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social sciences

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Kinsey, Alfred C. (1894-1956)  
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Kinsey found that as many as a third of his heterosexual case histories also showed some evidence of homosexual experience--and that within those histories the extent of homosexual and heterosexual experience varied considerably over time and the individual's life cycle.

The Kinsey Scale

These findings led Kinsey to view sexual orientation as a continuum; he devised a scale that ranged from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) through 3 (equally heterosexual/homosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). Kinsey used this "Kinsey scale" to classify the sexual orientation of those whose sex histories he was collecting.

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Kinsey's scientific methodology led him to measure sexual experience in quantitative terms by enumerating orgasms. In this schema, heterosexual intercourse was demoted to only one of six possible forms of "sexual outlet" that also included masturbation, nocturnal emission, heterosexual petting, homosexual relations, and intercourse with animals. From this perspective the sole distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals is that the former are sexually attracted to people of the other gender while the latter are attracted to those of the same gender.

The Kinsey Reports

Kinsey and his colleagues published the results of their research in two bulky, number-filled volumes in 1948 (on male sexuality) and in 1953 (on female sexuality). Moral outrage and a great deal of professional hypocrisy greeted the reports.

Few Americans remained indifferent to the unusually large gap that Kinsey found between the publicly accepted sexual norms and many Americans' daily sexual activities. Many readers objected to Kinsey's research for its empirical, materialistic, and ostensibly value-free investigation into the subject of human sexuality. Although he never considered it as a moral position, Kinsey's fundamental ethical tenet throughout his work was tolerance; in both volumes he stressed sympathetic acceptance of people as they are and repeatedly noted the limits of a person's ability to modify his or her sexual behavior.

Kinsey was so struck by the extraordinary extent of individual variation in sexual behavior that he argued that any attempt to establish uniform standards of sexual behavior was both impracticable and unjust. He believed that the widespread deviation from accepted sexual standards showed that any attempt to regulate sexual behavior was doomed to failure and that the only proper sexual policy was no policy at all.

Kinsey's findings on homosexuality were among his most controversial and widely publicized. His volume on male sexuality concluded that 37 percent of the male population of the United States had had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm between adolescence and old age. The data also seemed to suggest that many adults were neither permanently nor exclusively homosexual or heterosexual but displayed a continuum of sexual behavior.

Kinsey measured this fluidity along "the Kinsey scale," which classified sexual behavior and fantasy--from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) through 6 (exclusively homosexual). While Kinsey's findings clearly encouraged him to reject homosexuality as a pathological syndrome, the range and fluidity of sexual behavior also led him to reject the idea of a sexual identity; he believed that there were no homosexual or heterosexual persons, only heterosexual or homosexual acts.

Kinsey found that on his scale at least 10 percent of men were either exclusively (number 6) or predominantly homosexual (number 5) for at least three years between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five. Popularizers and activists later adopted 10 percent as an estimate of the homosexual population, despite the fact that the female volume reported a much lower incidence of homosexuality among women, closer to 4 percent.

Subsequent survey research has failed to sustain Kinsey's original estimates, and many conservatives have attacked the numbers, accusing Kinsey of inflating the prevalence of homosexual activity. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that any estimates of the homosexual population are methodologically risky. When Kinsey made his estimates, the random sampling methodology in survey research was not widely applied. Even so, it is still difficult to conduct a random sample of the lesbian and gay population because homosexuality is still stigmatized. Until recently, it was illegal in many parts of the United States.

Women's Sexuality

Debates about women's sexuality emerged in the wake of the 1953 Kinsey Report on female sexuality. Kinsey's report revealed that women's interest in sex extended beyond an interest in reproduction. Kinsey's research dispelled a number of influential myths about women and sex, among them that women had difficulty achieving orgasm. Moreover, only half of the women interviewed said they had been virgins when they married, and 25 percent said that they had had extra-marital affairs. It was certainly no surprise that 90 percent of men acknowledged that they routinely masturbated while only 62 percent of the women did.

In the years after Kinsey completed the report on female sexuality, the Rockefeller Foundation, which had supported his research since its beginning, withdrew its financial support because of the intensifying public controversy over his findings.

Finally, exhausted by the fruitless search for new funding and suffering from heart disease, Kinsey died on August 25, 1956.

Kinsey's life is the subject of Bill Condon's recent film,Kinsey (2004), starring Liam Neeson as the scientist and Laura Linney as his wife.

Jeffrey Escoffier

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social sciences >> Overview:  Bisexuality

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social sciences >> Overview:  Etiology

The earliest etiologies--or theories of causation--of homosexuality date from European antiquity, but the search for a universal etiology has intensified as homosexual behavior has come under the scrutiny of science.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homophile Movement, U. S.

The homophile movement of the United States refers to organizations and political strategies employed by homosexuals from the end of World War II to 1970.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homophobia

Homophobia was originally defined as a "dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals," but it is now sometimes used to describe any form of anti-gay bias.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homosexuality

The term "homosexuality," coined in 1869, with "heterosexuality" as its opposite, has led to a binary concept that oversimplifies the complexity of human sexual behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  Psychotherapy

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social sciences >> Overview:  Sexual Orientation

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social sciences >> Overview:  The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980

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social sciences >> Overview:  Sociology

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social sciences >> Overview:  Straight Men Who Have Sex with Men (SMSM)

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arts >> Condon, William "Bill"

Having earned critical acclaim for his work on Gods and Monsters (1998), Chicago (2002), and Kinsey (2004), screenwriter and film director William "Bill" Condon has become a leading American filmmaker.

literature >> Foster, Jeannette Howard

In Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), author, poet, translator, and librarian Jeannette Howard Foster established the groundwork for research into lesbian literature.

social sciences >> Freud, Sigmund

The founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women, including especially the role of sexuality.

social sciences >> Kinsey Institute

The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, established by Alfred Kinsey in 1947, has pioneered in the study of American sexual behavior.

social sciences >> The Legacy Walk (Chicago)

The Legacy Walk in Chicago is an outdoor history museum that reclaims and celebrates glbtq contributions to world history and culture.

arts >> Lynes, George Platt

American photographer George Platt Lynes made his fame as a fashion and portrait photographer, but his greatest work may have been his dance images and male nudes.

literature >> Wescott, Glenway

American writer Glenway Wescott is author of a series of critically esteemed novels, but may be best known for his central position in New York's artistic and gay communities of the 1950s and 1960s.


Erickson, Julia A. Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth-Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Sex--The Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: Norton, 1997.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1953.

_____. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1948.

Pomeroy, Wardell B. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Robinson, Paul A. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.


    Citation Information
    Author: Escoffier, Jeffrey  
    Entry Title: Kinsey, Alfred C.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated November 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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