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Alfred Kinsey: America's Secretive Sexologist

Updated on June 19, 2013
This Time Magazine cover, from 1953, was one of three that paid homage to Kinsey's work.
This Time Magazine cover, from 1953, was one of three that paid homage to Kinsey's work. | Source

He launched the sexual revolution with his research, but this renowned psychologist led a dark and secret life.


In the 1962 film “The Chapman Report,” four housewives consider the quality of their sex lives while participating in a study led by Dr. Chapman, a character based on the real-life Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey. As the women answer the research questions through veils of cigarette smoke, they each realize deep psychological troubles. The primary theme of the movie is unfolded as each woman begins a journey to understand her most primitive motivations and question what is wrong about her sexual experiences. It is this questioning that fuels the movie’s multiple plotlines of frigidity, sexual assault, infidelity, and suicide, which all feed from a cultural discussion initiated by Dr. Kinsey through the research methods and findings detailed in his two books about sexual behavior in men and women. The books -- published in 1948 and 1953 -- are known as the “Kinsey Reports.”

Something to Talk About

Despite the controversies surrounding Kinsey’s practices in the field and in his personal life, he retains credit for breaking a long silence about what was happening behind closed doors in America. His studies, which began in the late 1940s, were significant in their magnitude. Over ten thousand subjects were interviewed, including prisoners, street people, and suburban housewives. Gender division among the subjects was roughly equal, with just under one thousand more women interviewed than men. Most significant among Kinsey’s final results was that premarital sex was widely practiced despite the ideological stigma of the time: About one-third of the interviewed women and three-quarters of the interviewed men confessed to consensual sex without marriage. Another significant finding was that one-third of the interviewed men had engaged in homosexual activity that resulted in orgasm.

Results such as these, which stood so strongly against America’s consistent cultural training, sparked a ferocious debate about sexual nature. In 1953, Time addressed the debate with a cover story about Dr. Kinsey’s reports and research methods. The conversation was played out in other media as well -- women’s magazines, radio, television, and, of course, drawing room conversation. The many cigarettes smoked and martinis sipped in “The Chapman Report” indicate that the cultural dialogue about sex was entertaining, erotic, and long-awaited. As historian Miriam Reumann wrote in her study of the Kinsey reports’ effects on society: “Whether embraced or denounced, Kinsey’s results quickly assumed indispensable status, as no question of American social change was complete without reference to them” (26).

As the questions popped out from headlines around the country and around the world, Dr. Kinsey was cast into public scrutiny. The “Kinsey-type methods and motives,” alluded to by Irving Wallace -- who wrote the novel on which “The Chapman Report” was based -- included what some considered as interrogative questioning that created a cold and clinical perspective on love and marriage. Likewise, the detached eye through which Kinsey and his researchers operated required the study subjects and everyone who read about them to consider their sexual desires as constructions of nature instead of sin. Not only that, but women were also led -- through the literature and the cultural discussion that ensued -- to form spiritual understanding and increased awareness of how sex operated in their lives.

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Probed by PBS

Sex research played out in “The Chapman Report” also points us to the many pornographic films published through underground venues in the years following Kinsey’s tome on female sexuality. Fictional representations of sex research, a.k.a. “sexology,” in all forms of American cinema is the topic of a 2003 dissertation by Charlotte Fay Pagni, titled “Hollywood Does Kinsey: Cinema, Sexology, and Cultural Regulation.”

Pagni’s 2003 perspective on the Kinsey Reports afforded the opportunity to confront questions about Kinsey’s motives, and she provides significant, well-documented detail. Just as the PBS documentary “American Experience: Kinsey” reported, Pagni points to instances where the good doctor's academics go a little too far: It was rumored that he and his wife held sex parties with graduate students under the pretense of research. The PBS fact-checkers were confident that other rumors about Kinsey were truthful; primarily, he was bisexual, and he had sex with some of the subjects in his studies, including men in Chicago who lived on the street.

Kinsey’s bisexuality is not as well-documented as some would think because the Kinsey research scope allowed for all brands of sexuality, including pedophilia. Once portions of the public were informed that the Kinsey Reports included the perspectives of those who found it appropriate to have sex with children (in contexts in which the children were never stigmatized for these acts), he became a cultural target, labeled as a child molester even though there is no evidence that he ever participated in or applauded such behavior. Although this protective reaction from American society is understandable because of many examples in which such scenarios are psychologically damaging to the individuals who endure them, those who supported Kinsey’s tolerance of child-adult sexual relations applaud a methodology that include all types of sexuality, even fringe forms too extreme to fall into considerations of what is possibly normal.

Associations with and participation in the outskirts of human sexuality are the factors that caused Dr. Kinsey’s infamy. They are also what drove him to study his topic in a manner so intensive and so perceptive that he could not be ignored. Even though Kinsey himself remains a questionable, eccentric individual who orchestrated a culturally-landbreaking event around his own sexual urges, the results of his work brought on a change that fell into the welcome arms of Americans who were looking for a way out of the maze of sexual repression. It is without doubt that Kinsey influenced the sexologists that were to come after him, and his legacy lies in the bedroom fantasies of millions.

Works Cited

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things : a Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998. Print.

Pagni, Charlotte. Hollywood Does Kinsey: Cinema, Sexology, and Cultural Regulation. Diss. University of Michigan, 2003. Print.

Reumann, Miriam G. American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. Print.

Dr. Kinsey on Amazon

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