Happy 71st birthday to sex! Or, more accurately, to researchers fighting for the freedom to study sex, improving intimate relationships all over the globe. It was on April 8, 1947, that Dr. Alfred Kinsey founded what would become the Kinsey Institute, forever transforming what we could do with sexual research.
Kinsey was a biologist from a modest background, raised in a highly religious home. He was passionate about the outdoors and the natural world as a child, despite being prone to illness. As a young man, he dove into studies involving botany and zoology, even though his parents wanted him to become an engineer, and initially he studied insects. That work laid an important foundation, merging the study of plants and animals in a single field — biology — and promoting evolution among other scientists.
But it was the Kinsey Institute that most changed the world. Originally called the Institute for Sex Research, he founded the organization at Indiana University with partial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which still does extensive charitable giving to this day.
It was only a year later that the institute published a landmark document, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Researchers detailed their findings that 37% of men and 13% of women had same-sex experiences that brought them to orgasm. They also published the still-cited statistic that about 10% of men are exclusively homosexual. This early work also established the “Kinsey Scale,” a six-point method to indicate the gendering of a person’s attraction.
The work was not without controversy or questionable methods. Alfred Kinsey had sexual relationships with his colleagues, and encouraged them to couple with each other. In the attic of his home, he filmed people (including his fellow researchers) engaged in sexual acts. Some of the data was inaccurately represented, such as a single pedophile who was extrapolated to represent multiple people. Kinsey has also been accused of disproportionately focusing on disadvantaged groups like queer men and prisoners.
The United States government grew concerned about his work when Kinsey began importing erotic materials from other countries, and the U.S. Customs Service had to be sued in order to release pornographic material to its rightful owner.
After Kinsey passed away in 1956, the institute was helmed by Dr. Paul Gebhard, who successfully fought off government restrictions over their work and expanded access to their research. In the 1980s, Dr. June Reinisch took over, and under her leadership the institute began publishing newspaper columns that informed the public about cutting edge topics in sexual research.
Through the ’90s and up to today, the Kinsey Institute has continued to elevate the discussion around sex. It has placed resources online to help people understand their bodies and desires, has opened clinics for sexual health and has organized erotic art shows to bring its research into the humanities. One of the institute’s latest endeavors is a Kinsey Reporter app that allows people to report sexual experiences and explore the findings of others.
From simple curiosity about sex to a world-changing investigative project, it’s been a productive 71 years for the Kinsey Institute. And there’s still lots to learn.