Kinsey, Alfred C.

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KINSEY, Alfred C.

KINSEY, Alfred C. (b. 23 June 1894; d. 25 August 1956), biologist, sex researcher.

Alfred Kinsey ranks as one of the most influential sex researchers (sexologists) of the twentieth century. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Kinsey later married Clara Bracken McMillen; they had four children, one of whom died just before his fifth birthday. Kinsey was a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Bussey Institute at Harvard. He became an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University in 1920, where for twenty years he specialized in research on the gall wasp.

Kinsey and his associates at the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University (later named the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction) are best known for the two volumes popularly dubbed the Kinsey Reports. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) gave the postwar nation a glimpse into American sexual lives while also underscoring the chasm between sexual norms and actual behavior. His pioneering research played a significant role in the transition from religious to scientific authority over matters of sexuality in the United States.

Despite its shortcomings, Kinsey's research represented a significant departure from earlier sex research, particularly that of the case study method of psychoanalysis. Both Kinsey reports were based upon extensive sex histories conducted with almost twelve thousand white women and men. His subjects were often members of particular institutions he visited, such as prisons, schools, or workplaces. The Kinsey team did not include the interviews they conducted with African Americans because the team believed its sample was not large enough. The average interview lasted from ninety minutes to two hours, covering hundreds of items. Although based on large numbers of adults, the Kinsey findings on sexuality could not accurately be generalized to the population at large because he used volunteers in his research rather than a representative random sample.

Kinsey viewed sexual behavior as the result of a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social influences. Although he studied how social variables such as class, gender, and religion shaped an individual's "total sexual outlet," he generally viewed these as constraints on a "natural" sexuality rooted in "our mammalian heritage." His focus on the "natural" led Kinsey to criticize social institutions or customs that he saw as impeding sexual expression. For example, he harshly condemned sex laws, especially the sexual psychopath laws that frequently targeted gay men. His insistence that he was an objective scientist translated into a refusal to condemn minority sexual groups. This led postwar LGBT communities to perceive him as an ally.

Methodology and Conclusions

Kinsey's significant legacy in the study of LGB people is largely conceptual and political rather than empirical. He challenged the notion of fixed sexual identities that nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century sexologists had advanced, arguing that "The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats" (1948, p. 639). The well-known Kinsey Scale suggested that individuals might be located on a 0–6 continuum ranging from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual in both sexual involvement and interest. Although the scale was unsuccessful as a research tool, it helped destabilize the cultural acceptance of rigid sexual categories. Kinsey believed that everyone had the capacity for homosexuality, and so he spoke only of homosexual behavior, not about distinct identities or persons. As opposed to early sexologists such as Richard Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who categorized types of behavior as "abnormal" or "perverted," Kinsey eschewed both the moralism of religion and the pathologizing gaze of psychiatry.

Kinsey reported that, regardless of their sexual identities, many men and women in his study had participated in homosexual behavior during their lives. The popular belief that one in ten adults is gay is commonly attributed to the Kinsey research. His actual findings, however, are more complicated than this simple claim. Although he found that 10 percent of males were "more or less exclusively homosexual" (that is, they would be located as a Kinsey Scale 5 or 6) for at least three years between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five, he also found that 4 percent of males were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives. The frequency of exclusive homosexual behavior was lower for women: 1–3 percent of unmarried women in his sample rated a 6 on the Kinsey Scale between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Still, Kinsey's finding that 50 percent of men and 28 percent of women had some type of homosexual experience further stimulated postwar anxieties about sexuality and gender.


A mark of Kinsey's enduring significance as an icon of the sexual revolution is the unremitting controversy about him and his research. Although both of his books became immediate bestsellers, the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female during the height of McCarthyism triggered public outrage. Kinsey was denounced in the popular media as well as by the scientific community. The

Rockefeller Foundation terminated his funding in 1954, on the brink of congressional hearings. Decades after his death Kinsey remains the target of social and religious conservatives who see him as the leading architect of the liberal changes they despise in the sexual culture. They are particularly incensed by Kinsey's acceptance of homosexuality. Conservative activist Judith Reisman has waged the most vehement campaign to discredit Kinsey. Her two books, Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud (1990) and Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences (1998), lodge a series of personal attacks against Kinsey and his associates, alleging that they were closet homosexuals and pedophiles whose research was corrupted by their own sexual perversions. These attacks reinforced those brought by James H. Jones's controversial 1997 biography, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, in which Jones suggests that Kinsey's critiques of sexual guilt and repression were driven by his own "bizarre behavior," including a range of sexual compulsions.

