Sexual Science in post colonial and contemporary India and the role of the Kinsey Institute

I have been working on the role played by the Kinsey Institute in the history of sexual science in post-colonial and contemporary India. My decision to work on the Kinsey Institute specifically was prompted by the accessibility of digitized archives of the institute. As I near the end of my research, I am glad that I undertook the project. Though the project started as being centered on the significance of the Kinsey Institute in Indian sexual history, I have been able to use the sources to paint a broader picture about the wider history of sexual science during this period. This project has also helped to broaden the temporal scope of my dissertation project which I had initially thought of concluding by the late 1950s or early 60s at the latest. But having found a significant number of sources from the 1980s and later, I have been convinced to extend my study further into the contemporary history of sexuality in India.

In my last post, I had raised a question relating to the conspicuous absence of women from the correspondences sent to or by the Institute and or even generally when it came to discussions on sexuality in India in the Kinsey institute archives. Having gone through a few more files, I did come across references to female sexologists who participated in the 7th World Sexology Conference which took place in Delhi in 1985. The event, as I mentioned in my last post, was widely covered by the press. The Philadelphia Inquirer interestingly ran a feature on it as a number of sexologists from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSSS), based in Philadelphia, participated in the conference. The female sexologist chose to remain anonymous as she commented on the total absence of any sexual rights that women enjoyed in the developing worlds of Africa and Asia. Though the aim of the conference was to reduce the stigma surrounding sexuality and introduce a discourse on sex education, the Indian media appeared scandalized by the fact that the word ‘sex’ was used ten  thousand times a day during the conference and chose not to cover it. The stigma surrounding sex and the conference also resulted in the then health minister, Mohsina Kidwai “respectfully” declining an invitation to inaugurate the conference on account of being Muslim and a woman.

The Philadelphia Inquirer feature on the 7th World Sexology Conference, New Delhi, 1985.

Apart from the conference, I also came across an interesting letter written to the Kinsey Institute by Professor H.C Ganguli, who had established the Psychology Department in Delhi University in 1964. Ganguli wanted to spearhead a research on sexuality at Delhi University and wrote to the Institute in 1967 requesting material beyond Kinsey’s reports. Ganguli was particularly interested to know more about the methodology employed by Kinsey and his colleagues as he was beginning to devise a similar study in India. Facts such as these have given me another anchor to conduct further research study in India and know more about the history of sexual science in the post-colonial context.

Harish Chandra Ganguli
Professor H.C. Ganguli(1924-2013)

Another interesting aspect of sexology emerged as I read through a correspondence between the Institute and a biographer of Sir Richard Burton. Burton was a colonial officer and ethnographer who had travelled through the British Empire and was posted in Sindh in 1844. He would later establish the Hindoo Kamashastra Society in London along with F.F. Arbuthnot and translate into English, among other works, the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights. Burton came up with the theory of the “Sotadic Zone” which was a geographical zone right from the Mediterranean and the Middle East up to the South China sea in the east which included South Asia. According to Burton inhabitants of this zone were particularly licentious and predisposed to homosexuality. Burton interestingly cited an Italian sexologist of the times to “prove” how the nerve endings of the genitals of the inhabitants of the Sotadic Zone were connected to their anal region which explained their predisposition to homosexuality. Byron Farwell, as he wrote a biography of Burton in the 1960s wrote to the Kinsey Institute asking whether there was any truth to Burton’s ideas about the sexuality of the “oriental races.” Paul Gebhard, who was the director of the Institute from 1956 onward replied to Farwell stating that Burton’s views could be attributed to cultural and colonial bias rather scientific facts. What was interesting to me in this exchange was the way in which sexology was used by both Byron and Burton for truth making claims about sexuality albeit in different contexts.

Richard Francis Burton - Wikipedia
Richard Burton

As I wrap up this summer project and prepare my final presentation, I will be highlighting the findings I made by accessing these sources from the archives of the Kinsey Institute and how it will fit into my larger project on the history of sexual science in modern and contemporary South Asia.

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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.