Widener scholars enhancing sex archive

"Students can look at these things and see . . . how our attitudes have changed," archivist Molly Wolf says.
"Students can look at these things and see . . . how our attitudes have changed," archivist Molly Wolf says. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 19, 2011

The Widener University scholars who are amassing a growing archive of materials on human sexuality have an ambitious goal: Bigger than Kinsey's.

Pun intended.

The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University is, of course, the premier academy for sex and gender research. But now Widener, based in Chester, is striving to become a major center of sexuality studies, expanding its master's and doctoral programs and attracting students from across the country and around the world.

"The work of our faculty and graduates positively affects public health and well-being across the globe," Widener president James Harris III said. "While other programs have collapsed due to a lack of support, our program has grown in degree offerings and number of students, attracting the best and brightest."

The school celebrated the recent opening of the archive, in the Wolfgram Memorial Library, by hosting a series of provocative speakers under the heading "Sex in the Library." (Tagline: "We're doing it all week long.") Topics ranged from teen sexting to "gender outlaws" for whom male-or-female is an insufficient choice.

The rectangular fourth-floor repository is tucked between a quiet study area and the dense racks of children's books used by students studying to become teachers.

What's in it? Posters from 1970s porn films. X-rated movies. Doctors' waiting-room pamphlets from the 1940s, in which sex occurred only between white, married, heterosexual couples. A signed galley proof of The Human Pony, which, trust us, you really don't want to know about.

"Students can look at these things and see a history of sexuality, of sex education - the culture, the prejudices, how our attitudes have changed, how have they not changed," said Molly Wolf, the archive founder and curator, and a graduate of the sexuality master's program.

A particular prize is an original, stapled-together copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which before its huge popularity in the 1970s was called Women and Their Bodies and sold for 75 cents.

"It's a seminal text," Wolf said. "No pun intended."

Awkward jokes and double entendres seem almost mandatory in any discussion of sex - and that's fine, she said. It helps lower the tension around the subject.

Widener arranged its sexuality program to encourage immersion, citing studies that show longer exposure makes students more comfortable and open to learning.

Classes are held all day Saturday and Sunday on two weekends so students can complete a semester's coursework in a four-day marathon, augmented by online instruction and other assignments.

That lure has drawn working students from Austin, Atlanta, San Diego, Seattle, and elsewhere. They fly in at the start of the weekend, and fly out at the end.

"I get calls and e-mails every single day - 'Can I commute from North Dakota?' " said professor Betsy Crane, the program director.

In three years, the program has grown from 130 to 212 students. Full-time faculty has increased from two to six in four years.

Full-time students can complete a master's degree in two years, and a doctorate in a minimum of five years, which is typical at U.S. colleges.

Widener scholars explore not just the function of the body and the desires of the brain, but the impact on sexual behavior of chronic illness, trauma, social norms, and cultural expectations, examining how sexuality seeps into everything from government to religion.

There's no area of human life "that on one hand is more capable of joy and connection, and on the other hand is so often associated with violence and pain and suffering," Crane said.

For graduates, the rise of sexually transmitted disease, calls for same-sex marriage, greater awareness of sexual abuse, and the battle over birth control and abortion have created employment opportunities. They find jobs not only in teaching but in criminology, social services, counseling, and health.

One graduate, sex therapist Tiffanie Davis-Henry, is a frequent guest on the television show The View, and was recently named cohost of a new ABC self-help program, The Revolution.

Ryan McKee, 33, a doctoral student, became interested in social movements such as civil rights and gay rights while earning a master's degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. But it was a class on human sexuality, he found, that connected those issues and spurred him toward a Ph.D.

At Widener, he has found "professors and colleagues that are incredibly supportive, and a university that's incredibly supportive. It's a subject that in many programs gets dumped on the person who teaches abnormal psychology, or addictions, but here we've developed a really supportive environment for training professionals."

Widener was his first choice for a doctorate. In fact, it was his only choice.

In recent years, financial pressures have pushed colleges to merge stand-alone sexuality programs into medical-school curriculums or psychology departments. With the merger of a University of Sydney program, Widener officials believe they offer one of a very few, if not the only, fully accredited, university-based doctoral programs.

Widener, a 6,464-student liberal arts and sciences college with its main campus in Chester, might seem an odd choice for sexuality studies. And in fact the program originated elsewhere, at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s.

But in the mid-1990s, an outside review determined Penn was running too many doctoral programs, and plans were made to merge sexuality into another department, said William Stayton, who spent years on the faculty there.

Instead, the sexuality faculty, with Penn's blessing, began looking for a new home. In 1999, the program moved to Widener in a transition led by Stayton, an American Baptist minister and sex scholar who ran the relocated entity through its infancy.

"This was my baby, if you will," he said.

The archive started almost by accident.

Over the years, as Wolf went through donations to the Wolfgram library, she found sexuality materials that didn't fit the regular catalog but that were too valuable or interesting to throw out. She stored them in her office in a growing pile - "all this material that tells the story of sexology in the Untied States."

Word spread. Stayton donated thousands of books, films, and papers. Much more came from agencies such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Now students and researchers can peruse holdings such as The Human Pony, which, if you must know, is an illustrated, how-to guide for people who like to be outfitted in steel-and-leather harnesses and trained like horses.

Wolf already foresees a day when the archive will need more space.

"It's growing a little bit at a time," she said.

But, really, bigger than Kinsey's?

"We can't compete with the Kinsey Institute," Wolf conceded. "They have the Kinsey data. But I want everything else."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or @JeffGammage on Twitter.

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