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The Kiss

a lecture by Leonore Tiefer, October 24, 1998, in honor of
The Kiss Exhibit, School of Fine Arts Gallery and The Kinsey Institute 50th Anniversary
(some slides are not included in this version)

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We are celebrating today a great anniversary in the long and colorful history of sexuality, and the equally long history of scholarship about sexuality, and I want to pay my own tribute to the spirit of Alfred Kinsey.

kinsey
Following the highest academic traditions, Dr. Kinsey showed enormous courage and integrity as we have heard earlier today. Without his example, sex research and people's actual sexual lives would be immeasurably poorer. My major professor, Frank Beach, was a great fan and friend of Dr. Kinsey, and I celebrate their memories today.

Every talk must begin with a few disclaimers, so here are mine.

Personal Kissing Experience at Age 5
[Slide 2, speaker at age 5, 1949, kissing Roger Nortman.]

As you can see from this archival footage of me at the age of 5 with my friend Roger Nortman - and you will be happy to hear that this is the only kissing photo of myself I will force upon you today - I like kisses. I have always liked kisses!

I need to say that because I am going to take you to some unexpected destinations in our kissing travels today, and you might begin to suspect that I am not at heart an appreciative participant! Put that thought to rest! The odd thing about being a sexologist, I have learned, is that you can be detached, analytical, and immensely complex in your thinking about the subject of sexuality, but when the lights are low and the books are put away, you are, after all, just another appreciative participant.

So, let us begin our discussion.

The Psychobiosocial Approach

Those of us who study sexuality, and Dr. Kinsey was no exception to this, typically find ourselves using what we call the psychobiosocial approach to our subject.

This allows us to think of any sexual activity, such as erotic kissing, as a tapestry made of strands of three different kinds of yarn. There are psychological factors such as memories and hopes and fears; there are biological factors such as hormones and genetic influences; and there are social factors such as religious values and the opinion of your neighbors and the messages you get from the movies.

Sex researchers who use the psychobiosocial model to examine kissing are usually trying to answer some deep questions such as:

What is the origin of kissing?
How does kissing differ around the world?
How do events of childhood affect adult kissing?
Do animals kiss?

Let me begin by providing the psychobiosocial theory of kissing. What links the deliciousness of erotic kissing and the social importance of kisses of greeting, farewell and congratulation? Why do so many ceremonies involve kissing objects of reverence such as the Pope's ring or the King's robe?

Here is the basic theory, and it seems to combine elements of evolution, psychoanalysis, and the growth of social customs.

Kissing means attachment and feels good, and can be elaborated into social situations far removed from its origins. Our experience of security and sensuality begins in infancy as we are held while we nurse. The sucking experience, the use of tongue and lips, the aroma of body and skin, the touch on the face - the theory suggest that every kiss from infancy on reverberates with deeply felt echoes of attachment, pleasure, feeling good, and gives kissing its emotional power. The lips and tongue have large representation in the brain - every infant must suckle to survive. As we suckle, we feel, and we don't forget.

Human's vertical posture and the emotional power of eye contact for all primates brings other elements into the kiss. Even in cultures where mouth-to-mouth tongue kissing is disapproved of, reverberations of attachment and security produce the eros of cheeks rubbing together, or the power of inhaling the aroma of a beloved's face. There may be biting, nibbling, nipping or blowing on the lips and face as part of the sexual script of lovers. What Margaret Mead called the "oceanic kiss" involves the lips only as a minor feature, but if we want to generalize the attachment and pleasure theory, the kissing reverberates even when it's only one mouth doing the work. After all, in infancy, it's only one mouth.

Because kissing can arouse powerful regressive longings for intimacy, the power of kissing can be dangerous, which becomes an important theme in Western legend and literature. Where people cannot choose their own mates, or where the free expression of sexuality is considered a religious sin, kisses come to symbolize social chaos. Thus, in Western lore and Hollywood movies, we have endless stories of dangerous love kisses - the ones that mortally bond the wrong pair (Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

But there are also dangerous kisses of betrayal - where kissing is the ultimate symbol of violating trust and intimacy (Judas' kiss of betrayal, the kiss of the vampire); dangerous kisses which transgress social boundaries; kisses which we might also argue are sublimated erotic kisses (witches kissing the devil to signal allegiance, Christian martyrs kissing lepers).

