The Study of Human Sexuality

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The Study of Human Sexuality


The study of human sexual behavior is a relatively new science compared to other scientific disciplines. While disciplines such as cell biology were limited by the technology of the day, serious investigations into human sexual form and function were hindered by ethical constraints. The groundbreaking studies of Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), whose systematic research reported the sexual behaviors of Americans, laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.


Historically, scientists have explored physical and biological phenomena through careful observation and methodical investigation. Sound science is rooted in a researcher's ability to remain objective about the subject of his or her investigation. Presumably, a researcher's objectivity is easily maintained when cultural mores, the fundamental moral views of a group, are not called into question. Objectivity is almost never a confounding factor in most physical and biological sciences.

However, prior to the 1930s, the assumption of objectivity failed for investigations involving human sexual behavior. Early sex scientists, or sexologists, were physicians and psychiatrists unschooled in the scientific method, the systematic approach to solving problems. The results were early sexuality studies fraught with inaccurate information and personal bias.

During the eighteenth century, the guardianship of sexual study began to shift. What had been almost entirely a moral issue became the focus of discussions concerning sexual ethics. Although few physicians had any specialized knowledge of human sexuality and behavior outside the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, physicians were viewed as authorities in the infant field of sexology. Discussions of sexuality gave rise to the first programs of public and private sex education as well as new classifications and documentation of sexual behaviors. Samuel Tissot's published 1760 warning against masturbation, in order to prevent "masturbatory insanity," became a dominant theme in adolescent sex education.

By the nineteenth century, the medical view of sexual behavior was expanded to include sexual behaviors classified as mental diseases. Heinrich Kaan's Psychopathia sexualis (1843) introduced the concept of deviance, behavior that diverges from the accepted norm, and perversion, behavior caused by a determination not to do that which is expected, both regarded as functions of mental illness. Less than 30 years later, as a result of the publication of case histories by prominent psychiatrists, homosexuality became viewed by the medical community—and, therefore, by society—as a mental illness.

In 1873 Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) lead a campaign to regulate sexual behavior, resulting in the passage of the Comstock Laws, which further limited sexual freedom, particularly that of women. These laws made the distribution of information about contraception illegal. Physicians were prohibited from providing patients with contraceptive information and were imprisoned when found in violation of the law.

Iwan Bloch (1872-1922) is credited with founding the modern study of sexuality. Dissatisfied with the medical view of sexual behavior at the turn of the twentieth century, Bloch challenged conventional views of sexuality. He proposed a reexamination of perceived pathological and degenerative behaviors, such as prostitution and homosexuality, from both a historical perspective and on a global scale. Bloch co-founded the Journal for Sexology with his colleague, Magnus Hirschfield. Hirschfield pioneered the first gay rights organization and opened the first Institute for Sexology in 1919.

Establishment of the first Institute for Sexology and funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation for the purpose of studying American sexual behavior lent an air of credibility to the study of sexuality. The missing piece in the puzzle was a researcher with the qualifications and desire to carry out studies of actual human sexual behaviors. Until the mid-1930s, sex research was based primarily on field observations of animals, historical data, and poorly constructed questionnaires. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, few scientists were prepared or willing to embark on a study of actual human sexual behaviors. All of that changed when Alfred Kinsey signed on to teach a course on marriage and family in 1938.

Kinsey was an ideal candidate for conducting the types of research studies that the Institute had in mind. Unlike previous physicians and psychiatrists who studied the topic, Kinsey was an objective researcher. As an accomplished author of several biology textbooks and an experienced researcher well versed in the scientific method, Kinsey found the information that was to be used in the marriage course lacking. Dismayed by the thin veil of science that underscored published sex studies, Kinsey set himself to the task of building a new sex behavior knowledge base, employing the scientific method during the process.

Kinsey began his research into the sexual experiences of others using questionnaires. However, concerns over the validity of the responses recorded through this technique caused Kinsey—and, subsequently, his colleagues—to switch to face-to-face interviews. Kinsey devised an elaborate series of carefully constructed questions and questioning techniques designed to elicit extremely intimate details, while at the same time maintaining objectivity and anonymity. Through this interview technique, Kinsey set a new benchmark in sex research.

Based on empirical data gathered through thousands of interviews, Kinsey and his colleagues, Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and Paul Gebhard, published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Information contained in these two volumes turned conventional perceptions of human sexuality on its head, as old myths were dispelled. The contents of these two controversial publications forever changed precepts (accepted conditions of moral behavior) regarding such topics as masturbation, homosexuality, premarital and extramarital inter-course, and the role of sex in the lives of women.


In 1948 Kinsey reported that 37 percent of American males had at least one homosexual experience during their lifetime. By 1950 homophobia swept the nation, as police and government agencies attempted to rid public positions of "deviants" and "sex perverts."

Evelyn Hooker became one of the most influential figures in the highly successful movement to convince the American people that homosexuality is a "normal variant" of human sexual behavior. Her 1957 study The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual picked up where Kinsey and his colleagues left off. Hooker assembled a panel of experienced psychologists for the purpose of evaluating a series of psychological tests administered to 60 men. The inability of the psychologists to discriminate between homosexual and heterosexual responses provided evidence that homosexual behavior was normal human sexual behavior. Replication of Hooker's research results by other researchers and through other means of evaluation caused the American Psychiatric Academy to reevaluate its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1973 the Academy removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders.

In 1950 Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) lead efforts to solicit research money for the purpose of finding an effective oral contraceptive that would give women more control over their childbearing decisions. The right to use birth control was limited to married women, a nineteenth-century law that would not be repealed until 1972. Through the collaborative work of Gregory Pincus (1903-1967) and John Rock (1890-1984), Enovid—the Pill—was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960. By the mid 1960s, more than 80 percent of all married college graduates under the age of 25, and half of all married women under age 20, were "on the Pill." The sexual revolution had begun.

With the control of reproduction in the hands of women through the availability of oral contraception, and armed with the knowledge that females were as sexual as men, compliments of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the stage was set for the next major advances in the study of human sexuality. If the 1950s had been guided largely by the work of Kinsey, then the 1960s and 1970s belonged to William Masters and Virginia Johnson.

Their investigations into the physiological aspects of sexuality produced some of the first reliable data in the field of human sexuality. Masters and Johnson's first book, Human Sexual Response, recorded the results and conclusions of detailed laboratory studies on the physical aspects of sexual arousal and orgasm in a large number of men and women. Published for the medical community, it quickly became a bestseller purchased by the general public. The Masters & Johnson Institute opened in 1964, providing sex counseling and therapy for individuals and couples experiencing sexual difficulties. Masters and Johnson pioneered the field of sex therapy and trained other therapists in clinical counseling. The Masters & Johnson sex therapy program became a model for clinics elsewhere.

Sex research conducted during the last 100 years significantly impacted social and cultural mores of Americans and others around the world. With the debunking of nineteenth-century myths surrounding human sexuality, and a more sophisticated understanding of the role sexuality plays in people's lives, future sexual behavior research is likely to involve studies into disease risk prevention, as well as assessments of how sexuality changes as a function of age. Society will continue to reap the benefits of sound scientific investigations, increasingly focused on social and physiologic factors that shape sexuality and the development of sexually "healthy" adults.


Further Reading

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. 1953. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell Baxter Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. 1948. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Masters, William H., and Virginia E. Johnson. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Masters, William H., Virginia E. Johnson, and Robert C. Kolodny. Human Sexuality. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Petersen, J. R. The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution. New York: Grove Press, 1999.

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

Zgourides, George. Human Sexuality: Contemporary Perspectives. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.

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The Study of Human Sexuality

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