Indiana blocks world’s top sex research center from state funds: ‘a scary moment for academic freedom’

<span>Protesters unfurl a scroll with 5,500 petition signatures against a plan to separate the Kinsey Institute from Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana, on 8 November 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian/Alamy</span>
Protesters unfurl a scroll with 5,500 petition signatures against a plan to separate the Kinsey Institute from Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana, on 8 November 2023.Photograph: Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian/Alamy

The future of the Kinsey Institute, the world’s premier sex research center, is in limbo.

Last April, lawmakers in Indiana’s Republican-dominated state legislature voted to block the Kinsey Institute from receiving any state funds through Indiana University (IU), which houses the institute. Its researchers have spent the months since scrambling to figure out what this means for their work – and Indiana University, they say, has largely left them out of the discussion.

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The outcome of the skirmish over the Kinsey Institute and Indiana University will signal whether conservative lawmakers can dictate the bounds of academic research into human sexuality, at a time when far-right politicians are rushing to exert unprecedented control over what is taught in schools and universities around the country.

A proposal, to be voted on by Indiana University’s board of trustees this week, will determine the institute’s fate. Researchers haven’t seen the proposal. But they’re worried it will look like an earlier plan put forward by the university that would spin the institute’s research and education arms out into a non-profit organization while keeping the Kinsey Institute’s storied library of 600,000-plus papers, photos, and artifacts that capture 2,000 years of human sexuality.

That split, researchers say, is unacceptable.

“It leaves Kinsey kind of hollow and vulnerable,” said Zoe Peterson, director of the Kinsey Institute Sexual Assault Research Initiative. “We are not the only group on campus that is vulnerable, either. I think if the administration doesn’t stand up for and fight for the Kinsey Institute, it might open the doors for the state to try and crack down or control other departments or organizations on campus.”

The Kinsey Institute’s research into sex and sexuality has ignited controversy for decades, but this latest battle places it at the white-hot center of a national debate over schools, sexuality, and gender. Nationwide, hundreds of bills have been introduced in recent years aiming to ban certain topics from K-12 schools and universities. Since last year, instruction on issues relating to sex and gender has topped the rightwing’s target list.

But the primary goal of Kinsey Institute, unlike many of the targets of those bills, is research. Its scholars investigate issues like sexual assault, disability and sexual health, and the history of human sexuality.

“Our mission, and the mission of all serious research institutions, is to ask questions about our world, our society, and ourselves. Across every field, the pursuit of answers through research is how we expand our understanding,” Justin Garcia, the institute’s executive director, said in a statement.

“Dr Kinsey knew this is the way knowledge works, which is why he created the institute with a mission of bringing light to darkness. Now more than ever that vision needs defenders.”

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In response to questions about the future of the Kinsey Institute, a spokesperson for Indiana University said that the university “remains steadfastly committed to the uninterrupted scholarship and research of the Kinsey Institute and its world-class faculty”.


Alfred Kinsey, the famous sexologist, was a professor at Indiana University who got his start studying the biology of wasps. But in 1938, Kinsey was asked to teach Indiana University students a “Marriage and Family” course – where he realized that students were bewildered about what constituted “normal” sexuality. Inspired, Kinsey assembled a research team and, over the course of several years, collected case studies of more than 10,000 Americans’ sex lives, most of whom were white.

In 1948, Kinsey released a 804-page scientific treatise, entitled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, that became a national sensation, spending 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. When its follow-up, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was published five years later, American readers also gobbled it up. Taken together, these reporters constituted “the most elaborate description of the sexual habits of ordinary white Americans ever assembled”, in the words of John D’Emilio and Estelle B Freedman’s book Intimate Matters, an influential history of US sexuality.

Kinsey’s findings clashed explosively with popular beliefs around sex and relationships. Around the midpoint of the 20th century, the United States had pedestaled the ideal of a harmonious marriage between a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife, with the median marriage age at a record low. But Kinsey discovered that white picket fences didn’t curtail people’s libidos. His report found almost 90% of men had had premarital sex, that half had had extramarital sex – that is, affairs – and more than a third had had homosexual experiences.

“Fully 95% had violated the law at least once on the way to orgasm,” D’Emilio and Freedman wrote in Intimate Matters.

In addition to his interviews, Kinsey amassed materials that depicted expressions of sex and sexuality, such as novels, films and photography. These materials would go on to form the beginning of what is now the Kinsey Institute Collections. Today, those collections include papers from the sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson – who pioneered research into the female orgasm – and the diaries of early transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen.

Many of the materials, though, chronicle the sex lives of ordinary people, said Judith Allen, an Indiana University professor who has written a history of the Kinsey Institute.

“One of the most amazing things in there is letters from the general public, what we call the Dear Dr Kinsey letters. They’re written after people have either read an article about Kinsey or indeed have been interviewed by him, and they write to him some of the most poignant posts,” Allen said. “A lot of it is about either sexual ignorance or women reporting the most devastating stories, like husbands coming back from the war who can’t sexually operate effectively.”