Let's emphasize the component of attachment. Kisses bond, perhaps as they recruit infant feelings of being soothed and comforted. It's the safety component of kissing, how kissing can reduce tension, which is expressed in the reverent self-abasing kisses meant to soothe or appease those with power (kissing of the Bible, the Torah, the dice for luck, etc.).

Research with bonobos, a member of the chimpanzee family, shows most clearly the constant use of kisses to reduce tension, to reassure in any situation of fear or competition. Every bonobo, female, male, infant, high or low status, seeks and responds to kisses. Likewise, kisses are ever present in social situations where people must check each other out: Friend? Superior? Equal? Trustworthy? We touch lips or cheeks to signify "I'm safe to you, you're safe to me," to reduce social tension. Much social and ceremonial kissing, of course, has become completely ritualized, and the emotional component is only a very dim reverberation.

So, the bottom line is the power of attachment, the basic pleasure of touch and satisfaction, compounded by lots of individual conditioning through practice and fantasy and lots of social value, and used in many ways.

Now, I feel I've done my duty with this general overview of the theory of kissing, and I can get into some specific stories.

Psychobiosocial Model at Work

Let's stay with the psychobiological approach for a moment and let's take a clinical example to illustrate the psychobiosocial model at work. It is a clinical example from my own practice of sex therapy.

A couple of years ago, a married couple came to see me with a common complaint: premature ejaculation. But, more significantly, their sexual life was very unsatisfying and although they had been married for four years, they were having sex very infrequ ently. Sex felt very uncomfortable and they couldn't get turned on together and conduct a sexual encounter without tears and frustration. But, they had no idea why. They were in their middle 30's, lower middle-class, both healthy and employed, he was Italian-American and she was Burmese-American. (1) They had become attracted to each other and decided to marry and had assumed sex would just happen "naturally."

After several therapy appointments and lots of discussion about the specifics of their sex life, the premature ejaculation was attributed to infrequent sex, and the couple's discomfort and difficulty in getting turned on together took center place. He accused her of not loving him because of her lack of ardor during foreplay, though she insisted she loved him very much. The therapist proposed, to their surprise, that the heart of the problem was cultural discrepancies in kissing. Social, psychological and physical arousal factors were all interacting.

The wife, being Asian, shared her region's aversion to mouth-to-mouth kissing. A surprising number of Asian (and African and South American) groups have learned to view mouth-to-mouth kissing as dirty, dangerous, and disgusting, something akin to stick ing one's tongue in another's nose and wiggling it around. It turned her off to imagine, anticipate or experience it, and she felt confused and unhappy when she saw how much her husband enjoyed it. Though she deeply loved her husband, ardor during foreplay was impossible for her under the circumstances. The husband, by comparison, had learned and practiced and fantasized within European social rules where deep kissing is highly intimate and erotic. He wanted to kiss, he needed to kiss, and he felt rejected and discouraged by his wife's consistent negative reactions.

Their gender socialization compounded the difficulty. The couple had both learned that men are supposed to take the lead in sex and that women are supposed to be modest and fairly unassertive. Asian women are especially unlikely to express their physic al likes and dislikes about sex. Neither member of the couple realized how much physical arousal and mutual satisfaction were the result of psychological processes, learning and expectancy and fantasy, all influenced by social customs.

Moreover, even after we all "realized" what the difficulty was, it took them a long time to overcome deeply ingrained beliefs and habits and create a mutually agreeable sexual life together. Those of you who have lived in a culture very different from the one you grew up in will know what I mean. He couldn't suddenly stop wanting to kiss any more easily than she could suddenly start wanting to. Although they wanted to be close, their sexual scripts were intimately connected to feelings of comfort and familiarity. It took a lot of motivation and practicing over many months for them to create a new psycho-bio-social script and feel spontaneous in its enactment.

This case illustrates how difficult it is to separate the strands of the psychobiosocial tapestry and examine them separately. As you enjoy the drawing and photographs in the [Kinsey Institute] exhibit, ask yourself - How is the kiss I am looking at the result of a confluence of psychological, biological and social factors?