Perhaps the most provocative allegation against Kinsey is Reisman's charge that he and his associates advocated incest and child molestation. This claim is elaborated in the Family Research Council's 1994 video documentary, The Children of Table 34, which charges that Kinsey's research was based on cruel and illegal sexual experimentation on hundreds of children. Although the Kinsey Institute issued a public refutation of these charges, they served in 1995 as the basis for House Resolution 2749, introduced by one-term conservative U.S. representative Steve Stockman to investigate whether Kinsey's research involved any fraud or criminal wrongdoing. The bill died in committee. However, Kinsey's vulnerability to attacks on his personal sexual behavior vividly illustrates the persistent culture of sexual shame that he worked so hard to disrupt.


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

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: Norton, 1997.

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

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

Janice M. Irvine

see alsobisexuality, bisexuals, and bisexual movements; foster, jeannette; lawrence, louise; psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and sexology; sadomasochism, sadists, and masochists; sex acts.

Kinsey, Alfred C.

views updated Jun 27 2018

Kinsey, Alfred C.



Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894–1956) was undoubtedly the most famous American student of human sexual behavior in the first half of the twentieth century. In Europe at the turn of the century, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and then Albert Moll, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Sigmund Freud had opened up to exploration this hidden area of man’s life, chiefly by the presentation of individual case histories and philosophical speculation. In the United States in the period between 1929 and 1940 Katherine B. Davis, Gilbert V. Hamilton, Robert Latou Dickinson, Lewis M. Terman, and Carney Landis had made investigations of certain segmental aspects of sex, but it remained for Kinsey to survey a broad range of human sexual behavior based on thousands of face-to-face interviews.

Kinsey obtained an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin in psycholoy and a doctorate at Harvard in 1920 in biology. He then went to Indiana University where he concentrated on the field of taxonomy, studying the Cynipidae (gall wasps). This study ultimately resulted in important contributions to evolutionary theory.

He began his sex research, unassisted, in 1938. Its importance was soon recognized and his personally financed week-end field trips to nearby cities to gather sex histories became instead three-week interviewing tours, supported by grants, on which he was accompanied by research associates. Clyde Martin and Wardell Pomeroy were among the first staff members to join him in interviewing. Support at first came from the National Research Council and the Medical Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. Indiana University, under the leader-ship of President Herman B Wells, lent solid backing to Kinsey’s sex research, gradually relieving him of teaching duties to facilitate his work.

In 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published. It aroused unanticipated interest in the general as well as the academic public, and Kinsey’s name became synonymous with the study of sex. Five years later the companion volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was completed. In 1947 the Institute for Sex Research was established as a nonprofit corporation affiliated with Indiana University, and the staff was gradually augmented to a dozen or more. By this time an authoritative library dealing with sex had been developed and staffed, and valuable supplementary materials such as diaries, daily sexual calendars, art collections, cine, photographs, and other erotic source materials had been collected. In 1950 the United States Customs challenged the right of the institute to import erotica for scientific study and confiscated a collection of material purchased abroad. A case based on these seizures was decided in the Federal District Court of New York in 1957 in favor of the institute’s right to add to its holdings for research uses.

Following Kinsey’s death in 1956, the institute continued the scientific study of sex, publishing the third and fourth volumes, Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion in 1958 and Sex Offenders: A Analysis of Types in 1965.

The two major Kinsey volumes have set a frame-work that has encouraged further research into man’s sexual behavior—even yet a largely unexplored area. Kinsey’s chief contributions to this field of study are (1) a quantified, thorough description of the sexual behavior of a large number of individuals of both sexes and of diverse social status; (2) the discovery of an unexpected range of individual and social class variation; (3) a correction of various misconceptions, chiefly those concerned with childhood sexuality, female responsiveness, and homosexuality; (4) a demonstration that human sexual behavior can be investigated objectively and openly, thus paving the way for subsequent research.

The work of Kinsey and his staff, while praised highly by many scientists, was severely criticized by others. Such was the interest that a committee of the American Statistical Association was appointed to appraise the data in the 1948 book, and although it pointed out certain methodological weaknesses, it acknowledged the general importance of the data (Cochran et al. 1954; Hyman & Sheatsley 1948). As a novice in the field of social science, Kinsey had clearly made some methodo-logical errors, but in the years since the volumes were published scientist and layman alike have increasingly accepted them for what they were meant to be, an attempt to survey the approximate range and norms of sexual behavior. Up to the present time no research of comparable scope in this field has been instigated by other groups, and the eighteen thousand histories in the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University form a backlog of basic data on sex which has still not been fully exploited. The institute that Kinsey founded is now supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health. Under the directorship of Paul Geb-hard, research in sexual behavior is continuing, and the basic data are being made available to other scholars in the field.

Cornelia V. Christenson

[Other relevant material may be found inInterviewing, article onsocial research; Sexual behavior; and in the biography ofEllis.]


1941 Homosexuality: Criteria for a Hormonal Explanation of the Homosexual. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology 1:424–428.

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

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


Cochran, William G. et al. 1954 Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Washington: American Statistical Association.

Deutsch, Albert (editor) 1948 Sex Habits of American Men: A Symposium on the Kinsey Report. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Ernst, Morris L.; and Loth, David 1948 American Sexual Behavior and the Kinsey Report. New York: Greystone.

