Could Kinsey's Sex Research Be Done Today?

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Although the movie's assertion that no sexual research had been done before Kinsey is not entirely true—the ancient Greeks even wrote about it—there is little doubt that Kinsey's work was groundbreaking. He was the first to systematically study sexual behavior in the main population.

"He was a pioneer, and many of us are standing on his shoulders," said Beverly Whipple, a prominent sexologist and professor emerita at the College of Nursing at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. She is the co-author of the international bestseller The G Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality.

As a biologist at Indiana University, Kinsey took a keen interest in the taxonomy of the obscure gall wasp. In 1938, at 44, he was asked to teach a course on marriage. It was then that he discovered the extraordinary lack of scientific evidence relating to human sexual behavior.

In pursuit of empirical evidence on the subject, Kinsey became a man on a mission. His team collected 18,000 sex histories. These made up his two books, which became phenomenal bestsellers, even though they were academic tomes.

His findings were very controversial. Kinsey developed a heterosexual-homosexual rating scale that suggested sexual preference was not exclusive, that men could have both heterosexual and homosexual feelings. His results indicated that 37 percent of the total male population had had at least one homosexual experience to the point of orgasm.

Perhaps most important, the results of the "Kinsey Reports," as they became known, showed that Americans engaged in a large variety of sexual acts.

"To those participating in less frequent or atypical behavior, the studies showed they were not alone," said Yarber, who is also a senior research fellow at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. "To some people, that was very freeing."

Irrational Behavior

Kinsey's research did not comment on the moral value of sexual behavior—he never used the term "normal" to describe any sexual activity—and he did not offer any explanations for people's sexual behavior.

That left many fundamental questions unanswered. How does sexual desire affect judgment? Why do people choose to express sexuality that might be destructive to them? Why do some people have high sex drives while others do not?

"All that individual variability that Kinsey discovered is something that we're now trying to make sense of," said Erick Janssen, a research scientist at the Kinsey Institute.

Janssen is leading a study that focuses on the role of mood and sexual arousal in people's sexual decision-making. Much of sex research, particularly in the area of HIV prevention, is based on the assumption that people are rational decision-makers, something Janssen refutes.

"Many people are not rational at all when it comes to sex," he said. "Being in a sexually aroused state can definitely influence people's behavior and make them do things that they later regret."

While depression tends to suppress sexual interest in most people, Janssen has found that a substantial minority of people may become more interested in sex when they are depressed.

"This may be a dangerous mixture, because we know depression can lead people to do things that are more risky," he said.

In Janssen's continuing investigation, adults enter a screening room, where they sit alone in a recliner chair and watch movie segments on a computer monitor.

After watching clips from Sophie's Choice (to induce depression) or Silence of the Lambs (to induce anxiety), the participants watch a few minutes of an erotic video. Their sexual arousal is tracked using sensors on the muscles, heart, and genitals.

Cultural Crusade

Controversy hounded Kinsey and his work from the start. Cultural conservatives deplored him for his homosexual experimentation and for encouraging his research colleagues to swap wives in the name of science.

Critics later charged that Kinsey had conducted sexual experimentation on children, an allegation that his defenders describe as part of a political witch-hunt.

Today sex researchers say they are again feeling the heat of a politically conservative crusade mounting against them. Last year the U.S. Congress threatened to withdraw government funding of several sex studies, including Janssen's.

Sex researchers are standing firm, however, arguing that their work is more important than ever.

"There is so much we don't know that we have to learn, so that we can help people feel better about themselves," Whipple said.

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