The Kiss as Symbol

Let's press on to another way of looking at the kiss - the kiss as symbol.

The kiss has leant itself to generous symbolic use as we already discussed. There are many nonsexual uses of kissing such as social greeting and farewell, kisses of peace authorized by the New Testament, kisses of respect for the Torah as it's carried into a synagogue, kissing the statue or icon of a religious or secular leader to show loyalty, kissing dice for luck in a casino, kisses that symbolize sexual awakening as in fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty or kisses that symbolize protection, as in legends like The Ring of the Nibelung. There is the Sammy Sosa kiss. And then there are the scary kisses of power: the Judas kiss of betrayal, the Mafia kiss that means death, the devil's kiss that signifies eternal damnation. From loyalty and luck to disloyalty and damnation. This kiss is powerful medicine - oh, yes, don't forget the symbolism of kissing the hurt away as powerful medicine - the kiss as alternative health care.

Let me tell a story of the kiss as symbol, and try to place it in the context of our present sexual politics. And I don't mean the President and impeachment and those sexual politics, but in the larger context of sexual politics - what has come to be called "The Sex Wars."

As you all know, as those at The Kinsey Institute know better than most, the United States has been throughout much of its history a war zone over sexuality. For the past thirty-odd years, battles have been fought on a variety of political fronts and on a variety of subjects: abortion laws, abortion funding, public sex education, public funding of art, funding of sex research, conferences on sexuality at public universities, zoning of erotic bookstores and places of entertainment, limitation of sexually explicit materials on newsstands and bookstores, restriction of sex on the Internet, limiting sexually explicit rock lyrics, etc.

Auguste Rodin's The Kiss

Rodin's famous 1889 sculpture, The Kiss, is no stranger to censorship. Although many have regarded it as the kiss of kisses, a masterpiece, a sculpture in the finest classical tradition, others have seen its voluptuousness, its frank eroticism, and its depiction of transgressive sexual activity as another example of how immoral artists rationalized their images of nudity and lust with classical stories. It's been banned; it's been covered with cloth. It's a powerful symbolic kiss.

Rodin's sculpture immortalizes an erotic moment from Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, completed in 1321. As Dante travels through the Inferno, the realms of the dead, in search of his spiritual inspiration, Beatrice, he encounters Paolo and Francesca entertwined in an embrace.

rodin

Francesca, the 11th or 12th century daughter of the ruler of Ravenna, had been married off to a political ally of her father's, but fell in love with her husband's brother, Paolo, who also was married. In some versions of the story (2), Francesca's intended was lame and deformed, and she was tricked into the engagement by first meeting the handsome brother Paolo under false pretenses. In The Divine Comedy, Dante learns that Paolo and Francesca, though passionately attracted, had resisted their desires until one day, reading about the forbidden adulterous love of Lord Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, they restrained themselves no longer. One kiss, and as the Westerns say, they were goners.

For transgressing the bonds of marriage, they were murdered by Francesca's outraged husband and damned to eternity, doomed to continually try to repeat the adulterous kiss which was their downfall. In Rodin's sculpture, you can see a book, presumably the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, clutched in Paolo's left hand. So, Rodin's sculpture is a work of art depicting a transgressive kiss, a kiss which itself was inspired by yet another work of art depicting other transgressive kisses. The Divine Comedy explictly blames Francesca's corruption on her erotic reading matter. Erotic art and erotic literature - passion and transgression.

Just to show that this isn't ancient history, I should tell you that I made this Rodin slide from the Winter 1997 newsletter of the National Coalition Against Censorship (www.ncac.org), which featured a story about how Rodin's sculpture was being barred by Brigham Young University from a traveling exhibit of Rodin's work because it was regarded as "offensive to community morals and religious views" - that's 1997 - 99 years after the sculpture was completed. The nudity was the specific focus of the offense - presumably in 1997, they would not dared to have specifically picked on the subject of kissing.

Now, obviously, this discussion of Rodin's The Kiss brings us to our Kinsey Institute exhibit on the kiss, bravely opening in the current climate of the sex wars. Here's another kiss to help us with that connection.

Achille Devéria's The Harem
[The Harem, by Achille Devéria, Mid-19th century.]

