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The practice of sexuality was quite varied in the United States before the publication of these books, but it was largely unrecorded, at least by scientists. Before the late 1940s, the sexual lives of most people were shaped by personal experiments, isolated sexual encounters, uninformed gossip, media sensation, and moral condemnation (not necessarily in that order). The national myth was that most people were obedient to a traditional set of sexual rules and those who were not were relatively rare and defective in morals or willpower.
It was against this background of repression and prurience that Kinsey asserted the right of science to speak about sexual behavior. As a scientist, Kinsey spoke and wrote plainly, using language about sexuality that was rarely heard or read at the time. The facts reported in the book on men's sexual behavior were at fundamental variance with the myths. Kinsey reported that the practice of masturbation was nearly universal among men (90 percent did it), that homosexual relations were widely experienced (37 percent had done it once), that premarital sexual relations were common (most college men did it), that half of married men had had extramarital sexual relations, and that oral sex was routine in deed if not in public discourse (70 percent of educated husbands said they and their wives had done it).
But it was not only these facts that evoked a powerful negative response from traditional figures in churches, legislatures, and the press. The book also had a strong reformist tone, with Kinsey arguing, completely in the American grain, that progress in dealing with sexual problems could only be made by objectively uncovering the facts of sexual life. That the reported sexual practices of American men differed from moral expectations was (in Kinsey's interpretation) evidence of the power of sexuality and not a mark of moral decay. The problems associated with sexuality were a consequence of social repression, not inherent to sexuality itself.
The controversy engendered by this first book caused Kinsey's second book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, to be eagerly anticipated by his critics, his defenders, the media, and the public. Its publication in 1953 was met with an equal if not greater storm than the publication of the book on men. Kinsey's evidence suggested that women were less behaviorally active than men in all aspects of sexual life but that they were still more sexual than traditional views allowed. However, the focus of the media on the statistical findings about sexual practices among women (what we now treat as "factoids") made the second book appear entirely similar to the first (by this time both books had become fused in the public mind and in the media as the "Kinsey Reports").
Contrary to this view, it is evident from a careful reading of the book on women that Kinsey had moved from his thinking in the book on men to a more nuanced view of sexuality. The book on men is severely masculinist in its perspective, using men's sexual lives as the primary model for what is considered to be sexually normal. The sexuality of the human male was characterized by novelty in practices, variety in partners, a quick and urgent response to sexual stimuli, and a search for orgasm as the primary source of sexual pleasure. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, based on approximately 6000 interviews, is a retreat, at least in part, from all of these assumptions. Two important changes in Kinsey's thinking are apparent: women and men are more alike in the biology of their sexuality than he had previously thought, and women's sexuality and, on suitable reflection, men's sexuality seemed shaped, not merely repressed, by social and cultural forces. Increasingly, it was clear that the two books were works of social science, not biology.
The negative reaction to Kinsey and his works in the 1950s frightened off providers of funding and researchers in the field of sex research. As a consequence, the Kinsey studies were used as flawed report cards on sexual life in the United States well into the era of AIDS. The studies were particularly deficient in their sampling methods, and it was obvious to researchers at the time that they did not accurately measure the sexual life of American women and men. As science, they were important first steps but incomplete in scope and method. The findings were limited to white, better educated, less religious, and largely youthful women and men from the northeastern United States who volunteered to be interviewed about their sexual lives. We now know that the effect of volunteer respondents was to inflate the reported levels of some aspects of sexual behavior. The interview schedule and the interviewing were of high quality, but they could not correct for biases in sampling.
A proper historical understanding of Kinsey's purposes should focus on his explicit desire to understand sexuality by using objective tools of science and on his scarcely concealed desire to reform what he saw as the repressive character of sexual life in the United States during the period before the Second World War. This goal of sexual reform was scarcely unique to Kinsey -- only his scientific methods and the connection he made between science and sexual reform were special. The findings from Kinsey's work and the attitudes the work expressed quickly filtered into reformist groups that strove to change laws about sexual behavior, to free public speech about sexuality, to advance family planning through birth control, to promote sex education, and to reduce what they saw as hypocrisy about sexuality in American culture.
The association of Kinsey with sexual reform has recently made him the target, both as a scientist and a man, of attacks by conservative groups. John Bancroft, the current director of the institute that Kinsey founded, has written a spirited and important defense of Kinsey in the introduction to the reprinted edition of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.
The third reprinted book is quite different from the other two, but it emphasizes the continuing utility to historians of the entire collection of Kinsey's interviews. This book presents the marginal tabulations of all of the interviews gathered by Kinsey and his colleagues (including those conducted after Kinsey's death in 1956) and makes them more useful by excluding certain groups that surely skewed the findings of the original report on men. Funding from the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1960s presented an opportunity for all the 17,500 original interviews to be placed on computer tape. Of these interviews, 14,000 are treated as a "basic" sample of persons who were noncriminal; those of persons with criminal histories are treated separately. In addition, a separate sample of persons with extensive homosexual histories was selected from both the criminal and basic samples.
Kinsey and his works are now part of the story of the "American Century." Sensitive use of the archived interviews by historians as well as Kinsey's own life and views may offer us further insight into the sexual aspects of that story and the ways in which our sexual past has shaped our sexual present.
Reviewed by John Gagnon, Ph.D.