These collections remain accessible to scholars, as well as the public, and continue to absorb new materials.

“This is a living archive,” said Sarah Knott, a history professor and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “The materials … are in active use pedagogically and in terms of research, so that we continue to understand the world that we live in now and the world that we’ve come from.”


The move to block the Kinsey Institute from receiving state dollars arose after a Republican state legislator in 2023 alleged that Alfred Kinsey sexually preyed on children.

“Who knows what they are still hiding? Could they be hiding child predators? If there’s any place where Chris Hansen needs to catch a predator, it’s Indiana University,” said the legislator, state representative Lorissa Sweet, in a reference to the host of the show To Catch a Predator.

Another state legislator dismissed Sweet’s unproven allegations as “warmed-over internet memes that keep coming back”. Most of the information in Alfred Kinsey’s reports that dealt with children came from adults recalling their own childhood, while some came from teachers and parents who had observed children. However, Alfred Kinsey also included information from a man who said he had molested more than 300 children.

Allegations that people who work in or around sex education are sexual abusers or “groomers” now run rampant in US politics. In 2022, when Florida banned classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, the press secretary for Florida governor Ron DeSantis said that anyone who opposed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law was “probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children”. (The word “groomer” also has a history of being levied against LGBTQ+ people, out of a false accusation that they target children.)

After the state legislator surfaced the allegations against Alfred Kinsey, the Kinsey Institute staffers were bombarded by an avalanche of social media messages, emails, and calls – seen by the Guardian – that accused them of supporting child abusers or of being abusers themselves.

“Your fucking degeneracy has affected every aspect of American fucking culture,” one caller told the Kinsey Institute in a voicemail shared with the Guardian. In a three-minute-long tirade, the caller repeatedly said that it’s a “good thing I don’t live in Bloomington”, Indiana, where the Kinsey Institute is located.

“But you’re not in a desert over there, and there’s other people who live around you,” the caller continued. “And I’m not the only one who fucking feels this way. Does that mean I’m trying to get someone to do harm to you? No. But, again, you’re digging your own fucking grave.”

In response to the harassment, the Kinsey Institute dramatically scaled up its security.


In response to the state legislature’s move to strip the Kinsey Institute of state dollars, Indiana University has publicly proposed restructuring the institute’s relationship with the university – but it has been less than forthcoming with details, researchers say.

Back in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey developed the organization that would become the Kinsey Institute as an entity separate from university in part to shield it from political attacks. Indiana University long financially supported the institute, however, and in 2016 absorbed it fully.

Although Indiana University has publicly said it wants to turn the institute into a non-profit, the implications of doing so are unclear, according to a document by a working group, convened by Indiana University provost Rahul Shrivastav to offer advice on what to do with the Kinsey Institute. The working group, which included institute faculty members, worried that separating the institute from the university would leave it unprotected against future attacks.

The Kinsey Institute collections would also be left more vulnerable if Indiana University takes control of them, said Kinsey Institute senior scientist Cynthia Graham, who worries that state legislators will want to eradicate the collections next.

“I think it’s going to increase the likelihood that they’re going to come after us with something bigger next because the administration are basically giving in to them,” Graham said.

Instead of forming a non-profit, the working group proposed that Indiana University accept an “accounting solution” to route state dollars away from the institute.

Although the university administration has hosted listening sessions about what to do with the institute, Graham believes that administrators have repeatedly dodged the questions of Kinsey Institute faculty and staff.

“There’s a huge lack of transparency here,” Graham said. “We feel very powerless.”

In a statement, Shrivastav thanked the working group for its recommendations and recognized the “spread of misinformation that impugns the integrity and character of our colleagues”.

“The board of trustees will consider the feedback from the working group as the university determines a path forward,” Shrivastav said. “I want to emphasize that everyone involved in this process seeks to protect and promote the work of the Kinsey Institute – in perpetuity at IU.”


An entirely different threat to Kinsey Institute researchers, and the rest of the university’s faculty, is on the horizon: the state legislature last week advanced a bill that hands university board of trustees the power to evaluate tenure appointments every five years for “criteria related to free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity” – effectively erasing the point of tenure.

Indiana isn’t alone in 2023, at least six states introduced nine bills to undermine tenure, according to the American Association of University Professors. Tenure has long been believed to be essential to academic freedom, since it allows higher-education faculty to pursue potentially controversial work without fear of repercussions.

Indiana University president Pamela Whitten said in a statement that while the university was still evaluating the Indiana bill, she was “deeply concerned” that it would put “academic freedom at risk, weaken the intellectual rigor essential to preparing students with critical thinking skills and damage our ability to compete for the world-class faculty who are at the core of what makes IU an extraordinary research institution”.

“It’s a scary moment in general for academic freedom,” said Melissa Blundell Osorio, a research assistant at the Kinsey Institute and a PhD student. “There are people who are just uncomfortable in general with the idea of research into sexuality.”