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The Kinsey effect

The pioneering researcher's sexual revelations enlightened and shocked a nation. His legacy is controversial yet powerful.

November 15, 2004|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

On a January day in 1948, a hefty book filled with turgid scientific prose, and scores of tables and charts, landed amid an unsuspecting American public. The tome reported, matter-of-factly and without judgment, that American men were up to all manner of sexual exploits behind closed doors, and that the minds of huge numbers of them were churning with taboo desires.

The book, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," by biologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University, was an utter revelation for a populace living in a time when masturbation was frowned upon, oral sex (even between husband and wife) was illegal in some states, and homosexuality was considered an extremely rare, criminal deviance.

Kinsey's work set off "a true media explosion," says writer-director Bill Condon, whose movie, "Kinsey," on the pioneering sex researcher's life, premiered in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. Publications such as Collier's, Time and the New York Times ran cover articles about Kinsey's book. Church leaders, among others, denounced it.

Overnight, millions of American men realized that they were not lone freaks for doing what they did.

Based on thousands of exhaustive, confidential interviews with churchgoers, college students, prison inmates and more, Kinsey reported, for example, that 92% of men had masturbated and half of married men had had extramarital affairs. A full 37% of men said they had had some form of homosexual experience at some point in their lives.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Sex research -- In Monday's Health section, a timeline with an article about Alfred Kinsey spelled the first name of sex researcher Shere Hite as Sherry.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 22, 2004 Home Edition Health Part F Page 8 Features Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Kinsey -- In last Monday's Health section, a timeline that accompanied an article about Alfred Kinsey misspelled the first name of sex researcher Shere Hite as Sherry.

Five years later, Kinsey's second volume -- "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" -- came through with more revelations. A full 62% of women, for instance, reported they had masturbated, about half of the women said that they had engaged in premarital sex, and two-thirds of participants said that they had experienced overtly sexual dreams. The book was widely attacked as an affront to the dignity of womanhood.

Americans flocked to buy both volumes, turning them into bestsellers.

Those dry books are now gathering dust on academic bookshelves but Kinsey's legacy lives on. By bringing the sexual lives of regular American men and women out of the shadows -- by cataloging their actions and proclivities more completely than anyone before him or since -- he opened the doors on a public discussion of sex and set a foundation for the scholarly investigation of this most intimate arena of human life.

Social scientists and sex researchers describe his contribution as one of the most significant achievements in the annals of sex research.

"His influence was tremendous -- it opened up the field," says Vern Bullough, founder of the Center for Sex Research at Cal State Northridge, and author of "Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research."

Nobody since the controversial Kinsey has interviewed as many people, in such painstaking detail about so many aspects of their sexual lives and thoughts.

Over the course of years, 18,000 men and women across the country were asked to bare their souls on such matters as the frequencies of their climaxes, their experiences with premarital sex and even whether they had ever had sexual encounters with animals.

Kinsey's work did more than reassure people they were not alone: It highlighted a disconnect between certain laws of the land and actual sexual practice. "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin," Kinsey once said.

Perhaps above all, researchers say Kinsey's work and the later studies it inspired showed social scientists, public health workers, therapists and geneticists just how much there was and still remains for them to study.

"His No. 1 contribution was simply recognizing that sexual behavior is diverse and that people do very different things ... that there was a marvelous and very substantial diversity of sexual behavior in all segments of the population," says Dean Hamer, author and molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied sexuality and genetics.

Being lauded as the father of sex research may seem an odd fate for a man with Kinsey's start in life. He was born in 1894 in Hoboken, N.J.; his father was an engineer and a Sunday school preacher who spoke out passionately against the sins of masturbation.

Kinsey obtained an assistant professorship in zoology at Indiana University in 1920, and gained prominence in his field for the detailed study of the thousands of gall wasps he collected -- enthralled, in his studies, by the rich variation he uncovered.

But in 1938, he took a new tack and began teaching a university course on marriage in which he discussed sexual matters quite frankly. Soon after, he devised his questionnaire and embarked on a brand-new taxonomy -- of human sex.

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