Kinsey Institute Moves Beyond the Study of Sex: Now It’s Love

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Sue Carter, Director of the Kinsey InstituteSome authors speculate about "the healing power of love" in romance novels. C. Sue Carter, the director since November of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, at Indiana University, explains it in molecular-biology journals.

As a pioneer in the field of behavioral neuroendocrinology, she has studied the roles of hormonal processes in how humans act and feel, including in relation to desire and love. She says her four decades of studies convinced her that it makes no sense to view sexuality in isolation from other aspects of human sentience.She reasons: "The same neural substrates that regulate sexual behavior regulate social bonds, regulate how we feel the emotional systems of our body. So, even if you wanted to separate them, it would not be biologically possible."

Taking that perspective has permitted Ms. Carter to explore sex’s relationships, evident or obscure, to such aspects of human experience as the sense of well-being, parenting and other forms of social bonding, and even longevity. And that explains her selection to head the Kinsey Institute.

The zoologist Alfred C. Kinsey opened the institute on the Bloomington campus in 1947. It has since done groundbreaking studies of matters of the heart, and the loins, and for that matter most nooks and crannies of the human body, mind, and emotions. Kinsey conceived of an institute that would explore human sexual behavior by hosting research and housing research materials such as detailed case histories. Its generations of researchers have amassed vast databases on sexuality, but also library collections of print materials, films and videos, and artworks, photographs, and artifacts.

Now, Kinsey trustees and Indiana University administrators have asked Ms. Carter to expand the institute’s research purview from understanding sexual behavior to studying, neurobiologically, "the mechanisms underlying social bonds, love, and other emotions," Jorge José, Indiana’s vice president for research, said in a written statement.

Ms. Carter, who is also a professor of biology at Bloomington, and who most recently was a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says she has no doubt that the study of sexuality is gaining valuable insights from neurobiological perspectives. Many researchers were resisting that approach at the time she began her career; but as she studied the role of the major sex hormones in reproductive behavior in humans and other animals, she quickly realized that they were insufficient. Once she took into account various other hormones, particularly oxytocin and vasopressin, however, "lots of things made sense that, up to that point, just using the classical hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, we couldn't explain."

She has since been prominent among behavioral neuroendocrinologists who have uncovered the roles that oxytocin and vasopressin play not only in sex and intimacy, but also in medical conditions including anxiety and depression, and perhaps in autism and schizophrenia, too.

Particularly of concern to her are the possible unintended consequences of medical interventions using hormones, particularly oxytocin. In its synthetic form, Pitocin, that hormone is widely used to induce labor; Ms. Carter worries that its impact on neural circuits may affect a child’s long-term social capacities and behaviors.

Research into that issue is at the core of one of the two major agenda items she is taking up as she settles in at Kinsey. "I want to create a resource center that will make it possible for other people who are interested in hormones like oxytocin to gain access to methods for measuring and studying those systems," she says. Facilitating that will be her $4.8-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the developmental consequences of birth interventions.

Her other main action item relates to the outcomes of sexual trauma, which she calls "a huge problem on the planet" because little is known about how to mitigate its shattering effects. She says: "We need to understand this at a biological level so we can develop effective treatments and therapies." She adds: "Perhaps by knowing the deep biology better, we can do that."

While researchers associated with the Kinsey Institute have been devoting attention to the issue, "I think we need to put more energy and resources behind those kinds of questions."

In a statement she wrote for colleagues about where she hopes to lead the institute, she says that "in a world increasingly inundated with fear, isolation, and trauma," she would like Kinsey to focus on the science underlying the emerging awareness that for humans, who are inherently social, "the emotional and physical health of our species depend on our capacity to understand and foster positive emotions—such as love—and the processes—such as nurture—that allow love to heal."

By Peter Monaghan for The Chronicle of Higher Education