Sex Research

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Sex Research

Sex research addresses sex, gender, and human sexuality as a legitimate field of scientific inquiry. Within its status as sexual science, sex research has manifested itself in a variety of ways. From its romantic origins with psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), to the rigorous empiricism of biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), to the politicized feminism of sex researcher Shere Hite (b. 1942), sex research has attempted to provide an encompassing picture of sexual practice and behavior. By its very nature the science of sexuality is multidisciplinary and has been conducted across medical, legal, psychological, sociological, anthropological, biological, endocrinological, and epidemiological fields. Across these disciplines sex research may employ quantitative or qualitative methodologies and thus does not produce one coherent view on sex or its study. Qualitative studies focus more on discussion and the discursive contours and construction of sexuality. Quantitative research is more interested in discovering truths about sexuality and as a result is more prone to measuring, counting, and diagnosing sexual behavior and abnormality. Even with these methodological differences, most sex researchers have been motivated in some way by the urge to combat sexual ignorance and repression, whereas more contemporary sex researchers contend with shifts in the sexual climate such as the global pandemic of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the commercialization of sex in high capitalism, and meeting the needs of clients in the wide-ranging sex-therapy industry. Despite the urgency of many of these concerns, much resistance and opposition has been mounted against sex research and sexual science, making the development of sex research in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries illustrative of the shifts in cultural attitudes toward sex and sexuality.


Sex research as a systematic science was born in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century under the name of sexualwissenschaft, or sexology. For the most part early sexologists did not focus their writing on sex research per se. Physician Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), Ellis, and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) are all sexual modernists whose work contested what they perceived to be Victorian prudery and repression. The work of all three attempted to broaden the range of legitimate sexual behavior and, in doing so, managed to revolutionize views on sexual energy, sexual desire, and female sexuality. The work of early sexology relied heavily on stories, whether literature, myth, case studies, or sexual case histories, as is evidenced by the thirty-three biographies at the heart of Ellis's treatise on homosexuality, Sexual Inversion (1897), or Freud's tracts on such renowned cases as the Wolf-Man and Dora or the Oedipus complex. These early sexologists were also trained in psychology and medicine, which provided them legitimate means to gather these stories and ultimately helped to establish modern sexual science as the new sexual orthodoxy. Writer Paul Robinson claims, in The Modernization of Sex (1976), that Ellis laid the groundwork for modern sexual theory with his tolerant and enthusiastic approach: "In effect, [Ellis] established the atmosphere, though not the explicit theoretical context, in which later sexual thinkers were to pursue their tasks" (Robinson 1976, p. 41). In its categorization of paraphilias, or sexual deviances, modern sexology identified and profiled many new sexual types, including the transvestite, the homosexual, and the fetishist.


Decades after the Nazis obliterated sexology and its sexual progressiveness in the 1930s, Ellis's defining tolerance and optimism reemerged and fused with conventional scientific methods of the 1950s in the work of Kinsey. As the center of sex research moved from Germany to America, sexual science became more empirical and less theoretical. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, in the years between 1938 and 1956, Kinsey and his interdisciplinary team interviewed 18,000 Americans about their sexual practices and attitudes. Determined to collect a representative data set, Kinsey interviewed people of different classes and races instead of focusing on individuals who professed to be sexually abnormal or who suffered from sexual dysfunction. As with the sexual modernists Kinsey wanted to broaden the range of acceptable sexual behavior by identifying sex as an ordinary and natural experience and openly discussing such sexual practices as masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and prostitution.

