Science in America's Bedroom
BEN WATTENBERG: Today, if you want to know about sex in America, and even if you don't, the information is hard to avoid. Just look at the magazines at any newsstand or supermarket checkout line, and you will find intimate sexual behavior examined in great detail; and so, too, of course, on television. Yet not long ago, such public discussion and display of sex was limited. The naked truth about how Americans behave was unknown. It was the last dark frontier of social science until a controversial Midwest biology professor named Alfred Kinsey walked into America's bedroom and snapped on the light.
(Excerpt of song.)
BEN WATTENBERG: Few books have had greater impact on American society than the two volumes written by Alfred Kinsey. "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" hit the bookstores in 1948, selling a quarter of a million copies in the first year alone. "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" was published in 1953. Together, they comprised the first major scientific study of American sexuality, containing data from interviews with 5,300 men and 5,900 women covering most every aspect of their sexual histories.
JAMES H. JONES (Author, Kinsey: A Public/Private Life): What happens when Kinsey publishes the male volume and the female volume is that American society gets permission to talk about sex. You can go in board rooms, you can go in barber shops, you can go in cafes, you can go on sidewalk street corners and people are talking about issues that they never would have talked about before. Alfred Kinsey says 'x' number of people masturbate. Alfred Kinsey says 'x' number of men have premarital intercourse. And people have permission, really by science, the great secular force in our society, to open these questions to discussion.
BEN WATTENBERG: Some readers were shocked, others comforted. Some attacked the accuracy of the data. For according to Kinsey, there was a wide gap between what people thought was normal and what people were actually doing.
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BEN WATTENBERG: For example, premarital sex was reported by two out of every three college-educated males, and almost all males with only a grade-school education. More surprisingly, about half of all females said they had sex before marriage. What about extramarital sex? Kinsey maintained that about half of all married males and one-quarter of married females had strayed from the marital bed at some point in their lives.
The data on male homosexuality was most shocking and immediately challenged. Kinsey reported that 37 percent of males had at least one homosexual experience to the point of orgasm. What's more, 10 percent of males in the sample were predominantly homosexual for at least three years. About 4 percent were said to be exclusively homosexual for life.
The two books made Kinsey an international celebrity, both praised and vilified. Some regarded the works as a clarion call for personal liberation. Others saw them as precursors of promiscuity. Publicly, Kinsey always maintained that he had no social agenda and that what drove him was science for science's sake.
DR. ALFRED KINSEY: Pure research depends upon the sort of objectivity, which gathers data and allows other people to use that data.
BEN WATTENBERG: But as more has come to be known about the private Kinsey and his passions, both social and sexual, it has become clear that there was more to Kinsey than his scientific stance.
JAMES H. JONES: Kinsey is at odds with the way society regulates human sexual behavior. And what he wants to see is a much more encompassing ethic of tolerance that will make a room at the table for lots of different kinds of people who don't fit under the cookie cutters of prescribed morality.
PAUL GEBHARD (Kinsey Colleague, 1946-1956): No, he was trying to make the world a more tolerant and happier place. But you'd never get him to admit that.
BEN WATTENBERG: Kinsey was born in 1894 in New Jersey, where he grew up under the stern guidance of a very religious father.
PAUL GEBHARD: Well, you got the impression that everything connected with sex was dangerous and sinful. So he suffered a great deal as a child. You know, he thought his masturbation would drive him insane or stunt his growth or that he'd go to hell because of it, and that kind of business. But he often said, "I'd like to see that no child ever went through this nonsense that I had to go through."
BEN WATTENBERG: Kinsey was probably motivated by his adult sex life as well. He remained happily married to his wife Clara to the end of his life, but over the years he also had sexual relations with men and engaged in sadomasochism.
JAMES H. JONES: Kinsey's private life was at odds with his public persona. Publicly, Kinsey presented the image of a very staid Midwest university professor, a family man. Privately, he's also a person who pushes the envelope with regard to experimentation with behavior.
BEN WATTENBERG: Kinsey's research methods went beyond interviewing. He and a photographer filmed various animals copulating. Less openly, in the privacy of the attic of his own home, Kinsey filmed human sexual behavior, including masturbation, hetero and homosexual intercourse, and sadomasochism.
