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.
At first it was difficult to track down much information about the archive itself, but I did find a few NSFW documentary clips in which the Institute’s long-serving and last librarian, Gerald Zientara, commands a porn-playing VHS machine, handles vintage “cheesecake” photos, shows off rare and not-so-rare books, and glides through assorted cartons of pornography stacked almost to the ceiling. I hoped that was the tip of the iceberg.
The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality was located at the corner of Franklin and Austin Streets in a marginal San Francisco neighborhood that didn’t really have a name until the fairy dust of gentrification transformed it into Lower Pacific Heights. Despite a name evoking neat labs and orderly classrooms, the Institute “was a funky, seedy storefront with dingy carpets,” says the queer public historian and antiquarian book dealer Gerard Koskovich, 65, of San Francisco. It trained sex educators and researchers to go out into the world and help the public understand sex without shame. Its graduates include Beverly Whipple, who named the G spot, and the late Betty Dodson, who championed masturbation for women.
Although he was never formally associated with the Institute, Koskovich visited a few times. He describes its vibe as “we have no money, but we have an enormous mission, and we’re going to simply get to work and not worry about trying to impress corporations and rich people with how much money we have, because we’re too busy.”
Search Koskovich’s name in WorldCat, the online global catalog of university and research libraries, and you’ll find listings for collections he created or helped build, like the cross-dressing postcard collection at Cornell University. Postcards, handbills, mailers, posters, greeting cards, pamphlets, and all kinds of mass-produced items are known as ephemera. And ephemera, Koskovich says, are “the sorts of things that are least likely to have been preserved and least likely to have been collected by major libraries at the time that they were produced, but now are the fine grain of cultural, intellectual, social, and gender history.”
While elites have long bestowed self-conscious diaries and shiny book collections upon research libraries, ephemera has usually ended up in the trash. That’s tragic, because the cheapness of ephemera has historically let working-class and poor people create it. Without such documents, historians who write about marginal communities might have to look more to the words of people like doctors, reformers, and police, who have historically been biased against these communities.
The Insitute preserved ephemera about sex. “So much has been thrown out over the years by different people, because nobody was wanting to get caught with any of these things,” Bennett-Cook says, pointing out that depending on when they were produced, these materials could’ve been considered obscene and therefore illegal. The Institute’s collection, she goes on, includes “everything from these little teeny-tiny booklets that people would stuff in the seat cushion—like secretly stash someplace for the next person—to comic book series to erotic drawings.” And way more. Countless homoerotic collections have been destroyed when people died, she adds, because their surviving relatives didn’t want anyone to know “Uncle Joe” was queer.
With manicured nails, French-braided blond hair, and hip blue glasses, Bennett-Cook is definitely the cool-aunt type. Raised in a religious family to be a good wife, she had three kids by the time she was 20. But through her own personal journey she realized there was nothing wrong with enjoying sex. Years later, a chance encounter with a prominent madam at a motorcycle rally in Nevada led to a job interview—“I was like, ‘What? You get interviewed for this?’”—and soon she was working at a brothel, just to try it out for a week. “Ended up loving it,” she says. She stayed on for a year.
Today that experience lets her relate to the people in her therapeutic practice, at least a third of whom are sex workers. She describes sex work as “90% psychological,” since clients often want understanding and safety in addition to sex. It’s helpful for sex workers themselves to have therapists who understand firsthand the job’s intensity, she explains.
Possibly because she spends so much time listening, Bennett-Cook has a historian’s knack for analyzing primary sources. She’s fascinated by old newspapers and magazines written by members of marginalized sexual or gender communities, like sex workers, queers, trans people, or people into kink. “You can get statistics and everything,” she says, “but actually hearing the voices of the people” is a wonder.
Watson darted from box to box, climbed up and down the stack, and stepped high across the crevasse. Dust and sweat covered their flowing sleeveless shirt. Only later did it occur to me that any one of us might be crushed by a corrugated avalanche of sex junk.
“Did you find anything?” I called just over a minute after the door opened.
