Dr. Alfred Kinsey

WARNING: GRAPHICALLY REAL

Alfred Charles Kinsey (June 23, 1894 – August 25, 1956) was an American biologist and professor of entomology and zoology, who in 1947 founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, now known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, as well as producing the Kinsey Reports and the Kinsey scale. Kinsey’s research on human sexuality, foundational to the modern field of sexology, provoked controversy in the 1940s and 1950s. His work has profoundly influenced social and cultural values in the United States and many other countries.

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The Kinsey Reports

Kinsey is generally regarded as the father of sexology, the systematic, scientific study of human sexuality. He initially became interested in the different forms of sexual practices around 1933, after discussing the topic extensively with a colleague, Robert Kroc. It is likely that Kinsey’s study of the variations in mating practices among gall wasps led him to wonder how widely varied sexual practices among humans were. During this work, he developed a scale measuring sexual orientation, now known as the Kinsey Scale which ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual; a rating of X, for asexual, was added later by Kinsey’s associates.

In 1935, Kinsey delivered a lecture to a faculty discussion group at Indiana University, his first public discussion of the topic, wherein he attacked the “widespread ignorance of sexual structure and physiology” and promoted his view that “delayed marriage” (that is, delayed sexual experience) was psychologically harmful. Kinsey obtained research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which enabled him to inquire into human sexual behavior. His Kinsey Reports—starting with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female—reached the top of bestseller lists and turned Kinsey into an instant celebrity. Articles about him appeared in magazines such as Time, Life, Look, and McCall’s. Kinsey’s reports, which led to a storm of controversy, are regarded by many as an enabler of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Indiana University’s president Herman B Wells defended Kinsey’s research in what became a well-known test of academic freedom.

Controversial aspects of his work

Kinsey’s sex research went beyond theory and interview to include observation of and participation in sexual activity, sometimes involving co-workers. He justified this as being necessary to gain the confidence of his research subjects. He encouraged his staff to do likewise, and engage in a wide range of sexual activity, to the extent they felt comfortable; he argued that this would help his interviewers understand the participant responses. Kinsey filmed sexual acts which included co-workers in the attic of his home as part of his research; Biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy explained that this was done to ensure the films’ secrecy, which would have caused a scandal had it become public knowledge. James H. Jones, author of Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, and British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, amongst others, have speculated that Kinsey was driven by his own sexual needs.

Kinsey collected sexual material from around the world, which brought him to the attention of U.S. Customs when they seized some pornographic films in 1956; he died before this matter was resolved legally.

Kinsey wrote about pre-adolescent orgasms using data in tables 30 to 34 of the male volume, which report observations of orgasms in over three-hundred children between the ages of five months and fourteen years. This information was said to have come from adults’ childhood memories, or from parent or teacher observation. Kinsey said he also interviewed nine men who had sexual experiences with children, and who told him about the children’s responses and reactions. Little attention was paid to this part of Kinsey’s research at the time, but where Kinsey had gained this information began to be questioned nearly 40 years later. It was later revealed that Kinsey used data from a single paedophile and presented it as being from various sources. Bullough suggests this was in order to avoid revealing it was from a single source. Kinsey had seen the need for participant confidentiality and anonymity as necessary to gain “honest answers on such taboo subjects”, which was weighed against the likelihood that these crimes would continue. The Kinsey Institute wrote that the data on children in tables 31–34 came from one man’s journal (started in 1917) and that the events concerned predated the Kinsey Reports.

Jones wrote that Kinsey’s sexual activity influenced his work, that he over-represented prisoners and prostitutes, classified some single people as “married”, and that he included a disproportionate number of homosexual men, particularly from Indiana, in his sample, which may have distorted his studies. It has also been pointed out he omitted African Americans in his research. Bullough explains that the data was later re-processed, excluding prisoners and data derived from an exclusively gay sample, and the results indicate that it does not appear to have skewed the data. Kinsey had over-represented people who were homosexual, but Bullough considers this may have been because this was stigmatized and needed to be understood. It was Paul Gebhard, in the 1970s, who removed all suspect data (e.g., pertaining to prisoners and similar respondents), and recalculated significant sets of figures against results given by “100 percent” groups. He found only slight differences between the original and updated figures.

Kinsey in the media

Detail of Time cover, August 24, 1953. Under Kinsey’s name, the caption reads “Reflections in the mirror of Venus.”

The popularity of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male prompted widespread media interest in 1948. Time magazine declared, “Not since Gone With the Wind had booksellers seen anything like it.” The first pop culture references to Kinsey appeared not long after the book’s publication: “[R]ubber-faced comic Martha Raye [sold] a half-million copies of ‘Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!’” Cole Porter’s song “Too Darn Hot“, from the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, devoted its bridge to an analysis of the Kinsey report and the “average man’s favorite sport.” In 1949, Mae West, reminiscing on the days when the word “sex” was rarely uttered, said of Kinsey, “That guy merely makes it easy for me. Now I don’t have to draw ’em any blueprints…We are both in the same business…Except I saw it first.”

The publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female prompted even more intensive news coverage: Kinsey appeared on the cover of the August 24, 1953, issue of Time. The national newsmagazine featured two articles on the scientist, one focusing on his research career and new book, the other on his background, personality, and lifestyle. In the magazine’s cover portrait, “Flowers, birds, and a bee surround Kinsey; the mirror-of-Venus female symbol decorates his bow tie.” The lead article concludes with the following observation: “‘Kinsey…has done for sex what Columbus did for geography,’ declared a pair of enthusiasts…forgetting that Columbus did not know where he was when he got there…. Kinsey’s work contains much that is valuable, but it must not be mistaken for the last word.”

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