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Alfred Kinsey: A Brief Summary and Critique

Alfred Kinsey

During the Twentieth Century, no one individual did more to bring homosexuality into the public forum than Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894 – 1956). A professor at Indiana University, Kinsey was a zoologist by training and spent the early years of his career studying gall wasps, collecting thousands of specimens of the insects. Kinsey then transferred his obsessive and taxonomic approach of research to the study of human sexuality. Much like the gall wasps he collected, Kinsey and his colleagues gathered thousands of “interviews” in which he or his researchers asked detailed questions about the sexual backgrounds of research participants. Kinsey compiled the findings from these interviews into two books that were the opening salvos of the sexual revolution that soon swept the United States: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Both works contain many sweeping assertions and often move quickly from tables full of data to moral speculation about the repressed sexual ethics of America.

Kinsey officially began sexual research in 1941 with the help of funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and the assistance of the National Research Council. In 1947 Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, now simply known as The Kinsey Institute. What has become clearer in the years since the publication of the Kinsey reports is that Kinsey was not merely gathering information about other people’s sexual experiences, but he was also engaging in assorted sexual practices with various members of the research team. Instead of the staid atmosphere most people associate with academia, the Institute for Sex Research became a kind of sexual utopia for the gratification of the appetites of Kinsey and his team. According to one biographer, “Kinsey decreed that within the inner circle men could have sex with each other; wives would be swapped freely, and wives too, would be free to embrace whichever sexual partners they liked.”[1] Kinsey himself engaged in various forms of heterosexual and homosexual intercourse with members of the institute staff, including filming various sexual acts in the attic of his home. My purpose here is not to engage in ad hominemattacks on Kinsey, but to emphasize that Kinsey was not a dispassionate scientist seeking truth; he was an agenda-driven reformer bent on changing the sexual ethics of a nation.

As Kinsey and his colleagues tabulated the data, they used a novel approach to defining human sexuality and employed a graded scale to define a person’s sexuality. Prior to Kinsey, people were generally considered to be either heterosexual or homosexual. Instead of this binary approach, Kinsey saw sexual behavior on a continuum which rarely described individuals as either strictly homosexual or heterosexual. The Kinsey Scale is as follows:

0- Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual

1- Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual

2- Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual

3- Equally heterosexual and homosexual

4- Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual

5- Predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual

6- Exclusively homosexual[2]

On the Kinsey scale, six out of the possible seven scores could be interpreted as indicating some level of homosexual attraction. In this way, the Kinsey scale normalizes homosexuality and helped contribute to inflated percentages in some findings. The Kinsey scale has since been widely used in numerous research projects related to sexuality.

When Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was released in 1948, it sold thousands of copies. The report asserted that nearly 69% of white males in the United States had sex with prostitutes[3] and also said “it is probably safe to suggest that about half of all married males have intercourse with women other than their wives, at some time while they are married.”[4] Most surprising were the claims about the incidence of homosexuality among American men. Kinsey claimed 37% of males had homosexual physical contact to the point of orgasm at least once.[5] Furthermore, he claimed 10% of all males are exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 – 55, and 4% of males are exclusively homosexual throughout the entirety of their lives.[6] In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey further asserted between 2 – 6% of unmarried females are exclusively homosexual between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.[7] While there was significant criticism of Kinsey’s claims, Ronald Bayer notes that for “homosexuals who were just beginning their efforts at organization and the struggle for social acceptance and legal rights, the findings were emboldening.”[8]

Reflecting on the public morality of the day, Kinsey suggested American society’s moral revulsion to many of the sexual acts he described originated in “ignorance and superstition” and not in “scientific examinations of objectively gathered data.”[9] After dismissing traditional morality as superstition, Kinsey then argued, “While this problem [ethics based on superstition] will be met again in other places, the present discussion of frequencies of total sexual outlet provides a good opportunity for understanding the futility of classifying individuals as normal or abnormal, or well-adjusted or poorly adjusted, when in reality they may be nothing more than frequent or rare, or conformists or non-conformists with the socially pretended custom.”[10] In this way, Kinsey argues much like other sexually libertine propagandists of the second half of the Twentieth Century: We should no longer look at sexual behavior in the categories of right versus wrong, but instead in the categories of more common versus less common.

