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What Was The Kinsey Report?

How a revolutionary 1948 book revealed that most sex happens when people are alone

By John Greene

[John Greene is a freelance writer for several Web sites. He enjoys a good book and the martial arts in his free time.]

You may have heard references to something called the "Kinsey Report," often mentioned when sexual statistics are bandied about. But did you know the Kinsey Report is over 50 years old? It was a human sexual behavior study conducted by Alfred Kinsey over a number of years and published in 1948 under the title Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. For his study Kinsey surveyed a variety of people about their sexual habits. In 1953 he published another book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, based on a similar study. The Kinsey Report was controversial because it contradicted the commonly held views of the time regarding sexual behavior in both males and females. The conservative ideas of the first half of the 20th century contrasted sharply with the data that Kinsey collected — including ideas about masturbation. Before Kinsey, sex was largely viewed as an event conducted between married men and women, and that for women, it was mostly a utilitarian exercise for procreation. But Kinsey showed that sex most often happened when people were by themselves.

Kinsey's data indicated that 92% of males reported having masturbated, as opposed to 62% of females. Kinsey also noted that "Masturbation was the most important sexual outlet for single females and the second most important sexual outlet for married females, providing 7-10% of orgasms for those 16-40." Kinsey also noted that "In males, masturbation after marriage occurred with reduced frequency." Other statistics indicated 68% of males and 50% of females had engaged in premarital sex. 37% of males and 13% of females had instances of at least one homosexual experience that resulted in orgasm. It's no wonder the Kinsey Report was controversial in the late '40s — and it continues to engender discussion even today. Even the masturbation stats were controversial. After all, if 92% of males had masturbated, why should one be ashamed of it? Everyone has heard the myths about masturbation causing blindness and hairy palms — myths that have been passed down through generations as a result of conservative religious views on sex that are perpetuated even now. Many of the conservative organizations that perpetuate such views continue to criticize the Kinsey Report, and on some issues they may be correct in that criticism.

The Kinsey Report remains by far the largest
study conducted on human sexual behavior.

Kinsey's study sample was made up almost exclusively of white, middle-class, college-educated Americans under age 35. Despite the survey's statistical limitations, it remains by far the largest study conducted on human sexual behavior. According to the Kinsey Institute Web site, "Kinsey used in-depth, face-to-face interviews by highly trained interviewers. In each history a subject would be questioned on up to 521 items, depending on his/her specific experience (the average in each case being near 300). Histories covered social and economic data, physical and physiologic data, marital histories, sexual outlets, heterosexual histories, and homosexual histories."

Kinsey's data-collection methods have been called into question many times, and many conservative groups endeavor to debunk those methods and the resulting data collected. The Web site for the Family Research Council cites evidence that Kinsey instructed his interviewers to intimidate subjects. Another charge is that Kinsey's ideological bias toward nontraditional forms of sexuality was indicated by the way his books were constructed. In other words, because Kinsey put more pages into his book regarding homosexual behavior as opposed to traditional marital intercourse, his motives and data could be considered suspect.

When asked for comment on the validity of Kinsey's masturbation-specific data, a representative from the organization Concerned Women for America stated: "Our position is that any of Kinsey's statistics are suspect because of the unscrupulous and unscientific methods of research he used. We do not specifically have a position on masturbation." Despite this seemingly neutral statement, the CWA's Web site indicates they feel Kinsey's study is responsible for the current sexual climate, including our schools' current sex-education curriculum. Low points according to the CWA include antagonism toward abstinence-based programs, mint-flavored condoms handed out like candy, and photo exhibits of gay children and families prominently displayed in school libraries across the country.

Kinsey found out the hard way that his detractors were numerous. Shortly after the Report was released, the National Research Council contracted the American Statistical Association to examine Kinsey's findings in detail. This study of Kinsey's methods took 6 years to complete, and by the time it was finished, much of the financial support for Kinsey's research had been lost. However, the ASA concluded that Kinsey had done some of the best work ever in his field. Kinsey died a few years later in 1956, and the Institute for Sexual Research at Indiana University, the nonprofit corporation Kinsey founded, has continued his research ever since.

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