This mid-19th century painting is triply transgressive in light of the current sex wars. The kissers are both of the same sex, the kiss is applied to the lower lips, not the upper ones, and a watcher is taking pleasure, not just the participants. In fact, in The Kinsey Institute exhibit, there is another painting by the same French artist, Achille Devéria, also depicting two nude women in a harem kissing and caressing, although in this painting, the kiss is being placed on the upper lips.

The Kinsey Institute exhibit is particularly brave in showing genital kissing, and not just mouth-to-mouth kissing, because such sexual art is seen as transgressive. Let me quote to you from a recent article by Congressman Henry Hyde about sexual art. Oh yes, Henry Hyde, Representative from Illinois, who is being so lionized as such a fair-minded paragon in the current impeachment sex wars - yet is actually well known to some of us as a major player in the larger cultural sex wars. He wrote in 1990:

By "culture war" I mean the struggle between those who believe that the norms of "bourgeois morality". . . should form the ethical basis of our common life, and those who are determined that those norms will be replaced with a radical and thoroughgoing relativism . . . . Public funds, in a democracy, are to be spent for public purposes, not for the satisfaction of individuals' aesthetic impulses. And if the impulse in question produces a work which is palpably offensive to the sensibilities of a significant proportion of the public, then that work ought not to be supported by public funds .... [This is not] censorship. (3)

New Yorker Cover

New Yorker cover (June 17, 1996), by Art Spiegelman

Here is another transgressive kiss. They don't have to be nude! This is an imitation of the famous WWII victory kiss photo, but it forces us to suddenly realize that the original photo was heterosexual. We don't think about heterosexuality until we think about homosexuality. That's what the power of naturalization is all about - but that's another lecture. This New Yorker cover, celebrating Gay Pride Sunday, makes us think about how many sailors are gay. It makes us think about how few gay kisses are celebrated. This drawing made lots of people angry. It was like a flag burning - a transgression of an important symbol.

But let me offer another interpretation of the symbolic politics of kissing - the depiction of animals and children kissing. I did research in several greeting card stores for this lecture to see how kisses were depicted.

Children and Animals

There are lots of children, and lots of animals. Now, what does this signify. What are they doing? What does it mean? Some would say "innocence," engaging in an activity for the sheer pleasure of affection, with no awareness of transgression or symbolism or future heartbreak or loss.

Arc (1990), by William Wegman with two dogs "kissing"

Now, what does this signify? What are they doing? What does it mean? Animals sniff and lick to reduce tension, as we have seen in the bonobo chimpanzees. But this is not a realistic picture of animals sniffing and licking. It's an anthropomorphized picture - all these dogs need are shirts and shoes to make the connection explicit.

wegman-arc

Oh, yes, and there are lots of angels in greeting cards.

[Slide 11, The First Kiss, greeting card with angels kissing.] Again, pictures of sweetness, of harmlessness. These cherubs are not reducing tension, powerfully attracted, or in any danger from their kiss, and neither are we. It's just, well, warm and fuzzy. Again, innocence - kissing without sexual power.

Nostalgia Kisses
[Slide 12, Plighted Love, a period photo on a greeting card of couple kissing in ca. 1890 clothes]

I would like to suggest that these nostaligia kisses trivialize the power of kissing. If kisses that give offense, like Rodin's, lead to censorship, then commerce will avoid offense by taming the kiss and any depiction of sex in public. As we become more comfortable with airbrushed and whitewashed images, we pave the way for more censorship. There will be fewer and fewer opportunities for art exhibits such as The Kinsey Institute exhibit, The Kiss, we will soon see.

Contrast what you see on greeting cards with what you see on art postcards:

  • postcard from ad for Smith's Bile Beans, 1890s, with three photos: a little boy kissing the cheek of a little girl at age 7, a teenage boy kissing a teenage girl at age 17, then two elderly faces cuddling at age 70. Printed label is, "At seven! a sly kiss is so sweet, to steal one now and then's a treat"; "At seventeen they're nicer still, and there's a way when there's a will"; "At seventy! It's just the same, they still keep up the old, old game."
  • art postcard of Birthday (1923) by Marc Chagall, Museum of Modern Art, NYC
  • 2nd Story Kiss, a greeting card photo of a man climbing up a ladder holding flowers and kissing a woman sticking her head out of the window.

