Studying the relevance of the Kinsey Institute in the Sexual History of India

The digital resource of the Kinsey Institute-

As a part of my project for the summer, I have been looking at the role played by the Kinsey Institute in the history of sexual science in India in the period between the 1940s and the 1980s. This project is a part of my larger dissertation project on the history of sexual science in India. The dissertation project has a broader temporal scope spanning from the 1880s into the second half of the 20th century. However, for this summer project, I have chosen to restrict myself to the Kinsey Institute primarily due to the availability of digitized archival material made accessible by the institute. There are 548 files with multiple documents referencing India in the digital archives of the Institute. I have not been able to study all of them, until now, but based on my study of roughly half the documents, I have been able to categorize them under three broad themes.

The first theme under which I have categorized the sources is related to sexology conferences that were organized both in the US and India between the 1960s and 80s. The most prominent conference which witnessed participation by psychologists and sexologists from all over the world was the 7th World Conference on Sexology. It was widely covered in the press. Subjects included for discussion in the conference varied widely ranging from the usual discussions on sexual disorders, venereal diseases, and sexual categories to more contextual topics such as the necessity of sex education in India.

A newsletter of the Indian Association of announcing the 7th World Conference of Sexology in the “Land of Kamasutra.”

The next group of sources that I have come across refer to letters written by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Indians interested in sexual science requesting for books and materials. Among the requests from India most seem to complain about the lack of access to material that would address topics covered by sexology and sex ed. Many of the Indians are doctors, academics and some also claim to be individual activists of sexual science and sex. There are multiple requests for the Kinsey’s reports and permission to translate and publish them in India, most of which are denied. From the point of view of the Kinsey Institute a lot of interest in India emerges out of a curiosity with erotic sculptures and the transsexuals known as hijras in India, almost along the lines of an Orientalist perspective on sexuality in India. The Indians who write to the Kinsey institute requesting books and other materials are often times asked by the researchers to reciprocate their gesture by sending some photographs and other textual material from India. In this context one letter written by Paul Gebhard, who succeeded Kinsey as the director of the Institute in 1956 is interesting and significant. It refers to the US customs department seizing erotic sculptures and painting and therefore requests photographs to be sent in regular sized envelopes and ensure that they are not too heavy.

Paul Gebhard, the director of the Kinsey Institute requesting research material on “eunuchs” in India

The third group of sources that I wanted to highlight are requests by individuals from India wishing to seek sex advice or research fellowships at the institute. One question that I had was why would somebody experiencing sexual problems in India want to write to the Kinsey Institute in Indiana seeking a remedy? Most of these requests came from Indians who were travelers and had visited Europe or North America. One of them was a man about to get married but he had been experiencing premature ejaculation and had not found help among Indian sexologists. He had come to know of the Kinsey Institute during his travels in Europe and wrote to them hoping to get a solution. Another individual, M A Hai, from Hyderabad was a doctor visiting the United States and he went on to personally meet Kinsey and also participated in research workshops with him. Later letters written by Hai from India reveal that he wanted to carry out sexual surveys to find out where the “Oriental man” was different in his sexual response from the American male.

One of the letters written by Kinsey to Hai, where he even expresses an interest to visit India someday.

A conspicuous absence from the sources that I have studied until now has been the voices of women. We known that female sexuality was a part of Kinsey’s research and the second volume of his sex survey published in 1953 was dedicated to it. However, women or the subject of female sexuality has not been a part of the sources that I have studied until now. In the broader history of sexual science in India, male actors undoubtedly outnumbered women, but women were not entirely absent. There have been indigenous Ayurvedic practitioners such as Yashoda Devi in the United Provinces in the 1920s and 30s who wrote extensively on sexuality. Birth control activists such as Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes have also been interested in India. As I continue to explore more of these sources, I would like to see whether the silence around female sexuality is recurrent all through the sources. Though, I should mention here that my search due to the present circumstances is only restricted to the digitized material.

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About Arnav Bhattacharya

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. My dissertation tentatively titled, "Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India(1880-1960)" explores the history of sexual science in India, particularly exploring the ways in which sexual science interacted with medicine, public health, and hygiene and, sex education to formulate the sexual identities and experiences of modern Indians. More generally I am broadly interested in the history of South Asia, colonialism, nationalism, medicine, gender, and the global history of sexual science.