They were excited, but I thought I also heard disappointment. “I am seeing a fair amount of commercial stuff,” they said—commercial porn. Ascending a folding chair, they pulled a blue VHS box from a container on top of the stack. “Like, stuff like this? You don’t even need to bother keeping,” they told Bennett-Cook. “There’s a billion.” There was also lots of commercial porn on 8mm, which might not even be viewable today. Film can decay relatively quickly, turning into acetate in a process called vinegar syndrome.
From a pile of framed posters and canvases, Watson fished out a portfolio holding a red cardboard pane with a series of black-and-white photographs. “It’s the doll in England. What’s its name? Mr. Punch dolls…with a shepherd theme going on,” they said. Then, tapping a figure on one photo: “Oh, it’s Zeus, in the form of a bull.” “Raping Europa?” I asked, unable to see. “Yeah,” they said. They put it back.
Cheesy porn and puppet photos weren’t the jewel-encrusted Psychopathia Sexualis I envisioned tumbling out of the first box. I’d been as hyped as Geraldo Rivera about to drill into Al Capone’s vault, and this could be a similar fool’s errand.
But things got interesting. Watson pulled out a 1977 issue of Rip Off Rag, “San Francisco’s Camp Newspaper,” which none of us had heard of. They opened it to a two-page ad for a gay business on Geary Street. Demons cavorted across the yellowing pages. Fewer than 50 research libraries in the world carry any issues of Rip Off Rag, according to WorldCat.
The lids of the innumerable book boxes, mostly stacked on the right side of the crevasse, started coming off. “The Arts of Wife Management,” Bennett-Cook chuckled, passing Watson a brief volume from 1955. Sifting through another box, Watson pulled out a paperback copy of Abortion: A Woman’s Guide, published before Roe v. Wade by New York Planned Parenthood. “Unfortunately, still relevant!” they said with mock brightness.
Soon I heard them mutter: “This is a pre-Grove.” They held a 1950s hardcover anthology of the Marquis de Sade, from a translation that came before the better-known one by Grove Press. Grove’s explosive publication of the libertine author came in 1966, shortly after obscenity laws were relaxed. The book’s owner wrote her name inside: “Dr. Blanche M. Baker, San Francisco, 1956.” None of us knew it at the time, but Baker was a psychologist who advocated for the medical normalization of homosexuality when it was considered a repulsive sickness. Her papers are now collected at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles.
“But how about this cover?” Watson said with a grin, holding an early-2000s BDSM sci-fi adventure picturing a woman in a ball gag and futuristic fighters exploding out of a supernova.
They picked out about a dozen boxes for us to investigate, and we rode in Bennett-Cook’s hatchback to a place where we could take a closer look. We made two more runs over two days, only making it through a fraction of what was there.
4 The Institute
The co-founders of the Institute included members of an earlier organization of clergy, helping professionals, and activists. Early faculty included Wardell Pomeroy, co-author of the Kinsey Reports. But the school lived through the presence of Ted McIlvenna. As he got older, it was clear to insiders that it would be hard to keep the Institute going without him. And fall apart it did around the time of his death.
An ordained Methodist minister, McIlvenna arrived in San Francisco in 1963 with a mission to proselytize the city’s growing population of youth and substance users with nowhere to go. He became attached to the Glide Memorial Church and, with other clergy, made inroads among gay civil rights organizations. The Sexual Revolution was beginning to open the eyes of baby boomers, who were abundant enough to have cultural power but not much life experience to go with it. Known as the Night Minister (NSFW documentary trailer), McIlvenna canvassed the Tenderloin and got to know its overlapping population of homosexuals, drag queens, sex workers, and trans people who lived, worked, and dreamed there.
He often said he got into activism after the church ordered him to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality, but he refused after witnessing things like two gay men “having their genitals kicked in” by the police. He soon helped forge alliances between the clergy and early gay-rights organizations to promote the social and political acceptance of queer people.
Four and a half years before New York’s Stonewall rebellion of 1969, traditionally considered the flashpoint of gay liberation, McIlvenna and a handful of other clergy joined early gay rights groups and liberal lawyers in staging a confrontation on New Year’s Day, 1965: a drag “costume” ball. The cops showed up, aggressively took photos of attendees, and made a number of arrests. But everyone at the ball was following the letter of the law. The subsequent trial resulted in a local wave of public sympathy for LGBT people.
