July 19, 2013 6:39 pm

Dutch sex scientist with a passion for the US

Erick Janssen on debunking stereotypes and why he feels at home in Bloomington, Indiana
Erick Janssen©Chris Bergin

Erick Janssen outside his home in Bloomington

Erick Janssen has what he calls his “Baseball Theory of Social Life” to explain one of the fundamental differences between his native Netherlands and the US, and it has to do with making friends. He came up with it 18 years ago, just a few months after moving from Amsterdam to Bloomington, Indiana, home of the Kinsey Institute where he is senior scientist and director of education and research.

“In the US it’s very easy to get to first base,” he says. “You’re invited in, and there’s a big reception for you, and it’s one of the most wonderful things about this country. But it’s hard to get to second and third base. In the Netherlands, it’s the other way around. It’s really quite hard to get to first base as a stranger. It’s a small country, and people are so protective of their lives. But once you get in, it’s like a home run.”

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The Kinsey Institute is arguably the world’s best known centre for sex research. Its notoriety has persisted unabated since its inception in 1947, beginning with Alfred Kinsey’s exhaustive survey which revealed that there was a lot more variety in Americans’ sexual habits than anyone ever acknowledged. Today, sex and attraction may play an unprecedentedly large role in advertising and news headlines, but, according to Janssen, it is still a relatively mysterious area of science. It would seem there has never been a better time to study it.

And yet, thanks in part to growing competition, securing funding for research is increasingly difficult, says Janssen, even in the Netherlands where people’s attitude toward sex is relatively down to earth. “We got media attention, but we never had to explain why what we did matters,” he says of his time in Amsterdam.

In the US, where small groups can wield an outsized influence over lawmakers, and sex research is often deemed an unsuitable use of taxpayers’ money, writing grant applications has become a very tricky enterprise. A number of citizens’ groups maintain a constant internet vigil to track the Kinsey Institute’s grant applications and pressure their political representatives to block or reverse funding.

But if having the value of his life’s work questioned in Congress is not quite what Janssen had in mind when he moved to the US, he has few complaints about life in the small Midwestern city of Bloomington, in part because it is not so different from where he grew up.

Janssen, 49, was born and raised in the industrial town of Oss, where his sense of humour and rebellious streak were forged. “I played electronic organ in the church band,” he says. “Our priest didn’t speak English, so we managed to play songs that had nothing to do with religion, like Supertramp’s Lord Is It Mine. We performed that one with the whole youth choir.” Oss is in the southern province of North Brabant, where the pace of life is slower, giving its residents a somewhat unflattering reputation. “Every country has its ‘south’,” says Janssen, and while he is proud of his origins, it was with some relief that Janssen found that in the US he was not a southerner, but simply Dutch.

He loved Bloomington immediately. “My first place was a beautiful wooden studio with huge high windows, overlooking a gorge out in the woods,” he says. “There were woodpeckers. It was so beautiful. I had deer walking on my deck, raccoons opening my garbage cans. Now it’s a nuisance, but back then it was amazing.”

With a population of about 80,000, a full half of which is comprised of Indiana University students, Bloomington is a quintessential US college town, with a youthful, socially conscious citizenry and a robust arts scene. Much of its charm is thanks to southern Indiana’s verdant terrain. Today, Janssen and his wife, poet and writer Nadine Pinede, own a home across from Bryan Park, one of the city’s most scenic areas.

“It’s in a very green neighbourhood,” says Janssen, “so green that if you stick around long enough you will develop allergies.” After 12 years of enjoying easy access to the park, particularly its public tennis courts, Janssen and Pinede are preparing to sell up and move into a rented property that they have had their eye on for a long time: a limestone house owned by a retired professor of music, furnished with, among other things, a Steinway piano.

Perhaps because so much of the work in his field consists of debunking stereotypes, he bristles at the suggestion that the Midwest is known, particularly on the coasts, as a cultural vacuum. “It’s not thought of as a major hub for cultural developments. Then again, Indiana University has the second best school of music in the entire country. Most opera singers who end up at the Met are trained here. We’ve had Joshua Bell and János Starker. Masters and Johnson were in the Midwest. Some of the best sex research in the country has taken place here.”

Janssen’s roster of things he misses about home reads much like most expats’, composed of friends and special places and, predictably, foods. “I love raw herring and Dutch fries,” he says. “And I miss foods I rarely ate while living there, like croquette or bitterballen. And frikandel – you don’t even want to know what’s in those things. It’s the first thing I eat when I get back, and after I’ve had one, I remember why I never used to eat it.”

Having been away from the Netherlands for nearly two decades now, Janssen worries that his identity as a Dutch person is being eroded and replaced by something else, a more American side. On the other hand, he is not entirely sure what it means to be Dutch. “I suppose it’s that we love apple pie, riding bikes, our language,” he says. “And we will defend to our deaths our Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter,” Saint Nicholas’s velvet-clad, black-faced sidekick. “When you tell Americans about this, their mouths fall open. You do what for Christmas?” Janssen’s wife, who is of Haitian descent, was no less dismayed: “When Nadine first saw it, we had to give her electric shocks to revive her. She almost went into a coma.”

In the end, Janssen settles on another theory, modelled on a principle of sex research: becoming more American doesn’t necessarily mean becoming proportionately less Dutch. Ever the scientist, he is comforted by this solution. Still, some hard data continue to elude him. “Being Dutch is like beauty or art or quality,” he says. “It’s hard to define, but you recognise it when you see it.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● The reasonable cost of living: being able to live in a spacious, detached house within walking distance of a park

● Paying $30 for tickets to the opera, featuring performers who are likely to end up singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

● Beautiful seasons throughout the year, with snowy winters, spectacular springs, hot and humid summers, and colourful autumns

Cons

● No direct flights from Indianapolis airport to Europe

● Not being able to find Hollandse nieuwe (a typical Dutch herring dish)

What you can buy for . . . 

$100,000 A two-bedroom condominium with a one-car garage in any number of apartment complexes around Bloomington

$1.2m A five-bedroom house on Lake Monroe, built on one acre of land, ten miles outside of the city

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Letter in response to this article:

‘Zwarte Piet’ is no joking matter / From Mr Bryan Wijsman

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