The pioneering researcher’s sexual revelations
enlightened and shocked a nation. His legacy is controversial yet powerful.
Angeles Times, November 15, 2004
By Rosie Mestel, Times Staff Writer
On a January day in 1948, a hefty book filled with turgid
scientific prose, and scores of tables and charts, landed amid an unsuspecting
American public. The tome reported, matter-of-factly and without judgment,
that American men were up to all manner of sexual exploits behind closed
doors, and that the minds of huge numbers of them were churning with taboo
The book, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” by
biologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University, was an utter revelation for a
populace living in a time when masturbation was frowned upon, oral sex (even
between husband and wife) was illegal in some states, and homosexuality was
considered an extremely rare, criminal deviance.
Kinsey’s work set off “a true media explosion,”
says writer-director Bill Condon, whose movie, “Kinsey,” on the pioneering
sex researcher’s life, premiered in Los Angeles and New York last Friday.
Publications such as Collier’s, Time and the New York Times ran cover
articles about Kinsey’s book. Church leaders, among others, denounced it.
Overnight, millions of American men realized that they
were not lone freaks for doing what they did.
Based on thousands of exhaustive, confidential interviews
with churchgoers, college students, prison inmates and more, Kinsey reported,
for example, that 92% of men had masturbated and half of married men had had
extramarital affairs. A full 37% of men said they had had some form of
homosexual experience at some point in their lives.
Five years later, Kinsey’s second volume—“Sexual
Behavior in the Human Female”—came through with more revelations. A full
62% of women, for instance, reported they had masturbated, about half of the
women said that they had engaged in premarital sex, and two-thirds of
participants said that they had experienced overtly sexual dreams. The book
was widely attacked as an affront to the dignity of womanhood.
Americans flocked to buy both volumes, turning them into
Those dry books are now gathering dust on academic
bookshelves but Kinsey’s legacy lives on. By bringing the sexual lives of
regular American men and women out of the shadows—by cataloging their
actions and proclivities more completely than anyone before him or since—he
opened the doors on a public discussion of sex and set a foundation for the
scholarly investigation of this most intimate arena of human life.
Social scientists and sex researchers describe his
contribution as one of the most significant achievements in the annals of sex
“His influence was tremendous—it opened up the
field,” says Vern Bullough, founder of the Center for Sex Research at Cal
State Northridge, and author of “Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex
Nobody since the controversial Kinsey has interviewed as
many people, in such painstaking detail about so many aspects of their sexual
lives and thoughts.
Over the course of years, 18,000 men and women across the
country were asked to bare their souls on such matters as the frequencies of
their climaxes, their experiences with premarital sex and even whether they
had ever had sexual encounters with animals.
Kinsey’s work did more than reassure people they were
not alone: It highlighted a disconnect between certain laws of the land and
actual sexual practice. “Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin,” Kinsey once
Perhaps above all, researchers say Kinsey’s work and
the later studies it inspired showed social scientists, public health workers,
therapists and geneticists just how much there was and still remains for them
“His No. 1 contribution was simply recognizing that
sexual behavior is diverse and that people do very different things … that
there was a marvelous and very substantial diversity of sexual behavior in all
segments of the population,” says Dean Hamer, author and molecular biologist
at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied sexuality and genetics.
Being lauded as the father of sex research may seem an
odd fate for a man with Kinsey’s start in life. He was born in 1894 in
Hoboken, N.J.; his father was an engineer and a Sunday school preacher who
spoke out passionately against the sins of masturbation.
Kinsey obtained an assistant professorship in zoology at
Indiana University in 1920, and gained prominence in his field for the
detailed study of the thousands of gall wasps he collected—enthralled, in
his studies, by the rich variation he uncovered.
But in 1938, he took a new tack and began teaching a
university course on marriage in which he discussed sexual matters quite
frankly. Soon after, he devised his questionnaire and embarked on a brand-new
taxonomy—of human sex.
“He brought the same perspective—the same interest in
diversity of species that he’d done with his little gall wasps,” says
Stephanie Sanders, associate director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in
Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, the institute Kinsey once
directed. “He really believed that science could provide answers.”
In 1943, Kinsey and his team secured private funding to
amass information on sexual habits. Kinsey and his carefully trained interview
team traveled throughout the country, interviewing people one-on-one whenever
they could: every member of a fraternity, a church congregation, a residential
building. They ventured into gay bars. They talked to prison inmates.
Proper interview technique was deemed crucial by Kinsey.
The questioner was not to exude a trace of judgment. Questions were delivered
at a rapid pace, and the answers recorded in an elaborate code that took many
months of training to master.
“Kinsey also knew that people might lie; he had all
sorts of questions to find out if they were telling the truth,” says
Bullough. “It was a very comprehensive questionnaire that I don’t think
that most people would sit through today if somebody knocked on your door and
said ‘I want to do this survey’ and your supper was on the stove and it
kept going on and on.”