Zientara, the Institute’s former librarian, says the minister’s early activism provided the germ of the collection. McIlvenna obtained items “from police departments who had confiscated materials used in criminal trials and then just left [them] over,” he says. “So Ted, in his magnetic way, acquired these things as well as permission to hold them.”
Zientara, now 80, made his way to San Francisco in 1968 and was involved in the “para-theatrical” scene as “Dogtor Woof” before attending the Institute. With erudition and humor, as well as a dildo perched behind him, he explained his librarianship in a video call. It’s true, there was no inventory, but he alphabetized as much of the library holdings as possible. “We never had an acquisition budget,” he said. “Unlike most academic librarians, I never had to justify my purchase of anything because I couldn’t buy anything. So I was free in many ways.” The library accepted donations of ephemera, books, artwork, and porn from collectors and their heirs. That’s how the collection grew.
Grabbing a cardboard label reading “Pecker Party” lying close at hand in his ephemera-choked home office, he explained why the Institute collected things like it. “Ephemera has a very personal quality,” he said. “If it has survived, it’s been handled by somebody to whom it meant something. This is one of the things that Ted often said, that these things are valuable because somebody prized them. And when we study sexology, what we’re interested in is behaviors and attitudes. Collecting ephemera is both behavior and represents an attitude which otherwise would be lost.”
5 The SAR
The dig got more colorful: campy pulp novels, gorgeous ink-and-marker erotic artwork, a run of BDSM newsletters with the do’s and don’ts of bottoming, a box of small-press lesbian poetry, an invitation to a Radical Faeries Thanksgiving gathering, digest-size magazines full of personal ads accompanied by photos of half-naked and full-naked ladies, and several pounds of vintage gay photographs. In one shot, possibly from the 1940s, two languid nude men laugh while enjoying what are clearly postcoital cigarettes.
One of the first boxes Bennett-Cook and Watson opened held slide containers and a fully stocked carousel. Without a projector or bright lighting, it was hard to tell what they were without squinting. One container had extremely copyright-violating drawings of Batman sodomizing Green Hornet, no date. Another showed scenes from the 1982 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. We started picking through the carousel slots. The first showed a sculpture Watson thought was based on the Kama Sutra. Others ranged from oral sex closeups to an erotic painting to genitalia with chlamydia to an interracial lesbian kiss to a breakneck orgy.
“Is this the SAR?” I asked Bennett-Cook, using the acronym for Sexual Attitude Restructuring, a hallmark of Institute education. “It’s SAR slides, yeah. The Fuckorama,” she said. Watson looked under the carousel and found a note handwritten by Zientara on a scrap torn from a SAR manual: “Here’s a selection of slides for Sat. Hope they’ll be OK. Good luck! WOOF.”
An Institute SAR could take as long as eight days. The highlight, according to many, was the Fuckorama. A large group would laze on oversize hippie pillows and watch a multiscreen video barrage of erotica of all permutations and positions, from shots of Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife to commercial porn, which went on for a workday of hours. One journalist remembered the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto running alongside ecstatic screams and moans, as well as slides like the ones we’d found. It went on till nothing was shocking anymore. This was “desensitization.”
Then came “sensitization,” featuring cinéma vérité “sexual pattern films” shot by the Methodist minister and Institute co-founder Laird Sutton. In some ways, Sutton’s movies were more provocative than porn: They were just people from different walks of life having the kind of sex they usually had. In “resensitization,” small groups would go topic by topic, working through their responses—what grossed them out, turned them on, or otherwise made them feel something. Guest speakers answered every question students had. There could be nudity, such as in
In Disorders of Desire (1990), the academic sociologist Janice Irving pointed out several problematic aspects of SAR as it was practiced at the Institute. Students might feel pressure to expose their bodies and tell intimate things to their teachers and classmates. The hot tub where trust exercises were performed might be a site of harassment. And to graduate, students would have to write out their sexual histories for a grade and view many hours of “erotology” (as faculty referred to everything from commercial pornography to masterpieces of erotic artwork).
