Corsets, threesomes and fleshy French thighs

A Kinsey Institute exhibition shows that female desires burn just as brightly as men's.

Published January 23, 2004 8:37PM (EST)

If your grandparents were American, they didn't talk about sex. Certainly their American parents never said a word about it. And because no one talked about sex, most citizens assumed that no one actually did it in America.

Then just before World War II, a biologist living in the middle of Indiana -- a guy who studied wasps (of all things!) -- conducted a university-funded survey of American sexuality that discovered that Americans did it all the time! He published half of his findings in 1948 with "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." Alfred Kinsey had discovered that American men did it in bed, in parked cars, in the kitchen, and even out behind the barn.

A typical American man, say, Fred Astaire, did Ginger while standing up, lying upside down, and even back-to-back like a pair of wayward missionaries. Kinsey even discovered that sometimes Fred did it by himself. Although Fred seldom did it to dead people or children or animals, he probably experimented at least once or twice with another guy, say, Gene Kelly.

As radical as Kinsey's conclusions were, five years later America reeled when "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" was published. No American in 1953 had ever considered Ginger's sexual experience outside of Fred's. Kinsey revealed American women were as horny as the guys. He even began collecting the pictures to prove it.

Now half a century later, we can see his samples in "Feminine Persuasion: Art and Essays on Sexuality," the catalog of a Kinsey Institute erotic art show held last year at the School of Fine Art Galley at Indiana University in Bloomington. The subtitle of the book (published by Indiana University Press) really should specify female sexuality, because the work stresses the erotic vision of women artists. Photographs and painting depict lesbian sex, the erotic allure of pregnancy, a woman about to mount a cactus, as well as abstract sculptures that resemble those monstrous white beach balls that used to chase Patrick McGoohan on the TV show "The Prisoner."

Sandwiched between the women's work are male fantasies of female sexuality. Guy images include naked woman as cello, naked woman as masturbator, and naked woman as Marilyn Monroe.

I spoke to one of the curators/editors of "Feminine Persuasion," Catherine Johnson -- herself curator of art, artifacts, and photography at the Kinsey Institute -- about the place of such art in America's erotic life.

Is the Kinsey Institute an archive now or do you guys still do research?

We've been a functioning research institute since 1947.

Is there anyone there who remembers the founder, Alfred Kinsey?

Not on staff. Our former director Paul Gephardt [who retired in '82] is still around. He worked with Kinsey for about 10 years, so we do have a direct link.

Do you get a sense of what Kinsey was like?

We are in contact with his children. We talk to them about their impressions of their father. There are people on campus and in town who knew him. That is a fun thing about art exhibition openings because people who knew the Kinseys will come -- it's always interesting to speak to people who have firsthand memories.

Is he remembered fondly?

Yes. He was quite a dedicated researcher and a wonderful speaker. His lectures that he gave were renowned. His classes were popular.

Did he have a sense of humor about his work?

Ah, I don't think he had a huge sense of humor. No. He took his work very, very seriously -- that's the one comment that I've heard. He wasn't one to joke about sex. Whereas today, we all try to maintain a sense of humor because you have to.

In a nutshell can you say who Kinsey was and what he accomplished?

In a nutshell? Well, he was a biology professor who began studying human sexuality in 1938. He did that because he was teaching a class on marriage, teaching the biological aspects of marriage. Because he was an approachable instructor, students would ask questions about sex, about their own sexual lives, asking him what was normal sexual behavior ...

Was this a mixed-gender class?

Yes. You had to be an upperclassman; it was mainly for seniors and graduate students -- people about to launch themselves into the world and needed to know more about married life. Much of the class was devoted to economics, budgeting. There were talks by different people on the university faculty. But Kinsey was the one who oversaw the organization of the classes, and he taught the biology of marriage.

So these classes were not a cultural academic analysis of marriage. This was practical knowledge like home economics, because the assumption was that of course everyone was going to get married.

Right. It was an elective. If you assumed you weren't going to get married, you didn't need to take the class. Most of the students were engaged or they were already married. The thing was in 1938; there wasn't much known about sex. It wasn't discussed openly at all. There weren't any books. There hadn't been any major studies. No one knew what "normal" behavior was. There were a lot of things that were illegal, but people were probably still doing them -- things like oral sex.

Americans were all virgins before marriage -- true or false?

One reason Kinsey's book was so shocking when it came out was because it indicated that a high percentage of men were having sex before marriage. They were having sex outside of marriage with other partners. They were masturbating. A large number of men had some sort of homosexual encounter, even though it might only have been once. American men were much more sexually active than most people thought. When the female volume came out in 1953, it was even more shocking -- women were as sexually active as men. Especially in the 1950s, that was a conservative time.

It was bad timing for Kinsey. Wasn't he accused of being a Communist?

