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Alfred Kinsey was not by training a sociologist, but a biologist (specializing in the taxonomy of gall wasps) at Indiana University, Bloomington. Believing there was a need for a course about marriage and sexual behavior, in 1938 he was concerned to find little data on which to base such study. According to one small study at that time, some 96 percent of young Americans did not know the word masturbation and many thought it was a form of insanity. In general there was widespread ignorance, and he decided to conduct his own study of the sexual behavior of the American female and male during the 1930s to 1950s – most prominently as The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (1948) and The Sexual Behavior of the Human Female (1953), and after his death, less well-known studies such as Sex Offenders (1965). Ultimately providing some 18,000 life stories of individuals (many of whom he interviewed himself), it was largely taxonomic – a ”social book keeping” exercise showing who does what with whom, where, when, and how often. Using the interviews, he and his colleagues asked around 300 questions. When published, his work was a large statistical and scientific study, but curiously it became a national bestseller and played a prominent role in shaping US cultural life in the later part of the twentieth century.
His work was largely atheoretical, but his data showed dramatically how sexual behavior was related to social forces. The theoretical implications were later drawn out by John Gagnon and William Simon, especially in their theory of social scripting.
For Kinsey, matters such as social class, age, marriage, urban living, and religion seriously shaped social patterns of sexual behavior. His work documented significant differences between men and women, noting that ”the range of variation in the female far exceeds the range of variation in the male” (Kinsey et al. 1953: 537-8, see tables in vol. 2), as well as across social classes. He also showed a wide range of variant sexual behavior; for example, finding very high rates of extramarital and premarital sex, high rates of masturbation, curiously high rates of zoophilia, and most famously of all very high rates of homosexual behavior. He found much higher rates of participation in homosexual acts than previously thought, and invented the heterosexual-homosexual continuum with a point scale ranging from ”exclusively homosexual” (Kinsey 6) through to ”exclusively heterosexual” (Kinsey 0) (Kinsey et al. 1953: 470).
Among his other major contributions was the refinement of interview research tools – a major appendix on research strategy is included in the first volume and it became required reading for many students of sociology during the 1950s and 1960s. His interviews required great sensitivity in eliciting material, and his sample depended upon volunteers. It remains one of the most detailed large sample studies to date, though it depended upon volunteers and did not use random sampling.
Kinsey’s work has been much criticized. Apart from many moralists who condemned his work as obscene, there were others who argued that the focus on sexual behavior – of measuring who does what to whom, where, and when – managed to reduce sex to orgasm-counting while robbing it of meaningful humanity. The importance of love was minimized (but Kinsey argued that this was not measurable and this was his concern). Sociologists were later very critical of its methodology: it did not employ a random probability sample but depended on volunteers, and hence, although large, the sample was seen as very biased. Further, the sample was not representative, and the interviews were not very accurate.
But others have seen it as a trailblazing study. For its time, the study was actually a remarkable methodological achievement, not least due to Kinsey’s pioneering, single-minded efforts. Some have suggested that the key contribution of Kinsey’s work was its impact on society: it rendered sexuality more democratic and generated an ”ideology of tolerance” around sexuality that has now permeated culture. This, in turn, was built ”on Kinsey’s discovery of the remarkable variety of human experience.” Kinsey also established the Kinsey Institute (formally known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction), which exists to this day in Bloomington, Indiana. Part of its work became therapeutic training for practitioners, and as such it played a prominent role in the development of sex therapy and sexology.
- Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. & Gebhard, P. (1948) The Sexual Behavior ofthe Human Male.W.B. Saunders, New York.
- Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. & Gebhard, P. (1953) The Sexual Behaviour ofthe Human Female. W. B. Saunders, New York.
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