Some time toward the end, the Institute was having trouble getting the state of California to approve it to operate as a for-profit school due to lack of transparency about its curriculum, administration, and other factors. McIlvenna believed oversight would bring its spirit to an end. He was probably right.
“You could get as close to sex as you wanted to,” Bennett-Cook says. Sex wasn’t required, and “getting close” to it could mean field trips like visiting a dungeon to understand more about BDSM or marching in a Pride parade. It could also mean, you know, having sex as you went through coursework. Complementary reading, as it were. Sex is “tactile” and “experiential,” Bennett-Cook points out. You can’t really learn about it only from books—or watching porn, for that matter.
SAR might seem like culty indoctrination, especially the Fuckorama. But Watson pointed me to a former minister named Doug Bauder, 73, who did a SAR in 1973 or ’74 while he was in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary. In the late ’80s he came out as a gay man and left the ministry about 10 years later, eventually becoming the beloved director of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center at Indiana University. As a student, he was deeply closeted.
Specific memories of the SAR came to Bauder haltingly, but he did remember that it pricked him into awareness of his sexual identity, if only fleetingly. He was engaged to another student, but he also sensed he was different. With an internship that brought him into Philadelphia, he was able to slip away to gay porn theaters but kept the significance of his desires sealed in mental “boxes,” he says.
The SAR was invented to train those in the helping professions, as well as clergy, to counsel people about sex non-judgmentally. Bauder remembers that those furtive theaters came to mind during the Fuckorama. The porn probably had its goofy scenarios and unrealistic anatomy, but other films he recalls showed regular men having sex. There were also old people having sex, disabled people having sex. Those were Sutton’s sexual pattern films.
Bauder didn’t record his thoughts as a young divinity student, which didn’t surprise him when we spoke. “I was writing things like a paper about the religious lives of the presidents,” he said. He kept reflecting after our conversation, though. If SAR didn’t liberate him in the 1970s, it let him consider his feelings about his identity almost 50 years later.
Today, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) requires SAR for certification, but it can be as short as 14 hours, not eight days. Informed consent releases are in order, and media viewings can be opted out of. Bennett-Cook says because of the pandemic, some SARs have been held online, even with cameras off.
Over grocery store salads during a contemplative lunch, Bennett-Cook, Watson, and I talked about how the original intent of SAR was disappearing in the last years of the Institute. As 21st-century sexual harassment and social justice awareness grew, it became harder for Bennett-Cook to lead SARs as she’d been taught.
SAR was designed to “break down” what you think you know and who you think you are, she said. McIlvenna would always say that somewhere along the way the Institute would push your buttons. “People have buttons pushed now, but in different ways,” she said. “And it’s different because it’s not introspective, and it was designed to be very introspective.” Students may critique some of what they see as racist or misogynist or triggering and stop there, she said. Meanwhile, even with her connections, she hasn’t always been able to find diverse people to lead SAR panels.
“And to be fair,” Watson put in, “a lot of people of color I know have real big problems” talking about their sex lives with strangers, especially white people. “And that’s fine. I totally understand not wanting to be involved.”
“Yeah, I completely understand,” Bennett-Cook said, before imagining what a trans or kinky or queer person of color might say: “Just because I’m in that group doesn’t mean I need to be the billboard.”
7 Possible Futures
In a box of pulps, I spied the 1953 Bantam edition of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s pseudonymously published lesbian novel—her only lesbian novel, actually; it became the movie Carol. (Highsmith is most famous for writing the Ripley novels.) Bennett-Cook must have seen me lingering over it as I wondered if any other lesbian writers had ever held the same book. “Take it,” she said. I did (and reassured my own ethical superego by telling my editor).
Early on, Watson came upon a grayish-green softcover edition of The Autobiography of a Flea, first published in Paris in 1888 and banned in England. “This would’ve been stuck into your pants,” they said, “and you’d walk across the border, because it would be illegal in England. And then when you got to England, you would find a printer to print this.” On sites like AbeBooks and Alibris, that book now sells for as much as $395 in very good condition.
