Kinsey’s Revenge: What 75 Years Has Brought

Few remember just how shocked, shocked!, mainstream America of the post-War era was by Alfred Kinsey’s revelations about male – and, in time, female — sexuality. His findings are widely accepted today, even though some fret over his statistical methodology. It’s now 75 years after his first study appeared and its findings remains threatening.

Kinsey was a tenured professor at Indiana University and author of two pioneering works, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (1930) and The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (1936). His twin studies of sexuality — Sexual Behavior of Human Male(1948) and Sexual Behavior of Human Female (1953) – were based on approximately 18,000 interviews conducted between 1938-1953 and represent a landmark in not only empirical research, but moral philosophy as well.

When the first volume on male sexuality was published, his findings precipitated a near crisis of social conscious. The numbers spoke for themselves: 70 percent of men had visited prostitutes; 40 percent of married men were “unfaithful” to their wives; 37 percent of men (and 19 percent of women) had had at least one homosexual contact; and one farmhand in six had sexually experimented with an animal. With the notable exception of the indulgences of farmhands, little seems to have changed over the last half-century other than the acceptance of the obvious.

He sought to apply a research model that he had pioneered as a noted entomologist to the study of American sexuality. By presenting the findings from a database drawn from detailed sexual histories of a relatively large sample, Kinsey sought to make it impossible to deny the full range — or “individual variation,” as he referred to it — of sexual practices engaged in by (white) men and women. His studies provide not only an invaluable snapshot of pre- and post-War sexual practice, but insight into the deeper historical forces that were restructuring modern American sexuality.

Confronting the dominant sexual standards head-on, Kinsey paints a grim picture of the official sexual culture of the period:

Specifically, English-American legal codes restrict the sexual activity of the unmarried male by characterizing all pre-martial, extra-marital, and post-marital intercourse as rape, statutory rape, fornication, adultery, prostitution, association with a prostitute, incest, delinquency, a contribution to delinquency, assault and battery, or public indecency – all of which are offenses with penalties attached.

Going further, he reminds his readers that “all intercourse outside of marriage (non-marital intercourse) is illicit and subject to penalty by statute law … .” He stressed that laws “penalize all homosexual activity, all sexual contact with animals; and they specifically limit the techniques of marital intercourse.”

In line with his entomological notion of individual variation, he revised the conventional tri-part model of human sexuality – i.e., heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual — into a seven-point range (from zero to six) or heterosexual-to-homosexual rating scale. Kinsey’s scale was based on the reported sexual practices of his subjects, men and women. Each point delineated a very imprecise distinction between those engaged in exclusive heterosexual to exclusive homosexual acts and – as with any bell-curve — with the greatest segments of the population falling somewhere in between. For Kinsey, there were no “homosexuals” or, for that matter, “heterosexuals” – only men or women engaged in sexual acts which were labeled the one or the other.

The empirical truths revealed in Kinsey’s first study disturbed many and provoked widespread criticism among religious, academic and civic leaders. No less a would-be moral authority than Billy Graham attacked the work, warning, “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America.” Other religious leaders, like conservative Normal Vincent Peale and liberals Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Pitney Van Dusen, head of Union Theological Seminary, joined the chorus of criticism.

Prominent sex researchers, most notably Gershon Legman, assailed the report. Leading psychologists and psychoanalysts like Lawrence Kubi and Edmund Bergler joined the chorus of criticism. Even progressive thinkers, most notably Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu and Karl Menninger, challenged the study’s findings. There were even calls for a Congressional investigation and, following the publication of the 1953 female study, Dean Rusk, head of the Rockefeller Foundation and Kennedy’s future Secretary of State, withdrew the organization’s financial support for Kisney’s research.

Nevertheless, moralists, politicians and the medical establishment could no longer conceal the deepest private truths of American male and female sexual life that Kinsey’s research revealed. To everyone’s – including Kinsey’s – surprise the first 804-page scientific tome became a best seller, quickly selling over 200,000 copies; it rose to the top of The New York Times best-seller list – in spite of the fact that the Times refused to carry advertisements for the book and failed to review it when it first appeared. As one commentary of the day observed, “If present laws concerning sexual crime and misdemeanor were in force, 95 percent of all adults would be or would have been at some time, in prison …”

In 1953, Kinsey and his associates published an even more massive work – 842 pages – on the sexuality of America white women. Seeking to address a number of the statistical and medical-scientific criticisms raised against the first study, Kinsey subjected his empirical data to far more rigorous analysis. In addition, he paid far more attention to the role of biological factors such as neural mechanisms and hormonal factors among women then he had considered when analyzing males. Nevertheless, like the first volume, the focus of this study was the reported sexual practices of his sample, in this case some six thousand women.