Many scholars have posited the Kinsey reports as a watershed turning point for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. His data belied the repressive sexual morality of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, revealing much premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sexual behavior. His findings were published in the best-selling volumes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Although his method was the personal interview, Kinsey interpreted his data with regard to numbers and behavior, not in terms of the self-identification (gay/straight) or claims of his subjects. This approach, which in one domain counted the number of orgasms experienced with same-sex partners, produced the Kinsey scale, a continuum that ranged from zero to six, with zero indicating zero homosexual orgasms. The pioneering nature of Kinsey's work lies in the breadth and diligence of his enterprise and in the radical implications of his findings. His work demystified much that was taken for granted about sexuality and sexual behavior, and featured, among his most controversial results, claims that women and men experienced a similar physical sexual response, that masturbation was very widespread, and that one-third of American males and 13 percent of females had at least one homosexual orgasm before age forty-five. Kinsey also founded one of the most important institutes for sex research, now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, in Bloomington, Indiana, at Indiana University, where he was a professor from 1920 until his death in 1946.

In 1957 physician William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, a registered nurse, joined forces to take a more clinical approach to sex research. Through direct observation of sex in a laboratory and their collection of data centered on human sexual response and physiological sexual mechanics, the Masters and Johnson research team studied masturbation and heterosexual intercourse. Masters and Johnson synthesized sex research and sex therapy with the ultimate goal of improving marriages by enhancing their clients' sex lives. Although their subjects in no way constituted a representative sampling of the population, many of their findings were groundbreaking, especially with regard to female sexuality and the understanding of masturbation as a sex act in itself. Their most influential research was published as Human Sexual Response (1966) and Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970). They documented women's ability to have multiple orgasms, discarded Freud's notion of the vaginal orgasm, asserted the sexuality of older people, and did not differentiate male and female sexual response. Masters and Johnson devised the four-stage model of sexual response: excitement phase, plateau phase, orgasm, and resolution phase.

Although Masters and Johnson were feminist in their approach and much of their content, in the 1970s, Hite built on the work of earlier sex researchers and launched a counterargument to the claims of Masters and Johnson about the female orgasm. Hite's initial research was conducted through the widespread dispersal of questionnaires that were anonymously answered by women across the United States. Her goal was to allow women (and later men) to define their sexuality and sexual experience for themselves, and the results, published in five Hite reports from 1976 to 1994, with the first being The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality (1976), presented a multifaceted array of personal narratives that Hite contextualized with data analysis, feminist criticism, and historical background. Hite claimed that women orgasm from direct clitoral stimulation, not from intercourse, rejecting the accepted belief from Masters and Johnson that women who did not orgasm through intercourse have a sexual dysfunction. Hite argued for male and female sexuality to be redefined, and her work linked the production of sexuality to the production of culture, highlighting the many disconnects between cultural assumptions about sex and sexuality and the realities of these experiences.

More contemporary sex researchers include Edward O. Laumann, a sociologist who was an advisor for the 2001 Pfizer Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors, and Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist whose work has challenged many scientific assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality.


Kinsey's research and publications provoked immense backlash, and the controversy (including the revocation of his funding) surrounding his work contributed to his ill health and death. Christian organizations continue to condemn his work, using his personal life and questioning his scientific methods to discredit his work. Since Kinsey, funding for sex research has for the most part been successfully blocked by conservative groups. Many sex researchers are critical of the cultural and scientific turn from the psychological to the mechanical aspects of sex, as seen in the growing focus on sexual-enhancement drugs.

Nonetheless, Kinsey's work and the work that followed succeeded in changing the sexual landscape. The effects of the sexual revolution have persisted in the face of challenges from political conservatives, and the liberating political and sociological ideas generated from sex research have extended to developing countries. Yet the global AIDS pandemic, the enduring inattention to sexual abuse and trauma, the question of reproductive rights, the vast lack of knowledge around childhood sexuality, and many other urgent dilemmas speak to the pressing need for well-funded sex research.

see also Hite Report; Kinsey, Alfred.


Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. 1897. Sexual Inversion. London: Wilson & MacMillan.

Hite, Shere. 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality. New York: Macmillan.

Kinsey, Alfred C.; Wardell B. Pomeroy; and Clyde E. Martin. 1998. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Orig. pub. 1948.)

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

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

Masters, William H., and Virginia E. Johnson. 1970. Human Sexual Inadequacy. Boston: Little Brown.

Robinson, Paul. 1989. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Orig. pub. 1976.)

                                      Emma Crandall