In one of the more bizarre mid-career shifts in scientiﬁc history, an entomologist previously known for his decades long study of the little-known gall wasp became, in 1948, the man who changed how America looked at sexuality. A number of observers have gone so far as to divide sex in America into two eras: Before Kinsey and After Kinsey. The book that created the furor, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published on April 5, 1948, and had within a few a months sold over 200,000 hardcover copies in the United States alone. Five years later, women got their turn, when Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published. The sensational reception was largely due to novelty. Alfred Kinsey wrote about previously taboo subjects with the same dry scientiﬁc detachment he applied to his research on insect taxonomy, and so people who would ordinarily be wary of purchasing, much less publicly reading, a big book about sex, could simply tell others and themselves that this one, since it was scientiﬁc, was different.
Kinsey’s results were startling to many readers, revealing that Americans were more sexually active, and engaged in a wider variety of sexual practices, than anyone had previously acknowledged. Furthermore, people were regularly breaking a range of both taboos and laws in the process. Some of Kinsey’s most enduring and surprising ﬁndings concern the prevalence of homosexuality, previously assumed to be rare by most writers on the subject. In addition to reporting that over one-third of the men surveyed had had at least one homosexual experience between early adolescence and old age, the Kinsey team claimed that 10 percent of the male population is exclusively homosexual, a ﬁgure still widely quoted by activists today; more recent surveys conducted with larger, more-representative samples, put the ﬁgure at about 3 percent.
Kinsey also reported that marital inﬁdelity was more widespread than most readers had believed and that it followed different patterns depending on socioeconomic status. Blue-collar men tended to stray widely in the early years of marriage before settling down and being faithful to their wives, whereas the white-collar executives tended toward monogamy early on with extramarital affairs coming later in the marriage. Despite its generally taboo status, masturbation was also far more common than generally reported.
A proper understanding of Kinsey’s work requires careful examination of his methodology. Both Kinsey reports were based entirely on self-report data, with all the usual problems attendant on that method (people do not always tell the truth, for example). Over a decade of research, Kinsey and his assistants interviewed approximately 12,000 men and women. The questionnaire they used had more than 200 items, all concerning the individual’s sexual history.
To encourage people to feel comfortable talking about such personal information, the interviewers were trained to appear completely indifferent to what they were told, no matter what was said, an approach that might have actually seemed strange to some of the interview subjects.
To the general public, Kinsey’s presentation of his data as scientiﬁc was convincing, as both books’ ready acceptance and incorporation into popular culture amply demonstrate. It helped that the research had been funded by the prestigious and extremely well known Rockefeller Foundation. Within the scientiﬁc community, however, Kinsey’s ﬁndings were greeted in some quarters with a fair amount of skepticism right from the start. Beyond the basic problem of self-report data, a larger problem concerns the representativeness of the sample. Although Kinsey presented his data as broadly representative of the American male population, a substantial chunk of his sample consisted of prisoners and sex offenders, a fact widely criticized by scientists at the time. Like many scientists, Kinsey simply worked with a population that was cooperative and easy to ﬁnd.
Kinsey’s results may also have been biased by the wording of the interview questions. Rather than asking whether a person had ever engaged in a particular activity, the interviewer would ask when it had last occurred. “Never” was therefore not an acceptable reply. Also, when the time came to conduct the interviews for his book on women, his interviewers encountered more difﬁculty in getting women to talk to them than they had encountered with the men, which led to the loosening of some of the demographic categories used to distinguish the subjects. The “married” portion of the sample included all women who had lived with a man for more than a year, for example, as well as numerous prostitutes.
A more serious problem, which has been unaccountably overlooked by most of his readers over the decades, concerns his inclusion of data on sexual arousal in children, and his odd indifference to the moral questions raised by this part of his research. The chapter called “Early Sexual Growth and Activity,” includes charts for which “trained persons” measured occurrences of “orgasm” in children as young as two months old. This appears to have required including pedophiles among his research subjects and ignoring both the legal and moral issues associated with their admissions. Indeed, a recent biography reveals that most of the data on preadolescent sexuality came from interviews with a single man who acknowledged having molested hundreds of children, and who had kept thorough notes on his activities. Far from being appalled, Kinsey seems to have regarded “Mr. Green,” as he refers to him in his notes, as a bit of a scientiﬁc pioneer. In 1998 the British newspaper The Telegraph revealed the identity of Mr. Green after examining his diaries, used by Kinsey as research data. According to the diaries, he had molested over 800 children. A 1998 British documentary followed the story further, revealing that Kinsey was engaged in regular correspondence with a German pedophile during his trial for the rape and murder of a child.
Although there are clearly major problems with the data reported by Kinsey, it is undeniable that he single-handedly inspired the modern ﬁeld of serological research. Some inﬂuential major players in the ﬁeld since Kinsey have followed in his footsteps with survey and interview research. One of the most widely read authors among them is Shere Hite, who wrote a series, the Hite Reports on Sexuality, which sold millions of copies. For one of her best-selling books, Women and Love, she mailed out 100,000 surveys to a highly non-random sample of members of women’s organizations. Of these, she only got a return rate of 4.5 percent. The women who took the time to respond to the complex multipage survey seemed to be angry and unhappy, which didn’t stop Time magazine from turning her ﬁndings into a cover story reporting that 70 percent of women married ﬁve or more years were having extramarital affairs, and that an overwhelming 95 percent of women felt emotionally harassed by the men they loved. As with Kinsey’s work, there was widespread criticism in the scientiﬁc community, but the general public and mainstream media have eagerly consumed Hite’s research.
Some researchers, however, have set out to attempt a more scientiﬁc approach to sexual research, complete with laboratory observation and experimentation. The most famous of these researchers are William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Rather than content themselves with accepting self-reports at face value, they designed a variety of laboratory devices and techniques to allow them to measure all aspects of the human sexual response in over 700 subjects whom they observed in the laboratory. Like Kinsey’s work, however, their research raises questions about representation and generalization, as their observations are based on people who are willing to perform sex acts in front of strangers in a laboratory while connected to a variety of monitoring devices.
- Hite, Shere. Women and Love. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989;
- Jones, James. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.