Kinsey, Alfred Charles

views updated May 11 2018


(b. Hoboken, New Jersey, 23 June 1894; d. Bloomington, Indiana, 25 August 1956),

biology, taxonomy, human sexuality.

Kinsey was a biologist at Indiana University with a special interest in taxonomy and its application to the gall wasp. In 1938, at the age of forty-four, he was asked to teach a marriage course for students. This task confronted him with the extraordinary lack of scientific evidence relating to human sexual behavior, and led him to spend the rest of his life striving to fill this gap in knowledge. The extent to which human sexual behavior had been systematically studied previously was minimal, and in several respects Kinsey was a pioneer who broke through the social taboos to pursue his scientific goals, in the process carrying out a project that has not yet been equaled in size, breadth, or scope. His work also provoked considerable controversy, which has continued, at intervals, ever since. He started on this great undertaking relatively late in his career, and he died eighteen years later, when only sixty-two.

Early Years . Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 23 June 1894, to Sarah Ann Charles Kinsey and Alfred Seguine Kinsey, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Both of his parents were devout Methodists with very conservative social values. Although Kinsey’s childhood was marred by recurrent ill health that left him physically vulnerable and contributed to his early death, the young Kinsey loved being outdoors. He went camping with the local YMCA and joined the Boy Scouts. By the time he was in college, he followed an exhausting schedule of work, study and long nature expeditions.

A high school science teacher, Natalie Roeth, introduced Kinsey to the biological sciences, but his father insisted that he study engineering at Stevens. After two years, Kinsey rebelled and transferred to Bowdoin College, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Although Kinsey had to take an overload of courses to complete degrees in psychology and biology while working to earn his keep, he maintained his strong interest in the piano and continued to work with YMCA camps.

After graduating from Bowdoin, Kinsey entered the Bussey Institute at Harvard. There he studied with William Morton Wheeler, a prominent entomologist who studied ant societies. Kinsey chose gall wasps for the subject of his dissertation. After completing a PhD in zoology in 1919, he was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, which subsidized a postdoctoral year in the field. He toured remote areas of the United States, adding to an already large collection of gall wasps. In 1920 he accepted the invitation of ichthyologist Carl Eigenmann to join the Department of Zoology at Indiana University.

Gall Wasps . For more than twenty years Kinsey devoted his academic life to an investigation of the taxonomy of gall wasps of the genus Cynips. By the time of his death he had studied more than five million specimens. When he began his work in graduate school, traditional taxonomy tended to focus on typical specimens. From this perspective, one only needed to look at a few “perfect” examples of any given species, and it would be a waste of time to collect thousands of wasps. But Kinsey took quite a different approach, one that reflected the growing influence of evolutionary biology.

From an evolutionary point of view, one needed to study populations of organisms, and the variations among them were of crucial interest. So Kinsey not only collected large numbers of specimens, he also measured them under the microscope, noting all sorts of differences between them. Because he was also interested in speciation and biogeography, Kinsey needed to collect specimens from diverse regions. Gall wasps do not travel far from their protective galls. Hence it is relatively easy for populations to become isolated, and this leads to an unusually large number of what Kinsey thought of as species (many in the early twenty-first century would be viewed as subspecies).

Starting in 1922 Kinsey published long papers on his findings, followed by two extensive books: The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (1930) and The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (1936). Kinsey bluntly contrasted his approach with that of systematists who stick pins in a few so-called representative samples and place them in a box. His views on taxonomy won wide acceptance, and his 1926 textbook for undergraduates, An Introduction to Biology, was well received and went through three editions. In 1937 he was made a “starred scientist” in American Men of Science. And in 1938 Kinsey set out to offer a marriage course to Indiana undergraduates. Soon he was investigating the varieties of human sexual behavior with the same vigor as he had pursued gall wasps.

Sex Research . When Kinsey turned his research attention to human sexual behavior, his objective was to collect a large number of interviews covering extensive details of each interviewee’s sexual life. His goal was 100,000 interviews—perhaps not surprising, considering the more than a million gall wasps he had amassed. By the time that his research team completed interviewing in 1963, the total amounted to more than 18,000, a long way from Kinsey’s goal, but very large by any standards; Kinsey himself had conducted more than a third of these. He had planned a series of books based on this data, but only published two of them before his early death: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). His research team, under the leadership of Paul Gebhard following Kinsey’s death, published three further books based on this data: Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion (1958), Sex Offenders: an Analysis of Types (1965) and culminating in The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938–1963 Interviews (1979).