Sex researchers say Kinsey’s biggest contribution was
the sheer cataloging of variation. But his most-famous findings revolve around
the issue of homosexuality. He devised the famous Kinsey scale—a numerical
gradation of levels of homosexual orientation, with 0 representing those who
were exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual. The scale is
still used by researchers.
Kinsey also reported that 10% of the men he interviewed
said they engaged in predominantly homosexual activity between the ages of 16
and 55. “That changed the thinking about homosexuality,” says Dr. Jack
Drescher, a New York psychoanalyst. “If it was more common than people
thought it to be, then perhaps it was what we would call a normal variation of
sexuality rather than a form of mental illness.”
The 10% figure became a political slogan during the gay
liberation movement of the 1980s. But the finding was influential far earlier
than that. In the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuality was deemed highly deviant
behavior for which a person could be imprisoned, institutionalized and subject
to forced “cures.”
Kinsey’s work inspired others to investigate the matter
of homosexuality, including psychologist Evelyn Hooker, who in the 1950s
administered the famous Rorschach inkblot test to groups of seemingly
well-adjusted gay and heterosexual men. (Only data on disturbed or imprisoned
homosexuals had been available up to that time, which presented the likely
possibility of bias.)
Experts were asked to rate all the blots (without knowing
which came from whom) and found no evidence that the homosexual group was any
more disturbed than the heterosexual group.
Based on work such as Kinsey’s and Hooker’s, the
American Psychiatric Assn. voted in 1973, after intense debate, to drop
homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Today, experts believe that Kinsey’s precise numbers
were inflated, partly because the people he interviewed to draw his
conclusions—especially in the book on males—were not nationally
representative. A posthumous reanalysis of his massive dataset found that when
interviews from prisoners and other sources likely to over-sample the number
of homosexual participants were removed, the percentage of those with
exclusively homosexual experiences fell to 3%; another 3% reporting that such
experiences were extensive but not exclusive. Those figures are in line with
more recent studies.
Even at the time of its publication, Kinsey’s
statistical methodology was challenged. He knew he could not obtain a totally
random sample, but tried to correct for this by making his sample as large as
possible and employing the “cluster” method that he had used handily in
his studies of wasps—gathering, wherever he went, as complete a sample as
possible. He originally intended to collect 100,000 interviews to further
lower the chance of bias. But he died in 1956, at age 62, before he could
complete his work.
After his first book on males was published, an
independent board of scientists from the American Statistical Assn. carefully
reviewed his methodology—and by and large exonerated him, acknowledging that
a random, door-to-door approach would have been formidably difficult given the
sensitive nature of the habits he was trying to catalog.
Kinsey also incorrectly concluded that the sexual habits
of women were more biologically rooted—less likely to change in step with
the evolving sexual standards of society. “If anything, it’s the other way
round,” says John Bancroft, recently retired director of the Kinsey
Kinsey has also been faulted for his chronicling of
pedophilia and the sexual habits of young children. An analysis by Bancroft
revealed he relied heavily on data from one man—a pedophile who reported
sexual encounters with hundreds of children, all of which he chronicled in a
Reliance so much on one person was not a reliable way to
gather facts. More than that, however, was a moral issue: Why didn’t Kinsey
report the man to the police?
In defense of Kinsey, the institute’s website states
that “many sexual behaviors, even those between married adults, were illegal
in the 1940s and 1950s. Without confidentiality, it would have been impossible
to investigate the very private lives of Americans then, and even now.”
In recent decades, some critics have gone further in
their attacks against Kinsey. One independent researcher has charged that
Kinsey did more than passively take notes on the habits of a sex criminal, but
that he was involved in such crimes.
Such claims have gained widespread attention, but sex
researchers and historians say there is no evidence to support them.
“People are extremely uptight when it comes to the
academic study of sex,” says the NIH’s Hamer. “As soon as you study sex,
people accuse you of being a pervert, an activist, a cheater and a liar—all
of which Kinsey was accused of.”
Kinsey was certainly a complex man. As portrayed in the
movie, he engaged in homosexual relations with one of his associates and once
attempted to circumcise himself.
But he was also a married man and a devoted father whom
scholars describe as compassionate and ethical, if arrogant.
Even in his time, Kinsey was charged with importing
pornography after customs officials seized art erotica he was mailed from
overseas. Under pressure from congressional investigators, the Rockefeller
Foundation—which funded Kinsey’s work—dropped his funding after the
publication of Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.”
Sex researchers say they have experienced similar
attacks. For instance Bullough, of Cal State Northridge, says that he was
accused of being a pedophile for organizing a workshop in which child
pornography was to be discussed. State funding for Cal State Northridge was
held up while he was investigated.
