Our episode today covers one of the most well known research studies in modern history, and a landmark analysis for queer rights, the Kinsey scale. In January of 1948 the world was attempting to recover from the devastation of World War 2. The global tragedy had ended just 2 ½ years earlier, and governments at home and abroad were struggling to rebuild. In America, a new war had started. The war against communism and homosexuality. The term Red Scare was the title carried in headlines. But Lavender Scare is the more accurate description. It’s estimated that close to 10,000 federal employees lost their jobs due to accusations of communism that can be traced back to sexual deviancy. A term used to describe homosexuals. Many of those fired were also forced to endure public, federal hearings. And many more were imprisoned or sent away to asylums simply because they were queer.
And it was at the beginning of this eruption of turmoil that professor Alfred Kinsey published his 820 page research study on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He was a zoologist from Indiana University who inexplicably had decided to switch his research focus to human sexuality. The first page dedicated the book to: The twelve thousand persons who have contributed to this data and the eighty-eight thousand more who, someday, will help complete this study. And in the preface the book boldly stated:
Certianly no aspect of human biology in our current civilization stands in more need of scientific knowledge and courageous humility than that of sex. The history of medicine proves that insofar as man seeks to know himself and face his own nature, he has become free from bewildered fear, despondent shame, or arrant hypocrisy. As long as sex it dealt with in the current confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, supression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indeceny that lead to neither intellectual honesty nor human dignity.
The books was the most comprehensive and in depth study on sexuality ever published in America. And it was one of the first studies that largely diverted from the traditional writings about deviant sex. Meaning any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. The Kinsey reports would split open the discussion about sex in America and this is why many have dubbed Kinsey the Father of the Sexual Revolution. What is possibly most astounding about this report, and the one which would follow 5 years later – Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, is how popular they were. As one can imagine, an 800+ page scientific discourse on anything is bound to be a bit dry. Let alone a research published by a zoologist best known for his studies on gall wasps. Yet both books would stay at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for weeks. Even after the Times initially refused to advertise of even review the book.
So who the hell was this Alfred Kinsey anyway? Born on June 23, 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey Afred’s parents were poor, devout methodists. It was often said that Alfred Sr. was the most devoted christian in Hoboken. Unfortunately, his allegiance to the church seemed to supersede all else and his children struggled beneath their fathers overbearing standards. Alfred found relief in nature. He joined the Boy Scouts at a young age and would eventually earn the highest rank of Eagle Scout at age 17. The exposure to the outdoors no doubt fed Kinsey’s love for botany and zoology. He developed a close mentorship with his high school science teacher and excelled in all of his studies. Alfred would graduate Columbia High as valedictorian of the class of 1913.
But while his father encouraged his sons love of the Boy Scouts – an institute deeply rooted in Christian values. Kinsey Sr had issues with his son’s love for science. While Alfred wanted to pursue his studies in botany, his father thought the field was a waste of time. Instead the two reached a supposed compromise when Kinsey Sr pushed Alfred to enroll in the Stevens Institute of Technology. A local college that is actually one of the oldest technological universities in America. Alfred lasted one year at the tech school. The following fall he defied his father and headed to Brunswick, Maine to attend Bowdoin College. The college was and is renowned for its liberal arts programs. But also its history of producing scientists and explorers. In fact, just a few years before Kinsey arrived, Bowdoin alumnus Robert Peary had led the first successful expedition to the North Pole. Alfred was finally among his people.
Alfred graduated with degrees in biology and psychology in 1916. Afred Sr did not attend his son’s graduation. Kinsey then headed off to Harvard to continue his studies in biology, specifically entomology (the study of insects). While at Harvard, Alfred found great academic and professional success and became known as a leading expert on the subject of gall wasps. After earning his doctorate in 1919, Alfred began to scour the country in pursuit of samples of gall wasps. He would submit over 5 million samples to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He also began to compose work on a high school science textbook. Which was among the first to fully endorse evolution as a basis of fact rather than a mere theory.