The two Kinsey volumes made a huge impact. The first, an extremely dry book filled with dense tables, sold more than 200,000 copies in its first six weeks. Within four months, it was at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. Within the first year, there were translations in French, Spanish, Italian, and Swedish. By 1950 the attention of the public and media turned to anticipating the volume on females. Although at the outset this also received a massive response from the media (most of it in the three weeks before it was officially published), the reaction was brief by comparison with the first volume. Overall, reactions to both books ranged from outrage to admiration. The reactions from the scientific community were also mixed, mainly concerning issues of methodology, which will be considered further.

Kinsey’s Sampling . There is general agreement that Kinsey’s method of obtaining a sample of Americans did not meet modern standards of survey sampling. Probability sampling, in which random selection is used to improve representativeness, was in its infancy when Kinsey began his long-running study. He also believed probability sampling to be inappropriate because of the high refusal rate to be expected in a sex survey. Kinsey’s alternative, reflecting his approach to the gall wasp, was to interview as large a number of individuals as possible, relying on the size of the sample to average out any sources of bias. However, he also deliberately over-sampled relatively rare varieties of sexual behavior in order to have enough of each variety from which to draw useful conclusions, a technique advocated today for the study of behavior in minority groups.

Kinsey was clearly sensitive to criticisms of his sampling approach and defended his methodology within the work itself. Once published, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male elicited a number of critical reviews from statisticians. In 1950 the National Research Council, which had been funding Kinsey’s research (with money from The Rockefeller Foundation), requested that the American Statistical Association evaluate Kinsey’s methodology. Following a lengthy period of assessment, a detailed report by the review group of three—William Cochran, Frederick Mosteller and John Tukey—was published. The group acknowledged the difficulties that Kinsey had faced, which were similar to but in many respects more formidable than those faced by many other large scale social surveys, and concluded that he had been justified in not using probability sampling in the earlier stages of his project. However, they did advise that he should do so, at least on a modest scale, in the future. (By then the data for Sexual Behavior in the Human Female had already been largely collected.) Given the potential for selection bias that his method involved, the review group was critical of his lack of caution in interpreting his findings, as well as his incorrect use of statistical procedures (e.g., the weighting procedure to produce “U.S. corrections”). On the other hand, they applauded his diligence, concluding that Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was “a monumental endeavor” and markedly superior to other studies in the field.

The sampling problem was most marked in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, mainly because of the inclusion of large numbers of prisoners within the non-college sample. When confronted by his colleagues Paul Gebhard, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin concerning the differences in the sexual behavior data between women with prison records and those without, Kinsey agreed to omit such special groups from the analysis, and they were excluded from consideration in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. In addition, Kinsey conceded that the female sample was not appropriate for the “U.S. corrections” that he had employed in the first volume.

Subsequently, some years after Kinsey’s death, the Institute staff re-analyzed the data, including additional interviews collected following the preparation of the second volume until 1963. They separated out and published in The Kinsey Data (1979) a “basic sample” of men and women who were never convicted of any offense other than traffic violations and who did not come from any source known to be biased in terms of sexual behavior (e.g., homosexual networks). This made clear the under-sampling of non-college-educated men and women. In general, therefore, these samples were of most value in studying the college-educated part of the population. As a result of this “cleaning” of the data, Gebhard and Johnson concluded that “the major findings of the earlier works regarding age, gender, marital status and socioeconomic class remain intact. Adding to and cleaning our samples has markedly increased their value, but has not as yet caused us to recant any important assertion” (p. 9).

One issue that did look different as a result of this process was the incidence of male homosexual behavior. Whereas incidence figures for college-educated males did not change much, those for the non-college-educated, once those with criminal records were excluded, looked markedly lower. Gagnon and Simon (1973) reanalyzed the data from the college-educated group and found that, whereas 30 percent reported at least one homosexual experience, in more than half this experience occurred before the age of fifteen; an additional third had experienced all their homosexual acts during adolescence. This left about 3 percent with extensive and 3 percent with exclusive homosexual histories. Kinsey had not drawn attention to the fact that these reported same-sex experiences were predominantly occurring in early adolescence. Of some interest is the possibility that there may have been a substantial drop in this early adolescent male homosexual expression over the last fifty years.

