On a January day in 1948, a hefty book filled with turgid scientific prose, and scores of tables and charts, landed amid an unsuspecting American public. The tome reported, matter-of-factly and without judgment, that American men were up to all manner of sexual exploits behind closed doors, and that the minds of huge numbers of them were churning with taboo desires.
The book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by biologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University, was an utter revelation for a populace living in a time when masturbation was frowned upon, oral sex (even between husband and wife) was illegal in some states, and homosexuality was considered an extremely rare, criminal deviance.
Kinsey's work set off "a true media explosion," says writer-director Bill Condon, whose movie, Kinsey, on the pioneering sex researcher's life, made its premiere in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. (It opened in Baltimore on Wednesday.) Publications such as Collier's, Time and The New York Times ran cover articles about Kinsey's book. Church leaders, among others, denounced it.
Overnight, millions of American men realized that they were not lone freaks for doing what they did.
Based on thousands of exhaustive, confidential interviews with churchgoers, college students, prison inmates and more, Kinsey reported, for example, that 92 percent of men had masturbated and half of married men had had extramarital affairs. Thirty-seven percent of men said they had had some form of homosexual experience in their lives.
Five years later, Kinsey's second volume -- Sexual Behavior in the Human Female -- was released with more revelations. A full 62 percent of women, for instance, reported they had masturbated, about half of the women said that they had engaged in premarital sex, and two-thirds said that they had experienced overtly sexual dreams. The book was widely attacked as insulting the dignity of womanhood.
Americans flocked to buy both volumes, turning them into best sellers.
Those dry books are now gathering dust on academic bookshelves, but Kinsey's legacy lives on. By bringing the sexual lives of regular American men and women out of the shadows -- by cataloging their actions and proclivities more completely than anyone before him or since -- he opened the doors on a public discussion of sex and set a foundation for the scholarly investigation of this most intimate arena of human life.
Founded a new field
Social scientists and sex researchers describe his contribution as one of the most significant achievements in the annals of sex research.
"His influence was tremendous -- it opened up the field," says Vern Bullough, founder of the Center for Sex Research at Cal State Northridge, and author of Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research.
Nobody since the controversial Kinsey has interviewed as many people in such detail about so many aspects of their sexual lives and thoughts.
Over the course of years, 18,000 men and women across the country were asked to bare their souls on such matters as the frequencies of their climaxes, their experiences with premarital sex and even whether they had ever had sexual encounters with animals.
Kinsey's work did more than reassure people that they were not alone: It highlighted a disconnect between certain laws of the land and actual sexual practice. "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin," Kinsey once said.
Perhaps above all, researchers say, Kinsey's work and the later studies showed social scientists, public health workers, therapists and geneticists just how much there was and still remains for them to study.
"His No. 1 contribution was simply recognizing that sexual behavior is diverse and that people do very different things ... that there was a marvelous and very substantial diversity of sexual behavior in all segments of the population," says Dean Hamer, author and molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied sexuality and genetics.
Being lauded as the father of sex research may seem an odd fate for a man with Kinsey's start in life. He was born in 1894 in Hoboken, N.J.; his father was an engineer and a Sunday school preacher who spoke out against masturbation.
Kinsey obtained an assistant professorship in zoology at Indiana University in 1920, and gained prominence in his field for the study of the thousands of gall wasps he collected -- enthralled, in his studies, by the rich variation he uncovered.
But in 1938, he took a new tack and began teaching a university course on marriage in which he discussed sexual matters quite frankly. Soon after, he devised his questionnaire and embarked on a brand-new taxonomy -- of human sex.
In 1943, Kinsey and his team secured private funding to amass information on sexual habits. Kinsey and his carefully trained interview team traveled throughout the country, interviewing people one-on-one whenever they could: every member of a fraternity or church congregation, and people at gay bars. They even talked to prison inmates.
"Kinsey also knew that people might lie; he had all sorts of questions to find out if they were telling the truth," says Bullough.
Sex researchers say Kinsey's biggest contribution was the sheer cataloging of variation. But his most-famous findings revolve around the issue of homosexuality. He devised the famous Kinsey scale -- a numerical gradation of levels of homosexual orientation, with 0 representing those who were exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual. The scale is still used by researchers.
Kinsey also reported that 10 percent of the men he interviewed said they engaged in predominantly homosexual activity between ages 16 and 55. "That changed the thinking about homosexuality," says Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychoanalyst. "If it was more common than people thought it to be, then perhaps it was what we would call a normal variation of sexuality rather than a form of mental illness."
The 10 percent figure became a political slogan during the gay liberation movement of the 1980s. But the finding was influential far earlier than that. In the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuality was deemed highly deviant.
Kinsey's work inspired others to investigate the matter of homosexuality, including psychologist Evelyn Hooker, who in the 1950s administered the famous Rorschach inkblot test to groups of gay and heterosexual men. Experts found no evidence that the homosexual group was any more disturbed than the heterosexual group.
Based on work such as Kinsey's and Hooker's, the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1973 to drop homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Today, experts believe that Kinsey's numbers were inflated, partly because the people he interviewed were not nationally representative.
A posthumous reanalysis of his data found that when interviews from prisoners and other sources likely to oversample the number of homosexual participants were removed, the proportion of those with exclusively homosexual experiences fell to 3 percent, with another 3 percent reporting that such experiences were extensive but not exclusive. Those figures are in line with more recent studies.
Kinsey has also been faulted for his chronicling of pedophilia. An analysis by John Bancroft, recently retired director of the Kinsey Institute, revealed he relied heavily on data from one man -- a pedophile who reported sexual encounters with hundreds of children.
Reliance so much on one person was not reliable. More than that, however, was a moral issue: Why didn't Kinsey report the man to the police? In defense of Kinsey, the institute's Web site states that "many sexual behaviors, even those between married adults, were illegal in the 1940s and 1950s. Without confidentiality, it would have been impossible to investigate the very private lives of Americans then, and even now."
"People are extremely uptight when it comes to the academic study of sex," says the NIH's Hamer. "As soon as you study sex, people accuse you of being a pervert, an activist, a cheater and a liar -- all of which Kinsey was accused of."
He was certainly a complex man. As portrayed in the movie, he engaged in homosexual relations with one of his associates and once attempted to circumcise himself. But he was also a married man and a devoted father.
Kinsey has been accused of, or credited with -- depending on one's point of view -- doing more than laying the groundwork for a new field of research. He radically altered the way society thinks of sex, and ushered in far greater freedom.
That may be too much to lay at his door. Kinsey brought the subject out into the open -- but, says Bancroft, "he was basically reporting on what people were already doing."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.