In 2004, I fell in love with Alfred Kinsey. Not the real one, of course, but the character played by Liam Neeson in the movie Kinsey. I didn’t even exactly love Kinsey the character—it was his work organizing and categorizing sexual behavior that I found enchanting. He had an earnest, obsessive devotion to cataloguing erotic experiences that I couldn’t help but admire. Asking questions about human sexuality and developing theories about the answers takes a certain amount of guts, wit, and determination—especially in 1940s-era Southern Indiana.
Seven years later, I started a Master’s in Library Science at Indiana University in Bloomington and began working at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Founded in 1947, a year before the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the center strives to “advance sexual health and knowledge worldwide.” Its collection of over 100,000 photographs, novelty items, paintings, collages, and artifacts is part of accomplishing that goal. I have created cataloging entries for pillow books from Japan, British condoms celebrating the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and ancient scrolls detailing Chinese sexual practices.
I love cataloguing at the Kinsey because it’s my job never to judge. My first task there was to describe a large collection of confiscated San Quentin-created erotica. Inmates in the California prison created erotic images they could experience behind bars using watercolors, parts of mattresses, the backs of moral guidance pamphlets, crayons, and pencils. Their creations demonstrate how limitations can never squash our human capacity for sexual imagination.
While cataloging, I would sometimes pause at drawings of dogs and friendly kitties straight out of a cute animal catalog taking part in sexual situations. The proper cataloging term for this is “zoophilia.” Although the drawings sometimes surprised me, I catalogued everything as objectively as possible.
At first, my Excel sheet descriptions of these items weren’t explicit enough. At my job, it’s important to be as precise as possible when describing sexual acts while sticking to the Kinsey vocabulary. I had a particularly hard time with the artworks that were ambitious in the number of details they depicted. One of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to list or divide Tijuana Bibles, or eight-pagers. Tijuana Bibles were short graphic novels that often included characters like Popeye or Dagwood and Blondie engaged in activities not fit for the Sunday cartoon pages: Olive Oylin a ménage-a-trois with Popeye and Dagwood, or focusing on masturbation without the aid of spinach-enhanced Popeye. Many unusual questions emerged while I catalogued. Typing away at the office, I’d wonder, Does Olive Oyl’s self-pleasure deserve its own row on the spreadsheet?
After adapting to writing about sexually explicit artifacts as a volunteer, I became a paid Art Cataloger in my second year of work. For this position, I was given a list of often-used terms from the official Kinsey list. The Kinsey uses its own vocabulary to catalog items in the library and art collection. Some of the most common words and phrases include penis in art, breast in art, zoophilia, urolagnia, coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexual tea rooms, and the stalwart phrase—women in art. I apply the “women in art” phrase to an image when I’m not sure how else to classify it. This usually means that there is an absence of a sexual act; the woman, not the pleasure, is the subject of the work. There is also a “men in art” phrase. I usually use that category in conjunction with images depicting men in leather or hyper-masculine images designed to create a specific fantasy. The sailor motif, I’ve discovered, has been popular for decades.
I’ve always found satisfaction in organizing items and creating order from chaos. At the Kinsey, I work to classify the undefinable. Kinsey wanted people to feel like they weren’t alone. The process of cataloguing the artifacts in his collection makes me feel like I’m continuing his mission: parts of human identities that might seem strange or even disgusting to some become normal to me.
Among my favorite items I’ve catalogued are a series of photos capturing highway rest stops in upstate New York. These black-and-white photos focus on the places where desire occurs. When I look at them, I think about what locations of desire say about the intimate moments that happened there. And I think back on the locations that exist within my own memory.
Many of the artists who created the items in the Kinsey’s collection are about lofty concepts like desire, love, and connection. The fantasies they depict can also construct reality, because erotic art doesn’t end with the people who create it. The people who look at our collection have the freedom to interpret the fantasies those images portray in the terms of their own, most private desires. And they can do that the way Kinsey would have wanted them to: without shame.
Pamela Pierce worked at the Kinsey Institute while she was earning her Master’s in Library Science from Indiana University. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area and works with students who have been in the foster care system.
Note on the images: All the illustrations in this post are from The Kinsey Institute (www.kinseyinstitute.org).