The Kinsey Interview . This aspect of Kinsey’s methodology has received little criticism, and in fact is widely regarded as of high quality. It focused on behaviors and responses and did not ask about feelings, attitudes, or

values. In addition to obtaining a wealth of highly detailed information about each individual’s sexual experiences, from childhood onward, Kinsey also sought fairly precise frequencies for a range of behaviors at specific time periods through life. Modern sex research would question the validity of such recalled frequencies, except for fairly recent time periods of recall. However, Kinsey’s description of the principles of interviewing to obtain sexual information has probably never been bettered. Unfortunately, his method of interviewing, along with an elaborate method of coding answers, which needed to be memorized by the interviewer, required extensive training; not surprisingly, the method has not been used in more recent surveys.

There were two aspects of Kinsey’s approach to the interview that remain of paramount importance: his ability to convey a nonjudgmental attitude, which enabled his subject to describe any sexual behavior, however stigmatized; and his ability to convince subjects that their records would remain completely confidential, a conviction that over the years has remained justified. Both of these issues, which are crucial methodologically as well as ethically, have contributed to the controversies around Kinsey’s research, which will be considered below.

The Sexual Outlet . One of the principal criticisms of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male concerned its focus on orgasm and on the “total sexual outlet” (i.e., the number orgasms, from whatever source, in a particular time period). According to many critics, sex should not be reduced to the orgasm, and furthermore, orgasms from disparate sources should not be combined to derive a “total sexual outlet.” This is one of the principal issues on which Kinsey has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. He regarded orgasm, at least in the male, as the most precise and specific indicator of a sexual experience. He acknowledged that there were many sexual situations or encounters that did not result in orgasm. “These emotional situations are, however, of such variable intensity that they are difficult to assess and compare.” Furthermore, implicit in this approach was the assumption that the “total sexual outlet,” defined in this way, provided some measure of “sexual drive” or “need for sexual release” for that individual, and as such would be an important measure of individual variability. Although somewhat of an oversimplification, this does have scientific heuristic value. His task, or anyone else’s, in quantifying sexual activity, at least in the male, would be much more difficult if orgasm were not the defining characteristic.

By the time Kinsey wrote Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, his position had shifted somewhat on this issue. Along with this shift came a more sensitive attitude to female sexuality than had been apparent in the volume on men. Maybe this resulted from his confrontation with the mass of female data as it emerged, which challenged many of his male-oriented attitudes. Maybe he also responded to the criticisms of women whose opinion he clearly respected. Early in the volume on women, he comments that a considerable portion of female sexual activity does not result in orgasm, and he goes on to report incidences and frequencies of women’s sexual experiences both with and without orgasm. Later in the volume, one finds the following: “It cannot be emphasized too often that orgasm cannot be taken as the sole criterion for determining the degree of satisfaction which a female may derive from sexual activity. … Whether or not she herself reaches orgasm, many a female finds satisfaction in knowing that her … partner has enjoyed the contact, and in realizing that she has contributed to the male’s pleasure” (p. 371). But Kinsey retained his belief in the value of “total sexual outlet” as a useful measure of a woman’s interest in or need for sex, and he presented this data, not as in the male volume as the first chapter, but rather as the last chapter of results.

Kinsey’s Mission . Although he repeatedly asserted throughout both volumes that his task was to obtain and present the facts, leaving the sociopolitical and moral significance of such facts to others, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he also had a mission. However, as he never explicitly stated a sociological or moral mission, it was left to others to suggest various agendas: for example, to change the pattern of sexual behavior in the United States, to bring about a “revolution” in sexual values, or even to undermine the social structure of the United States in such a way as to foster communism. (Kinsey was decidedly not a communist, but a Republican.) Scholars will continue to debate the nature and extent of Kinsey’s mission beyond that of the socially aware scientist. Critics also debate the extent to which Kinsey’s own sexuality and early negative sexual experiences influenced his research. It is noteworthy that in more recent times a scientist’s emotional involvement with his or her field of research is more readily acknowledged, and is not necessarily regarded as a negative factor. To what extent Kinsey had insight into the impact of his personal sexual history on his research scholars will never know.

In Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the central theme that may be said to relate to social change concerns the striking differences in patterns of male sexual behavior between what Kinsey summarized as the “upper and lower social levels.” This was shown in a greater tendency for “upper level” males to engage in masturbation, premarital petting, and oral sex, and for “lower level” males to engage in premarital intercourse. Kinsey further described this social class difference as reflecting an awareness, at the upper level, of what is “right or wrong” (i.e., what is moral or immoral), and at the lower level of what is “natural or unnatural.” In Kinsey’s view there were two important consequences of this social class difference: First, there was a major lack of understanding by one class of the other, and resulting conflicts; secondly, many members of the upper social level “consider it a religious obligation to impose their code upon all other segments of the population” (p. 385). Thus Kinsey described how marriage counselors, most of whom came from the upper social level, imposed their concepts of sexual normality on lower-level couples, where they did not fit. More important, those who determined the laws came from the upper social level; thus, in Kinsey’s analysis, most of the laws regulating sexual behavior, at the time of his writing, not only had a long background in religious doctrine, but were more consistent with the “sexual morality” of the upper social levels, and were inconsistent with accepted standards of “natural” sexual behavior in the lower social levels.

A recurring theme in both volumes was the extent to which such laws did not reflect actual sexual practice. At the time Kinsey was researching, virtually all forms of nonmarital sexuality were illegal, and some forms of sexual behavior within marriage (e.g., oral sex) were also illegal, at least in some states. “On a specific calculation of our data, it may be stated that at least 85 percent of the younger male population could be convicted as sex offenders if law enforcement officials were as efficient as most people expect them to be” (Male volume, p. 224). Yet “only a minute fraction of one percent of the persons who are involved in sexual behavior which is contrary to the law are ever apprehended, prosecuted or convicted …” and “the current sex laws are unenforced and unenforceable because they are too completely out of accord with the realities of human behavior” (Female volume, pp. 18–20). Kinsey describes the consequences of this legal state of affairs, which consist not only of the impact of actual convictions, but much more frequently, the chronic effects of guilt about engaging in illegal activities that are, in Kinsey’s view, part of the normal range of human sexual experience.

In the volume on women, the emphasis is different. Here the principal causes for concern are the differences in the sexuality of men and women, and the misunderstandings, conflicts, and interpersonal tensions that result from this apparent “mismatch,” with Kinsey striving here for better understanding between men and women, and in the process, stabilizing marriage, which Kinsey saw as fundamental to any good social system.

It is inescapable that Kinsey chose to study human sexuality in an extremely behavioral fashion. Although he commented at length on the social processes that shaped sexual morality, and often referred to the anguish and guilt suffered by individuals whose sexual behavior contravened the sexual mores of their group, he confined himself to describing their behavior without attempting to assess its emotional concomitants. Kinsey’s scientific training, and probably its interaction with his particular personality, led him to distance himself from the subject of his study. There was little or no consideration of love, intimacy, or tension. Much of his writing in these two volumes studiously avoids engaging with such concepts, leaving the text somewhat impersonal and incongruously cold considering its topic. This no doubt contributed to the discomfort that many felt when reading these books, and perhaps fueled the critics’ attacks.

Kinsey and Controversy . It is not surprising that Kinsey’s work has provoked controversy. At the time that his two volumes were published, there was little information about sexuality available to the general public, and he was criticized for making his findings available to ordinary people rather than restricting them to professionals and clergy. One of the assumed consequences of Kinsey’s books, which has some validity, is that they made homosexual behavior not only more common but also less pathological, an impact welcomed by the socially repressed homosexual communities, but not by many others. A continuing reason for political opposition to sex survey research is that it “normalizes” behaviors such as homosexuality. Another early reaction of outrage was to the revelation that women were much more sexual than they were “supposed” to be. This led to allegations that Kinsey’s survey had excluded “normal, decent women.” A concern that has continued ever since is that merely asking people about their sexual activity without passing moral judgment on it in some ways gives them license to continue the behavior. This has been a particular issue in relation to surveys of adolescents, where there is the added concern that research questions suggest ideas, leading to behavior that may not otherwise have happened.

