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 desires.
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 bestsellers.
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 research.
“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 Research.”
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 said.
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 to study.
“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 Institute.
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 journal.
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 orientation.
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 equality movement.
“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.”
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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 people.
1960: The Food and Drug Administration approves the birth control pill.
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 swinging.
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.