Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Opinion | In Indiana, the culture wars aim at Kinsey — the heart of sex research

Opinion | In Indiana, the culture wars aim at Kinsey — the heart of sex research

Justin R. Garcia is executive director of the Kinsey Institute and Ruth N. Halls professor of gender studies at Indiana University. His next book is titled “The Intimate Animal.”

At the entrance to the Kinsey Institute, at Indiana University, there’s a plaque with a famous quote from its founder, Alfred C. Kinsey: “We are the recorders and reporters of facts — not the judges of the behaviors we describe.”

That ethos is at the heart of all the institute’s research.

For generations, the Kinsey Institute has shined a light on diverse aspects of sex and sexuality, in pursuit of answers that bring us closer to understanding fundamental questions of human existence. In a time of divisive politics and disinformation, it is more imperative than ever to preserve and defend the right of such academic institutions to illuminate the unfolding frontiers of science — even, and especially, research that might challenge us as it advances our understanding of ourselves.

Thus it is tremendously disappointing that Indiana lawmakers voted late last month to approve a budget that specifically blocks Indiana University from using state funding to support the Kinsey Institute, and that last week Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into state law. This is an unprecedented action that takes aim at the very foundation of academic freedom.

The Kinsey Institute, where I serve as the executive director and a senior scientist, is the leading sex research institute in the world. We publish dozens of scientific and academic articles each year, across multiple disciplines. Our faculty are internationally renowned biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, health scientists and demographers. We house the world’s largest library and research collection of sexuality-related materials, and scholars from across the globe visit us to study these materials and to train in our research theories and methods.

Our unbiased, apolitical, scientific approach to human sexuality makes the Kinsey Institute unique. It is also what makes the work we do so controversial.

Since its founding in 1947, the institute has been the target of disinformation and attacks. The original “Kinsey reports” (“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” in 1953) drew data from the most thorough sexological study ever conducted. Both books were instant bestsellers, and Kinsey went from scientist to celebrity.

Yet the reports were also met with shock and moral panic — especially following the second volume, which documented the real sexual lives of America’s wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. So much controversy ensued that the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its sex research funding for the institute in 1954.

In 1950, a U.S. customs officer seized a shipment of sexually explicit images and other materials being mailed to the institute’s research collection on the basis of their being “obscene.” The federal court case that followed, United States v. 31 Photographs, resulted in a historic ruling in favor of the institute’s right to collect materials and data for sex research, which has profoundly shaped our understanding of academic freedom from censorship.

Another wave of attacks came in the 1980s, whipped up by conspiracy theories that Kinsey’s research had unleashed the sexual revolution and, with it, a moral decay on America.

As Kinsey wrote in 1956: “It is incomprehensible that we should know so little about such an important subject as sex, unless you realize the multiplicity of forces which have operated to dissuade the scientist, to intimidate the scientist, and to force him to cease research in these areas.”

Yet, Kinsey and his researchers persisted. And three-quarters of a century after the institute’s founding, the contribution of sex research to our understanding of sexuality, relationships and well-being is clear.

We know that one of the biggest predictors of relationship satisfaction is sexual satisfaction, and that one’s sex life affects the trajectory of relationships and marriages. That comprehensive sex education, including understanding consent and identifying interpersonal abuse, is associated with positive psychological and health outcomes — from prevention of unintended pregnancy to protecting against sexually transmitted infections.

We also know many questions still need to be answered. The complex associations between sexual activity and fertility outcomes. The long-term effects of covid-19 on people’s relationships and sexual lives. How the loneliness epidemic is affecting mental health across demographics. How new social technologies are changing the concept of intimacy and redefining sexual behavior. Why 1 in 4 women in the United States still experience attempted or completed rape.

Given these major unknowns, why do attacks on our research continue? The state representative who first proposed this recent legislation parroted false allegations of sexual predation in the institute’s historical research and ongoing work, which the institute, the university and outside experts have repeatedly refuted. Indiana state Rep. Matt Pierce described these conspiracy theories as “warmed-over internet memes that keep coming back.” The legislature still acted on this disturbing, easily debunked misinformation.

Indiana is not alone. Across the country, legislation is being passed that affects millions of lives, restricting reproductive health care, discussions of gender identity and basic sex education. The people passing this legislation are fundamentally failing to leverage scientific evidence as a guide through these complex issues.

I am optimistic that this latest culture war will pass. And the Kinsey Institute will carry on. While this recently passed legislation stings, the majority of the institute’s funding comes from outside the university, from research grants and contracts, as well as philanthropic donations. But I worry what the future will look like, for our institute and others — and for the students and researchers who rely on us — should state legislatures continue to act on misinformation around sexuality.

Some years ago, an Indiana University alum shared with me why the Kinsey Institute was so important to him. He was a gay man in his late 60s, and he recalled how as a student in the 1970s he was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. At times, he felt so confused and isolated, he wasn’t sure he would ever find his way through that dark time. He was too afraid, he told me, to set foot inside the Kinsey Institute back then, but “just knowing it existed, that someone was out there searching for answers, saved my life.”

His words took on new resonance last week. I think about this story often, and I’m reminded what’s at stake when we limit the right to even ask questions.

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