A box labeled Gay Photos held dozens of glossy prints. Some featured the leather-forward aesthetic of Colt Studio, co-founded by the artist-photographer Jim French in the mid-1960s. “These were sold in sets,” Watson told us. It was illegal to send them through the mail till 1973. “This one’s called Tool Box,” they said, holding up several shots with full-frontal studs in chaps. I couldn’t find any full sets of “Tool Box” described anywhere online except in the ONE Archives. But lots consisting of multiple Colt sets from before 1973 have sold at auction for over $1,000.
Bennett-Cook hasn’t been able to make definite plans about the archive’s destiny. She says she wants the materials to go to research, and she’s been in touch with an esteemed archivist about making a donation. But she was told she needs an inventory before anything can go forward. “Just hearing that completely overwhelmed me,” she said. “It was like, that’s not happening.” Space is always at a premium at libraries, meaning it’ll be hard to keep the materials together, which she thinks McIlvenna would’ve wanted. Still, the experience of opening boxes with Watson was thrilling, she said, like being on one of her favorite programs, the geeky PBS hit Antiques Roadshow.
I didn’t know she watched Antiques Roadshow. I also didn’t mention that just a few months before I’d interviewed Swann Auction Galleries president and principal auctioneer Nicholas Lowry, 54, better known as the dandy with the crisp baritone, handlebar mustache, and three-piece tartan suits on Antiques Roadshow.
In June 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Swann mounted its first auction of LGBTQ+ art and material culture, including Robert Mapplethorpe’s Z Portfolio (hammer price: $38,000) and personal papers and items owned by Candy Darling ($15,000). The winning bid for a Peter Hujar photograph of the artist David Wojnarowicz (Hujar’s partner) was $85,000. The house has also sold small collections of lesbian pulp for around $1,000. Swann’s fourth LGBTQ+ auction took place August 18 this year, with winning bids for some fine art reaching over $40,000.
It’s not entirely clear what makes queer items worth money at auction, because the market is still being formulated by emerging collectors and dealers. “We take material by gay creatives,” Lowry said when I visited Swann’s Manhattan gallery. That could be a JEB (Joan E. Biren) photograph, a Tom of Finland colored pencil drawing, a Walt Whitman signed edition, or even, yep, historically important anonymous ephemera. There may be nudity, but “it’s not homoeroticism just for the sake of it,” Lowry said. “The number of dick pics we were offered for this auction is inordinate.”
He laid one lot for the LGBTQ+ auction on a table: a framed poster from the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, which galvanized the community against bigotry. A protest sign: ephemera. He noted it was mass-produced and, with visible creases, not in flawless condition. But it was still important, he said, and not just as historical proof of political resistance. “Someone rolled it up and took it home,” I said, observing the pattern of the creases. He nodded. The sign carried an estimate of $600-$900, though it didn’t end up selling.
Collectors do pounce on things that are rare or authentic or beautiful or created by a famous artist. But in the end they also usually feel a connection to what they’re buying. The sheer sentimental value a former owner might have had for an object probably won’t increase its material value to a collector. But a pink protest sign can bridge the present and the past, and that aura is one factor that can send collectors over the moon.
Bennett-Cook, Watson, and I parted with hugs and tentative plans to reunite later this year with a group of Institute graduates and a couple more archivists to get a real inventory going.
“I think it would be fun to go through all this stuff together,” Bennett-Cook said over coffee and pastries that morning.
“And I’d love to teach a bunch of sexologists how to do metadata and cataloging,” agreed Watson.
Whatever Bennett-Cook decides to do with the archive, she knows she’s sitting on a big chunk of history and maybe a big chunk of money. Perhaps those are competing interests. Certainly selling valuable things to private collectors when they could also help researchers could mean a loss of knowledge, especially about the lives of people in marginalized communities.
Then again, there may not be a one-to-one overlap between collectors’ markets and what research libraries are after. Although you will find cross-dressing postcards in both buckets, a library probably won’t have much use for a collector’s-market standby like a signed Leaves of Grass. A personal collection might not be worth much money, but it can have value.
Even when it’s ephemera, as it turns out.
Meanwhile, I’m holding on to my copy of The Price of Salt.
Allison Miller is a freelance journalist based in New York. She also holds a Ph.D. in the history of gender and sexuality. This is her Web site.