A more pernicious campaign of criticism, which has continued unabated since the early 1980s, stems from concern within some sections of the “Religious Right” that there have been unacceptable changes in sexual mores and patterns of sexual behavior as a result of Kinsey’s work. Although his data, together with an abundance of evidence from other sources, clearly indicate that such socio-sexual changes had started well before Kinsey published his findings, and have occurred extensively throughout the industrial world and are linked to a range of other important social changes, such as change in the status of women, critics nevertheless continue to blame Kinsey. A particular theme in this demonization has been to accuse him of sexual offenses against children. These allegations, which range from his being a pedophile, to his carrying out sexual experiments on children, or training other individuals to do so, are entirely without foundation, and are solely based on his reporting of the sexual, and in particular, orgasmic responses of children (Tables 31 to 34, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male). Kinsey to some extent was vulnerable to such allegations because he did not indicate clearly the source of this information. Subsequently, the Kinsey Institute made it clear that the information for these four tables came from one man, who had not only been involved throughout his adult life in numerous sexual activities with men, women, and children, but had also carefully documented his experiences. Kinsey interviewed this man close to the writing of the male volume and was clearly interested in his documented observations, which were made available to Kinsey. His preparedness to report this evidence, without passing judgment, is one of the more striking examples of his stance of “moral neutrality.” He has also been criticized for not having exposed this man for his crimes, an example of the fundamental importance Kinsey gave to guaranteeing confidentiality to his research subjects. In retrospect, Kinsey’s judgment in using this evidence can be questioned. However, the suggestion that some boys can experience “multiple orgasms” before they reach puberty raises crucial

questions about normal sexual development, which, because of the difficulties in researching such themes, remain otherwise unanswered. In any case, whether ill judged or not, Kinsey cannot be held responsible for the sexual exploitation of these children, and there is no indication that he abused or promoted the abuse of any other children.

Kinsey as a Scholar of Sexual Science . Many of Kinsey’s ideas and interpretations in both volumes remain as thought-provoking and relevant as they were when first published. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, he reported important and striking differences in male and female patterns of behavior and attitudes. The most striking was the difference in accumulative incidence curves of various aspects of sexual behavior in the two sexes, with males showing a much more marked rise around puberty to an early peak and subsequent decline through adulthood, whereas females showed a much more gradual rise to a much later peak. The clear relationship in males between early age at puberty and higher subsequent levels of sexual activity was not found in females. Individual variability in sexual responsiveness and frequency of sexual activity was much greater among females. Males were generally more “promiscuous” than females.

In attempting to explain and interpret these sex differences, Kinsey clearly changed some of his opinions between the writing of the two volumes, moving to a state of greater uncertainty in the volume on women. Thus, the impact of socio-cultural influences was stressed in relation to the male, with major differences between upper- and lower-level males in terms of premarital intercourse, petting, masturbation, and so on. Such differences were not found in women, which he interpreted in several places as indicating that women were less susceptible to socio-cultural influences. At the same time, his own data had shown that there had been important changes in certain aspects of female sexual behavior over time, with women born after 1900 being more likely to engage in premarital intercourse and petting than those born before 1900, a difference that apparently was consistent across the socioeconomic spectrum. At times Kinsey attempted to see biological determinants as more important in the female, yet this was inconsistent with his finding that age at puberty had more impact in males than females, suggesting more powerful biological determinants in males. Kinsey’s writing suggests greater comfort with biological than with socio-cultural explanations, in spite of the considerable emphasis placed on socio-cultural differences in the volume on men. This presumably reflects his lack of training as a social scientist. As the female volume progressed, increasing attention was paid to the idea that there are basic psychological differences between the sexes. The picture of these undoubtedly complex differences became somewhat confused. Fifty years later, and with a fair amount of further evidence available, this confusion can only be reduced to a limited extent.

The last five chapters of the volume on women provide a masterly review of the evidence available at the time on the anatomy, physiology, psychology, neurophysiology, and endocrinology of sexual response. In Chapter 14, on the anatomy of sexual response, there are detailed descriptions of common patterns of muscle response and other responses during sexual activity and orgasm. The sources of this data were not given. It later became apparent, from Pomeroy’s biography of Kinsey, that most of this observational data came from films of sexual activity involving volunteers, which Kinsey had made in the privacy of his own home. At the time of his writing it was clearly unwise to have revealed that such filming had been done. Kinsey was a scientist who was reluctant to rely solely on self-report; he wanted to be able to observe what happened during sexual activity. In the process he paved the way for William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s important work on the physiology of human sexual response.