Yes. People argued that his research and his books were encouraging ungodly behavior by saying that all of these sexual behaviors were fairly normal just because a lot of people did them. He had enemies. Which is probably why he didn't have much of a sense of humor about his research. Of course, his books became bestsellers. Kinsey became a household name. I don't think he ever enjoyed being a celebrity. He was much more focused on his research.

It's hard to imagine being his wife.

His wife was quite a strong and interesting person in her own right. She was very involved with the Girl Scouts in town. Taught a lot of kids how to swim. They were both very much outdoors people. When they met, he was studying wasps. He studied gall wasps. They would go on gall wasp expeditions.

"Gull" as in seagull?

No. G-a-l-l. A gall is this round formation that forms on a tree when this wasp has laid its eggs. Kinsey collected about 5 million specimens.

So instead of "the birds and the bees," it was "the birds and the wasps."

By the time he taught the marriage class, he had written a major book on wasps and he was ready for a new research subject.

Did he reach any conclusions about the importance of sexual imagery?

He certainly looked into that quite a bit. His research showed that men were more likely to become aroused by visual material than women were. He was very enthusiastic about collecting erotic photographs that people had. He felt that images were really important for studying sexuality, but there weren't that many images around. There were only a few blue movies. Certainly no Internet. Even so, our documentary photograph collection is about 48,000 prints. It's been categorized into 40 different categories including "coitus" -- the word they chose to use for intercourse.

We probably have over 5,000 photographs of coitus. "Homosexual Male." "Homosexual Female." "Petting," which is a term you don't hear about anymore. These are photographs that are sexual, but not actually intercourse.

I'm old enough to remember that term -- that's what Laurie Powers and I did in the front seat of her Vega in high school.

The Petting collection is actually the part that gets the most requests. People will use these images in books.

Did Kinsey have to worry that the authorities would consider this stuff as pornography, instead of scientific research?

That was a problem in the 1950s especially. When he started collecting the material, he kept it fairly quiet because people tend to jump to conclusions when they hear about dirty pictures. Today we actually have exhibits of this material, but in his day they certainly did not plan to exhibit it.

In the '50s, the U.S. Customs in Cincinnati decided that the art coming through the mails to the Kinsey Institute was obscene. This led to a court case that in 1957 was decided in our favor saying that even though this material was considered obscene, it was allowed to come to Indiana University to the institute through the mail because it was used for research purposes. The sad thing was Kinsey was very worried that this case might go against the institute and make it impossible to acquire this material. He died in '56. He died before the case was settled so he never knew the outcome. [Pause] Have you heard about the film that's being made?

No. What film is being made?

They're making a feature film about Alfred Kinsey that will be released next fall.

Who's playing him?

Liam Neeson.

Who's playing his wife?

Laura Linney. We're all quite curious to see how that will come out.

So now, talking to you as an art historian, what is the difference between erotic art created by men and erotic art created by women?

That's a good question. We have much more imagery created by men than by women. There were some women in the early part of the 20th century who were working as erotic illustrators -- a couple are featured in the book. One is a really interesting woman named Clare Tice. I think you can tell from that image that she was an artist. [This etching reveals a naked blond man with an uncircumcised penis who is flanked by two naked women of color, kissing the breast of the woman to his left.]

Tice was Caucasian, wasn't she?

As far as I know she was. She lived in Greenwich Village and was one of those eccentric artists who lived there in the teens and '20s. One thing that is interesting about her is that the Society for the Suppression of Vice actually tried to confiscate her material, and the event got her more notoriety and helped her career rather than damage her in any way.

Her women aren't all African-Americans, are they?

This may be the only one. Most of our images in the book feature Caucasian models. Where we could, we tried to bring examples of non-Caucasian women.

One image that has gone mainstream is the Judy Dater photo of a naked man nuzzling the breast of a naked pregnant woman -- the idea of pregnancy being erotic.

I always credit that to Demi Moore's famous Vanity Fair cover.

But Judy Dater took her photograph more than a quarter-century before.

I was thrilled that we have this one because our complete name is the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. By far, 99 percent of our artwork deals with sexuality but does not deal with reproduction.

Do you have any children?

I do not.

Can you tell me, ballpark, how old you are?

I'm 46, to be specific.

Guess what, so am I. Do you know the pinnacle of the baby boom? It's wasn't just after World War II. It was 1957 and 1958 when more babies were born than ever before or after. You and I are quintessential baby boomers. [Pause] Eroticism is sort of the antithesis of what reproduction is for -- reproduction.

When you see a lot of these images you don't really think about making babies.

Well, the first plate in the book is of a baby being born, the point of all this activity.