Alfred also found love in the midst of all his career pursuits. He met, and two months later, married a fellow scientist and Indiana girl, Clara McMillen. To no surprise, Alfred Sr did not attend the wedding. Clara would be a cornerstone of Alfred’s work to come. She encouraged him in his studies and she also allowed him to explore his sexuality. As he allowed her to do the same. We don’t have the details as to when the couple opened their marriage, but it seems that sometime within the first 10 years they began to explore polyamory. A fact that had to be hidden from the world during the early part of the 20th century. The couple also had 4 children. Sadly their first son Donald died at age 5.
It seemed of little consequence at the time but Kinsey met Clara he was still a virgin. Alfred would later admit he had struggle with his sexual identity for some time. The term bisexual had not been coined yet, and of course, there was little information readily available for those questioning their sexual desires. Kinsey felt conflicted over his attractions to both men and women. When he and Clara were first married, they both struggled in the bedroom. However, with research being their forte, they both committed themselves to further study about sex. And eventually it seems they got quite good at it. Because of the couples struggles, they were especially sympathetic to other young couples who had issues in the bedroom. Alfred and Clara began privately counseling students about sex.
By 1933, Kinsey had secretly devised a scale from 0-6 that measured a person’s sexuality. With one being a true heterosexual and 6 being a full fledged homosexual. Alfred began to have deep discussions with fellow zoologist Robert Kroc about the mating rituals of gall wasps. These talks soon turned into discussions about human sexuality. In 1935 Kinsey addressed the faculty at IU concerning the widespread ignorance surrounding sexual matters. Remember, the students at the university were 17 and older and many were married. Yet they still struggled to understand basic anatomy and sexual needs. Two years later, Alfred mounted a counter campaign against an anti-sex ed crusade raging through the campus. The following year, in 1938, he was given a chance to teach a non accredited course titled Marriage and Family. He stated in one of his early lectures: “If Americans were not so inhibited, a 12-year-old would know most of the biology which I will have to give you in formal lectures as seniors and graduate students.” The first year 98 students enrolled in the class. By 1940 over 400 young adults were lining up to take professor Kinsey’s Marriage and Family course.
In 1941 Alfred Kinsey formally launched his research into the study of sex. He secured a $1,600 grant from the National Research Council’s Committee for the Research on the Problems of Sex. Over the years that amount would increase to $40,000 (equivalent to over $400,000 today). Kinsey began to gather a team with sexologists Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin as the leads. Wardell was a graduate of IU and worked as a psychologist at a local hospital. Clyde had been a student at IU and had befriended the professor several years earlier. He eventually took a job as Alfred and Clara’s gardener. By now ,Alfred and Clara had long since opened their marriage and Kinsey and Clyde began an affair. There are conflicting stories as to the nature of their romance. Some have suggested that Clyde, while he was bisexual, felt pressured to be in a relationship with Kinsey. Others have suggested that the men shared a mutual friends with benefits relationship for about 5 years.
Between 1939 and 1947 Kinsey and his team claimed they managed to secure sex histories from 12,000 individuals all across the US. Later it would come to light that some of these records were fudged to lend more validity. For instance, Kinsey claimed to have interviewed several admitted pedophiles. When in truth he only interviewed one open pedophile. He also had a habit of marking people as married when they were actually single. But some of this can be attributed to the laws and understanding around marriage at the time. In contrast to Kinsey’s own understanding of marriage and commitment. However, even if some of the testimonies were thrown out, there is still a substantial database of research that would be published in two, separate, large volumes.
In truth, Kinsey collected even more histories. However, for the publishing of the Kinsey report he only published the accounts of white people. The claim was made that there weren’t enough test samples from black histories to be used in the initial publication. While orientation and sexuality in themselves are not varied based on race or culture, sexual expression does vary. It is true that it may have been difficult for Kinsey to collect a large amount of sex histories from communities of color. And perhaps Kinsey felt publishing the histories of black and brown americans would present a bias. Or perhaps Kinsey himself was biased. We do not know as the histories are currently locked away. However, some have suggested that Kinsey still slipped in some histories of POC. Regardless, the first volume of the Kinsey Reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published in 1948. It cataloged 5,300 male subjects and cataloged everything from masturbation and fantasy to pre-marital sex and of course the iconic Kinsey scale.