PAUL GEBHARD: He tried to anticipate Masters & Johnson a little bit. For example, if we could have someone masturbating or in sexual intercourse, you know, maybe one of us would be trying to hold a finger on their pulse to count the pulse and somebody else might be trying to count their respiration. That was very primitive. It's all we could do. And so these weren't exactly orgies. Some of these were pretty medically inclined.
BEN WATTENBERG: The sessions involved members of Kinsey's team and their wives, trusted volunteers, and occasionally Kinsey himself. Kinsey's wife Clara made the participants feel right at home.
JAMES H. JONES: Images I have of Clara that's really, you know, quite sweet is that people will be involved in the attic with all kinds of sexual acts, and she'll come in with milk and cookies and towels for them to, you know, dry off and freshen up, and then milk and cookies and the next round of, you know, behavior will begin.
BEN WATTENBERG: But even if the private Kinsey was a sexual experimenter and a covert crusader for what he considered sexual tolerance, the key questions remain: Does it matter? Did it lead him to slant his data?
JAMES H. JONES: Kinsey would never -- it's just not part of his makeup -- would never have knowingly doctored the books. With Kinsey, though, his desire to change attitudes, to have people be tolerant, is something that shapes his writing. It's something that really molds his presentation of data.
BEN WATTENBERG: Case in point: The data on homosexuality. Kinsey reported what he found, but his sample included adolescent boys who engaged in group masturbation.
PAUL GEBHARD: Well, a lot of it came about in the early post-puberty. So, yeah, for three years in there they were much more homosexual than heterosexual. And Kinsey had just put that out kind of to emphasize what he felt, to show the degree to which homosexuality was prevalent.
BEN WATTENBERG: There were also problems with Kinsey's statistical procedures. His methodology was derived from his previous biological fieldwork on the gall wasp. Kinsey had roamed far and wide across the United States and Central America collecting tens of thousands of samples of the wasps.
JAMES H. JONES: He takes that same approach of huge samples, vast geographical expanses, a dogged pursuit of every specimen that he can locate, and he just transfers it bodily to the study of human sexual behavior, never doubting that if he collects enough and does it in enough different places, he'll put together a portrait of human sexuality that starts to look like the truth.
BEN WATTENBERG: And so Kinsey and his team crisscrossed America, from California to the Carolinas, from campus coeds to gay hustlers and prostitutes in Times Square. He interviewed many prisoners, including sex offenders at San Quentin, whose incidence of homosexuality was substantially higher than average. As a means of portraying the vast range of human sexual behavior, Kinsey's approach was fine. But it was less useful in generalizing about the population as a whole.
PAUL GEBHARD: In the first book, Kinsey made an attempt to generalize, to extrapolate to the general population. And he realized later that was a mistake. He changed his mind and he decided, "We'll not do that."
BEN WATTENBERG: How have Kinsey's results held up? After the male volume was released, the American Statistical Association sent a blue-ribbon panel to Bloomington to examine the data. They had criticisms, but their report was largely favorable.
In later years, a re-analysis of Kinsey's data by researchers John Ganion and William Simon reported that some of the percentages on homosexuality were overstated and not representative of the American public as a whole. Kinsey had over-sampled prison populations and included teenage incidents. His exclusively homosexual calculation, however, was not far off the mark, according to Ganion and Simon, whose estimate is 3 percent as opposed to Kinsey's 4 percent.
Kinsey's data may forever remain controversial. But whatever the debate over his statistics, there is no denying the tremendous impact that Alfred Kinsey had on America at mid-century.
JAMES H. JONES: When we talk about Kinsey's validity, you know, the numbers to me are less important than the impact of the work as a piece of social reform. I think Kinsey's work precipitates the most sustained and the highest-level discussion of human sexuality up to that point in American history. And out of that discussion will come a review of social policy, will come a review of sex-offender codes, will come the review of gender roles, will come a review of the place of gays in American society. And to the extent that Kinsey forces the public to re-evaluate and to accept science as an arbiter of these issues, to that extent, he changes American society.
BEN WATTENBERG: Has sexual behavior changed since Kinsey? Premarital sex? Up --- It's estimated that three out of four women have had sex before marriage. Extramarital sex? Down - Kinsey reported 50 percent of men and 26 percent of women, but that included couples separated by the war. The numbers in the 1990s were 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women. Homosexuality? No real change. Kinsey estimated the range at 3 to 6 percent of men and 3 to 8 percent of women. The 1990 data: 3 to 5 percent of men and roughly 4 percent of women.