In the early 1990s, federal funding for a large survey on
sexual habits, to be coordinated by the University of Chicago, was withdrawn
after then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms intervened. The research was eventually
conducted on a smaller scale with grants from private sources.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Patrick Toomey (R.-Pa.) proposed an
amendment that would have cut off $1.5 million in federal funding that had
already been awarded for studies on such topics as the sexual habits of older
men, sexual risk-taking, arousal and the activities of San Francisco massage
workers. The amendment was narrowly defeated.
Conservative family groups have repeatedly called for
closure of the Kinsey Institute.
Kinsey may have explained what people did yet he never
attempted to explain why. But by cataloging so completely the variability that
exists in human sexual behavior, he paved the way for a multidisciplinary
field that is trying to answer such questions from multiple orientations:
genetics, hormones, medicine, social science and psychology. Each year,
hundreds of sex researchers convene at the meeting of their flagship
organization (one that Kinsey, as it happened, refused to join): the Society
for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
The researchers say they experience perennial worries
about funding, and have learned to carefully couch the titles of their
projects (using words such as “attitudes” instead of more overtly sexual
terms) to avoid attracting controversy.
Some study sex from the point of view of public health or
sociology—ways to improve condom use or trends in attitudes toward
premarital sex—while others tackle still poorly understood psychological
arenas such as the factors dictating arousal.
Others, in this age of the human genome, are attempting
to understand the biological and genetic causes of homosexuality or gender
More and more scientists are studying sex from a medical
perspective, seeking physiological causes and pharmaceutical answers to
problems such as impotence or loss of sexual desire: Increasingly, funding for
sex research comes from pharmaceutical companies. This trend is the cause of
no small tension in the field, for some sex researchers feel that such
“medicalization” is inappropriate.
Kinsey, meanwhile, has been accused of, or credited
with—depending on one’s point of view—doing more than laying the
groundwork for a new field. He radically altered the way society thinks of
sex, and ushered in far greater sexual freedom.
That may be too much to lay at his door.
He did receive letters from people around the world
thanking him for letting them know they were not abnormal. Some of those
writers (such as a woman featured in the “Kinsey” movie who decided late
in life to follow her lesbian urgings) said his work encouraged them to make
alterations in their lives.
But many other developments were taking place in the
world at the time Kinsey was collecting and writing. Antibiotics that could
cure venereal disease. Birth control pills. Movements of people caused by war
and the Depression. Women entering the workplace, and ultimately the gender
“It’s that kind of thing that makes a
revolution—not the Kinsey volumes,” says Ira Reiss, professor emeritus of
the department of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Kinsey brought the subject out into the open—but, says
Bancroft, “he was basically reporting on what people were already doing.”
Sex in a century
Over the decades, American attitudes toward sex have
changed greatly. At the beginning of the 20th century, most people simply
didn’t discuss the topic. Today, sex is freely talked about even on TV and
radio shows. Here are some milestones.
1905: In his work “Three Essays on the Theory of
Sexuality,” Austrian scientist Sigmund Freud writes that our sexual drive is
responsible for what we do, why we do it and even who we are. Differences in
personalities originate in childhood sexual experiences, he theorizes.
1916: Margaret Sanger opens the first U.S. birth control
clinic. She also underwrites research that leads to the development of the
birth control pill.
1940s and ‘50s: Alfred Kinsey surveys men and women
about sexual behavior. The resulting books become bestsellers, beginning a
national discussion of behavior previously discussed only in private.
1957: Evelyn Hooker releases a study contending that
well-adjusted gay people have no more psychopathology than heterosexual
1960: The Food and Drug Administration approves the birth
1966: Building on Kinsey’s work, William Masters, a
gynecologist, and Virginia Johnson, a psychology researcher, publish their
findings of sexual activity observed in a laboratory in the book “Human
Sexual Response.” Their work leads to a new field: sex therapy.
1969: Dr. David Reuben publishes his bestselling sex
manual, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to
Ask)”; the book inspires a 1972 Woody Allen movie of the same name.
1972: “The Joy of Sex” by Dr. Alex Comfort is the
first explicit book about sex. Less clinical than Masters and Johnson’s
work, it includes information on oral sex, sexual positions, bondage and
1973: Homosexuality is removed as a sexual deviation from
the American Psychiatric Assn.’s manual of mental health disorders.
1976: Sex researcher Sherry Hite publishes “The Hite
Report: A Nationwide Survey of Female Sexuality,” which argued that many
women were not sexually satisfied.
1980: Sex educator Ruth Westheimer, or “Dr. Ruth,”
launches the radio show “Sexually Speaking,” which emphasizes sex
education. It opens the door to other sex-related TV and radio programs.
1998: Food and Drug Administration approves Viagra for
impotence in men.
2004: “Kinsey” movie is released, with actor Liam
Neeson playing Kinsey.
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