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Sexual research app scrutinized by lawyers

September 06, 2012|By Monte Morin
  • The Kinsey Reporter smartphone application seeks to collect data on previously unreported human sexual behavior.
The Kinsey Reporter smartphone application seeks to collect data on previously… (Kinsey Reporter )

Sex: There’s an app for that.

The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, along with Indiana University, have released a free smartphone application that allows users to anonymously report on sexual and intimate behavior.

The app, which is available to Apple and Android users, is intended to collect previously unreported experiences for the well-known sexual behavior research institute, and make that information available online.

“People are natural observers. It’s part of being social, and using mobile apps is an excellent way to involve citizen scientists,” said Julia Heiman, institute director. “We expect to get new insights in to sexuality and relationships today. What do people notice, what are they involved in, and what can they relate to us about their lives and their communities?”

Or at least that’s what researchers hoped to learn.

On Thursday, the institute announced that it was pulling the plug — at least temporarily — on the project after the university’s lawyer raised concerns.

A note on the Kinsey Reporter website said that while the project had undergone extensive review before approval, a new general counsel wanted to “thoroughly vet the protocols,” and ordered the service taken down. “We sincerely apologize for the interruption, and hope to have Kinsey Reporter up again very soon,” the announcement said.

It might not surprise some to learn that the idea raised eyebrows among some school officials.

“Want to be a part of sex research? Now you can with the Kinsey Reporter App,” states a promotional video. “You can report on everything, from sexual activities to public displays of affection, whether it’s you or happening around you.”

After filling out a survey that asks if they are reporting on flirting, masturbation, oral sex, a fetish, or other topics, users can log onto the Kinsey Reporter website, where the reports are aggregated and sorted by general geographic location. The surveys, researchers said, would all be anonymous, and would span the globe.

Researchers hoped to collect data on, among other areas, unreported sexual violence in different countries, and the prevalence of condom use by region. According to the researchers, the information that app users provided would be transmitted using a secure, encrypted protocol. The only data collected would be a time stamp and a geographic location selected by the user.

These protections, according to researchers, classified the data as “exempt from review,” allowing it to be shared without signed consent forms.

The app was a joint project between the Kinsey Institute and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, or CnetS, which is part of the university’s School of Informatics and Computing. Both are based in Bloomington, Ind.

The Kinsey Institute is named for biologist Alfred Kinsey, who conducted the world’s first large-scale surveys of sexual behavior in the late 40s and early 50s.

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