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Kinsey, Alfred Charlesfree

(23 June 1894–25 August 1956)
  • Mark C. Carnes

Alfred C. Kinsey.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92226).

Kinsey, Alfred Charles (23 June 1894–25 August 1956), entomologist and sex researcher, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of Alfred Seguine Kinsey, instructor of mechanical arts at Stevens Institute of Technology, and Sarah Ann Charles. His father, a domineering and relentlessly pious patriarch, intimidated Sarah and the children. Alfred was a frail boy who contracted rheumatic and typhoid fever. Perhaps as compensation for his early confinement to the home, in adolescence Alfred acquired a passionate interest in nature and resolved to become a biologist. He was valedictorian of the Columbia High School class of 1912.

His plans to continue with biology were dashed by his father, who insisted that Alfred study engineering at Stevens; he also pressured Alfred to continue teaching Sunday school. Alfred enrolled at Stevens that fall, but his lack of interest was evident in his lackluster academic performance. After he had completed his sophomore year, he summoned the nerve to inform his father that he had withdrawn from Stevens and had decided to attend Bowdoin, a rural college in Maine noted for its biology program. His father exploded in rage, and the two never reconciled. Alfred thrived academically at Bowdoin and was almost immediately named an assistant in zoology, one of the department’s highest honors. In 1916 he graduated magna cum laude and delivered one of the commencement addresses. His parents did not attend.

Kinsey spent the following summer, as he had so many others, indulging his love of the outdoors by working as a counselor in a camp for boys. That fall he enrolled in the graduate program in applied biology at the Bussey Institute of Harvard University. There he came under the spell of William Morton Wheeler, an eminent zoologist who served as something of a surrogate father to Kinsey, albeit of a very different sort from the titanic pillar of probity who loomed over his early life. A confidant of H. L. Mencken, Wheeler was urbane and irreverent. As a biologist, he was less interested in the new genetics, which emphasized laboratory work, and instead called on students to emulate Darwin by going into the field to refine taxonomy, the categorization of species. Wheeler’s prescription perfectly suited Kinsey, who shed his religious upbringing, and eventually came to repudiate it with an abiding vengeance. Next, in 1917 Kinsey began studying the classification of the gall wasp, an ant-sized insect that lives in parasitic relation to various shrubs and trees, especially oak. For his dissertation he collected and examined thousands of gall wasps, identifying sixteen new species. He received his Ph.D. in September 1919 and took advantage of a traveling fellowship to spend the next year collecting gall wasps in stands of oak from New England to Appalachia and from Texas to California.

In 1920 Kinsey accepted a teaching appointment in zoology at Indiana University. There he met Clara McMillen, a graduate student in chemistry. Two months later, he proposed to her, and they were married in June 1921. They had three children who survived to adulthood.

At Indiana University, Kinsey proved an able lecturer but often an arrogant and overbearing colleague; once he was nearly dismissed for intemperate criticisms of Carl H. Eigenmann, an esteemed zoologist and former dean. As a scholar, Kinsey continued with his research on gall wasps. During the 1920s and 1930s, he collected and cataloged some 35,000 of them. He found time as well to write a high school text; his Introduction to Biology and its later editions sold half a million copies. The royalties helped fund Kinsey’s innumerable field trips. In 1930 he published The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study of the Origin of Species, in which he identified forty-eight new species of gall wasp. This book and his subsequent volume, The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (1936), were well received by specialists but failed to attract the broader attention Kinsey felt his extraordinary efforts warranted. In particular, he was not offered a professorship at any of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

Though he resolved to undertake intensive study of another genus of gall wasp, he became involved in a campus dispute in the spring of 1937 that changed his life. The student newspaper launched a crusade against the university’s antediluvian sex education instruction, offered under the Victorian euphemism of health and hygiene. In early 1938 Kinsey volunteered to develop a team-taught and thoroughly scientific course on marriage and the family. Kinsey found support in this matter, and a host of others over the next two decades, from the university’s new president, Herman B. Wells, who was eager to push Indiana to the forefront of intellectual trends. At Wells’s prodding, the trustees approved of Kinsey’s noncredit course.

