Kinsey, Sex Research, and the Body of Knowledge: Let's Talk about Sex

By Winkler, Karen | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Kinsey, Sex Research, and the Body of Knowledge: Let's Talk about Sex


Winkler, Karen, Women's Studies Quarterly


In October 2004,1 left my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her grandmother in New Jersey and flew to Indiana to talk about sex at the Kinsey Institute. Sex research, actually, which is not typically as sexy as sex. I had been invited as a postdoctoral fellow of the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction (KI) to participate in a five-day cross-disciplinary conversation with a dozen other fellows about the work we were doing in our fields-American studies, sociology, psychology, anthropology, education, and history.1 A highlight of the conference was to be a screening of the not-yet-released film Kinsey by director Bill Condon (Coppola). The subject of sex is taboo between my mother and me, and I confess that I was deliberately vague to her about the nature of my trip-I said I was meeting with other fellows at Indiana University, covering over the sex part as I've covered my body in front of her since I was eleven or so.

Many women of my generation, who came of age in the 1970s, tended to think of our mothers as prudish and sexually reserved, domestic relics of that conventional decade into which we were born-the fifties. On a certain level, we bought into the popular constructions of the era as all Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best and flattened out the complicating social and cultural forces represented by beatniks, Communists, and early civil rights struggles (not to mention Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry), as well as the sexual revelations of the "Kinsey reports." We were more comfortable viewing our mothers at a safe maternal distance from our own sexually awakening bodies and assuming their ignorance of what passions we were experiencing. My mother was just twenty-three, and her brief marriage to her first husband was already annulled, when the "Kinsey report" on women was published in 1953. I wonder now if she bought Kinsey back then, like so many women, hoping to learn the secrets of sex and marriage. Was it left behind, dog-eared and abandoned, in some small Brooklyn apartment, detritus of her sexual history? I don't recall its title in my preadolescent searches for my parents' secrets among their shelves of paperback novels, lett-wing political essays, and my grandfather's books of Yiddish stories.

Growing up in the sixties, I became familiar with the naked bodies of women other than my mother through photos in the Playboy magazines that a third-grade classmate named Charlie sneaked into school and hid in the small compartment beneath his desk; boys and girls vied for peeks of the centerfolds to learn what sexy was. (Playboy began publication in 1953, the same year Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was released.) In the fourth grade, I'd discovered Masters and Johnson's (1960s heirs to Kinsey's pioneering sexology) Human Sexual Response (1966) covered with brown paper and hidden in my parents' bedroom bookcase on the second floor of their suburban house. I'd just learned the rudiments of sex from a dirty joke told in the cloakroom by a girl in my class, and I remember the joke and the book as mainly exciting but also unsettling. (Punch line: "Fa(r)ther! Fa(r)ther!" the girl called out for her dad [spoken with a thick, southern drawl]. "What do you think, I got a six-foot dick?!" said the man in her bed.) My image of my mother could not admit then, and can hardly more now, of a sexual life for her.

In preparation for our first separation of more than a day, my daughter and I made a calendar decorated with photos of us together, drawings of airplanes for Mommy's going and coming, and many farm animal stickers stuck in the center of a cut-out map of the United States: Indiana. Born at the tail end of the baby boom, I came to parenting late and single, influenced by the movements for sexual liberation and women's rights that were fed by Kinsey's research. …

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