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20.1B: Sexual Behavior- Kinsey’s Study

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    Learning Objectives

    • Analyze the impact of Kinsey’s study of sexuality related to how it changed the public’s perception of sexuality and how people are sexually socialized


    Dr. Alfred Kinsey was an American biologist who is considered to be the founder of sexology, or the scientific study of human sexuality, including human sexual interests, behavior, and function. Kinsey trained as a biologist and entomologist at Harvard and obtained a teaching post at Indiana University. There, he became interested in human sexuality. In 1935, Kinsey delivered a lecture to a faculty discussion group where he attacked the “widespread ignorance of sexual structure and physiology” and advanced the notion that delayed sexual experience, or waiting to engage in sexual activity until marriage, was psychologically harmful. This lecture sparked intensive research that resulted in the Kinsey Report. The report refers to two different book publications based on his research of human sexuality: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). The books were widely read and Kinsey became a media star.

    The Kinsey Report was the most extensive analysis of human sexuality conducted to its day. Data was gathered primarily by means of subjective interviews, conducted according to a structured questionnaire memorized by the experimenters. Significantly, the Kinsey research team went out and conducted the interviews themselves, rather than relying upon pre-collected data. What resulted was the largest collection of statistical information about adult sexuality in the United States.

    The Kinsey Scale

    A large section of the Kinsey Report was devoted to the idea of sexual orientation. The Kinsey Report is frequently invoked to support the common estimate of one in ten Americans being a homosexual. However, Kinsey disapproved of using terms like homosexual or heterosexual, as he firmly believed that sexuality is prone to change over time and that sexual behavior must be understood both as physical contact as well as purely psychological phenomena, such as desire, attraction, and fantasy. Instead of using the homosexual/heterosexual categorization, Kinsey developed the Kinsey Scale system. This system attempts to describe a person’s sexual history or episodes of sexual activity at a given point in time, rather than assigning an individual an overarching and permanent sexual orientation.

    The scale ranked sexual behavior from zero to six, with zero being completely heterosexual and six being completely homosexual. As one can see, Kinsey rejected the idea of a permanent status of sexual orientation and instead chose to rely on a rating relating to a particular moment in one’s life, indicating that sexuality changes over time. Nevertheless, Kinsey’s Scale is effectively a segmented version of the hetero/homosexual binary, not allowing for other interpretations of sexuality. Kinsey’s associates actually added an additional category, X, to represent asexuals, or people who experience no sexual desire. In this way, Kinsey’s report is of its particular cultural and historical moment, in that it conceives of American sexuality as only occurring along this binary. According to Kinsey, 11.6% of white males aged 20 to 35 were given a rating of three for this period in their lives, meaning that they were equally heterosexual and homosexual. Kinsey further found that 7% of single females aged 20 to 35 and 4% of previously married females were given a rating of three for this period of their lives. The report also states that nearly 46% of the male interview subjects had “reacted” sexually to persons of both sexes in the course of their adult lives, and 37% had at least one homosexual experience.

    Sexuality Within Marriage

    The Kinsey study also gave statistics on sexuality within marriage that had never before been reported. According to Kinsey, the average frequency of marital sex reported by women in their late teens was 2.8 times per week, 2.2 times per week for women by the age of 30, and once per week by women by the age of 50. Kinsey estimated that approximately half of all married males had some extramarital experience at some point in their married lives. Among Kinsey’s sample, 26% of females had extramarital sex by their forties. Kinsey found that between 10 and 16% of married females aged 26 to 50 were engaged in extramarital sex.

    Critical Response

    Kinsey’s report was wildly successful. The two books together sold over 750,000 copies and were translated into thirteen languages. They may be considered some of the most successful and influential scientific literature of the twentieth century. The reports are associated with a significant change in public perceptions of sexuality. A mere decade after the reports were published, the first oral contraceptive was introduced and the sexual revolution began. The sexual revolution was a social movement from the 1960s to the 1980s that increased acceptance of sex outside of marriage.

    The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction: The photo shows Morrison Hall at Indiana University, home of the Kinsey Institute.

    Key Points

    • Kinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, which was a numerical ranking of sexual behavior on a scale of complete heterosexuality to complete homosexuality.
    • Kinsey’s open discussion of sexuality in the 1950s contributed to the sexual revolution of the following decade, in which social standards that limited sex to heterosexual marriage were loosened.
    • The Kinsey Report is frequently invoked to support the common estimate of one in ten Americans being a homosexual.

    Key Terms

    • sexology: The study of sex and sexuality.
    • sexual revolution: A period in which attitudes towards sexual behavior undergo a substantial change, usually in the direction of increased liberality.

    20.1B: Sexual Behavior- Kinsey’s Study is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.