In June 1938 seventy women and twenty-eight men enrolled in the course. Kinsey’s lectures were the main attraction, and he featured candid descriptions, supplemented by slides, of the biology of erotic stimulation, the mechanics of sexual intercourse, the methods of contraception, and, in a final lecture, the limitless diversity of nature. After briefly outlining his work on gall wasps, he described a similarly wide variation in human sexual apparatus. The most significant fact of biology, Kinsey declared, is that “no two individuals are alike.” Although his tone was clinical and his manner that of an amiable if disinterested scientist, he raised his voice to a powerful denunciation of sexually repressive attitudes and laws. If Americans were not so “inhibited,” Kinsey bristled, “a twelve-year-old would know most of the biology which I will have to give you in formal lectures as seniors and graduate students” (Jones, p. 328). The course won the praise of students and many others on campus. Enrollment doubled that fall and by 1940 approached 400.

Kinsey was not satisfied with teaching the immense variety of human sexuality: he resolved to prove it as well. To this end, he transferred his obsession (and some of his methodology) from gall wasps to the study of human sexuality. He included in the marriage course obligatory private conferences whose ostensible purpose was to allow students to raise questions they were too shy to pose in class. While Kinsey indisputably provided them with useful information, he also made use of these conferences to encourage students to provide their sexual histories. He did this through an ingeniously designed, fluidly structured questionnaire covering scores of topics; to preserve anonymity, he recorded responses in his own private code. (The final version of the survey consisted of from 300 to 521 separate items, depending on the number and variety of the respondent’s sexual behaviors.) Kinsey administered the first survey in July 1938 and managed to interview more than half of the class before the end of the year. He now resolved to undertake thousands of these interviews. Much as he formerly used weekends and vacations to plunge into some stand of oaks to gather gall wasps, he now made his way to the big cities, especially Chicago, where he hoped to fathom the rich diversity of human sexuality by interviewing legions of prostitutes, homosexuals, and others.

In 1940, as Kinsey pressed forward with his classes and interviews, formidable opposition began to take shape in Indiana. Physicians complained that Kinsey’s lectures and private conferences were stirring up his students’ sexual passions; sexual education was best left to those—i.e., physicians—who understood the particular needs of their patients. Local ministers, too, denounced Kinsey for stressing the physiological basis for marriage at the expense of its religious and moral dimensions. Under pressure from the trustees, President Wells issued an ultimatum: that Kinsey either withdraw from the marriage course or discontinue the private conferences. Kinsey gave up the course and continued with the interviews.

His goal was to create the most complete and most scientific data bank on human sexuality ever compiled. To hire additional interviewers and tabulators, he sought funding from the Committee for Research in Problems with Sex (CRPS), a standing unit of the National Research Council that received most of its funds from the Rockefeller Foundation. In July 1961 the CRPS, headed by Robert Yerkes, awarded Kinsey an initial grant of $1,600; to this Indiana University added another $1,200, which enabled Kinsey to interview African Americans in Gary, Indiana, and prison inmates in the region as well. In subsequent years, the CRPS sharply increased its support, and in 1947 the Rockefeller Foundation, at Kinsey’s urging, directly channeled funds into Kinsey’s new Institute for Sex Research, which was affiliated with Indiana University but nominally separate from it.

In 1948 Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Based on over 5,300 case histories, the book offered a succession of revelations: that about half of American men engaged in homosexual activities before adolescence; that 90 percent had masturbated; that between 30 and 45 percent had adulterous sexual relations; that 70 percent had patronized prostitutes; and that 17 percent of farm boys had had sexual relations with animals. The overwhelming point was that males had powerful sexual urges that society pointlessly sought to suppress. Kinsey singled out religion, especially the Catholic church, for inducing guilt. Though filled with tables and graphs and issued by W. B. Saunders, a medical publishing firm, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was an instant popular success, selling 200,000 hardback copies in two months. Kinsey was lionized in the popular press as a second Galileo or Darwin. Not everyone agreed, with the sharpest dissent coming from religious leaders. The Right Reverend Monsignor Maurice Sheehy, for example, denounced the volume as “the most antireligious book of our times” (Jones, p. 576).

The book royalties were plowed back into the Institute, which also received regular increases in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Kinsey hired and carefully trained a team of interviewers to gather more case histories—he aimed for a total of 100,000—and he also collected a staggering cache of books, “how to” manuals, primitive artifacts, and implements of an erotic or sexual nature; these were housed at the Institute’s library.

Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) reinforced the main conclusion of its predecessor volume: that human sexual practices bore little relation to social attitudes about them; and the chasm between the two was filled with guilt. Of his large sample of women, 62 percent had masturbated, half had engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage, and 26 percent had committed adultery. More troubling to conservatives was Kinsey’s assertion that women with “orgasmic experience” early in life tended to have greater sexual satisfaction in marriage. As had its predecessor, the book rocked the nation. In August, Kinsey made the cover of Time; in November, U.S. News and World Report identified him as the “most widely noticed man in the United States” after President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Critics were equally visible and vociferous. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America,” evangelist Billy Graham thundered. In 1954 a congressional committee decided to investigate Kinsey’s financial backers, which meant the Rockefeller Foundation.

By this time, however, Kinsey was trying to fend off criticism from another quarter. Many in the scientific community had from the start been troubled by Kinsey’s evident assumption that a huge sample was an acceptably representative one. In 1951 the Rockefeller Foundation assigned a team of prominent statisticians to assess Kinsey’s data and recommend improvements in sampling technique. The statisticians’ final report was generally supportive; but it nevertheless insisted that Kinsey undertake significant revision of his sampling methodology. Kinsey balked at their recommendations, arguing that random sampling was impossible when asking such intimate questions. But by the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Female appeared in print, the Rockefeller Foundation had decided to cease funding the Institute.

Though slowed by heart trouble, Kinsey in his last years worked feverishly on a volume on homosexuality, sought alternative funding sources, and continued to take sexual histories. He conducted his 7,985th—and final—interview on 24 May 1956. He died in Bloomington, Indiana.

In 1997 historian James H. Jones, after interviewing many of Kinsey’s friends, former students, and colleagues, published a revelatory biography of Kinsey. Jones found that from his adolescent years nearly to his death, Kinsey engaged in savagely painful sadomasochistic acts and was repeatedly involved in unusual and inventive sexual practices. During field trips to gather gall wasps, he often went naked and pressured the male students who accompanied him to engage in sexual relations. He became less cautious over time and at the Institute organized, participated in, and even filmed all manner of voyeuristic, homosexual, and other sexual activities involving interview subjects, prostitutes, colleagues, and spouses. Jones showed that Kinsey was not a dispassionate, numbers-crunching scientist, but a zealous reformer who sought to exorcise his own sexual demons, and the repressive society he believed gave rise to them, with an invincible army of hard facts.

But his facts were not as solid as he imagined, and in any case they failed to sustain his analytical suppositions. As a theoretical scientist, Kinsey was second-rate. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould derided Kinsey’s gall wasp taxonomy as “bloated,” for Kinsey had overemphasized the significance of “transient and minor local variants” (Gould p. 230, n. 148). Similarly, Kinsey’s dogged pursuit of additional sexual histories, disproportionately taken from people whose behaviors most interested him, vitiated the broader relevance of his data. A greater weakness still, as anthropologist Margaret Mead and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, was Kinsey’s neglect of the emotional and social aspects of human sexuality. Yet Kinsey was indisputably a tireless researcher who opened up new fields of scientific investigation and transformed the way Americans discussed sex and sexuality. His data and the publicity surrounding them weakened the hold of traditional religious and moral values and did much to prepare the way for the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

Bibliography

Kinsey’s papers and letters—some 50,000 of them—are located at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction Archive at Indiana University, Bloomington. Other materials can be found in the Indiana University Archives, the Indiana University Oral History Project, the Committee for Research in Problems in Sex at the National Research Council Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Rockefeller Archives Center, Pocantico Hills, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. The essential biography is James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (1997). For an earlier, less revealing biography, by a former member of Kinsey’s staff, see Cornelia V. Christenson, Kinsey: A Biography (1971). See also Paul Robinson, The Modernization of Sex: Havelock, Alfred Kinsey, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson (1976); Sidney Ditzion, Marriage, Morals, and Sex in America: A History of Ideas (1953); and Vern L. Bullough, Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research (1994). On Kinsey’s reputation as a taxonomist, see Stephen Jay Gould, “Of Wasps and WASPs,” Natural History, Dec. 1982.