The Legacy . During the months before his death in 1956, Kinsey struggled to maintain his intense work schedule. He faced repeated disappointments in his attempts to secure funding for the Institute and, as everyone around him realized, his heart was failing. He died on 25 August, survived by his wife Clara (Mac) and three children, Anne, Joan, and Bruce. (Their first child, Donald, had died of juvenile diabetes in 1926 at the age of four.) The Institute also survived. The following year Paul Gebhard and Wardell Pomeroy were awarded the first grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the field of sexual science, where intellectual heavyweights have been in short supply, Kinsey remains the preeminent sexual scientist. The fact that he was trained as a biologist, yet carried out a massive study of human sexual behavior using social science research methods, accounts for some of the mistakes and errors of judgment that he made. He was clearly a stubborn man with strongly held opinions, making it less likely that he would accept the advice of others. However, he showed himself responsive to criticism when it was backed up with good evidence, and perhaps his somewhat arrogant manner contributed to his success in what was an exceptionally courageous and monumental piece of pioneering research. While being sometimes hypercritical of his academic peers, he showed compassion for those who suffered as a result of their sexual lives. He doubted that the causes for such problems lay within the individual but rather the repressive social environment in which he or she had developed. The extent to which Kinsey is responsible for changes in sexual attitudes and behavior that have occurred since he published his two volumes is debatable. But what is beyond dispute is that he opened up the debate about sexual behavior and in several respects demystified it.


A complete bibliography of Kinsey’s published work is available in Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998, pp. 494–495.


An Introduction to Biology. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1926.

The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips. A Study in the Origin of Species. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1930.

A New Introduction to Biology. Chicago: Lippincott, 1933.

The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1936.

With W. B. Pomeroy and C. E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948.

With W. B. Pomeroy, C. E. Martin, and P. H. Gebhard. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1953. Republished, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.


Bancroft, John. “Alfred C Kinsey and the Politics of Sex Research.” Annual Review of Sex Research 15 (2004): 1–39. This review examines the political reaction to Kinsey’s research and the periodic political reaction to sex research that has occurred in the United States since Kinsey.

Capshew, J. H.; M. H. Adamson; P. A. Buchanan; et al. “Kinsey’s Biographers: A Historiographical Reconnaissance.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12 (2003): 465–486. This articles examines and compares the four biographies of Kinsey.

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

Churchill, Frederick B. “The Evolutionary Ethics of Alfred C. Kinsey.” In Scientific Values and Civic Virtues, edited by Noretta Koertge, pp. 135–153. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An analysis of how Kinsey avoided the naturalistic fallacy.

Gagnon, J. H., and W. Simon. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago, Aldine, 1973.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. This biography, using much of the same evidence available to Jones (below), paints a very different picture of Kinsey as a man, and disputes Jones’s assertion that Kinsey’s research was flawed because of his own sexuality.

Gebhard P. H.; J. H. Gagnon; W. B. Pomeroy; and C. V. Christenson. Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Gebhard, P. H., and A. B. Johnson. The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938–1963 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1979.

Gebhard, P. H.; W. B. Pomeroy; C. E. Martin; and C. V. Christenson. Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Of Wasps and WASPS.” In The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 155–166. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985, Provides a detailed comparison of Kinsey’s approach and methodology in his studies of gall wasps and humans.

Jones, J. H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. This thoroughly researched biography paints a negative picture of Kinsey’s own sexuality with the assertion that it biased his research.

Morantz, R. M. “The Scientist as Sex Crusader: Alfred C. Kinsey and American Culture.” In Procreation or Pleasure?: Sexual Attitudes in American History, edited by T. L. Altherr, pp. 145–166. Malabar, FL: R. E. Krieger, 1983.

Pomeroy, W. B. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. These two biographies are by members of Kinsey’s research team. As such they provide well informed accounts of Kinsey’s work, but with no breach of the confidentiality that their working relationship with him incurred.

Robinson, P. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. New York: Harper & Row. 1976. An example of scholarly reactions to Kinsey’s research and impact that provides a reasonably balanced perspective.

John Bancroft

Kinsey, Alfred

views updated May 23 2018

Kinsey, Alfred 1894-1956


No figure in twentieth-century American sexuality is more influential, controversial, or misunderstood than Alfred Charles Kinsey. Kinsey was born on June 23, 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey, a product of working-class Protestant culture. Throughout his life, Kinsey struggled with the contradictions of a profoundly moralistic attitude toward sexuality and faith, a love of nature and the Boy Scouts, and a zealous commitment to purge sexual education of its religiosity and moralism. Following a doctor of science degree from Harvard University (1919), Kinsey became a highly respected entomologist and naturalist, with an unshakable belief in science and a fascination with sex. His research was undertaken primarily at Indiana University beginning in 1920, where he eventually founded the Kinsey Institute (1946) and conducted the largest survey study of American sexuality, unsur-passed until the 1990s.

