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| Posted: November 8, 2010

Alfred Kinsey's Childhood Data

Kinsey and Children
by John Bancroft
(Excerpt. "Alfred Kinsey's Work 50 Years Later." In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, by Alfred Kinsey, et al. 1998 Reprint Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. j-n)

Allegation about Dr. Kinsey

Although controversy hounded Kinsey and his work from the start, little attention was paid to the data he presented about children until the late 1980s, when a Judith Reisman started the allegation that Kinsey, to obtain his evidence, was criminally involved in the sexual abuse of children. This allegation, in slightly modified forms, has persisted as the main plank in the case of those on the Religious Right who seek to discredit Kinsey. In recent years, when there has been anxiety bordering on hysteria about child sexual abuse, often resulting in circumstances where the accused is regarded as guilty until proved innocent, what better way to discredit someone? What are the relevant facts as far as Kinsey as concerned?

Refutation of Allegation

From my first day as Director of the Kinsey Institute in 1995, I was confronted by such allegations and the need to rebut them. Kinsey never carried out experiments on the sexual responses of children; neither did he employ or train anyone else to do so for him. However, some reasonable people were being troubled by repeated allegations that he did, particularly because some of the details seemed hard to account for. The focus of the attacks was data presented in Tables 31 through 34 in the Male volume, reporting various aspects of orgasm observed in pre-adolescent boys ranging in age from 2 months to 15 years.

Having commented on the extent to which adults had recalled orgasmic experiences from their own childhoods, Kinsey pointed out that such recall might well be vague or inaccurate, particularly of an experience which the child may not have understood at the time. He was, therefore, especially interested in information obtained from those of his interviewees who had observed orgasms occurring in children.

Whereas he had some information of this kind from parents and teachers simply observing children, he obtained more from men who had been sexually involved with young boys and who had in the process observed their orgasms. Having therefore made it clear that he was referring to adults who had been involved in illegal sexual interactions with children, he went on to say, "nine of our adult male subjects have observed such orgasm. Some of these adults are technically trained persons who have kept diaries or other records which they have put at our disposal; and from them we have secured information on 317 pre-adolescents who were either observed in self-masturbation, or were observed in contacts with other boys or older adults." 50

Tables 31-34 are based on these 317 boys; Table 32 gives details of the speed of orgasm (timed with a second hand or stopwatch), whereas Tables 33 and 34 give details about multiple orgasms. Thus, an understandable concern was raised: How could such information be obtained in a sufficiently systematic manner to allow tabulation of the findings? Hence the allegations that either Kinsey or members of the Institute staff made these observations, or that they trained child molesters to make observations for them.

Source of Data in Tables 31-34

I decided to check on the sources of this information and found that, without any doubt, all of the information reported in Tables 31-34 came from the carefully documented records of one man. From 1917 until the time that Kinsey interviewed him in the mid-1940s, this man had kept notes on a vast array of sexual experiences, involving not only children but adults of both sexes.

Kinsey was clearly impressed by the systematic way he kept his records, and regarded them as of considerable scientific interest. Clearly, his description in the book of the source of this data was misleading, in that he implied that it had come from several men rather than one, although it is likely that information elsewhere in this chapter, on the descriptions of different types of orgasm, was obtained in part from some of these other nine men.

I do not know why Kinsey was unclear on this point; it was obviously not to conceal the origin of the information from criminal sexual involvement with children, because that was already quite clear. Maybe it was to conceal the single source, which otherwise might have attracted attention to this one man with possible demands for his identification (demands which have now occurred even though he is long dead). It would be typical of Kinsey to be more concerned about protecting the anonymity of his research subjects (and convincing the reader of the scientific value of the information) than protecting himself from the allegations that eventually followed.

Orgasm Data

Kinsey, with his primary interest in variability, was also intrigued by the various ways in which orgasm was experienced. In the Male volume, 51 he combines evidence provided from the above source on 196 pre-adolescent boys with descriptions obtained from adults or their partners to produce a list of six different types of orgasm.

