©1997 By Gary Schubach, Ed.D., A.C.S.
Most people would find reading Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female to be a formidable task in any era. In it, there are over 1,700 pages of material complete with numerous charts, graphs and tables. Understanding the meaning of this material, with today’s knowledge and philosophical and religious perspectives about sex, would be completely different from reading this material in 1948 or 1953.
The world has changed quite a bit in the last fifty years. Fifty years ago, it was impossible to find educational material about human sexuality in the public library, let alone, in radio, television or print media. What little material that had been published over the course of time was highly restricted and only available to members of the scientific community. Today, information about human sexuality is available in every library, most bookstores, over the internet, and in the mass media. It could be argued that a lot of that change has come as a direct or indirect result of the two Kinsey books.
To get an understanding of the significance of these works, it is necessary to understand the perspectives that were in place at the time these books were written. To judge them by what we know today does not give us a clear picture of the true value of these works.
Alfred Kinsey was a University of Indiana zoology professor whose previous work had been studying gall wasps, about which he was considered to be the leading authority in the world. From examination and classification of 150,000 specimens, he had discovered approximately 144 different types of gall wasps. Some of the differences between one type of gall wasp and another were really minute. Kinsey had to observe carefully and appreciate the fine differences in order to see all the variations. Kinsey came from a background in the physical sciences and didn’t make moral judgments on the gall wasps, that one was better than another. Instead, he just observed what was and reported it . This perspective made him uniquely prepared to objectively study and do research on human sexuality.
Kinsey was asked or he asked, depending on whose version you believe, in 1937, to teach Indiana University’s first class in sex education and marriage. Upon assuming this position, he immediately decided that the existing body of knowledge on this subject was inadequate and that it would be necessary to begin research into what human sexual behavior truly was. At the time, there was very little written information or research data in the area of human sexuality available to the public or to academia. With a few small exceptions, the previous research was done by doctors who kept case histories on patients or on college students who were the subjects of university research studies. The Male volume lists nineteen studies that Kinsey felt were worthy of comment, but overall, Kinsey felt that there was insufficient data so as to understand what people actually did sexually, and that original research would have to be undertaken.
For this purpose, the University of Indiana and Kinsey assembled a team of scholars, researchers and associates who crossed all of the specialties involved and who were trained in a broad diversity of disciplines, including both the physical and social sciences such as biology, mathematics, psychology, sociology and anthropology. They were all pulled together for the first time to determine what people were doing sexually and how they felt about it, with as little judgment as possible. Their goal was “to accumulate an objectively determined body of fact about sex which strictly avoids moral interpretations of the fact. Each person who reads this report will want to make interpretations in accordance with his understanding of moral values and social significance; but that is not part of the scientific method and, indeed, scientists have no special capacities for making such evaluations.” (Male Volume, page 5)
There were some difficulties in the methodology of obtaining the information. The first was the area of questionnaire construction. The Male volume presents the skeleton of the questionnaire, listing the maximum number of subjects covered, which included 521 items. However, since many of the subjects interviewed had no knowledge or experience in some of the areas, the actual number of items that were covered in an average interview was about 300. The interviewers were allowed considerable latitude in framing their questions to elicit factual information.
One of the greatest contributions of Kinsey and his associates was that they raised interviewing to a fine art (with extensive systems for cross-checking each other). Face to face interviews were done in all cases. They would cross-check each other for accuracy with a different researcher retaking a history on the same subject. They then calculated the variations and differences so as to measure the reliability of the interviewers in uniformly asking questions and recording answers. To measure the truthfulness of the answers, they would compare appropriate responses in sets of relationship partners.
There have been a lot of arguments over the years about the validity and meaning of the statistics beyond the groups actually studied. Some people claimed that these studies, particularly in the Male volume, were done using too many prisoners, including sex offenders, because these were the places where people had the time to sit for these histories. Others maintained that they used too many college students and college educated people, predominantly from the Northeast, which was the population center of the U. S. at the time, with very little coverage of the West.
