The man who discovered sex

Half a century after his death, sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey is the subject of a film, Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson, and a novel, The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle. Why are we still fascinated with him?

How did Kinsey get his start?

With bugs. Kinsey was a zoologist specializing in gall wasps when he was drafted to teach a course on “marriage”—that is, sex—at Indiana University in 1938. He was appalled at how little his students knew and how much they feared. According to one study at the time, 96 percent of young people didn’t know the word “masturbation,” and when told what it meant, 40 percent thought it caused insanity. The most popular marital guide of the day called oral sex within marriage “the hell gate of the realm of sexual perversion.” Kinsey’s students often asked him whether their habits and desires were “normal,” but he couldn’t answer. No one really knew what people did behind closed doors. So he decided to find out.

How did he do that?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

He asked them. Kinsey devised an interview consisting of more than 300 questions about Americans’ sex lives. He and four trusted colleagues traveled the country, taking 18,000 “sexual histories.” His knack for gaining people’s trust and keeping them honest were vital to his success, but his truly revolutionary breakthrough was philosophical. He approached the sexuality of what he called “the human animal” as a biologist, without imposing any moral judgments.

What did he find?

That Americans were far more sexually adventurous than anyone had previously been willing to admit. In 1948, Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In it, he reported that 85 percent of white men had had premarital sex, that 50 percent had had extramarital sex, and that 69 percent had frequented prostitutes. The Kinsey Report, as it became known, sold 270,000 copies, and Kinsey became a celebrity. He was compared to Darwin and Copernicus, and became a punch line for cartoonists and comedians. But Kinsey would become most famous for one statistic in particular: that 10 percent of men are gay.

Is that true?

No, and Kinsey never said it. In fact, Kinsey didn’t even believe there was such a thing as “a homosexual” or “a heterosexual”—only homosexual or heterosexual acts. What he found was that 37 percent of men had had at least one homosexual experience, that 10 percent “were more or less exclusively homosexual” for at least three years, and that 4 percent were exclusively homosexual their whole lives (that last figure has been largely verified). Kinsey also developed a scale of 0 to 6, with 0 being purely heterosexual and 6 being purely homosexual. People who fell at the extremes of 0 or 6, he said, were rare. Moral traditionalists were outraged, accusing Kinsey of deliberately promoting homosexuality. That charge was buttressed years after Kinsey’s death, when biographer James Jones revealed that Kinsey, though married, frequently had sex with men.

Did Kinsey have an agenda?

Yes—but it wasn’t just about homosexuality. Kinsey was raised in a strict Methodist household, and grew up wracked with shame about his body and his adolescent urges. He wanted to persuade the world that sex was natural, and was determined “that no one else should have to suffer as he had suffered,” said biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Kinsey often pointed out that because America’s morality laws prohibited oral sex and other “deviant” acts, even within marriage, 95 percent of the people he met were sex criminals. Though he posed as a neutral observer, he clearly believed that social mores should be more in line with actual behavior, and promoted tolerance for everything from masturbation to, in some cases, pedophilia. “There are only three kinds of sexual abnormalities,” he once said. “Abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage.”

How did that go over?

Not so well. Critics said his data was skewed because he purposely sought out fringe groups, including prisoners and men who frequented gay bars. In fact, Kinsey’s findings were fairly sound. He weighted his sample to minimize the influence of nontypical groups (after his death, the Kinsey Institute recalculated his data with these groups removed and found very little change). But Kinsey did play fast and loose with the way his results were presented. He encouraged the media to sensationalize his findings, and always spoke as if more and varied sex was inherently preferable to the opposite. But the grumbling about Kinsey’s first book was nothing compared to the fury that followed its sequel.

What was his second book?

Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The typical pre-Kinsey attitude toward female sexuality was summed up by a marriage manual that said for men, sex was as easy as falling off a log, while for women, it was “as simple as being the log.” In 1953, many men did not know that women could have orgasms, and those who did assumed that sexual intercourse was the sole means to that end. Kinsey showed that most women needed some form of direct clitoral stimulation. He also reported that 63 percent of women masturbated, and that 14 percent were capable of multiple orgasms. He also revealed that half of married women had had premarital sex, and that of those, 77 percent had no regrets. A nymphomaniac, said Kinsey, is “someone who has more sex than you do.”

What was the reaction?

Horror. Americans were not ready to hear that their mothers and daughters were sexual creatures. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America,” said evangelist preacher Billy Graham. The backlash included congressional hearings, obscenity charges, and an FBI investigation. Kinsey was branded a communist out to destroy the American family. Depressed and stressed, he died of heart failure at 62.

Did he die a failure?

He thought so, but his work changed the world and paved the way for the sexual revolution. One by one, states undid laws against fornication, adultery, and sodomy, usually citing Kinsey as their authority. Schools began to teach sex education based on his principles. Today, people who see the sexual revolution as a giant step forward and those who see it as the beginning of America’s descent into moral degeneracy agree on one thing: Alfred Kinsey was the man who got it all started.

Practicing what he preached

Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.