As Did Kinsey, June Reinisch Takes the Plain Brown Wrapper Off the Study of Sex

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Readers of the Elmira (N.Y.) Star-Gazette had cause for upset last September. Across the top of the newspaper's thrice weekly sex-advice column, called "The Kinsey Report," was a headline proclaiming: "Sexual Activity Has No Effect on Penis Size." Well! Almost faster than it takes to blush, an avalanche of irate phone calls and letters poured into the newsroom, some containing torn-out clippings with "This is filth!" scrawled across them. (The article itself discussed the concern of young males with genital development.) From his besieged office, executive editor Richard Tuttle appealed to United Feature Syndicate, which distributes the column to some 80 newspapers across the U.S. "What do you have to help me climb the barricades?" Tuttle pleaded.

To his rescue came June Machover Reinisch, Ph.D., the new director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and author of the column (though not of the offending headline, which had been composed by a newspaper staffer). Resplendent in a purple pantsuit ("To make sure people will see me") and sounding like Joan Rivers (without the caustic digs), the 41-year-old scholar quickly won over the several hundred Elmirans who crowded into a local college auditorium to hear Reinisch's defense. "She was an incredibly knowledgeable professional," says Dr. Steve Allen Jr., a local physician who, as the son of the comedian, is also a keen judge of stage presence.

Reinisch explained later that her column is no "Dear Abby" with an X rating. All proceeds, in fact, go to the institute. "We don't give advice; we give information—the most basic answers about reproduction that you'd think anyone with an elementary education knows. But people don't know, and that's why adolescents get pregnant."

After the column was launched earlier this year, editor Tom Tuley of the Evansville (Ind.) Press asked his readers: Is a sex column too hot to handle for your family newspaper? The response, Tuley reports, was "overwhelmingly" in Reinisch's favor. "The column is not pornographic," went a typical reply. "It is a serious, honest, scientific approach to sex."

Actually Reinisch was not a bit dismayed by the Elmira fuss. For one thing she is a scholar with solid credentials in both teaching and research. For another, she isn't shy. A self-styled tomboy who still hates to wear skirts, she has been at one time or another, yes, a trainer of dolphins, an airplane saleswoman (she is a licensed pilot and sky diver with 11 jumps to her credit) and a rock-music promoter.

New York City-born and an only child, Reinisch always has had a rambunctious streak. Her mother, a librarian, remembers that June always liked to explore. In Panama, where her father was a U.S. naval officer, her expeditions once led to a tumble into the Canal. A passing sailor fished out the 2½-year-old, covered with mud and missing a shoe. "Fortunately," says her mom, "it was low tide."

Returning to Manhattan (where her father resumed his former job as a fire lieutenant), Reinisch was enrolled in the progressive City and Country School. In the first grade, she discovered a row of jars in the science room containing human fetuses. "You weren't supposed to see them until the third grade," says June, "but I'd take a ladder and climb up and look at them. I knew what they were, and I was fascinated."

In time Reinisch would give nursing school a whirl but withdrew because "I wasn't passive enough to take orders." Instead, she earned an education degree from NYU in 1966, but her life remained full of diversions. She took time off from college to help train dolphins in the Florida Keys and later hied off to St. Thomas, where she fell in love simultaneously with the island, a man and sky diving. Back in New York, she donned miniskirt and silver boots to sing with a rock group called the Seagulls, then migrated into the record industry, becoming for a year promotion director of Sly and the Family Stone. "I enjoyed the scene," Reinisch admits. But as a woman she found advancement in the record business too slow. So in 1969 she decided to return to her earliest interest and entered Columbia graduate school to study developmental psychology and "to earn myself a little respect."

Reinisch was always a slow reader but enjoys near-total recall. One book that was unforgettably imprinted on her mind was The Development of Sex Differences (edited by Eleanor Maccoby), which "started me on the research I'm still doing today."

Determined to emphasize the biological basis of sex differences, she points out, "Male and female are not the same when they are born; the difference is not just between their legs." She adds: "The brains of male and female are different." Fascinated by the influence of sex hormones on the unborn, she studied groups of children whose mothers had taken hormones during pregnancy. She established that "gender role"—that is, one's expression of masculinity and femininity—can be affected by the hormones and drugs taken by the pregnant mother. In administering tests for aggression and personality, for example, Reinisch found that children prenatally exposed to progestin, a synthetic hormone with masculinizing tendencies, were more independent, assertive and self-assured than siblings not so exposed. (Among her more intriguing speculations: A predisposition to homosexuality may be formed by unusual fluctuations in the unborn child's own male hormone production.)

Science, the prestigious research journal, published Reinisch's results in 1981. Her academic reputation was further enhanced by seven years of teaching at Rutgers. Then, in 1982, Reinisch was named to head the Kinsey Institute.

The institute badly needed an infusion of energy and a fresh perspective. In the post-World War II years, Alfred C. Kinsey had all but invented scientific sex research. His studies, based on questionnaires and interviews—some 18,000 in all—painted a picture of bedroom practices that Americans had hardly suspected were so commonplace. Among other things, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) indicated that 37 percent of all men had had at least one homosexual experience (a figure later thought too high). Later Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) reported that half of the 6,000 women interviewed admitted they were not virgins at marriage.

Kinsey's best-selling books brought him fame, but in the Cold War era, he was accused by a Congressional subcommittee of undermining family morality and paving the way for a communist takeover. Foundation support dried up, and after Kinsey's death in 1956, his research institute kept a low profile.

Restoring it to its onetime luster is Reinisch's primary task, though her own life seems complicated enough at the moment. A divorcée whose first marriage lasted four years, she now plans to wed Dr. Leonard Rosenblum, 48. a psycholoaist and Reinisch's colleague on the Kinsey science advisory board. She is already a new mother, having recently adopted a 22-year-old student whose parents are still alive. The procedure is unusual, Reinisch admits, but explains, "Karen felt all her life that she didn't have a loving family. I understand her needs. I also had a need to be a mother, so I feel fulfilled."

Reinisch, an energetic fund-raiser who has brought in $500,000 in giants and donations, has thrown herself into reshaping the work of the Kinsey Institute to emphasize biomedical (as well as sociological) research, and has renamed it the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction to reflect her own interests. Reinisch wants the institute's resources to be used by all scholars and others with legitimate interests. "We collect information, and we want to be available to everyone, whether it's the Moral Majority or the ERA," she says. "We want to be available to people for or against abortion." To Reinisch, "The well of ignorance and fear about sex is still extraordinarily deep and dark in this country." She is determined to flood that ignorance and fear with light.

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