Geddes, Donald P. (editor) 1954 An Analysis of the Kinsey Reports on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Female. New York: Dutton.

Himelhoch, Jerome; and Fava, Sylvia F. (editors) 1955 Sexual Behavior in American Society: An Appraisal of the First Two Kinsey Reports. New York: Norton.

Hyman, Herbert H.; and Sheatsley, Paul B. 1948 The Kinsey Report and Survey Methodology. International Journal of Opinion and Attitude Research 2: 183–195.

Indiana University, Institute FOR Sex Research 1958 Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion, by Paul H. Gebhard, W. B. Pomeroy, C. E. Martin, and C. V. Christenson. New York: Harper.

Indiana University, Institute FOR Sex Research 1965 Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types, by Paul H. Gebhard, J. H. Gagnon, W. B. Pomeroy, and C. V. Christenson. New York: Harper.

Alfred C. Kinsey

views updated Jun 27 2018

Alfred C. Kinsey

The American zoologist Alfred C. Kinsey (1894-1956) was known chiefly for his pioneering case studies in the area of human sexual behavior.

Alfred C. Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of an engineering professor, on June 23, 1894. He received his doctorate in 1920 from Harvard University, where he had been awarded the Sheldon travelling fellowship. He held teaching appointments in both botany and zoology at Harvard before becoming assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University. By 1929 he was made a full professor there.

Kinsey won his early reputation as an entomologist with research on the life of the gall wasp. Studying minutely 28 factors on a large proportion of the more than four million specimens he examined, Kinsey provided research which added much to knowledge of genetics and evolution. He might now be famed only among biologists had he not in the 1930s joined 11 other teachers in giving a marriage course.

Students asked him about sex, and he quickly learned that there were few scientific answers to their questions. Soon he resolved to try to apply accepted methods of scientific research to the universal problem of sexual behavior, and he courageously set himself a long range task, in the face of tradition and taboos. His results made the Indiana University campus a world center for research in human sexual behavior.

Kinsey began his sex studies in 1938, embarking on a well-planned, long-range program designed as "a progress report from a case history study on human sex behavior." In the project outlined, nine volumes would be presented requiring at least 30 years of work by many people. However, by the time of his death in 1956 Kinsey had completed only two volumes.

Initially, Kinsey had the help of one graduate student, whom he paid $900 per year out of his own faculty salary. The first outside financial assistance he received for sex research was $1,600 from the National Research Council in 1941. By 1942 scientists of the Medical Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, after a thorough investigation of Kinsey's work, recommended that the foundation give its support. This it did with grants of as much as $100,000 a year allocated through the National Research Council. By 1954, however, the Rockefeller Foundation cancelled its contribution.

Before publication of his first book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, in 1947, Kinsey was still hardly known outside a narrow circle of biologists. He incorporated his research under the title of Institute for Sex Research, Inc., and all royalties for his first book and the second, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, were used to finance further research.

The first book appeared in 1948 and was based on case studies of some 5,300 individuals. Although Kinsey's intention was to record facts as they had been found and to leave it to others to place interpretation on them, public interest in the book was aroused by the statistical analyses which showed a correlation between an individual's sex habits and the educational and occupational groups to which he belonged. Especially controversial was one conclusion which stated that actual sex practices deviated significantly from the accepted norms established by laws and conventions of society. Anthropologist Margaret Mead found the material "extraordinarily destructive of interpsychic and interpersonal relationships." Nonetheless, the Kinsey Report, as the book came to be called, sold 300,000 copies and became an instant bestseller.

The controversy over Kinsey's earlier findings was still in full swing in 1953 when the second book, which was based on interviews with 5,940 women, appeared. It likewise became a bestseller, with 227,000 copies sold. Alan Gregg of the Rockefeller Foundation wrote:

As long as sex is dealt with in the current confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, suppression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indecency that lead neither to intellectual honesty nor human dignity. Kinsey's studies are sincere, objective, and determined explorations of a field manifestly important to education, medicine, government, and the integrity of human conduct generally. They have demanded from Kinsey and his colleagues very unusual tenacity of purpose, tolerance, analytical competence, social skills and real courage.

Later scholarship pointed to Kinsey's pioneering case studies as also important for bringing controversial subject matter out in the open for informed discourse. The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University provided a living monument to his pioneering work.

Further Reading

There are two biographical studies of Kinsey: Cornelia V. Christenson's Kinsey, A Biography (1971) and Wardell Pomeroy's Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (1972). A chapter on his pioneering work is in Paul A. Robinson's The Modernization of Sex (1976). Detailed critiques of his case study approach to human sexual behavior appear in William Cochran, Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1954); Albert Deutsch, Sex Habits in American Men (1948); Morris Ernst, American Sexual Behavior and the Kinsey Report (1948); and Jerome Himelhoch, Sexual Behavior in American Society (1955). □

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