How Kinsey Changed Sexuality in America
You may have heard of the name in passing, especially when discussing sexual orientation, but there’s much more to Dr. Alfred Kinsey! His contributions to the intellectual study of physical attraction, human sexuality and gender identity triggered a huge cultural shift in perspectives and paved the way for greater acceptance, discussion and sexual openness. His trail-blazing work is credited with creating an entirely new discipline of study with the field of sexology and revolutionizing conversations around sexuality for decades beyond his heyday. Pretty impressive, right? Without further ado, this is Dr. Kinsey and his critical influence on culture and sexuality.
Humble Beginnings and Early Contributions
Let’s start with some basic introductions! While many now consider Kinsey to be the father of sexology and a pioneer in research surrounding sexuality, his early life was not always so impressive or broad-reaching. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in the summer 1894, Kinsey grew up in a deeply religious, lower income family of five (there may be something to be said for his family’s devout beliefs and his later work). After overcoming a number of serious illnesses in childhood, Kinsey was able to explore a variety of intellectual interests from music to the natural world, eventually finding his way to biology and zoology.
His first venture into the world of academia was less than stellar, as he initially struggled in engineering, before moving to Bowdoin University and pursuing a degree in biology. He excelled at Bowdoin and was admitted to Harvard University for graduate study. Believe it or not, his thesis and initial work was not focused on human sexuality or even humans generally – he studied a specific species of wasp and was celebrated for his work within the realm of entomology (essentially, studying bugs). It was this work that led him to Indiana University in 1920, where he made his biggest impact.
The Institute for Sex Research and Cultural Influence
After nearly three decades of work within entomology at Indiana University, Kinsey shifted his focus and what a pivot it was! From wasps and other insects, Kinsey established the Institute for Sex Research to formally focus on human sexuality from an applied biology standpoint. Basically, he approached studying humans the way one might by collecting samples from insects, using a mix of biology and psychology to better understand sexual feelings and how we tick. If this seems like the university took a leap of faith with Kinsey, it absolutely was. Given the moral, ethical and cultural values of the mid-century, university president Herman B. Wells was certainly taking some risks. We at ONE® are certainly glad he did, as this institute is still around today, just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and was fittingly named after Kinsey following all of his achievements.
It was while working at the institute that Kinsey achieved his most impactful and important work. While Kinsey was responsible to contributing to and guiding a huge volume of research, his most recognized publications were a two-part series of reports on human sexual behavior, first among men in 1948, and later in 1953, among women.
Working closely with Dr. Wardell Pomeroy and Dr. Clyde Martin, Kinsey used data he collected through interviews with more than 5,000 men and 6,000 women around their sexual activity. The implications were earth-shattering for common conceptions at the time! The publishing of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 put him on the intellectual and cultural map. The report tackled a number of taboo issues at the time, including masturbation, monogamy and infidelity, and most prominently same-sex attraction. This report was met with significant fanfare and completely reframed how many considered sexuality.
Five years later, in 1953, Kinsey published his second report Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, where he studied many of the same phenomena with a focus on women. Some topics that emerged in this report that were not present in the 1948 report were premarital sexual ideation and activity (much more scandalous in the 1950’s) and even more insight into sexual pleasure and orgasm from a female perspective.
The crown jewel of Kinsey’s achievements is the scale that bears his name: the Kinsey scale. This scale is designed to map sexual orientation out across a seven-point spectrum from strictly heterosexual (or opposite sex-attracted) and strictly homosexual (or same-sex attracted) attraction. Here is basically how it breaks down:
This scale should be acknowledged for a few very important takeaways:
- It laid out sexual attraction to people in a way that embraced diverse sexual desires, including types of sexual attraction that we might now refer to in modern terms as bisexual, pansexual, asexual and more.
- It accepted, in writing, the presence of gay and lesbian identities without an angle of psychological disorder or mental illness.
The cultural influence of Kinsey’s reports cannot be understated. The reports have sold approximately 750,000 copies and have been translated into thirteen languages. There was even a movie about Kinsey released in 2004 starring Liam Neeson, which grossed millions of dollars at the box office. Beyond his contributions to intellectual communities, Kinsey’s findings helped kickstart one of the largest shifts in cultural ideas around sexuality in recent history with the onset of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Kinsey Through a Modern Lens
Like any historical ideas, it’s always helpful to think about them from multiple angles including what they signified and achieved at the time, but more importantly, how they should be critiqued now. While ground-breaking, there are a number of critiques that Kinsey’s work has received in recent years. Below are just a few of the more common critiques:
- Methodology – The data collection has been criticized for being subjective in nature, and for not maintaining a more formal structure. We know now that any studies into reproductive health should do as much as possible to remain objective and to avoid any potential influence or bias between the researchers and the subjects.
- Sample Selection – Even at the time of publishing, there were critics of how Kinsey and his team found subjects and how that may have skewed the data. For example, a portion of those interviewed were incarcerated populations and sex workers – while these folks absolutely have sexuality and identity to be studied, they are not perhaps the most generalizable populations. Efforts have been made to refresh the data, and many of the conclusions are defended by researchers today. There are also concerns about the data regarding sexual activity involving children, how that was sourced and whether or not the subjects providing that data should have been allowed to participate. This would likely not be tolerated today, justifiably so.
- Data Accuracy – Today, there are a handful of regulatory organizations that oversee health information and its accuracy. For example, you might have heard the anecdotal phrase that 10% of people are LGBT+, which is based on Kinsey’s research and findings. However, we have since studied human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity through broader, more consistent sampling (like the census) and discovered that this estimate is a little inflated. Our terminology and understanding of gender and sexuality has also generated a lot more conversation since Kinsey’s days.