In the world of greeting cards, you get the feeling that the kiss is a product - which brings me to

The Kiss as Product

Hershey's Kisses


Who owns the kiss? Well, the Hershey Foods Corporation owns part of the kiss, although I am not sure they have a trademark on the word "kisses." I called, but is seems the legal department only replies by mail, and the letter had not yet reached me this week. Hershey's Web site (hersheys.com) informed me that they do have a trademark on the plume extending out of the wrapper, and on the configuration with the familiar foil wrap.

Hershey's kisses is a triumph of packaging. The product was introduced in 1907 and the little squirts of chocolate were hand wrapped until 1921 when automated wrapping machines entered the picture. By the way, the Hershey's Web site reports they don't know how the product got the name "kisses" but they think that "the candy was named for the sound or motion of the chocolate being deposited during the manufacturing process." I find that charming - the kiss as squirt. That's graphic! Now they are mass-produced at a rate of 33 million per day, and the idea of wrapping them in colors to match the seasons is the big development - seasonally wrapped product.

Robert Doisneau's The Kiss at City Hall

I want to tell a story about the kiss as product. It concerns one of the most famous kiss photographs, The Kiss at City Hall. I am indebted to a recent British book by Adrienne Blue called On Kissing: From the Metaphysical to the Erotic (London: Victor Gollancz, 1996), for the details of this story.

Life Magazine photographer Doisneau took this photo in Paris on April Fool's Day in 1950 and called it Le Baiser a L'Hôtel de Ville (The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville). Seemingly oblivious to the bustle of Paris, to onlookers, to whatever else is going on, the lovers sense only each other. A thick scarf loosely caresses his neck, which is taut with intensity as he leans down to her upturned face. Every muscle of her body seems to strain towards him.

Few know this picture by name, but millions have seen a reproduction of it somewhere. In the photo lab where I had this slide made, the young woman behind the counter said, "Oh, I love this picture. It's one of my favorites."

In 1988, Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne saw this photo, and thought they recognized themselves. They had been in that very street on that very day and had a diary to prove it. Madame Lavergne still had the skirt and jacket she wore that day and Monsieur Lavergne recognized the blue scarf his sister had given him for Christmas. They contacted Doisneau and he, they said, was charming to them, and said, "You are now in my family."

Robert Dosineau, Le Baiser a L'Hôtel de Ville

They were delighted to be part of the history of romance. Paris, youth, freedom, passion. The symbol: the kiss. They were filmed for a television documentary about Doisneau, but when footage of them wound up on the cutting-room floor, they were, they said, appalled that they would not get to celebrate their romance with the public. So - and don't say American is the only land of litigation - they went to court to prove that they were the legendary couple. Under a 1985 French privacy law, they claimed their image had been stolen from them by the photographer, and they demanded financial compensation.

Whereupon, an actress named Francoise Bornet stepped forward to say that she and her boyfriend were the couple in the photo, and that, moreover, although she had been paid a small sum to pose for the picture, she now wanted more, plus a percentage of f uture proceeds. The agency that handled Doisneau's photos produced what they said were the contact sheets of the original shoot, which showed that a few versions of the photo had been taken - in a cafÈ, on the street. Like the famous American WWII photo of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, this document of love had been posed.

It was the judgment of the court of Paris that the Lavergnes were not the couple in the photograph. The kiss had not been stolen from them. It had been bought from the paid models.

The kiss is such a popular metaphor for love and so easy to exploit.

Finally, what can we learn from the "kiss" online?

If you put in this Web address (kissing.com), you get an advertisement for a lecture on "the art of kissing" by a professor who has written a book about all the different kinds of kissing: the "lip-o-suction" kiss, the rock kiss, the Trobriand kiss. William Cane (pen name of Michael Christian), professor of English at Boston College, claims that kissing is especially important in the age of AIDS. He's written The Art of Kissing (St. Martin's Press, 1991; rev. and updated ed. 1995), and then not surprisingly, The Art of Hugging (St. Martin's Press, 1996). Even Hershey went from kisses to hugs as a growth opportunity.