The Kinsey teams’ first choice would have been to obtain a statistically random sample. Hoever, Kinsey and his associates decided that that was impossible due to the nature of the material and the sexual climate of the times. They decided that the best substitute was to get as many total histories as they could, focusing on homogeneous groups that came together for non-sexual purposes. They tried to get 100% of the persons in each group that was sampled, assuming that if they had enough of those, they would get a broad enough cross section of the general population.
The Male volume was viewed by the Kinsey team as the beginning installment in a twenty year project that had as its goal the obtaining of 100,000 individual sex histories. Also planned were volumes on: sexual behavior in the human female; sexual factors in marital adjustment; legal aspects of sex behavior; the heterosexual-homosexual balance; sexual adjustment in institutional populations; prostitution; sex education; and other special problems as discovered and identified.
In the Male and Female volumes, statistical calculations and adjustments were made to try to cover the variations between the non-statistical randomness of the sample that they got and the statistical norms of the 1940 census for the Male volume and the 1950 census for the Female volume.
From July of 1938, when the first histories were taken, to 1947, when the Male volume was being written, the Kinsey team took slightly over 12,000 histories. 3,104 of those (26%) came from 62 groups which were 100% sampled. 6,300 of these histories were of men and, of those, 5,300 were utilized in the Male volume. The other male histories involved 1,000 black men, about whom Kinsey and his associates felt they did not yet have a sufficient sample to report in the initial Male volume. It was anticipated that when the sampling of black men was considered sufficient, they would be included in a revised Male volume.
In reality, only the Male and Female volumes were published before Kinsey’s death in 1956. 5,940 female histories were used for the Female volume and, in all, 18,216 histories were taken using the interview devised by Kinsey. After Kinsey’s death, Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute took a different direction than that envisioned by Kinsey and the additional volumes that he planned were never published. However, the sex histories were utilized in two Institute publications after Kinsey’s death: Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion (1958) and Sex Offender: An Analysis of Types (1965).
Principal findings of the Male volume included: that 85% of the American males sampled had experienced pre-marital intercourse; that 59% had some experience in oral-genital contacts; that from 30 to 45% participated in extra-marital intercourse; that 37% had some homosexual experience to orgasm between adolescence and old age; 10% of the men studied had lived at least 3 years of their lives between the ages of 16 and 55 being exclusively sexual with the same sex; and that 17% of farm boys interviewed had experienced intercourse with animals.
A major contribution of Kinsey and of the books, as introduced in the Male volume, was the Kinsey Scale. For Kinsey, the choice between heterosexual or homosexual was much too limiting in classifying behavior. He disliked the use of the term “bisexual” to describe human sexual behavior because of its previous use in biology to indicate the presence of the anatomy or anatomical function of both sexes, similar to meaning as the word “hermaphrodite”. He felt that human sexual behavior was really on a continuum with people having varying degrees of same and opposite sex interest. This was quite revolutionary and a lot of it came from his work on the gall wasps. If you look at gall wasps and create two or three distinct categories of gall wasps, then choices would be based on larger common denominators than if there is the potential of 144 different categories. With people, using 7 different categories with variation expressible even between the categories, allowed finer, more precise explanations of behavior than just using 2 or 3 categories.
Another major contribution of the Kinsey scale was to “encourage clearer thinking on these matters if persons were not characterized as heterosexual or homosexual but as individuals who have a certain amount of heterosexual experience and certain amounts of homosexual experience. Instead of using these terms as substantives, which stand for persons, or even as adjectives to describe persons, they may better be used to describe the nature of the overt sexual relations, or the stimuli to which an individual erotically responds.” (Male volume, page 617)
What they were saying in plain English is that the labels are used as a judgment. They don’t really tell us much, to think that a person is a homosexual or a heterosexual, as opposed to saying that a person sometimes engages in same sex behavior, or sometimes that a person engages in opposite sex behavior. In fact, he found in using his 0 – 6 scale that there were a lot of men and women who were 4’s and 5’s and still identified themselves as homosexual, but had in their behaviors opposite sex contacts when that felt perfect to them. It wasn’t all black or white.