Like no other work over the last 75 years, Kinsey’s twin studies opened up a national debate on a subject that had long been — and for some still continues to be — considered to be beyond the boundary of acceptable social discourse. By presenting information about sexual practices — especially as apparently neutral statistical, scientific findings — that had long been denied or simply ignored, these works confronted head-on some of the most deeply held and popular Judeo-Christian moral standards. In throwing down the gauntlet to a sheepish scientific, moral and political population, Kinsey declared:

Even some of the most extremely variant types of human sexual behavior may need no more explanation than is provided by our understanding of our process of learning and conditioning. Behavior which may appear bizarre, perverse, or unthinkably unacceptable to some persons, and even to most persons, may have significance for other individuals because of the way in which they have been conditioned.

He then adds:

Flagellation, masochism, transvestism, and the wide variety of fetishes appear to be products of conditioning, fortified sometimes by some other aspect of an individual’s personality and by inherent or acquired anatomic and physiologic capacities. Sexual reactions to stockings, to underclothing, to other articles of clothing, to shoes, or to long hair may be no more difficult to explain that attractions to the body of a sexual partner, or to particular parts of the body, to the legs of females, to the breasts of females, to male genitalia, to buttocks, or to other portions of the human anatomy.

Kinsey’s humanism remains as radical today as when first stated a half-century ago.

In 1948, mainstream America was shocked by the revelations included in the now-classic study of American male sexuality by Kinsey and his associates.  It was, in particular, his analysis of childhood sexuality and homoerotic practices that struck the deepest societal nerves.  Focusing specifically on adult homoeroticism, he stated, “a considerable portion of the population, perhaps the major portion of the male population, has at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age.”

Underlying this assessment was a radical definition of homosexual activity: “… persons who have had physical contacts with other males, and who were brought to orgasm as a result of such contacts.” Pushing the boundary of acceptable scientific – let alone social — assessment, he acknowledged:

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual.  The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.  Not all things are black, nor all things white.  It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories.  Only the human mind invents categories and tried to force facts into separated pigeon-holes.

He concluded by asserting: “The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

In 1948 Kinsey asked Harry Benjamin, a German émigré endocrinologist and sexologist who had known both Magnus Hirschfeld and Sigmund Freud, to see a child born male but who was “assured to be a girl.”  Neither Kinsey nor Benjamin had been presented with a case like this before.  Benjamin treated the child with estrogen (introduced in 1941) and arranged for the child and mother to go to Germany for a sex change operation.  In ’54, Benjamin introduced the concept of transsexualism.

Writing in 1966, Benjamin distinguished between the transvestite and the transsexual.  “But while ‘dressing’ would satisfy the true transvestite (who is content with his morphological sex), it is only incidental and not more than a partial or temporary help to the transsexual,” he notes.  “True transsexuals feel that they belong to the other sex, they want to be and function as members of the opposite sex, not only to appear as such. For them, their sex organs, the primary (testes) as well as the secondary (penis and others) are disgusting deformities that must be changed by the surgeon’s knife. This attitude appears to be the chief differential diagnostic point between the two syndromes (sets of symptoms) – that is, those of transvestism and transsexualism.”

Benjamin acknowledged that Kinsey’s seven-point heterosexual-homosexual scale was a useful model but raised one concern, it did not apply to transsexuals and others (e.g., bisexuals).  He introduced his own “Sex Orientation Scale” (S.O.S.) that identified “seven categories or types (not necessarily stages)” to classify “the transvestitic and the transsexual phenomenon.”   He argued: “Transsexualism is a sex and gender problem, the transsexual being primarily concerned with his (or her) self only, a sex partner being of secondary although occasionally vital importance.”

An individual of any genetic sex may self-identify as either male or female or something in-between — a female with maleness, a male with femaleness or a gender-nonconforming person with elements of both a woman and a man.  Kinsey’s heterosexual-to-homosexual is a continuum that categorized one dimension of male (and female) sexuality. Benjamin’s continuum categorized gender identity, the full human spectrum from female to male, yet another dimension of sexuality.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out