A closer look at Kinsey’s research reveals many problems with his findings. The most glaring problem with his data is the source of his sample. While the sample for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male numbered over 5,000, a disproportionate number came from prison inmates, many of whom were sex offenders.[11] The Kinsey team interviewed some African Americans, but their data was not included in the tabulations. Furthermore, Kinsey over-sampled people recruited via homosexual-friendly organizations or magazines. College students also represented a disproportionate number of his sample. Jones and Yarhouse rightly critique these problems with Kinsey’s sample and say: “This is obviously not the type of methodology a person would implement if he or she were trying to get a representative outlook on the sexual behavior of the general population.”[12] In many ways, Kinsey’s sample assured he found what he was hoping to find:  statistical confirmation of sexually adventurous behavior.

The manner in which Kinsey presents his data is also quite problematic. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in particular often blurs the distinction between the statistical data gathered by the Kinsey researchers about the sexual behavior of white males with supplementary data. By supplementary data, Kinsey meant correspondences in which participants shared day-to-day records of their activities along with their thinking on the various aspects of sex. Apparently, this supplementary data became the source of most of Kinsey’s conclusions concerning the sexual ethics and public policy in the mid-Twentieth Century. Kinsey said the supplementary data served as the source for “the psychologic and social concomitants of sexual behavior, particularly in relation to the factors which motivate and control the activities.”[13] Writing in 1949, W. Allen Wallis of the University of Chicago criticized Kinsey’s failure clearly to distinguish between hard statistical data and the more broad category of supplementary data and said, “Conclusions based on the sociological interpretations or the supplementary data are frequently stated along with those based on the statistical data, and it is frequently difficult to judge what the basis is for a given conclusion.”[14]

Much of what Kinsey called “data” was actually vulgar, pornographic material with no morally redeeming value. He went so far as to include graffiti from bathroom walls in his research. Attempting to dignify the unwholesome filth often scrawled in public bathrooms, Kinsey noted, “From the days of ancient Greece and Rome, it has been realized that uninhibited expressions of sexual desires may be found in the anonymous inscriptions scratched in out-of-the-way places by authors who may freely express themselves because they never expect to be identified.”[15] According to Kinsey, we should not think of such filth as inappropriate defacing of property; it is actually a venue for the sexually repressed. Furthermore, Kinsey says “such material epitomizes some of the most basic differences between male and female sexual psychology. . . . Since males are more prone to produce such graffiti, we particularly need additional collections of material originating from females.”[16] So, some of Kinsey’s conclusions about differences between male and female sexuality were influenced by bathroom graffiti and he was frustrated that he did not have more to add to his research.

Another glaring problem in Kinsey’s report is the phenomenon of volunteer bias: Survey participants who volunteered to be questioned about their sexual experience were also more likely to be sexually adventurous and out of the mainstream.[17] Volunteer bias may have been especially prominent considering that most of Kinsey’s research was done prior to 1950, an era of much more conservative ethics. Many people simply would not have discussed the intimate details of their sexual life, and those who were willing to do so were more prone to have a sexually libertine ethic. Writing in 1952, Abraham Maslow and James M. Sakoda noted the problem of volunteer bias in Kinsey’s research and invited Kinsey and Pomeroy to interview Brooklyn College students. Maslow and Sakoda then compared self-esteem scores for students from Brooklyn College who agreed to volunteer for Kinsey’s research versus those who chose not to volunteer for research and found that students who volunteered had a higher mean self-esteem score. Maslow and Sakoda concluded that “bias introduced into a sex study by the use of volunteers is, in general, in the direction of inflating the percentage reporting unconventional or disapproved sexual behavior.”[18] Because of his work with Maslow and Sakoda, we know Kinsey was aware of the volunteer-bias problem. He even acknowledged that the people who answered his questions may have been “less inhibited sexually.”[19] Just as was seen in the problems with his sample, the problem of “volunteer bias” skewed Kinsey’s data toward the conclusions he wanted.