Kinseys work represented a scientific reaction to Sigmund Freuds (18561939) popular developmental sexuality and the sexual psychopath laws that sprang from its medical model. Kinsey famously created a population-based questionnaire emphasizing the diversity of sexuality and the collection of representative numbers of individual interviews to understand sexual behavior across the course of life. Even homosexuality was, for Kinsey, a variation of the norm, and unlike Freud, Kinsey believed that it was better to express, rather than sublimate, these desires. Culture was largely an impediment to sexuality in his model, however, since he believed that culture and religion undermined sexual desire and pleasure, resulting in unnecessary sexual taboos.

Between the late 1930s and 1950s, Kinsey and colleagues collected more than 5,300 male sexual histories and 5,940 female histories, many actually conducted by Kinsey, subsequently published in two books: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Demonstrating that Americans beliefs were at odds with reality, Kinsey showed that masturbation, homosexuality, and premarital and extramarital sexual relations for men and women were far more common than previously believed. The famous Kinsey scale of heterosexual to homosexual, based upon seven kinds of preference, countered the conventions of male/female, heterosexual/homosexual binaries. The methodology was criticized for its white male bias, behavioralism, lack of African American sample, and overrepresentation of homosexuals. Although Kinsey sometimes interviewed the same person at two different times, he always used only the most recent interview score, which was aggregated into the general sample, thus militating against the sense of dynamic change across the life course of individuals (Herdt 1990).

Politically attacked from its inception, Kinseys research facilitated social progress in attitudes and laws regarding American sexuality, particularly on issues surrounding the frequency of female sexual pleasure and masturbation, the normalization of homosexuality, and sexual expression outside of marriage. Such cultural changes, of course, represented challenges to gender and familial stereotypes and cold war ideologies. Historians have argued that Kinseys empirical datasuch as, for example, the finding that 37 percent of all American males had had some homosexual experiencewas significant in changing sexual attitudes, perhaps laying the groundwork for second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution, and the gay and lesbian social movement. By compelling a different understanding of the world in which they were growing up, individuals who came of age under the influence of the Kinsey reports in the media and popular culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s greeted sexuality through the lens of changing norms about masturbation, female sexuality, and homosexuality. The absolute influence of taboos and laws was to some extent mediated by a growing idea of cultural relativism and social constructionism in universities. Armed with new knowledge and data that laid the foundation for social advocacy in society and the university, second-wave feminism and the gay and lesbian movement began the push toward greater tolerance for new gender roles and sexual diversity in America. In subsequent decades, the roots of these changes in Kinseys works were sometimes eclipsed, but a rash of new biographies and filmic studies suggests a renewed appreciation for the pivotal role of this seminal thinker in American sexuality.

SEE ALSO Hite, Shere; Sexuality


Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. 2000. Sex, the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Herdt, Gilbert. 1990. Developmental Continuity as a Dimension of Sexual Orientation Across Cultures. In Homosexuality/Heterosexuality: Concepts of Sexual Orientation, ed. David McWhirter, June M. Reinisch, and Stephanie Sanders, 208238. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, and Paul H. Gebhardt. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Robinson, Paul. 1976. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. New York: Harper and Row.

Gilbert Herdt

Kinsey, Alfred Charles

views updated May 08 2018

Alfred Charles Kinsey

American entomologist and sex researcher who pioneered the study of human sexuality.

Alfred Charles Kinsey was a well-known entomologist, specializing in the study of gall wasps, when his increasing interest in human sexuality led him in a entirely new scientific direction. Appalled by the lack of reliable scientific information on human sexual practices and problems, Kinsey began conducting extensive interviews, first with his students and then with larger populations. Kinsey's landmark studies, which emphasized both the variety of human sexual activities and the prevalence of practices that were condemned by society, led to a new openness in attitudes toward sex. His work was part of trend in which laws were liberalized and sex education for children became commonplace. Kinsey's research revived interest in the science of "sexology."

Born in 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Kinsey was the son of a domineering father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey, and a devoutly religious mother, Sarah Anne (Charles) Kinsey. In 1904, the family, including a younger brother and sister, moved to the more fashionable town of South Orange, New Jersey. Childhood illnesses and a misdiagnosis of heart disease kept Kinsey out of sports, but his life-long interests in classical music and field biology developed at an early age. He became an avid outdoorsman, was active in the Boy Scouts, and spent summers as a camp counselor. Although he dreamed of becoming a biologisthis high school yearbook predicted that he would become "the second Darwin"his father, who had worked his way up from shop boy to shop instructor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, demanded that Kinsey study engineering at Stevens.

