Some distressing bullshit to kick off the week: USA Today profiles the new head of the famed Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. The piece is sunny and upbeat but it's packed with bad news for anyone interested in sex research and/or conducting sex research (particularly those conducting sex research at the Kinsey Institute):
Under the aegis of a new director who took the Kinsey helm just over a year ago, the Kinsey Institute is reframing itself. Where once research into sex, gender and reproduction formed the backbone of the institute’s work, now love, sexuality and well-being will take center stage, director Sue Carter says. What helps people form positive, intimate relationships? How does the body react to traumatic sexual experiences? How do hormones influence our sexual experiences? “We’re not dropping sex, gender and reproduction. We’re just trying to make it a little more clear that this is in a context of psychological and emotional functions and health benefits,” said Carter, who has devoted the bulk of her career to studying hormones’ effects on a variety of behaviors, including sex and love...
Carter's career focused on sex and love among prairie voles. And now, as the new head of Kinsey Institute, Carter wants the institute to focus on research that is "unequivocally important." And what does she define as important? You'll never guess:
[Carter has] a clear agenda for what the institute might pursue as it neared its eighth decade. “I think human sexuality must be viewed in the context of relationships,” she said. “Just working on sexual behavior to me is not sufficient. We need to understand how sex affects sex and how relationships affect sex.”
Yeah, no. Not all human sexuality exists in the context of relationships. You can argue, if you're a moralist, that human sexuality should only be expressed in the context of a relationship. But that is a moral position, not a scientific one.
The idea that sex must always be yoked to some other, higher, nobler purpose—Jesus-y marriage, procreation, "healthy relationships"—is blinkered, sex-negative wishful thinking. So is the idea that sex research must be yoked to some higher, nobler purpose. Sex has its own reasons, its own purposes, and its own logic. Sex is older, stronger, and more powerful than we are. Sex built us—natural selection and sexual reproduction created us over hundreds of millions of years—and not all sexual behaviors/desires can be understood through the filter Carter wants to cram down the throats of the researchers and staff at the Kinsey Institute.
Substituting "healthy relationships" for "procreation" to signify legitimate sexual activity—legitimately expressed and/or legitimately studied—is controlling, fear-based, sex-negative denial tarted up in progressive/empathetic drag. It's the same controlling, fear-based, sex-negative bullshit Alfred Kinsey founded the institute to combat!
Back to USA Today:
For most of her life, Carter has studied prairie voles. Unlike most other mammals, these voles pair-bond. Previously, researchers had shown that a hormone called oxytocin, known to be released during birth and breast-feeding, induced maternal behavior when injected in rats. Oxytocin also was known to be released during sex, though no one knew why. Carter showed that in prairie voles, the release of oxytocin during sex leads to a preference for that mate. This finding has implications not only for the prairie vole but for humans as well.
“This is practical information, because if you release oxytocin when you’re around someone or when you’re with someone, you really should be very careful that this is someone you want to spend time with, because you could in a sense induce a kind of not totally conscious preference,” Carter said
Be afraid, kids, be very afraid. Never have an orgasm in the presence of someone—or something (shout out to the objectosexuals!)—you wouldn't want to spend the rest of your life with because... oxytocin and prairie voles and rats, oh my! Alice says it best...
1. Not all sex involves another person.
2. People are not voles.
3. There is nothing wrong with consensual sex outside of pair bonds.
— Alice Dreger (@AliceDreger) February 15, 2016
There's nothing wrong with consensual sex outside of pair bonds. And there are times when casual consensual sex outside a pair bond can benefit/strengthen a bonded pair. (We hear about cheating when it destroys a relationship, we rarely hear about cheating—actual cheating, DADT agreements, ethical non-monogamy—when it saves a relationship.) Even so: Not all sexual behavior, not all sexual desire, and not all sex acts involve another person; not all sexual behavior, desire, acts, etc., are about forging or strengthening pair bonds.
There's the sex people actually have and then there's the sex people think people should have. The Kinsey Institute was founded to study the former. Carter wants Kinsey to pimp for the latter. Even more troubling: Carter's pseudo-scientific/pseudo-empathetic moralizing plays right into the hands of the kind of conservative politicians who have been trying to kill the Kinsey Institute for decades. It was already hard enough for sex researchers to find grants and now, with the head of the Kinsey Institute saying that the only legit sex research is that which focuses on "health benefits" (and pushes both fear of sex and the monogamous/pair-bonded ideal), that funding is going to be even harder to come by.
One last detail from USA Today:
A limestone sculpture of what Carter describes as a “homunculus” of a man faces the wall. She turns him around to reveal a giant phallus. Carter said she prefers to keep the sculpture’s private parts out of view lest any visitors become offended.
A better idea: people who are offended by the sight of a phallus shouldn't visit the Kinsey Institute and any visitor who takes offense should be directed to the nearest emergency exit. And here's hoping Carter is out the door soon too.