The most disturbing and hotly debated part of Kinsey’s research is chapter 5 of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male titled, “Early Sexual Growth and Activity.”  Kinsey gathered data from people who can only rightly be called child molesters. Describing the source of some of his data on small children he said, “Better data on pre-adolescent climax come from the histories of adult males who have had sexual contacts with younger boys and who, with their adult backgrounds, are able to recognize and interpret the boys’ experiences.”[20] Kinsey then goes on to say that “9 of our adult male subjects have observed such [pre-adolescent] orgasm. Some of these adults are technically trained persons who have kept diaries or other records which have been put at our disposal; and from them we have secured information on 317 pre-adolescents who were either observed in self masturbation, or who were observed in contacts with other boys or older adults.”[21] This disturbing description of child molestation is accompanied by a statistical chart that documents the observation of pre-adolescent experiences in orgasm for children between the ages of 2 months and 15 years old. Later on in the book, Kinsey discusses masturbation and says, “Of course, there are cases of infants under a year of age who have learned the advantage of specific manipulation, sometimes as a result of being so manipulated by older persons; and there are some boys who masturbate quite specifically and with some frequency from the age of two or three.”[22] Another chart in the male report titled “Speed of Adolescent Orgasm” records the length of time it took for children to reach climax and includes the notation, “Duration of stimulation before climax; observations timed with a second hand or stop watch. Ages range from five months of age to adolescence.”[23] Perhaps the most painful reading in the male report is the description of children who supposedly experienced orgasm, a description supplied from adults who had sex with children, describing the children “groaning, sobbing, or more violent cries, sometimes with an abundance of tears (especially among younger children)” and also children who “will fight away from the partner.”[24] This final description sounds like a terrified child being molested.[25]

What do we make of the data on children in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male? John  Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute, contends all of Kinsey’s data concerning children and adolescents came from one man. If Bancroft is correct, then Kinsey is at least guilty of lying in his research by asserting the data came from several people when in actuality it came from one man who can only be described as a serial child molester. Furthermore, Bancroft protests that Kinsey did not encourage child molestation, but this seems to be a weak defense. Recently, Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State because he did not report a child molester to the police, which is the same thing Kinsey failed to do. What is most disturbing is Kinsey’s refusal to make any moral judgment concerning the “data” he obtained about children. Notice the terms he uses for child molestation: the observers were “technically trained,” the molesters are called “adult observers,” and the molesters are actually called the child’s sexual “partner.”  Perhaps Kinsey’s own distorted view of child sexuality is best found in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in which he says, “It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts.”[26] Kinsey could not sympathize with the reaction of the children to being molested. The inability to sympathize with victims is a character trait associated with a person whose conscience is seared and non-functional.

Two aspects of Kinsey’s research have had the most enduring impact in relation to homosexuality: The Kinsey Scale and the “10%” myth. As noted above, the Kinsey Scale is weighted to find any level of homosexual attraction and it is still used in research today. By using the Kinsey Scale, some assessments may have a built-in bias.  Giving exclusive heterosexual attraction a score of “0” significantly skews the conclusions about the prevalence of homosexuality.[27] But perhaps the most enduring influence of Kinsey’s report is the 10% myth — the idea that 10% of people are homosexual. The true number of people who are homosexual is much lower than Kinsey suggests. The pro-homosexual Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law reported in 2011 that about 3.5% of American adults self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and that a further .03% identify as transgender. Among the 3.5% who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, bisexuals comprise a slight majority of 1.8% as opposed to 1.7% who identify as gay or lesbian. About 1.1% of women and 2.2% of men self-identify as exclusively homosexual[28] Although Kinsey’s data and conclusions are flawed, his work opened the door for public discussion of homosexuality and helped set the stage for the Sexual Revolution and the burgeoning gay rights movement.