That's why we included it. All during 2003 the Institute celebrated women's sexuality in honor of the 50th anniversary of "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female." For many women, sexuality includes childbirth. A lot of the work by male artists focuses on genitalia more so than the works by women. I think things are changing. We have a lot of gay and lesbian images in our collection. The images of men with men, much of that was produced by men who were gay. Much lesbian imagery was produced by men for other men.

I should have said this earlier, I don't have kids. This is a deliberate decision between me and my wife. So babies have never been part of my sexuality. [Pause] Is your sexuality important to mention?

I don't really think so. I am with a woman, but I don't think that makes a difference of my being a curator here.

One of the interesting laments of being my age is that in the late 1970s, girls were sexuality very active, but they were liberated. There was this real sense that eroticism was sexist.

In the 1970s, women's studies became very popular. It was something you took classes in, and argued about. And pornography was seen as very, very bad. [Chuckles] Anti-woman, and all that. Especially before AIDS arrived and put a damper on things, there was a lot of sexual freedom, but in a way some closed-mindedness in how you viewed sexuality and imagery. I think if you told me at 19 I would end up being a curator for an erotic art collection I would have been quite surprised. As you know, having lived a few decades since then, you do mellow with age.

And I realized the world is not as black and white as it seems when you're 18. People are still arguing, "What is pornography?" We don't go there here. We have images here that are certainly pornographic, but people can call Michelangelo's David pornographic because it's frontal male nudity. Everybody has very different ideas of what's pornographic; we just use the word "erotic."

I think one of the most interesting photographs is on Page 128. [A photo of a naked woman from the rear straddling a naked man, her tampon string seen dangling out of her vagina.]

I love that one. "The String." It's great because it shows a bit of real life. If you look at a Playboy, all these perfect bodies, and everything has been airbrushed so there is nothing that resembles what people really look like. This image is showing a couple in their real bedroom. Menstruation is part of everyday life. Laura Letinsky is a good photographer. She's out of Chicago. Her pieces were loaned to us.

That photo implies a narrative. Is she going to remove it so they can have intercourse? Or is this just a tender moment?

A morning kiss before she starts the day. The cup of coffee by the bed.

Or tea. You don't notice this at first, but they are in a canopy bed.

[Pause] Hmm.

I find canopy beds tacky. Bad taste.

[Laughs] I don't know what Martha Stewart says about canopy beds.

I'm sure Martha wouldn't dig this. The photo seems very late 1970s. Women were really upfront about menstruation, not trying to be some pretty girl or something.

That's what I like about Letinsky's photography -- the women aren't pretty girls. The one before that photograph is of parents. That's one we wanted to include because it showed the result of this couple being sexual. Here we show them looking rather exhausted with their kids. Like I say, we don't have many visual examples of actual procreation in our library. This is usually seen as a very separate area from eroticism. But our research goes into all those areas.

We've been doing research on birth control pills. There are quite a lot of women who take birth control pills -- which everyone sees as so convenient, and "what a wonderful invention" -- and yet stop taking them. It appears that some women find it affects their sex drive negatively to be on the pill.

Was there any political fallout from your art show?

None whatsoever. We're quite pleased that we've never had any complaints from our shows. We do put up signage outside stating that there is sexual material inside. "If you don't want to see this, don't come in." That's been sufficient.

There's this assumption that the right wing is about Mom and apple pie and sex belonging behind the locked door of the master bedroom. Have you seen any pressure against the Kinsey Institute?

Yes. There is actually going to be a TV program on our recent research projects. It's going to be on "PrimeTime" sometime next month. We told them our perspective, but you never know how it's going to end up when they air it. We had an ABC news crew here interviewing our researchers and director. The funding for "Mechanisms Influencing Sexual Risk Taking" [A study of how mood affects arousal. When some people are depressed they're more likely to engage in risky sex behavior while other don't want to have sex at all. It's a health issue.] was debated in Congress last summer. Ordinarily we would have had no problem with the funding going through. But because it deals with a sexual topic, they actually voted in Congress whether they should deny the funding. It didn't pass -- the funding went through and they weren't able to stop it. But it came within two votes of passing. Certainly since Kinsey's day there have been times when people haven't been happy with the institute. I'm interested to see what the results of the movie will be.

Certainly it will make people more aware that we're here. Younger people today have never heard of Kinsey. A lot of kids on campus don't know anything about his work or his books or anything. I grew up hearing his name. The "Kinsey Scale" was something that we knew about in college.

What's that?

The Kinsey Scale is a scale from zero to six that you can place yourself on. It goes from heterosexuality to homosexuality. If you're a zero, you are entirely heterosexual. If you're a six, you're entirely homosexual. Kinsey said that all people are not one or the other. They fall somewhere in between. If you're primarily heterosexual but you had an encounter in high school, maybe you're a 1. When I was coming out in '78 in college, that made such sense to us. Why should people be one or the other? There is an illustration on our Web site, if you want to take a look.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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