20. Ten Interesting Facts About Alfred Kinsey
OK, so you’ve probably heard of Alfred Kinsey: zoologist and social scientist, 1894-1956 (there he is on the cover of TIME magazine, August 1953 with humorously positioned birds and bees)… but have you met Alfred Kinsey: bi poly man, author of a secondary-school science textbook and enthusiastic collector of gall wasps?
If nothing else, many people will probably have heard of the Kinsey Scale — that much-misused metric that has now generated its own minor tat industry. But did you know that:
- Despite the fact that his father was an academic, Kinsey survived some reasonably serious poverty in his childhood — this led to him contracting rickets, rheumatic fever and an inadequately-treated case of typhoid. This in turn caused him to have health problems for the rest of his life. I don’t know whether he identified as a person with a disability, but he was deemed unacceptable for service in WWI as a result of damage to his spine during his childhood illnesses.
- He was a well-respected zoologist before beginning his work on human sexuality — in 1937, he was listed as a ‘starred scientist’ by American Men of Science.
- In fact, the American Museum of Natural History in New York still owns about 7.5 million specimens of gall wasps collected by him in the 1910s…
- As a young scientist, he also wrote a secondary-school textbook, An Introduction to Biology, which was one of the first texts to present the natural world as a landscape to explore, rather than a set of resources to be exploited — he stated that it was ’a mistake to test the importance of knowledge by its known, dollars-and-cents application’. However, the textbook also dealt somewhat problematically with the issue of eugenics. You can read more about it at the amazing Textbook History blog here.
- Kinsey was bi and poly. He married Clara McMillen in 1921, but the couple had an open relationship (I love the fact that Kinsey’s Wikipedia page says 'He allowed his wife to sleep with other men…' — understanding how open relationships work: yr doin it wrong). Kinsey’s male partners included Clyde Martin, one of his graduate students, who appears at some points to have had a triad-style relationship with both Kinsey and McMillen.
- In the 1930s, Kinsey became interested in doing academic work on human sexuality — including teaching a class on ‘Married Sexuality’ in which only students who were married or engaged were permitted to enrol! He interviewed thousands of subjects to gather data, and in 1948 and 1953 he published his findings as Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. You can read more about his findings here and here: many of the statistics in the ‘Kinsey Reports’ are still being thrown around today (the infamous '10% of the population' figure, , for example, is based on Kinsey data, even though Kinsey didn’t believe that most people actually were ‘exclusively homosexual’ or ‘exclusively heterosexual’).
- That in response to allegations that his samples had been biased (for example, some of his original research subjects were drawn from prison populations, and the original studies severely under-represented people of colour), in 1979 Kinsey’s facts and data were re-checked by his successor Paul Gebhard… who found that they in fact mostly held up: where Kinsey had found 37% of men had had at least one ‘homosexual experience’, Gebhard found 36.4%.
- That in the 1980s and 1990s, questions were raised about the possibility that Kinsey and the Kinsey Institute had encouraged child abuse among Kinsey’s research subjects. Some of these allegations went to civil court, and were eventually dismissed in 1994.
- That the Kinsey scale also has a classification of ‘X’ for ‘asexual’, which was later added by Kinsey’s research associates — as far as I know there has yet to be an 'I'm A Kinsey X' button printed, but I think it would be a great addition to the collection!
- And finally, that Kinsey’s work is carried on at the University of Indiana today by the Kinsey Institute! You can watch a short documentary video about it here. There’s even a sex-ed arm of the Institute, found at http://kinseyconfidential.org/, which provides free information for the general public.
I particularly like reading about Alfred Kinsey because I think it’s so common nowadays to have a mental image of the 1940s and 1950s as a time when sex was incredibly tightly repressed, and when any kind of non-normative behaviour was somehow less possible than it is today, even behind closed doors (interestingly, that’s certainly the image perpetuated by the trailer for the 2004 biographical film Kinsey (link is to video). However, Kinsey’s own life indicates that this really wasn’t the case — he started doing serious research and publicising people’s sexual behaviour, but he certainly didn’t invent it! One of the links below is to an exhibition of vintage sex toys that demonstrates exactly how filthy underground culture in the first half of the twentieth century could be — stereotypes very much to the contrary. As Kinsey himself said:
The history of medicine proves that in so far as man seeks to know himself and face his whole nature, he has become free from bewildered fear, despondent shame, or arrant hypocrisy. As long as sex is dealt with in the current confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, suppression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indecency that lead neither to intellectual honesty nor human dignity. (from Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, 1948).
To the extent that we are able to talk about sex with ‘intellectual honesty’ and ‘human dignity’ today, I think we owe a lot to Kinsey and his work.
Biographical materials at the Kinsey Institute: http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/about/kinseybio.html
Collection of vintage sex toys from an exhibit held by the Kinsey Institute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SMoPplInb4
Discussion of Kinsey’s Introduction to Biology at the Textbook History blog: http://www.textbookhistory.com/?p=21#more-21
The ‘Kinsey Confidential’ sex ed site: http://kinseyconfidential.org/
Trailer for the 2004 film Kinsey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZwSABxeYE
Wikipedia bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Kinsey
Wikipedia articles on ‘The Kinsey Reports’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_Behavior_in_the_Human_Female
Google Books link: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=pfMKrY3VvigC&printsec=frontcover&dq=sexual+behaviour+in+the+human+male&hl=en&sa=X&ei=i0nXUK6pH43M0AWNuIHABw&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA
Google Books link: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9GpBB61LV14C&printsec=frontcover&dq=sexual+behaviour+in+the+human+male&hl=en&sa=X&ei=i0nXUK6pH43M0AWNuIHABw&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAQ
Google Books link: David Leys’ Insatiable Wives contains a chapter on Kinsey, McMillen and Martin: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=tctxQzAKdJgC&lpg=PA59&dq=ley%20kinsey&pg=PA59#v=onepage&q=ley%20kinsey&f=false