Two of these types involve signs which in other circumstances would be regarded as distress, such as sobbing or crying or hypersensitivity around orgasm which results in "violent attempts to avoid climax, although they derive pleasure from the situation...[and] quickly return to complete the experience, or have a second experience." 52

As these descriptions were applied to pre-adolescent boys as well as adults, they have been taken by some to indicate that these children were being tortured. It would never have occurred to Kinsey that responses associated with orgasm, whether in a child or an adult would be interpreted in that way, as he clearly saw the orgasm as the culmination of pleasurable stimulation.

Caution about Data in Tables 31-34

In retrospect Kinsey's judgment in not anticipating such misinterpretations, and in placing so much emphasis on this one man's evidence, can be questioned. This extremely active 'omniphile,' who may have self-justified his sexual career as 'a contribution to knowledge' by keeping such detailed records, can be likened to two other individuals in the literature: the anonymous author of My Secret Life, who, toward the end of the nineteenth century, gave detailed descriptions of numerous sexual encounters, many involving young girls; and an Australian man who kept detailed records of his sexual encounters with many hundreds of boys around the age of puberty. He was the subject of a book called The Man They Called a Monster. 53 The author, Paul Wilson, interviewed many of the men who, as boys, had previously been involved with "the Monster," and to a remarkable extent they corroborated the man's original accounts.

Nevertheless, such sources of information should properly be treated with great caution. Ironically, the evidence presented in Tables 31-34 leaves us with some fundamental scientific questions and, not surprisingly, there has been virtually no further evidence to answer them. We know, from the accounts of adults about their own childhoods, that a proportion of pre-adolescent children experience orgasm, though we do not know what proportion, or whether most or all children have the physiological capacity for orgasm pre-pubertally. That in itself is of considerable interest.

  • If only a proportion of children are capable of orgasm, what relevance has that to later sexual development?
  • Do children who are capable or orgasm show a different pattern of sexual development than those who are not?
  • And if, in some pre-adolescent boys, multiple orgasm is possible, what is the mechanism at puberty that largely eliminates this capacity?
It is questions such as these which interested Kinsey so much in these particular findings, and encouraged him to share the information with the scientific community. However much Kinsey's scientific curiosity may have misled him, he did nothing wrong, 'criminal,' or 'fraudulent.' Some have criticized him for not reporting this man to the police. Any tendency to do such a thing, with this research subject or any other, would have been contrary to the whole ethical basis of his project, in which he persuaded people to share their sexual secrets in return for a guarantee of confidentiality.

Kinsey's Conclusions about Childhood Sexual Development

What conclusions did Kinsey reach about childhood sexual development? Physiological responses, which at a later age would be experienced as sexual, appeared to occur in a proportion of very young children. Kinsey didn't know what proportion of children were capable of such physiological responses, and we still don't know. Kinsey qualified the evidence he presented on the 317 pre-pubertal boys by emphasizing that this was a select group of "more or less uninhibited boys" and not representative of boys in general. 54

Kinsey 'interviewed' a number of small children from 2 to 5 years old in the presence of a parent. His method of doing this is described 55 and involved techniques widely used today by child psychologists. Kinsey never analyzed and reported the data he obtained in this way (this was to be the topic of a separate study and book), though he commented on certain observations. He concluded that "attitudes in respect to nudity, to anatomic differences between the sexes, ... to verbal references to sex ... are developed at very early ages." 56.

Social class differences in sexual attitudes were already apparent at these early ages, 57 and parents clearly played an important role in shaping these early attitudes, which influenced the child's later reactions to sexually relevant experiences. Sexual play between children, which was reported by a substantial proportion of his subjects, mostly occurred between the ages of 8 and 13, 58 and at those ages "children are the most frequent agents for the transmission of sexual mores." 59 Kinsey saw the changes in sexual mores and behaviors that occur in society as mainly dependent of "departures made by pre-adolescent and adolescent children from the patterns of their parents."60

As far as sexual contacts between children and adults are concerned, Kinsey states, "There are as yet insufficient data ... for reaching general conclusions on the significance of such contacts." 61 Questions about such experiences were not routinely asked of males; of the females, 24% of the women reported such experiences, with a little less than half of them involving sexual touching of some kind. 62. This can be compared to the 17% of the women reporting "sexual touching" experiences during childhood in a recent US survey. 63 Kinsey, however, played down the consequences of such experiences. Whereas 80% of his females subjects who had reported some form of sexual encounter with adults "had been emotionally upset or frightened by their contact," only a "small portion had been seriously disturbed." 64 In the recent US survey, 65 70% of the women who had been sexually touched reported that the experience had affected their lives.