By far the most sensational piece of the 800 page document was the Kinsey scale. Here Alfred had laid out a 7 point scale which measured a person’s heterosexuality (or lack thereof). 0 was for the fully heterosexual. 1 was heterosexual but incidentally homosexual – meaning the participant had at least one homosexual experience. This could be anything from a wet dream about another man to an innocent hand job in middle school. 2 was heterosexual but more than incidentally homosexual. This means the person had more than a few hand jobs. 3 was equally heterosexual and homosexual. What we would call bisexual today. 4 was predominantly homosexual but more than incidentally heterosexual . 5 was predominantly homosexual and only incidentally heterosexual. And 6 was the all out homosexual . There was also an X for the individual who had never had any type of sexual experiences. Perhaps what we would today call the asexual. By today’s standards, the scale doesn’t hold up. But it did set a guideline in the realm of sexuality. And most importantly, it did so without judgement.
In the book, Kinsey calls out the injustice against “sex perverts” and “deviants”. He decries the harsh crimes laid against those who do not follow the strictly heterosexual path. He advocates for understanding and real education around sex and sexuality. He speaks about the harm the anti-sex ed movement with do to younger generations. And he all but mocks America’s prudish standards in regards to nature’s most basic instinct. Kinsey had interviewed people from all walks of life. Business men, students, prisoners, sex workers, open homosexuals, closeted homosexuals. Proud bisexuals, uncertain heterosexuals, cisgender men and women, and no doubt transgender individuals. In fact, his wide array of interviewees has also been used as fuel to call his research into question. As bias pushes people to trust the truthfulness in stories from the world’s deviants. Though there is something to be said for public outcry against Dr. Kinsey’s 17 hour interview with pedophile Rex King. Kinsey painstakingly took down details of King’s rape and abuse of children. Witnesses claim that Kinsey’s subordinates were so disturbed they left the interview early in disgust, leaving the doctor alone with the pedophile.
Kinsey’s findings were unnerving to a nation that had steeped itself in hyper-masculinity and heteronormalcy since the war. He reported that 37% of adult men had engaged in some kind of homosexual deviancy with that number rising significantly for men who were older but still single. The doctor also wrote that teenage boys were 55% more likely to explore sexual activity with another boy. And 10% of all men had been exclusively homosexual for at least 3 years of their life (the 10% statistic which is still reported and commonly known today). Kinsey found out a lot of other things about male sexuality. Such as the fact that 50% of white married men indulged in extra-marital affairs. Between the infidelity and the the homosexual claims, Life magazine exclaimed “new worlds of suspicsion… were opened to doubting wives by Kinsey’s revelations on men”.
As for the public reaction, it was a mix of hypocrisy. While religious leaders and politicians called out the immorality of the study, the book continued to climb New York Time’s best seller list. One religious leader claimed the Sexual Behavior of the Human Male was “the most anti-religious book of our times”. Celebrities made jokes about the report in songs and television shows. Even famed entertainer Mae West lamented that Kinsey had taken away her bit when he started talking about sex. And comic Marta Raye wrote a song called “Ooooh, Dr. Kinsey!” which sold half a million copies. While conservatives condemned the book and liberals poked fun, the queer community was alive. Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, once joked he carried the Kinsey report around like a Bible. Samuel Stewart, a gay man interviewed by Kinsey stated:
“It blasted this damn country wide open. There wasn’t a radio stand-up comic, or a television comic, or a nightclub comic who didn’t have a thousand jokes to make of it. His name was a household word..Even the dumbest guy on the street had heard of Kinsey. He was our Stonewall…After that everybody began to know and would look at the straightest guy on the street and say, are you gay?”
