Could Kinsey's Sex Research Be Done Today?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 16, 2004
When Alfred Kinsey's studies Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female were published more than
half a century ago, their findings shattered any Victorian misconceptions
of sex in the United States.

According to the research—compiled from some 18,000 testimonials—37 percent of U.S. men (and 13 percent of women) had had at least one homosexual experience, while 62 percent of women (and 92 percent of men) masturbated. Premarital sex was common. Half of married men and a quarter of married women had cheated on their spouses.

No wonder the statistics shocked the public. At the time virtually all forms of non marital sex were illegal in the United States. Some forms of sexual behavior within a marriage, such as oral sex, were forbidden in certain states.

A lot has changed since then. Today U.S. culture and media are awash in sex imagery. Surely the scientific study of sexual behavior has come a long way too.

Or has it?

"I'm not sure Kinsey could do now what he did then," said Bill Yarber, a professor in applied health science and gender studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Many people still have a high level of discomfort about sexuality and are very suspicious about people doing sex research."

In fact, Kinsey, who died in 1956 at 62, remains the preeminent sexual scientist today. But while Kinsey only collected data on sexual behavior, researchers today are increasingly trying to assess the emotional aspects of sex.

Many of the great questions that grew out of Kinsey's research—how does sexual desire affect judgment? how do people develop sexual identities?—are yet to be answered.

"Kinsey mainly looked at what people did," said Vern Bullough, a former professor at New York State University at Buffalo who also founded the Center for Sex Research at California State University at Northridge. "Now we're looking at the why."

Sex Pioneer

The life of the famed sex researcher has once again been pushed into the limelight with the new movie Kinsey, which opened in New York and Los Angeles last Friday.

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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