Alfred Kinsey Essay - Critical Essays

Kinsey, Alfred


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.

Principal Works

An Introduction to Biology (textbook) 1926

The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of the Species (nonfiction) 1930

The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (nonfiction) 1936

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male [with W. B. Pomeroy and C. E. Martin] (nonfiction) 1948

Sexual Behavior in the Human Female [with W. B. Pomeroy and C. E. Martin] (nonfiction) 1953


Sociology and Social Research (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: A review of "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male", by Alfred Kinsey, in Sociology and Social Research, Vol. 32, No. 4, March-April, 1948, pp.

[In the following review of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the critic commends Kinsey's research and findings, and declares the work necessary for overhauling the nation's previous works on sexuality and marriage.]

Called by one of the newsweeklies a "shocker in sex" and touted by columnist Winchell,Sexual Behavior in the Human Male this scientific study of the sexual Behavior of the male by three Indiana University scientists promises to become a best seller. One fortunate aspect of this is that it will be read by many who would otherwise avoid it. Certainly, physicians, psychiatrists, judges, administrators of both educational and penal institutions, officials in the Army and Navy, and social scientists will find in it a wealth of vitally useful material.

Presented as the objective factual study of sexual behavior that it is, the book reports the results of a nine-year survey, with 12,000 persons, representing every age, every social level, and several racial groups, who were interviewed by the authors and their staff of assistants. Funds from the Rockefeller Foundation provided a major portion of the cost of the survey. The study should demonstrate what well-conducted, scientifically organized research in the...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Lionel Trilling (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Kinsey Report," in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 210-28.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1948, Trilling identifies Kinsey' s work as an enlightening tool to break down cultural repression of humankind's primal and universal sexual consciousness.]

By virtue of its intrinsic nature and also because of its dramatic reception, the Kinsey Report,1 as it has come to be called, is an event of great importance in our culture. It is an event which is significant in two separate ways, as symptom and as therapy. The therapy lies in the large permissive effect the...

(The entire section is 7192 words.)

Lawrence S. Kubie (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Psychiatric Implications of the Kinsey Report," in Sexual Behavior in American Society: An Appraisal of the First Two Kinsey Reports, edited by Jerome Himelhoch and Sylvia Fleis Fava, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1955, pp. 270-93.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1948, Kubie enumerates the benefits Kinsey's research has for psychoanalysts treating patients with sexual disorders.]

This is the report of an investigation of the sexual behavior of nearly 5,300 white American males, between the ages of three and ninety years, from several occupational groups, and from many economic, educational, religious, and social strata from the underworld...

(The entire section is 9550 words.)

Abram Kardiner (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Behaviorism with a Vengeance," in The American Scholar, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1953-54, pp. 106-110.

[In the following review of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kardiner finds the work invaluable as a study in social trends, but faults several of his conclusions as too reliant on behaviorism.]

Dr. Kinsey and his associates have by now, with their volume on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, established themselves among the great sexologists of history. This book is a true product of our time, and it carries the popular authority of the opinion poll and the questionnaire method of tracking down social phenomena. It has, therefore,...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

Joseph K. Folsom (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Kinsey's Challenge to Ethics and Religion," in Sexual Behavior in American Society: An Appraisal of the First Two Kinsey Reports, edited by Jerome Himelhoch and Sylvia Fleis Fava, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1955, pp. 226-36.

[In the following essay, Folsom considers Kinsey's work as a long overdue statistical examination of human sexuality and a harbinger of related works in ethics, philosophy, and religion.]

"Maybe it's true, but it's not good policy to broadcast detailed truth without some consideration of how people are going to use it." Such is a common reaction to Kinsey. It is not peculiar to traditionalists nor to those lacking reverence...

(The entire section is 4075 words.)

Manford H. Kuhn (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Kinsey's View of Human Behavior," in Sexual Behavior in American Society: An Appraisal of the First Two Kinsey Reports, edited by Jerome Himelhoch and Sylvia Fleis Fava, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1955, pp. 29-38.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Kuhn challenges Kinsey' s conclusions as succumbing to reductionist fallacies.]

One would expect a zoologist, when he addresses himself to the study of some aspect of human behavior, to elect from the current assortment of theoretical orientations toward human behavior—such as psychoanalytic theory, field theory, symbolic interaction theory and learning theory—that one which has the...

(The entire section is 3828 words.)

Martin B. Loeb (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: A review of "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," by Alfred Kinsey, in the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. LX, No. 4, January, 1955, pp. 409-10.

[In the following review of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Loeb questions Kinsey's methodology and characterizes the interpretations of his findings as Victorian.]

One can hardly review the latest Kinsey report [Sexual Behavior in the Human Female] unmindful of other summaries and critiques which have appeared in the last several months. Kinsey has been criticized, to list a few of the charges, for poor or inappropriate sampling, lacking a sense of humor, not being a woman, gathering...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Regina Markell Morantz (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Scientist as Sex Crusader: Alfred C. Kinsey and American Culture," in American Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, Winter, 1977, pp. 563-89.

[In the following essay, Morantz presents a historical overview of the cultural shift aided by publication of Kinsey's work and provides detailed biographical analysis of Kinsey's motives for studying human sexuality.]

In January 1948, Robert Latou Dickinson, noted gynecologist and sex researcher, dashed off a note to his friend and colleague Alfred Charles Kinsey. Dickinson's copy of the newly published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which he had awaited "with one of the keenest anticipations of a lifetime," had...

(The entire section is 11327 words.)

Further Reading


Christenson, Cornelia V. Kinsey: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971, 241 p.

Biography drawn from the author's personal association with Kinsey as a researcher and subject, as well as more than one hundred questionnaires sent to colleagues who knew Kinsey at various stages of his life. Christenson also reprints several articles authored by Kinsey.

Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997, 937 p.

Attempts to depict Kinsey as a man who detested Victorian morality, and who was determined to defuse sexual repression and guilt.


(The entire section is 346 words.)