Giovanna Breu
February 21, 1977 12:00 PM

When he was growing up, “sex was dirty, something to be snickered at, and you’d rather confess to leprosy than sexual dysfunction,” Dr. Paul Gebhard recalls. “We were intolerant as hell. If a high school student was known even to have had a homosexual experience, he was branded for life. Now nobody gets excited about it.”

Perhaps no one knows more about America’s changing sex mores than Gebhard, 59, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University. There, for the past 21 years, he has directed the work of the Institute for Sex Research, founded by the late Alfred Kinsey.

Things have quieted down considerably at the institute since the first Kinsey report sent shock waves across America in the late ’40s. Gebhard, a gentle-mannered scholar, likes it that way. He and his staff still have painful memories of McCarthy-era hysteria, when the work of the institute was assailed in Congress for undermining traditional American morality.

Although Kinsey died in 1956, the institute continues as the largest organization in the country devoted exclusively to sex research. (Masters and Johnson’s Reproductive Biology Research Foundation is basically “clinical.”) Among current institute projects are studies of homosexuality in Chicago and San Francisco and a report on high school sex education.

Have there been real changes in sexual attitudes? “A bedrock conservatism and the double standard are alive and well,” Gebhard concedes. “Only among the young is there a tendency to be more tolerant. Although everyone talks about it, the only ‘sexual revolution’ has been in the mass media. Censorship is dissolved, and the mass media are having a holiday.”

Gebhard boasts that he and his staff “wouldn’t walk across the street to see an X-rated movie.” They don’t have to. Crammed into their quarters in a well-worn campus building is a sex library of some 36,000 books, 1,600 stag films and countless photos and “art objects”—the biggest library of erotica in the world. Curiously, there are no sex jokes in the collection. “Kinsey hated them,” says Gebhard, adding, “At every party I provide an excuse for people to tell me the obligatory sex joke, and I get tired of them.”

Born in Rocky Ford, Colo. (his family’s business was packinghouses and feedlots), Gebhard himself had a “standard, miserable sex education”—meaning none. “My mother felt that anything even close to sex was vulgar,” and it wasn’t until freshman anthropology at the University of Arizona that “it dawned on me that a lot of people didn’t share my middle-class philosophy.” He earned a Harvard Ph.D. and then went to work as a researcher-interviewer for Kinsey, ultimately succeeding his mentor.

Gebhard will not reveal any results of the homosexual survey yet but points out that “society has not made sexual provisions for its young. We’ve got a bunch of pubescent males and females, 11, 12 and 13, and society does not even want them to date, never mind working out any kind of sexual relationship. This is a good breeding ground for homosexuality.”

Gebhard was married at 21 and divorced 26 years later. (“A quarter century is a long damn time. We both changed.”) Both his daughters, Jan, 24, and Karla, 22, serve in the Navy, and his son, Mark, 26, lives with him in his lakeside home near Bloomington.

“Everyone thinks this is a fascinating, exotic job,” Gebhard says, “but there’s a lot of hard work and tedium, like doing hand tabulations of computer printouts.” Still, his is a pioneering effort and he wouldn’t trade it. “Sex research is out of its infancy,” he says, “but barely into adolescence.”

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