(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Kinsey, Alfred 1894-1956

(Full name Alfred Charles Kinsey) American scientist.

Kinsey is considered a pioneer in the scientific study of human sexuality, and his two major works—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female—resulted in much controversy and debate upon their publication. Known collectively as The Kinsey Report, these works represent the first attempt to apply scientific methodology to human sexuality. Kinsey combined more than 18,000 interviews with United States citizens of varying economic and racial backgrounds and hypothesized that a person's socioeconomic background contributed to their sexual behavior. Furthermore, Kinsey concluded that human sexuality was far more varied than commonly believed at the time. Kinsey's empirical approach to collecting and translating his data caused many detractors to find his work prurient. However, many of his detractors and supporters both continue to attribute the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s in part to Kinsey's groundbreaking work.

Biographical Information

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Kinsey was the son of an instructor at Stevens Institute of Technology and a mother who had little education. Both parents were deeply religious, and passed on their beliefs to Alfred, who suffered from rickets, typhoid, and rheumatic fever. Encouraged by his high school biology teacher, Natalie Roeth, Kinsey conducted nature excursions and collected botanical samples. He wrote his first scientific paper for Roeth, entitled "What Do Birds Do when It Rains?" and corresponded with her throughout his life. After high school, he attended Stevens Institute to study mechanical engineering. Two years later, he transferred to Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating magna cum laude in 1916, and entered Harvard University as an assistant in zoology. Upon his graduation in 1920, Kinsey was named assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University. He was associated with the university for the remainder of his life, and he became a full professor in 1929. During the 1920s and '30s, Kinsey focused his entomological and taxonomical research on the gall wasp, which resulted in the respected works The Gall Wasp Genus Neuroterus and The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species. He also authored the textbooks Introduction to Biology and Workbook in Biology, and conducted research expeditions in Mexico and Central America during the 1930s. An assignment to teach a class on marriage in 1938 led Kinsey to begin researching human sexuality. Disappointed that most of the existing source material contained obvious inaccuracies, he designed his own questionnaire, which he believed would provide a scientific, biological basis for the existing conclusions. Shortly thereafter, he began conducting personal interviews with his subjects, finding the data from these interviews to be more easily interpretable than data from questionnaires. His diligence in researching during this period caused his wife to remark of her husband, "I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex." Soliciting the support of the National Research Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Indiana University, Kinsey established the Institute of Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. The Kinsey Report's notoriety cost Kinsey his funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, drew attacks from such religious leaders as Billy Graham, and caused him to be labeled a political subversive intent on undermining American morality. He continued his research despite the lack of funding until his death from pneumonia and heart complications in 1956.

Major Works

Applying the same techniques he used to study gall wasps to study human sexuality, Kinsey and his colleagues, Wardell Pomeroy, Paul Gebhard, and Clyde Martin, amassed large quantities of data culled from extensive interviews for The Kinsey Report. The first study revealed that extramarital and premarital sex were more common then previously believed, that most males masturbated, that masturbation did not result in mental illness, and that one in three men had at least one homosexual encounter in their lifetime. The female study revealed that frigidity was not as common as previously believed and that female erotic response was comparable to the male response; the study included a lengthy, graphic, controversial narrative comparing clitoral and vaginal orgasms. Each interview was classified according to the type of person being interviewed and the sexual behavior they discussed. While some scientists and critics distrust Kinsey's. methodology and conclusions, The Kinsey Report is widely considered among scientists and sociologists to be an important work due to its frank approach to human sexuality, which dispelled many common misconceptions about sex.