BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Unfounded claims about Indiana University’s sex research institute, its founder and child sex abuse have been so persistent over the years that when the Legislature prohibited the institute from using state dollars, one lawmaker hailed the move as “long overdue.”
The decision, largely symbolic, does not halt the Kinsey Institute’s work, ranging from studies on sexual assault prevention to contraception use among women. But researchers tell The Associated Press the Republican-dominated Legislature’s February decision is based on an enduring, fundamental misunderstanding of their work — a false narrative that they, despite efforts to correct such misinformation, cannot shake.
Funding from the university remains unclear, but Zoe Peterson, senior scientist and director of the Sexual Assault Research Initiative at the Kinsey Institute, will continue her inquiries into consent and those who perpetrate sexual assault.
Contrary to what conspiracy theorists claim about the institute, “I’ve devoted my career to reducing sexual violence,” she said.
The Kinsey Institute, about 50 miles (82 kilometers) from Indianapolis on Indiana University's Bloomington campus, is named for Alfred Kinsey, a former professor who established the institute in 1947. He died in 1956.
Kinsey's major works, published in 1948 and 1953, disrupted cultural norms around sex, achieving commercial success and drawing praise, as well as sharp criticism from conservatives who continue to deride the institute.
In part, critics blame such research for wrongly contributing to a greater acceptance of homosexuality and pornography. But they also say there is evidence of child abuse in Kinsey's work, specifically a research table they unfoundedly claim resulted from sexual experiments on children.
“We have child rapists in Indiana prisons right now, yet we’re willing to give Indiana University, Bloomington campus, over $400 million as they protect the legacy of this sexual predator,” said Republican state Rep. Lorissa Sweet, who on Feb. 22 proposed the amendment to prohibit the institute from state funding.
“Who knows what they’re still hiding?” Sweet added.
Such accusations have lingered nearly since the Kinsey Institute’s inception 76 years ago, said Director Justin Garcia. Threats and harassment directed at staff and alumni over the allegations have become frequent, forcing the university to boost security that is already greater than most campus buildings, Garcia said.
“We've long been called ... perverts and sexual predators,” he said. “It’s just so far from reality, and it’s so far from the research practices then, and it’s wildly far from the research practices today.”
The move to block the institute's state dollars was based on “old, unproven” conspiracies, said Democratic Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington.
"These are warmed-over internet memes that keep coming back,” he said before the House vote.
The institute's website touts a lengthy Frequently Asked Questions section to tackle misconceptions, including the sex abuse allegations against Kinsey and contentions of hidden materials in the library.
After the February vote, a new page requests support, such as posting on social media or donating and, where necessary, rectifying false information.
Professor Carolyn Halpern teaches her students about Kinsey in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she said. When she heard about Indiana curtailing Kinsey Institute funding, she thought, “Here we go again.”
“Sexuality research tends to get targeted, often for political reasons,” Halpern said. “It’s another attack on legitimate research.”
Senior scientist Cynthia Graham, who studies sexual behavior among older adults as well as contraceptive use in women, returned to the institute this year after departing in 2004. Back then, when her husband John Bancroft was the director, attacks were frequently rooted in the same kind of misinformation about sex and health that the institute's research has helped dispel, Graham said.
“It reinforces, for me, the importance of the research being done here," she said.
And that research, along with the work of other public colleges and universities, could be at risk as the Legislature uses funding to “dictate” what questions can be asked within a specific program, the institute's director said.
“It’s a chilling precedent," Garcia said, a sentiment shared by Indiana University President Pamela Whitten.
The university is “firmly committed to academic freedom," Whitten said in an April 28 statement. A "thorough legal review” is underway to determine if the university can comply with the law while ensuring research continues, she said.
Garcia said about two-thirds of the institute's funding comes from grants and donations that are subject to change annually. The university would typically fund the rest.
As officials work to understand the law, researchers pursue their projects, gathering in a space where erotic art often adorns the walls of most rooms. The building boasts explicit sketches and sculptures, while vivid photographs of mothers in labor lead into an exhibit featuring a 1984 turquoise poster: “Great Sex! Don't let AIDS stop it,” it reads.
Life-sized Kinsey himself — clad in bowtie, cuffed pants and suit jacket — reposes in a chair just beyond the institute's entrance. Frozen in bronze, he gazes at an empty, transparent resin chair across from him, an inquisitive expression on his carved face, an indecipherable research table in his left hand.
“There’s a lot of openness and transparency," Graham said. “But there’s some people that aren’t going to look at that.”
Arleigh Rodgers is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.