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The 125 images in Peek were chosen from over 75,000 in the Kinsey Institute. They were selected by Jennifer Yamashiro, curator of the Kinsey Institute, Betsy Stirratt, Director of the School of Fine Arts Gallery, Indiana University, and Jeffrey Wolin, a professor of photography at Indiana University. In the Preface, Stirratt and Wolin say they chose the images to "demonstrate the broad visual range that exists within this significant collection." The essay at the end of the book, "Collecting Sex," by Yamashiro, discusses how the collection was put together in the first place. The main aim for Kinsey was to scientifically study sex, and he thought that the images he collected would serve as data for his enterprise.
Kinsey is famous for his two studies of sexual behavior, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). While his specific claims have sometimes been disputed, there's little dispute these days that it is possible to study sex scientifically and that Kinsey was a pioneer in this area. These days it's probably uncontroversial that it is a good idea to study sex, and I have not noticed much protest over tax-dollars being used to fund such study in the last ten years. Even with all this granted though, it's far from clear how these images contribute to the scientific understanding of sex, whether Kinsey could have been serious in his claims that that was why he was collecting these images, or what the aim of the Institute is in continuing to expand the collection since Kinsey's death.
Of course, there's plenty of nudity and people engaged in sexual acts of all sorts in Peek. The same is true of any issue of Hustler , but Peek is radically different from any such pornographic magazine of today. The images date mostly from 1890-1960, although there are some more recent ones included. Most are monochrome, black and white or sepia -- maybe this tone because of their age. Most of them are rather amateurish, while others are highly professional. What makes these images distinctive however, is their variety and bizarreness. To give you some hint of this, here's a list.
- On page 24, in a black and white photo from circa 1924, a woman is naked in front of a bed with crumpled bedclothes. She is bent over backwards with her hands on the floor, (sometimes this position is called the "crab") with her legs parted so we can see her vagina.
- On page 54, in a photo dated from the early twentieth century, a fat woman is standing with her back to the camera, standing naked except for back stockings and black high heeled shoes, facing a crumpled curtain. She looks like she is wearing a blond curly wig. She stands with her arms raised in the air, her hands loosely closed into fists, slightly blurred giving the impression that she is moving them.
- On page 70, in an undated black and white photo, we see four sets of male genitalia, with semi-erect penises. It is hard to work out how the men are arranged, but is looks like two are lying pressed against each other on the floor in the same direction, while two other men are lying in the opposite direction on top of the first two. The man on top has a very hairy torso.
- On page 103, in a black and white photo dating from 1965, we see a photo of a topless woman leaning against a tree. This photo is lying in a man's lap, and the head of his flacid penis is resting on the top of the photo of the woman.
- On page 122, in a photo from 1950, a man is standing nude with a small smile on his face, but he's wearing a world war II metal hat usually associated with protection during air-raids, and a holster with a gun. He is standing in front of a curtain and appears to be getting ready to draw the gun from the holster.
- On page 152, in a sepia photo dating from 1880, two plump women are holding hands. Both are wearing hats and corsets, stockings from their knees to their ankles, and leather shoes. Apart from that, they are naked. One of the women is sitting on a bicycle and is holding a parasol. Someone has painted crude brush strokes in dark paint over their hair on their heads and has marked the pubic hair of the standing woman.
One problem about these images is that we know nothing about who used them, who made them, what motive the photographer had in taking the photograph, or whether anyone ever found the image arousing. Maybe we can assume that someone found the image arousing because it is hard to imagine why else anyone would go to the effort of creating it, and so we can use the photos to study all the weird things that turn people on. This is a meager conclusion. It's hard to tell what else we might conclude from the images.
If we had more information about the context of these images, we could maybe draw conclusions about trends in tastes for fetishes or pornography. Maybe if we had access to the whole collection of images, it would be easier to classify the different themes that appear. But the most likely result of our investigation would be that these pictures don't provide useful data for a scientific understanding of sexuality.
The obvious reason why anyone would want to collect these images is that they are weird and fascinating. Some are artistic, while others are no more than old pornography. They can best serve as conversation-starters in bohemian households; this is really a coffee-table book for sexual liberals. The best feature of Peek is how non-judgmental it is: the pictures are not classified into normal and abnormal -- indeed, they don't seem to be sorted in any particular arrangement at all. The editors seem to prize this aspect, because they don't place the sparse information available about the images next to them, but leave the reader to consult pages at the end of the book to find what year they are dated.
But if we are to achieve any real understanding of these images, they need to be placed in historical, social and psychological context. Kinsey saw how important such images are for understanding sexuality, but unfortunately his promises of confidentiality to the donors of the pictures, and maybe even his methodological assumptions mean that he wasn't able to follow through on this essential insight.