Anonymous, Man Cross Dressing, mid-20th century Credit: Courtesy of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

By now, thanks to the movie Kinsey (2004) and Showtime’s Masters of Sex, most people are well versed in the story of Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana University professor who collected Americans’ individual accounts of their sexual histories in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Within three years of beginning the project he had collected more than 2,000 personal sexual histories, and by 1947 he had founded the Institute for Sex Research. But Kinsey wasn’t just in pursuit of stories and private experiences—he quickly became interested in how human sexuality was represented in toys, antiquities, and art.

“Once it became known that Kinsey was interested in collecting work of a sexual nature, people started sending things in, because at that time there was no repository for this kind of artwork,” says Rebecca Fasman, art collection consultant at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute.

“Private Eyes: Selected Artwork From the Kinsey Institute Collection,” a touring exhibit that opens on Friday, August 12, at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outside Art, displays some of the homemade erotica that was mailed to Kinsey. The show features drawings, paintings, and sculptures that depict revealing and frequently amusing glimpses into the taboo desires of anonymous artists during a buttoned-up era.

Some pieces are instructional, like the typewritten diagram titled A Guide to the Administration of a Cane, which points out areas of maximum erotic effectiveness on a drawing of a naked woman’s ass. Many of the images are tame by today’s standards, conveying how guarded the culture was at the time. One triptych of illustrations, for example, shows the progression of a man dressing as a woman: the first image is of the man dressed in women’s undergarments, and by the third he’s dressed entirely in women’s clothing. More shocking images in the collection—like a crudely drawn sketch in pencil of a man who thinks he’s having sex with a woman on top of a donkey but is actually penetrating the animal—were possible grounds for arrest.

“Just being in possession of work like this could have potentially been illegal,” Fasman says. “For the artists themselves, to be creating artwork that—if the police came to your house—you could be arrested for it, it becomes a bigger deal than the homemade sex tapes that people make today.”

Beyond their risky creation, the images in “Private Eyes” are enriched by the mysterious personal histories behind each work. Who was the intended audience for A Guide to the Administration of a Cane? Did the artist of the triptych ever actually cross-dress? Was the donkey sketch based on its creator’s actual experience or hidden desire? It’s the unknown aspects of these pieces that may suggest why Kinsey felt compelled to collect sexual histories in the first place.  v