From television talk shows to academic conferences, when people talk about sex these days their discussions are most likely informed by research conducted at Indiana University from the 1930s through the 60s. When the Association of Women Students petitioned the university in 1938 for a course on “Marriage and Family,” a zoologist named Alfred Kinsey was tapped as the instructor. In preparing for the course, the Harvard-trained scientist who’d been researching gall wasps at IU for twenty years was hard put to find non-value-laden studies on human sexuality. So he set about gathering the primary source material himself. Armed with funding from the National Research Council, Kinsey and his associates completed more than 18,000 case studies through face-to-face interviews. Kinsey alone obtained almost half of the total number of sexual histories. His research team included economist Clyde Martin, psychologist Wardell Pomeroy and eventually, anthropologist Paul Gebhard. In a commitment to complete confidentiality, members of the team assigned each subject a number, memorized 350 questions to ask each one, and transcribed responses in code, the key to which was never written down. The results were ultimately published in two volumes. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was a bestseller when it came out in 1948. Its companion report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, emerged five years later; and three additional volumes ensued.
A champion of academic freedom, IU President Herman B. Wells supported Kinsey’s controversial research and helped to establish the Institute for Sex Research as a not-for-profit corporation in 1947. The institute has been funded through a combination of public and private sources since its inception. Though its namesake died in 1956, what has been renamed The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction continues to be a vital research arm of the university, as well as an important repository for archival materials and erotic art. 2004 saw the release of a major motion picture chronicling Kinsey’s life’s work.