Not long ago, I rolled up to the dead end of an industrial strip with a clinical sexologist named Laurie Bennett-Cook and an information-studies Ph.D. candidate named Bri Watson. Just inside a combination-controlled rolling gate, past a loudly barking dog, loomed rows of storage lockers.
Bennett-Cook, 53, was letting Watson and me see some of what remained of her graduate alma mater: a colorfully unorthodox, defiantly unaccredited, for-profit graduate school in San Francisco called the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
Founded in 1976, the Institute closed in 2018, and at the time no one knew what would happen to its archive, which was supposedly vast but packed away, unorganized and uncataloged, in warehouses scattered around the Bay Area—possibly all over the country. Bennett-Cook had acquired it as it was being hauled off to recycling, she said. Now she wanted to figure out what to do with it all. She hoped Watson, who has professional experience cataloging collections touching on the history of sexuality, could help her get an idea of what she might donate to research, keep, sell, or trash.
At 33, Watson (who uses they/them pronouns) is both a bespectacled doctoral student of equitable cataloging at the University of British Columbia iSchool and a sweet-natured, ice cream-loving self-described “nerd” with an on-trend sideswept mane of dark hair they sometimes pull into a scrunchie. Even as a graduate student, they’re known among the smallish circle of professional archivists who work with materials related to the history of sexuality. (Watson is an archivist-historian for the polyamory collection at the Kinsey Institute Library, the country’s premier research library in the history of gender and sexuality.) For several years, they and a group of colleagues have been independently gathering resources for students and researchers at the website Histsex.org.
In January 2019, Watson put a query on a specialized listserv, looking for help. They’d seen the Institute’s archive mentioned in a few published bibliographies and wanted to add it to Histsex.org. The descriptions beggared imagination: “original” Marquis de Sade, rare artwork, the suppressed Victorian ramblings of My Secret Life, and a treasury of books, films, videos, and photos. This would be a gold mine for researchers. But as for the Institute, there was no website, phone number, or email to be found. Most on-list responses were something like “don’t know, sounds great, good luck.”
Watson didn’t know that the Institute, which never had much of a digital presence at all, was already gone. Its co-founder, president, and prevailing wind, the Rev. Robert “Ted” McIlvenna, had died at age 86 just the year before, finally ending the Institute’s years-long struggle to stay afloat. Bennett-Cook found Watson’s name on a cruise through Google, she says, and messaged them on Facebook. But the pandemic intervened before the two could meet.
I’d also seen Watson’s query and started poking around. The rumors were indeed fantastic: undiscovered materials from the likes of Alfred C. Kinsey and the early sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, whose own library was torched by the Nazis. Maybe Freud? Decades of student work. And lots and lots of erotica and pornography.
If any of the rumors were true, it would be news indeed, and not just in the academic world. A burgeoning collectors’ market for rare items related to sex and sexual minorities shows that some of these wares can, in fact, be worth a lot of money. A set of signed first editions of the two Kinsey Reports was recently available at AbeBooks for $4,200. The Kinsey Library is one library that holds the kooky old digest Sexology; the website Alta Glamour, which is run by two Institute alums and specializes in vintage erotica, recently listed a collection of hundreds of issues for $7,500. Over on eBay, a full run of Playboy with the first issue autographed by Hugh Hefner was asking $65,000 (for the articles, of course).
The storage locker rumbled open with a metallic clatter, and a puff of warm air hit us in the face. Inside, reaching 30 feet back and 15 feet across, were bankers boxes stacked six, seven, eight high—hundreds of them. A shoulder-width crevasse cut a path into the stack, like a river through a cardboard canyon. “Wow,” Watson said, slipping into the dusty darkness.