Kinsey was inclined to the view that more harm resulted form the societal reaction to the adult-child experiences, than the sexual contact per se. 66 Before commenting on these conclusions of Kinsey, my own views should be made clear. Hopefully, doing so will reduce the likelihood of my being accused of favoring child-adult sexual contacts. In the current climate of opinion, any statement that does not condemn all forms of child-adult sex with unqualified horror, is liable to be interpreted as being in favor of child-adult sex. I believe that all children should be protected from sexual exploitation by adults or adolescents, and any such exploitation should be against the law. The damage caused to a child by such activity varies considerably, however. I would agree with Kinsey that in many cases, the reaction of the family, the social services, and police to -- and the legal consequences of -- such an event can cause the child more psychological harm than the sexual episode itself. It is therefore important that the potential for such harm is borne in mind by those reacting to such episodes. There is, however, an important distinction between episodes which involve relative strangers and those involving close family members, particularly parents. In the latter cases there are major additional factors involving betrayal of trust, threat to the family structure, and overwhelming feelings of responsibility in the child that can cause considerable psychological havoc. Kinsey did not attempt to make such a distinction in the cases he encountered. According to Table 147 in the Kinsey Data, 67 10% of the first pre-pubertal experiences with an adult involved parent, grandparent, uncle, or inlaws. The term 'incest' seems to have been used by Kinsey and his colleagues, in its literal sense, to refer to sexual intercourse involving family members. The data presented with the term 'incest' involve only post-pubertal family members, 68 apart from a passing reference to incestuous contacts between pre-adolescent children. 69 The term 'incest' does not appear in the Female volume. It is however, important to acknowledge, as Kinsey does, that at least some children experience sexual interest and pleasure during these contacts. The widespread tendency to assume that children are asexual can have two unfortunate consequences: children who do exhibit any form of sexual expression are assumed to have been sexually abused; and any child victim of sexual abuse who actually experienced sexual pleasure at some stage of the abuse experience may believe, when confronted with the assumed asexuality of childhood, that she or he was abnormal and perhaps therefore responsible for the abuse. This is one important mechanism leading to sexual problems later in life in childhood sexual-abuse victims.

Sexual Welfare of Children

It is reasonable to conclude that Kinsey's concerns about the sexual welfare of children had more to do with the effects that negative, inhibitory, guilt-provoking influences might have on sexual well-being and happiness during adulthood than on the consequences of childhood sexual experiences per se, whether autoerotic, involving other children, or involving adults. How he would have reacted to the more recent evidence of long-term adverse sequelae of childhood sexual abuse we obviously cannot say, except to conclude, with some confidence, that if the evidence indicated that any particular type of sexual activity in childhood caused problems either at the time or later in adult sexual life, he would have been opposed to it.


50. Kinsey, A.C, Pomeroy, W.B., & Martin, C.E. (1948). Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, p. 177.
51. Male volume, pp. 160-161.
52. Male volume, p. 161.
53. Wilson, P. (1981). The Man They Called a Monster. North Ryde, New South Wales: Cassell Australia.
54. Male volume, p. 177.
55. Male volume, p. 58.
56. Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., Martin, C.E., & Gebhard, P.H. (1953). Sexual Beahvior in the Human Female. Philadephia: W.B. Saunders, p. 16.
57. Male volume, p. 441.
58. Male volume, p. 167.
59. Male volume, p. 445.
60. Male volume, p. 447.
61. Female volume, p. 120.
62. Gebhard, P.H., & Johnson, A.B. (1979). The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938-1963 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
63. Laumann, E.O., Gagnon, J.H., Michael, R.T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
64. Female volume, p. 121.
65. Laumann et al. (1994).
66. Female volume, p. 121.
67. The Kinsey Data, Table 147.
68. The Kinsey Data, table 279.
69. Male volume, p. 558.

Copyright © 1998, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

[Controversy Over Alfred Kinsey's Research].

The Kinsey Institute - Response to Controversy - 1998 Reprint Ed. [About the Institute]
Retrieved: November 8, 2010