Kinsey, Dr. Alfred C. (1894-1956)

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Kinsey, Dr. Alfred C. (1894-1956)

Although he was in many ways the very model of the "egg-head" scientist, complete with crew-cut and bow tie, few academic researchers have had such a widespread impact on American culture as Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the founder of the Institute for Sex Research (later renamed for Kinsey) at Indiana University. Kinsey and his colleagues revolutionized the study and understanding of human sexuality through the publication of the two famous Kinsey Reports, more accurately entitled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1952). Instant bestsellers and cultural touchstones that few people actually read, the reports explicitly divorced moral judgment from the study of sexuality and opened sexual inquiry to professional disciplines beyond the medical sciences. While the aim of Kinsey's work was explicitly to collect quantifiable data, its cultural repercussions can be felt in the ways sexual topics are taught, discussed, and debated in American society throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.

Raised in a strict home and trained in zoology and entomology at Harvard, Kinsey began his scientific career by becoming the world's expert on gall wasps, which he collected by the thousands; among other things, Kinsey discovered that they exhibited odd reproductive habits. After being hired by Indiana University in 1920 and asked to coordinate an undergraduate course on marriage, Kinsey discovered how little reliable scientific research was available on human sexuality. He and his colleagues (most notably Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and Paul Gebhard) then initiated an elaborate project to collect data, which eventually involved almost 18,000 personal interviews and the accumulation of a vast archive of erotic as well as scientific materials. Though linked to a state university, the institute relied upon independent funding and donations in order to counter regular misperceptions that Indiana taxpayers might be supporting a pornography collection: early on, to demonstrate his techniques, Kinsey even collected the sexual histories of his sponsors at the Rockefeller Foundation and National Research Council. Adopting a radically empirical stance, Kinsey's institute categorized and cross-indexed sexual information in minute detail, while carefully avoiding the moralizing perspectives that had hampered previous discussions of sexual behavior and expression. In the institute's neutral vision, pornography might be as valuable for research as anthropology. For the first time in American culture, the practice of masturbation was simply taken for granted, though its multiple variations were carefully catalogued. By all accounts, Kinsey and his team were masterful in their ability to put their interviewees at ease while they revealed their most intimate activities and fantasies. The public response to those interviews was, on the other hand, a mixture of shock and fascination that also turned the research scientist into a national celebrity.

Undoubtedly the first report's most controversial revelation, especially in the historical context of ex-servicemen returning to civilian life, was that homosexual activity was common to many American men: 37 percent of Kinsey's sample had experienced at least one homosexual encounter leading to orgasm. Adopting a scale from 0 to 6, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality, Kinsey challenged stereotypes linking homosexuality and effeminate behavior and defined homosexuality as behavioral rather than constitutional. According to Kinsey's statistical summary, about four percent of American men were exclusively homosexual. Although Kinsey's statistics have been the subject of extensive criticism and confusion (he is commonly misquoted as claiming that 10 percent of American men are homosexual), reexaminations of his figures have also frequently affirmed the validity of his findings. Overall, Kinsey's research argued that homosexuals as a group, and homosexuality as an activity, were much more typical and, therefore, less statistically "deviant" than previously assumed.

The report on female sexuality was equally controversial, though the press and public downplayed its discovery that, while only three percent of Kinsey's sample were exclusively homosexual, the women in the study tended to be better educated than their male counterparts. Instead, attention focused on Kinsey's detailed analysis of the female orgasm and his revealing that almost half of the women interviewed had experienced premarital intercourse, while around 26 percent had enjoyed extramarital sexual relations. Clearly, Kinsey's data challenged beliefs about the prevailing female behavior, which turned out to largely be ideals rather than reality.

Half a century after the publication of his reports, Kinsey remained a controversial figure, though the most heated debates about his work have generally moved back into the academy where they began. Periodically Kinsey's objectivity and statistical findings are challenged, and often they are reconfirmed. James H. Jones's biography revealed many surprising details of Kinsey's own complex sexual life—married and the father of four children, Kinsey was also homosexually active. For cultural historians, the recurrence of such debates itself provides evidence of Kinsey's ongoing role in American life. Many have credited Kinsey with making once taboo topics—masturbation, homosexuality, female orgasm—frequent discussion topics in the media and in the home.

—Corey K. Creekmur

Further Reading:

Bullough, Vern L. Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. New York, Basic Books, 1994.

Christenson, Cornelia V. Kinsey: A Biography. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1971.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A

History of Sexuality in America. New York, Harper & Row, 1988.

Ditzion, Sidney. Marriage, Morals, and Sex in America: A History of

Ideas. New York, Bookman Associates, 1953.

Irvine, Janice M. Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern

American Sexology. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1990.

Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York, W. W. Norton, 1997.

Pomeroy, Wardell B., with the assistance of John Tebbel. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York, Harper & Row, 1972.

Robinson, Paul. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred

Kinsey, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson. New York, Harper & Row, 1976.