[1] James Jones, Alfred Kinsey: A Public / Private Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 83. I’ve borrowed the phrase “sexual utopia” from Jones.

[2] The Kinsey scale is found at Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1948), 638. Notice that while a score of “0” is defined as “heterosexual with no homosexual,” a score of 6 simply says “homosexual,” without a corresponding “with no heterosexual.”

[3] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 597.

[4] Ibid., 585.

[5] Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 650.

[6] Ibid., 651.

[7] Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, and Paul H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1953), 473 – 474. See also the statistical chart on page 488.

[8] Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 44.

[9] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 203.

[10] Ibid., 203. For Kinsey, the term “total sexual outlet” meant the number of orgasms an individual had during a particular period regardless of the way the orgasm was achieved.

[11] It is difficult to determine exactly what percentage of Kinsey’s sample came from prisoners. He does reference “many hundreds of histories which we have from men who have been confined to penal institutions.” Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 210.

[12] Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 37.

[13] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 74.

[14] W. Allen Wallis, “Statistics of the Kinsey Report,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 44 (December 1949): 466.

[15] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 87.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bruce Westfall, “Kinsey Report,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics, R.K. Harrison, ed., rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 221.

[18] Abraham H. Maslow and James M. Sakoda, “Volunteer-Error In the Kinsey Study,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 47.2 (April 1952): 261. Maslow and Sakoda approved of Kinsey’s basic procedures, but wanted to refine the techniques used.

[19] Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 99.

[20] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 176- 177.

[21]Ibid., 177.

[22] Ibid., 501.

[23] Ibid., 178.

[24] Ibid., 161.

[25] Judith Reisman has strongly suggested that Kinsey’s researchers were the ones guilty of perpetrating the violence on the children. See Judith A. Reisman and Edward W. Eichel, Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House Publishers, 1990). Reisman’s claims have been quite controversial and The Kinsey Institute itself categorically denies that Kinsey or his researchers participated in experiments on children. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute from 1995 – 2004, contends all the data in Kinsey’s statistical tables regarding pre-adolescent orgasm came from one man who had sex with many adults and children beginning in 1917 until the time Kinsey interviewed him in the mid-1940s. Since Kinsey mentions gathering data from nine people who molested children, Bancroft says he does not know why Kinsey did not want to admit all the data came from one person, but suggests Kinsey “did not want to draw attention to this one man, or alternatively because he was particularly interested in this evidence and did not want to diminish its possible scientific credibility by revealing its single source.”  Bancroft further argues that Kinsey did not promote child molestation, did not train people to molest children, and was not in any sense a pedophile. John Bancroft, “Alfred C. Kinsey and the Politics of Sex Research,” Annual Review of Sex Research 1.15 (2004): 16 – 17. At a bare minimum one would expect Bancroft to concede the lack of informed consent on the part of the children, but he does not do so.

[26] Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 121.

[27] Pro-homosexual author Fausto-Sterling comments, “In studies that search for a genetic link to homosexuality . . . the middle of the Kinsey scale disappears; researchers seek to compare the extreme ends of the spectrum in hopes of maximizing the chance that they will find something of interest.”  Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 10.

[28] Gary J. Yates, “How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender?” (Accessed January 3, 2013). One is left to wonder why the Kinsey Institute can claim, “Interestingly, most statistics, such as homosexual behavior, did not change significantly from the original reports.”  This statement is plainly inaccurate and sounds self-serving. The Kinsey Institute, “Facts About Kinsey, The Film.” (Accessed December 21, 2012).

Alfred Kinsey

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