things she's not so sure of. Viagra, she thinks, is not "a sign of progress" as much as an excuse to continue to treat male sexuality in a "simple-minded" way.
It was comforting to hear that as we age, sexual satisfaction is the one thing that doesn't change. Perhaps our expectations shift along with desire, or maybe the aging process happens so slowly, we have time to get used to any adjustments.
A visit to the institute – which today is more concerned with studying the why than the what of human sexual behavior – finds surprises, as well as a gift shop and an invitation to participate in a "condom laboratory study." Behind glass is a 1950 letter from Tennessee Williams, praising the "enormous social value" of Kinsey's work and inviting the doctor to discuss plays, and a copy of Volume No. 1 of Playboy magazine (1953), with Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
A gallery includes Herb Ritts
photos, art from Paul Cadmus
and all sorts of drawings and paintings, some of them witty or silly. "Sex is kind of a funny act," said associate curator Garry Milius.
The casual laughter that can accompany a quick tour of the now not-very-controversial images is a reminder that some things have changed since former IU President Herman B. Wells
– a supporter of academic freedom -- defended the institute in the face of complaints from parents, faculty and Indiana lawmakers and citizens. "We have large faith in the values of knowledge," he said, "little faith in ignorance."
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