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Kinsey | Article

Questions About Sex

The Kinsey Institute

Starting in 1938, thousands of Americans sat in Alfred Kinsey's interview chair. What was it like to give a sexual history to the Indiana University professor and his team of researchers?

Hear from Kinsey interview subjects, Kinsey researchers, and contemporary scholars on the experience of answering questions about sex, and the impact of the Kinsey Reports on scientific knowledge. Their comments have been culled from hours of interviews conducted by the filmmakers.

Reasons for the Research

Alfred Kinsey's work was motivated both by professional interest and personal concerns. Having established himself as a first-class taxonomist in his studies of gall wasps, the biologist was stunned to discover how little science knew about human sexual behavior -- and felt motivated to create new scholarship in the field.

Kinsey would also recall how he and his wife, Clara, had struggled to consummate their marriage, in the absence of adequate information about sex. First by offering a marriage course to married students at I.U., and then by dispensing advice and defining a scientific approach to collecting histories, Kinsey was determined to document and increase knowledge about the realities of Americans' sexual behavior.

"Everybody thinks of sex in terms of their own experience, when actually it's a tremendous tapestry of experiences. It covers a vast territory. And I think to most people, that was a totally novel idea."
— John Tebbel, Kinsey biographer

"The nature of his evolving understanding of research was to do an empirically based study of sexuality. To truly understand the variations across human beings, men and women, and age, and even to some degree by social circumstances, how did people approach this major feature of their lives? And he did this because he was responding to questions that people simply did not have any understanding of -- the biological, physiological aspects of this process."
— Edward Laumann, sex researcher

"[Kinsey] felt that there was a great under-reporting of the extent of homosexuality. There were laws in many states about homosexuality, and he felt that it was important to get to the bottom of all this and find out exactly how many of the population were exclusively homosexual. Many more, of course, had had one homosexual encounter, experimentally, and he tabulated that also."
— Miriam Hecht, Kinsey interviewee

"The magazines and the information that was out there were all about pleasing your husband, and your sexuality was kind of confined with the marital role and the maternal role. [Kinsey] looked at one's narrative history of sexuality as a phenomenon of the individual."
— Leonore Tiefert, sex researcher

"When he realized how sparse the information in that field was, so that's what really prompted him... when a scientist sees a field that is very inadequately studied, why, it's a challenge."
— Ann Kinsey Call, Kinsey's daughter

Answering Questions

Kinsey and his team began by asking biographical questions: age, educational level, religion, parents' occupational class, and more. The next questions, about dreams and arousal, led into sexual desires and first experiences with the same straightforwardness.

Aware that the makeup of his interviewee population would affect his results, Kinsey tried to ensure 100% participation by various groups. He believed if he interviewed enough diverse groups of people -- college students, prison inmates, blue-collar workers, and so on -- he would capture a statistically significant sample. This approach would cause controversy and, ultimately, the revision of some of his data.

"A lot of people flatly refused to volunteer. A number of people said they had nothing to tell them as they had no sex lives. But my answer to that was, well, if he only interviewed people with vivid sex lives, he would get a very distorted sample and we needed also people with more modest sex lives..."
— Miriam Hecht, Kinsey interviewee

"[Kinsey] did a lot of his interviewing during the Second World War. So many of the women he interviewed were women whose husbands or lovers were away. And women very often reported not a great deal of trouble about that, because for many of them... sexuality was something that you did with someone you cared about... an expression of intimacy. It wasn't an expression of mammalian drives."
– John Gagnon, sex researcher

"They had two rooms in the library. As I remember... I could look out the window and Pomeroy stood behind me so that there wouldn't be any eye contact. He thought that would be embarrassing... He wouldn't say, 'have you ever done so-and-so?', he'd say, 'how often do you do so-and-so?'. Which I think was very clever, and I would say, 'what are you talking about?' or 'I don't know, I never did,' or whatever, and he would cross things out too, because at that point, I hadn't even been kissed yet."
— Pat Sheffield, Kinsey interviewee

"Keeping it confidential was sacred to them, because they knew that unless they assured the people who they interviewed that that would be so, nobody would come to be interviewed. People revealed things about themselves that certainly nobody else even knew, not even their wives or husbands or parents or brothers or sisters."
— Alice Ginott Cohn, Kinsey interviewee

"Kinsey was a biologist. He used his scientific training to ask important questions about the human biology of sexuality, and his answer, his way of thinking about this was essentially taxonomic... He was interested in classifying the varieties that existed in men and women's behavior... He actually doesn't really have a very good grasp on gender differences, because he comes at this from a fairly male view at the beginning."
— Edward Laumann, sociologist

The Published Findings

Kinsey's data revealed that sexual intercourse before marriage -- in both genders -- was more common than believed. Critics voiced louder objections to the news that some women reported having pre-marital sex, but Kinsey's results showed that men engaged in more extensive pre-marital activity.

The Reports also revealed a surprising amount of sexual activity outside of marriage. Kinsey was interested in gathering the numbers, not in making judgments -- yet his seeming lack of moral concern was interpreted by some as encouragement.

"If I took a moral position, there's no end to what I could chastise people for in terms of extramarital affairs... [but] we didn't feel that it was up to us to change people's lives at all. We were trying to find out exactly what people do and why. And that's a big topic."
— Clyde Martin, sex researcher

"[The form of the] question changes the dynamics because it requires the person to deny that they do it, whereas before the way these questions were asked was sort of starting with the presumption no one did this, were 'fessing up to something very problematic. That change in the strategy of asking questions is really one of the big scientific legacies of Kinsey's work."
— Edward Laumann, sociologist

"Somehow this very scientific male with all of his thousands of interviews and his tables... gave us a scientific basis to say, 'this is the enlightened way to start looking at it'... I just really admire him so much. I don't think there are many people in the 20th century who did as much for women and for the human species as he did."
— Barbara Seaman, journalist

"He asked people... a standard set of questions and he found that they had a huge range of answers. And that was extremely illuminating. If you really thought about it, somehow you'd think, 'well of course, people come from wherever, they're raised in different families, and have different life experiences, of course.' But that's not what the rap was at the time... The revelations about the range of sexual experience, the range of enjoyment levels, the quantitative difference, this was absolutely amazing. And a lot of people couldn't take it in, they kept thinking, well these women had to have been lying, I mean it's impossible that the extreme stories at whatever end of the extreme you're talking about could be true. But I think it was the diversity and the range that was extremely important and that he did get right."
— Leonore Tiefert, sex researcher

"When my two daughters were growing up, one of the things I put them to doing was dusting the books. I knew very well that they would find Kinsey's books on the shelves, and I knew very well that they would wait until I was out of the house and turn the pages and browse and check the index. I felt that's a reasonable way for two young women to learn these things... I may say that I learned the equivalent information from reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles and looking up every word I didn't know."
— Miriam Hecht, Kinsey interviewee

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