In 1953, Kinsey released his second volume of the report. This one titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Not surprisingly, this volume didn’t get quite as much attention. Though it did hit the New York Times bestseller list like its predecessor. It also landed Kinsey on the cover of Time magazine for that year. He stated simply that his goal behind the research was to show “nearly all the so-called sexual perversions fall within the range of biological normality”. Kinsey found that 7% of women fell into the bisexual category with only 1% of women as stricly homosexual. A number that’s been hotly disputed since. And again, we must factor in social and cultural acceptance of an idea. A concept that Kinsey did not weigh and another criticism of his studies. His biggest contribution to women though came in his defense that women experienced a near equal desire for sex as men. He also did an in depth explanation of the female orgasm. And speculated that the clitoral orgasm was equal to or stronger than the vaginal orgasm. A concept that had always been taught in the opposite way. This new information was especially empowering for women. And with the introduction of birth control a few years later, women began to view sex and explore sex in a new light.
However, anti-lgbtq groups had been stoking the flames of fear. The Red Scare, again more adequately known as the Lavender Scare, was at its peak in 1953. Eisenhower was elected to office in 1952 in a landslide victory over a Adlai Stevenson. Who himself had been accused of being a homosexual. Pulling on Eisenhower’s ear was the reverend Billy Graham. An up and coming evangelist at the time and a staunch homophobe. Graham said of Kinsey’s work “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America.” With the election of such a conservative president and the fierce push back of the far right, Kinsey’s funding for research was pulled.It’s interesting to note that this birthed the era of conversion therapy. Though it would be another 20 years before the practice would fully take off, far right groups realized that science wouldn’t be on their side for much longer.
Perhaps time knew that Kinsey’s work had been complete. Just three years after his research on sex had been shut down, Alfred Kinsey passed away suddenly on August 25, 1956 of heart failure and pneumonia. The New York Times ran this editorial:
The untimely death of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey takes from the American scene an important and valuable, as well as controversial, figure. Whatever may have been the reaction to his findings—and to the unscrupulous use of some of them—the fact remains that he was first, last, and always a scientist. In the long run it is probable that the values of his contribution to contemporary thought will lie much less in what he found out than in the method he used and his way of applying it. Any sort of scientific approach to the problems of sex is difficult because the field is so deeply overlaid with such things as moral precept, taboo, individual and group training, and long established behavior patterns. Some of these may be good in themselves, but they are no help to the scientific and empirical method of getting at the truth. Dr. Kinsey cut through this overlay with detachment and precision. His work was conscientious and comprehensive. Naturally, it will receive a serious setback with his death. Let us earnestly hope that the scientific spirit that inspired it will not be similarly impaired.
Though Kinsey had left this world, his legacy and research would live on to inspire countless more, including Dr. Evelyn Hooker. Today, the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University continues his work. While his studies were not perfect, in a time when no one dared to utter the word sex aloud, Kinsey made the topic a household discussion. And most importantly, he helped to rip off the stigma surrounding homosexuality. For all the criticisms, Kinsey’s work certainly struck a nerve. 50 years later the right would still be writing attacks against the dead scientist. And it would still be another decade before laws against homosexuality would begin to be repealed. Another 20 years before the American Psychiatric Association would remove homosexuality from it’s list of diseases. But now the science community was equipped to find the truth and to help the queer community. A lot is owed to Dr. Kinsey and his 7 point scale.
Your recommended resource for today is Alfred C. Kinsey by James H. Jones. It is a bit of a critical account of the professor and scientist. But it is considered the current, definitive history of the controversial doctor. And if you want to skip that, just watch the 2004 movie Kinsey starring Liam Nesson.
- Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America published by Thompson Gale; Marc Stein Editor in Chief
- A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski (pgs 177-178/
- The Lavender Scare; The Cold War Persecution of Gay and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson (pgs 53-54)
- Kinsey Institute – https://kinseyinstitute.org/research/publications/kinsey-scale.php
- Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfed Kinsey – https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.187552/page/n1
- Wiki Kinsey Reports – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_Reports
- Wiki Kinsey Life – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Kinsey
- Kinsey 2 – https://allthatsinteresting.com/alfred-kinsey-report
- Criticism – https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/movies/alfred-kinsey-liberator-or-pervert.html