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External Articles | Posted: August 14, 2011

Dr. Kinsey's Revolution

Articles from the 1920s through the 1990s comment on sex in America and the influence of Dr. Alfred Kinsey

By Katharine Dunn
The Atlantic, November, 2004

This month, the film Kinsey starring Liam Neeson opens nationwide. Neeson plays Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana University zoology professor who until his mid-forties was best known as an expert on an insect called the gall wasp. By the time Kinsey began to teach an experimental marriage course to coeds in 1938, he had gathered more than four million of the stinging bugs. It's not surprising, then, that when students started coming to him for sex advice, the quasi-therapy sessions soon evolved into what Kinsey knew best: data collection. Over the next decade, and with support from the National Research Council (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation), Kinsey and his assistants gathered 18,000 sexual histories. The job was all-consuming. He left teaching and in 1947 founded the Institute for Sex Research.

Kinsey's team asked volunteers hundreds of questions on such subjects as masturbation, fantasy, sexual positions, affairs, homosexuality, premarital sex, foreplay, and sex with prostitutes. Among his findings: 11 percent of married males had anal sex at a frequency ranging from once to often; 36 percent of men experienced a same-sex orgasm; 13 percent of females did the same; about 50 percent of married men had an extramarital affair; and 26 percent of women did the same. His two landmark studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) were published to instant success and controversy. The reason for both was simple: the Kinsey Reports, as they became known, suggested that the sex being talked about in public was rather different from the sex going on behind closed doors.

Kinsey claimed that his goal in conducting his research was simply to fill a gap in the knowledge about sexual practices--to take a purely scientific approach and remove morals from the sex equation, leaving only numbers. "We are the recorders and reporters of facts," he said, "not the judges of the behaviors we describe." But even scientists editorialize. In a review of two biographies of Kinsey that appeared in the May 1972 Atlantic, Paul A. Robinson suggested that Kinsey's apparent impartiality in itself served as an endorsement of certain behaviors:

Whatever their motivation, the Reports were all the more effective polemically for their seeming disinterestedness. Instead, for example, of stating outright that premarital sex was desirable, Kinsey simply documented a high correlation between premarital sexual experience and sexual "adjustment" in marriage, leaving the reader free to opt against adjustment if his moral code demanded.

Many Americans were shocked and offended by Kinsey's data. "The controversy that greeted the publication of Kinsey's two Reports," Robinson wrote, "was perhaps the most heated since that unleashed by Darwin's Origin of Species." Even certain intellectuals, Robinson noted, disapproved of an examination of sexual experience that removed sex from its emotional context. Robinson pointed to a critique by Lionel Trilling in Partisan Review:

Trilling charged that the Male volume was not the neutral scientific document it pretended to be but a highly tendentious work with a permissivist bias. He granted that the Report's intentions were generous, but he regretted its naïveté and its fundamentally materialist notion of human sexuality.

In "Are Americans Well Adjusted?" (January 1961), a critique of a 1957 national survey on mental health, Charles J. Rolo went further. "The claim made by Dr. Kinsey and others," he wrote, "that their findings are 'an accumulation of scientific fact' is at best an exaggeration; the data collectors themselves concede that imponderables--the way a question is worded, the skill of an interviewer--influence their results." In Rolo's view, the Kinsey Report had a clear bias: "[It] breathes the spirit of American liberalism. It was obvious that Dr. Kinsey, despite his pose of scientific detachment, dearly wanted us all to have a good sex life."

Of course, whether or not one had a good sex life was hardly a matter of public discussion in the era before the Reports were published. Two decades before Kinsey appeared on the scene, in "Courtship After Marriage" (November 1921), "Another Bachelor" (as the anonymous author referred to himself) called such squeamishness into question. He began his piece by lamenting the great number of unmarried members of society, writing of the "over-strained, atrophied women doomed to live out their lives unmated and deprived of their rightful inheritance [to give birth]."