Other major findings of the studies were the high accumulated incidence and frequency of masturbation that were going on despite social and religious taboos against it. Both volumes discussed the relative intolerance of lower-class individuals toward masturbation and their relative tolerance of pre-marital intercourse; and that intercourse was clearly the number one sexual outlet among people of the lower classes and of lower educational levels. Other types of non coital sexual activity, particularly oral sex, increased in cumulative incidence and frequency with education.
Furthermore, there was a clear correlation in women between a greater ease of reaching orgasms in heterosexual intercourse after marriage and masturbation, increasing even further by how young they were when they began. In fact, any kind of pre-marital sexual activity, including intercourse, had a definite correlation with post-marital sexual satisfaction levels.
It was also Kinsey’s theory that people’s knowledge about sex and the variety of sexual outlets would increase with their ultimate educational level, and would not be tied to their social class level. So it wouldn’t make much difference if someone had started out in a lower class, with little education, and worked his/her way into a lot of money. He or she wouldn’t have the sexual history of someone who was born into a wealthier, better educated class. Change would not be noticed until their children’s generation stepped up in its educational levels. If correct, it would suggest that the child learns most of his/her sex attitudes and behavior patterns from his/her schoolmates of the same economic and educational level, rather than from his home environment.
WHAT IS “NORMAL”?
As was noted in the quote on page 3, from the beginning, the authors of the Kinsey Male and Female volumes were clearly committed to a scientific, objective and non judgmental look at the behaviors of the people that were interviewed and to the subject as a whole. They methodically looked at the question of normality from all viewpoints and presented many perspectives including biological, psychological, religious and historical ones. The authors seemed to, matter-of-factly and without judgment, appreciate the diversity of sexual behavior that they found, much as Kinsey had appreciated the variations in the gall wasps.
It should be noted that all societies do have patterns which they regard as normal sexual behavior and punish deviations from these norms. Also, all societies show some degree of difference between the ideal and real patterns of behavior within the culture. The ideal patterns represent the society’s concepts of how people should behave in various situations. They are conscious and verbalized and, as such, are transmitted from generation to generation on very much the same basis as legends or riddles. They come to constitute the proper verbal responses to particular situations, but only the exceedingly naive take them at their face value.
The rare attempts by individuals in any society to live according to its ideal patterns have been doomed to failure. People learn to express the ideal patterns at the verbal level while modeling their actual behavior on what they find that other members of their society are really doing. What the Kinsey data exposed to the general public was the extraordinary range of individual variation in male and female sexual behavior. No longer was it possible for people to assume that the actual sexual behavior in any society would conform even approximately with the culturally patterned ideal norms.
At the human level, it seems exceedingly doubtful whether there are any instincts, meaning genetically determined patterns of behavior, which are operative after infancy. There may be tendencies toward certain forms of behavior in certain circumstances but such tendencies are always shaped by learning.
The books read very dryly and were clearly targeted to academia. They are not popularized types of books, the charts and tables are difficult to read and to follow, and they have never achieved a popular reading. One of the problems that arose from this is that many people who didn’t read either book all the way through have made judgments on what the books are saying and what the figures mean.
A lot of the criticism of the Kinsey volumes comes from the conservative religious right who argue that Kinsey was, in fact, an advocate for sexual promiscuity and a more open sexual lifestyle. I think that much of this comes from moral problems they have with some of the data that he reported. These were startling statistics for their time and have also been greatly misinterpreted. People just seized onto the raw numbers without understanding what the questions were.
For instance, the high incidence of subjects, up to 50% of the men and up to 25% of the women, who were reported to have had some kind of same sex contact or fantasy or thought after the onset of adolescence was not saying that up to 50% of men and 25% of women had practiced homosexuality. It was saying, that childhood and adolescent same sex play, as well as having same sex fantasies that may or may not have been acted out, were very common.
Also, the Kinsey Male volume came up with the figure of about 10% of men who had lived at least 3 years of their lives between the ages of 16 and 55 being exclusively sexual with the same sex. That was then interpreted by much of the general population and by gay liberation forces as meaning 10% of men were self-defined as homosexual. That wasn’t what Kinsey was saying in any of his same sex numbers. He was simply reporting the responses to his questions regarding behavior.