Breaks with father to become an entomologist

Almost overnight, Kinsey went from high school valedictorian to a mediocre student at a technical college. After two years at Stevens, Kinsey announced to his father that he was transferring to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Financing his education with his summer earnings and aid from a wealthy South Orange widow, Kinsey became the star biology student at Bowdoin, while maintaining his involvement with the local church and the YMCA. Graduating magna cum laude in 1916, Kinsey received a fellowship to Harvard University. He began studying gall wasps at the Bussey Institute under William Morton Wheeler. These tiny insects, that form galls, or growths, on roses and oaks, were the perfect

subject for Kinsey's unwavering attention to detail and his love of collecting large samples in the wild. While at Harvard, Kinsey found time to write a botanical work, Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, although the book was not published until 1942. After earning his doctor of science in 1919, a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship enabled Kinsey to tramp across the country for a year, collecting gall wasps.

Settling into the life of a college professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Kinsey married Clara Brachen McMillen in 1921. She was a chemistry student who shared his love of music and the outdoors. Over the next few years, the couple had four children, although the oldest died of diabetes before the age of four. The publication of Kinsey's texts, An Introduction to Biology (1926) and Field and Laboratory Manual in Biology (1927), provided the family with financial security. His books on gall wasps, published in the 1930s, established him as both the leading expert on these insects and an important theorist in genetics.

Studies on human sexuality bring fame and notoriety

Kinsey's interests were starting to turn from wasps to people. Disturbed by the lack of scientific knowledge concerning human sexuality, as well as the profound ignorance of his students concerning sexual matters, in 1938 Kinsey began teaching a course on marriage. The Indiana students, anxious for accurate information, flocked to the course and Kinsey turned them into his initial subjects. First with questionnaires and later with private interviews, Kinsey obtained detailed sexual histories of his students and counseled them on the most intimate matters. Soon, using his own funds to expand his research, Kinsey was interviewing large numbers of subjects in Chicago, analyzing data, and training collaborators. With funding from the National Research Council's Committee on the Research in Problems of Sex and the Rockefeller Foundation, he founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. In 1984 it was renamed the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

With the publication of his best-selling book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, Kinsey became an icon of popular culture. In language reminiscent of his high school yearbook, the popular press referred to Kinsey as the successor to Darwin. "The Kinsey Report," as it became known, used straightforward and accurate language to report the findings from thousands of interviews: most males, especially teenagers, masturbated frequently without going insane; premarital and extramarital sex were common; and one-third of all men reported having had at least one homosexual experience. Predictably, Kinsey's book was attacked by religious and conservative groups. With the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, the outcry increased and the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew their support. Kinsey's studies on women's sexuality included frank and detailed discussions of female sexual response and orgasm and further reports of frequent masturbation and premarital and extramarital sex. Kinsey was accused of undermining the morals of America.

Unable to obtain funding for a new large-scale study of sex offenders, Kinsey traveled to Europe and England in 1955. There he lectured and studied sexual attitudes. Despite increasingly poor health, he completed his 7,935th interview in Chicago in the spring of 1956. Ill with pneumonia and a heart condition, Kinsey fell and bruised himself in his garden. The bruise produced a fatal embolism, and he died in a Bloomington hospital in August, 1956, at the age of 62. Although both Alfred Kinsey and "The Kinsey Report" remain controversial, and later researchers have raised serious questions about Kinsey's methodologies, his work had a profound impact on sexual attitudes and beliefs.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

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

Epstein, Joseph. "The secret life of Alfred Kinsey." Commentary 195 (January 1998): 35-39.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of all Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

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

Pomeroy, Wardell Baxter. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Kinsey, Alfred

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kinsey, Alfred (1894–1956) A zoologist who completed the first major large-scale social research into the sexual behaviour of men and women in North America. The findings, based on a sample of 18,000 interviews (nearly half of which Kinsey conducted himself), were published as Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. Through the founding of the Kinsey Institute of Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana, he did much to establish the credibility of such research. His findings were controversial, showing for example that 4 per cent of men in his sample were exclusively homosexual, and a third of men had engaged in homosexual acts. His findings have had an important cultural impact, discussed by P. Robinson in The Modernization of Sex (1976).

Kinsey, Alfred Charles

views updated May 21 2018

Kinsey, Alfred Charles (1894–1956) US zoologist, noted for his studies on human sexual behaviour. He was a director of the Institute for Sex Research, Indiana University, and is best known for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

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