"Something must be decidedly wrong with our civilization," he suggested in his introduction, "to permit such a state of affairs." One of the culprits, he believed, was Puritanism:

Many a boy and a girl brought up in a Puritan environment have come to regard the first attractions of sex as something utterly unholy... They have turned to ascetic discipline and severe torments of the soul, until their outlook has become badly distorted, even at times to the extreme of insanity. These unhappy victims of Puritanism have been prevented from realizing that Nature is only asking her own: that she rejoices in the instinctive revelations of sex; that adolescence is as natural as breathing, and must not be too long absorbed... Puritanism, in its peculiar definition of moral purity and its gloomy approach to marriage, has created a stuffy atmosphere in which it is excessively difficult for men and women to meet naturally.

Even marriage, he suggested, does little to improve couples' attitudes about sex. "Many a young mother finds herself condemned to a painful reticence and evasion," he wrote, "at a time when she should be boldly exultant in her supreme realization of Nature's greatest miracle." A chaste discussion of sex, perhaps, but an endorsement of it nonetheless.

Groundbreaking and influential as Kinsey's work was, it did not succeed in breaking down every last inhibition. As years passed, other researchers picked up where Kinsey left off. In "Sex and the Married Couple" (December 1970), Paul Wilkes profiled two sex researchers, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who in the late 1950s had begun measuring human sexual response in a laboratory setting: they observed hundreds of men and women having sex or masturbating. Masters and Johnson later counseled couples on solving such sexual problems as premature ejaculation or the inability to have an orgasm. Even during the 1960s, in the midst of America's sexual revolution, they found that Puritanism was still an influence. Their highest failure rate--40 percent, they pointed out in one of their books--was with impotent men, "many of whom could not overcome religious strictures that have effectively castrated them." Wilkes pointed out that Masters and Johnson did their work in St. Louis, Missouri--a state where in the 1970s it was against the law for unmarried men and women to have sex.

In the face of such persistent prudishness, Masters described his and Johnson's role as "to put sex back in its natural context; [as] a perfectly normal function--as normal as breathing. " In Wilkes' view, Masters and Johnson had largely succeeded in this goal of shattering taboos and promoting sex as a normal part of everyday life for everyone:

Masters and Johnson have consistently kicked over barriers, pushed their way through myth, mores, and misconception, to come up with undisputedly sound medical and therapeutic information. When a Roman Catholic nun comes to them with complaints of pelvic pain, a bloated feeling at other than 'that time of the month,' and they find massive congestion that can be relieved in only one way, they tell the nun to masturbate to orgasm.

Masters looked to Kinsey as a role model of sorts, and informed himself about the man and his research so that he might be inspired in his own work. As he learned more about him he increasingly came to recognize that Kinsey had been in many ways flawed:

Masters found that Kinsey developed an overpowering ego, would not train a qualified successor, and thus guaranteed that his work would end with his death. He never collaborated with a female researcher although he was studying both sexes. And in his last years, Kinsey was obsessed with the thought that everyone was trying to steal his data.

In the years since the Reports were published, further problems with Kinsey and his research have come to light. In "The Mystique of Betty Friedan" (September 1999), an article questioning the social-scientific underpinnings of Freidan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, sociologist Alan Wolfe explains that Kinsey's work "misrespresented the sexual habits and practices of Americans because Kinsey's interviewees were so unrepresentative." Instead of random sampling, Kinsey relied heavily on volunteers who were mostly middle-class, educated, young, and white. He also went searching for gay subjects in places like prisons and bars and included in his data testimonies from convicted pedophiles.

Wolfe even goes so far as to suggest that Kinsey did not pursue sex research as a dispassionate scientist seeking truth but, rather, because he was "stimulated by his voyeurism and sexual adventurousness." Others have speculated that Kinsey harbored homosexual feelings which were what led him into the field of sex research in the first place. Still others--many of them fundamentalist Christians--dismiss his research on moral grounds.

In the end, however, despite his inexact scientific techniques and unclear motives, it is indisputable that the effect Kinsey's research has had on American society over the years has been very real. He was one of the first prominent scientists to take seriously the reality that people were having all kinds of sex, whether society liked it or not. His data proved it and got people talking. The rest is history.

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