There has also been a fair amount of criticism in recent years about the information regarding adolescent sexuality and how it may have been gathered. A very large proportion of the world’s societies permit premarital relations between adolescents, and there is some reason to believe that this is an aid to the individual in making the adjustment to their adult sexuality. In the Male and Female volumes, Kinsey refers to observations of the orgasm cycles of boys and girls at various age levels that were made by people that they had interviewed, some having kept notes of their observations. However, since we are currently in a more repressive period in which the concept of childhood sexuality is under attack, some critics in recent years have accused Kinsey of being a closet pedophile, drawing inference that experiments had been done at the University of Indiana on children, with and without parental consent.
In reality, there is no evidence that the Kinsey Team or the University of Indiana ever conducted these kinds of tests. Where Kinsey got most of this information was from detailed interviews with individuals, mostly adults but some children, regarding their recollections of their experience. A small number of members of groups involved in the support of adult-child sexual relationships, had, in a pseudo-scientific sort of way, kept notes on their observations. They observed these physiological reactions of adolescent and pre-adolescent boys and girls and while, through our current filters, this may not be something we support, nobody else was doing this type of research and it was worthy of consideration.
Recently, there have been new attacks on the validity of Kinsey’s work through disparaging stories about Kinsey’s personal sex life. Even if these charges are true, and it will be difficult to prove them to any certainty after all these years, it still does not overshadow the fundamental truths, separate from the validity of the statistics, that arose from the Kinsey studies.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
The sexual beliefs, morality, attitudes and laws of Kinsey’s time represented a concealed conflict. This conflict was between stern Puritanism, which for economic survival in past times, had felt compelled to deny the congruity of sexual behavior and joy, and evolving religious movements, which at least in theory, tried to tie together the assumed sexual relation within marriage for joy with the duties of procreation.
Freedom of scientific inquiry and the free exchange of information in the area of human sexuality are not unrelated to a profound faith in the right of all people to see, to hear, and to read material that may be essential to their growth, happiness and fulfillment as human beings. In this nation we have taken one fundamental gamble: that in the free marketplace of thought, by the matching of ideas, truth has a better chance of winning than any other method known to man.
Perhaps Kinsey’s most valuable accomplishment was that, in an authoritarian age with a rising conflict between the religious and secular segments, he reaffirmed the rational pragmatic values of experimental science in a field of human existence previously given over to dogma and fear. The work which Professor Kinsey and his associates pioneered ultimately led other researchers to a body of comparative data on the sexual behavior of all mankind that was appreciably more realistic and dependable. With enough scientifically gathered facts, American society finally began to approach the subject of human sexuality with something more than shame or feigned self-righteousness.
In today’s world, two of our biggest human problems are overpopulation and the spread of AIDS. Solutions in both of these areas would include a broadening of people’s sexual activities to activities other than coitus. The clear message from Kinsey and those who followed is that the frequency of non-coital sexual activities increases with education and knowledge about human sexuality. This has never been seriously refuted. Given this fact, it seems obvious how important the encouragement of a more thorough and objective sexual education beginning at the earliest possible age is for the future and survival of humankind. Ultimately, this is the meaning and legacy of the Kinsey volumes and the real reason for the attack on Kinsey by the religious right and other moral conservatives.
Kinsey Film DVD’s for sale through Amazon.com
Academy Award-winning Bill Condon (GODS & MONSTERS, CHICAGO) explores the life of the pioneer of human sexuality research, Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson). Spanning six decades from his childhood in the early 1900s to his death in 1956, the film turns the microscope on the man whose landmark studies on the sexual behaviors of the common man rocked a nation.
Two-Disc Special Edition Extra Features
• Commentary with writer/director Bill Condon
• The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film
• 20 deleted scenes plus alternative ending with optional commentary by Bill Condon
• Gag reel
• Sex Ed at the Kinsey Institute
• Interactive Sex Questionnaire
PBS documentary assesses Kinsey’s achievements, while examining how his personal life shaped his career, through interviews with his research assistants, his children, his biographers, and historians.