You can find artistic images of kissing all over the Web.

Gustav Klimt's The Kiss

There's the WebMuseum, Paris (sunsite.unc.edu/wm), a one-person unfunded effort by a Parisian computer consultant named Nicolas Pioch, who started in 1994 to put his favorite paintings on his Web site. Now there are discussions of painters and schools of art, etc. Klimt, Pioch tells me, lived from 1862 to 1918, and painted his The Kiss in 1907. He "embodies the high-keyed erotic, psychological and aesthetic preoccupations of turn-of-the century Vienna's dazzling intellectual world."

klimt kiss

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Francesco Hayez's Il Bacio

il bacio

Francesco Hayez's Il Bacio

Having visited Verona this summer, I looked for information about a picture you see everywhere.

Unfortunately, everything I found was [written] in Italian. I think Hayez painted this in 1821. (He was born in Venice in 1791)...

The Web is a jumble, as you know, full of commercial opportunities, e.g., I found a Web site where you can order an Il Bacio tattoo that you can press and apply perhaps to your beloved.

[Slide 21, Kiss My Behind, a photo of a man's face kissing a woman's buttock, his hand around her thigh, from a sex magazine]
This allows me to show one picture I wanted to - in the "kiss my behind" frame of reference - again, a violation of the sacred, designed to shock. In fact, when you kissed the devil to make a pact with him, the books say, it was his behind you had to kiss. Of course, the erotic potential of the transgressive kiss is available.

Well, but back to the Web. It's full of things to buy, but also of personal statements, and valuable information, if you only can find it.

I found one Web site by Eric Riback, who describes himself as a former progressive rock disc jockey, who made a list of songs with the word "kiss"in them, and starts the page by saying, "In response to all the concern over pornography, poor taste and loss of innocence on the web, we are pleased to present a resource for those true romantics among us."

The wedding kiss is an interesting symbolic use of kissing. It seems to have been part of pagan rites and signified that legal bonds were being assumed. In the New Testament letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, Saint Paul instructed th e new Christians to "salute each other with a holy kiss." Over the centuries, this holy kiss was interpreted and reinterpreted - in baptism, marriage, confession and ordination. Is it God's kiss of life or Christ's kiss of eternal blessing? I always thought that the wedding kiss, as in "I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may kiss the bride," represented the clergyman's quasi-parental permission to the couple to be sexual.

Well, if you call up this Web address (weddingkiss.com), what do you get? An opportunity to purchase a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Charles and Diana on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. Well, that certainly combines romance and betrayal, commerce and symbolism all together, for sure.

But, a real wedding kiss is a fitting conclusion to this talk. It's both clean and dirty, both forward looking and backward looking, both universal and particular. I offer a real one for your delectation:
[Slide 22, photo of John Bancroft, M.D., director of The Kinsey Institute, and his wife, Cindy Graham, kissing at their wedding.]

Just as I began this talk with a kiss from my life, I end it with a kiss from the life of [the director of] The Kinsey Institute. Our lives are bracketed by kisses, whose meaning and power transcend our ability to explain them. I love theory, but the real kisses are the best.

Notes

  1. Burma is now known as Myanmar. It is a large Southeast Asian country located between India and China.

  2. Francesca da Rimini," 1914 opera by Riccardo Zandonai, Libretto by Tito Ricordi.

  3. Henry Hyde, "The culture war," National Review, April 30, 1990.

SOME REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

Blue, Adrianne. (1996). On Kissing: From the Metaphysical to the Erotic.    
  London: Victor Gollancz.


Bolton, Richard. (Ed.). (1992).  Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent 
  Controversies in the Arts.  New York: New Press.  
  [Includes reprint of Henry Hyde's "The culture war."]  

Demac, Donna A. (1990). Liberty Denies: The Current Rise of Censorship in 
  America.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Nyrop, Christopher. (1901). The Kiss and Its History.  London: Sands and Co.

Tiefer, Leonore. (1995).  Sex Is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays.  Boulder, 
  CO: Westview.  [Includes essay "The Kiss."]
      

Copyright © 1998 Leonore Tiefer. All rights reserved.

Edited for Kinsey Institute website, Feb 09.2009

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