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Alfred Kinsey was a professor who pioneered the study of human sexuality and forever changed how sexual behavior was publicly discussed.

Learn more about Kinsey’s controversial research and his best-selling books, then test your knowledge with a quiz. Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was a biologist by training but best known for his research on sexual habits and practices. Many view Kinsey as a pioneer in the study of human sexuality but his research methods were controversial as was his personal life.

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Alfred Kinsey

Background

Kinsey’s background is particularly interesting given the focus of his later work. Kinsey was 27 years old when he married the first woman he ever dated. Given that so much of his career was devoted to the practice of sexual behavior, it’s ironic that Kinsey and his wife were unable to have sex during the first year of their marriage due to a genital abnormality found in her.

She eventually had this problem corrected with surgery and they went on to have four children. In addition to their marital relationship, they agreed to an open marriage where each partner could sleep with other people. Alfred was bisexual and had numerous sexual encounters with both men and women while remaining married to his wife.

Kinsey’s interest in human sexuality was preceded by research he was doing on the mating practices of gall wasps. There are many different species of gall wasps, and they apparently have an active mating pattern. Kinsey was intrigued by these mating patterns and this interest gradually led him to speculate on the parallel sexual practices of humans.

Research

As Kinsey’s interests shifted from the mating habits of wasps to humans, he obtained permission from Indiana University to teach a course called Marriage, where he advocated for sexual freedom for adults. He believed that virtually any sexual behavior between consenting adults was normal and healthy. This course was first offered in 1938 when sexual norms in the culture were still very conservative and, in his view, ‘repressive.’ His lectures were well-attended and created a curiosity among students that led many to become involved in his research.

In 1947, Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research. He and his colleagues began gathering data from thousands of people about their sexual lives. They probed into areas of life previously thought to be too personal to talk about openly. They inquired about taboo topics such as masturbation, sodomy and sex in prison. This information was used as a basis for Kinsey’s other research.

Based upon this research, Kinsey developed a scale (now known as the Kinsey Scale) that measured one’s sexual orientation. The scale ranged from 0 to 6. Someone scoring a 0 was considered exclusively heterosexual in orientation while someone with a score of 6 was exclusively homosexual in orientation.

Scores of 1-5 on the scale represented varying degrees of both sexual orientations.Among the most controversial of his research methods was the solicitation of volunteers (mostly students) to engage in various sexual encounters under the watchful eyes of Kinsey and his staff. He went so far as to secretly film these encounters in the attic of his home for fear that it would cause a scandal if it were to become known by the larger public.

Books

Kinsey’s work was primarily contained to the Indiana University community until the publication of his book in 1948, entitled: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, also known at the time as the Kinsey Reports.

Much to Kinsey’s surprise, the book became a bestseller and catapulted him into the public eye with interviews appearing in many of the most popular magazines of the time.He followed this with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. This book was even more controversial than the male counterpart because it claimed that women also had sexual desires, which conventional wisdom at the time denied.

His celebrity status increased and eventually landed him on the cover of Time magazine and secured his position as American’s foremost sexologist.

Legacy

Kinsey’s work significantly shaped the social and moral values of those exposed to his work. For some, Kinsey’s research was a much needed catalyst for a broader discussion of sexuality. For others, Kinsey is viewed as a pivotal figure responsible for the decline of moral standards in the larger culture.Kinsey died in 1956 at the age of 62 from an apparent heart problem. In 1981, the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University was renamed the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research.

It is home to one of the largest collections of pornography in the world.

Lesson Summary

Alfred Kinsey was a pioneer in the study of human sexuality at a time when the topic was rarely studied or discussed openly. As a faculty member at Indiana University, he taught courses on sexuality, conducted research that involved gathering extensive data on sexual practices and even filmed sexual acts between consenting subjects. He established the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in 1947. He is perhaps best known for his two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), which brought him fame and celebrity.

Vocabulary & Definitions

Kinsey Scale

Human sexuality: Human sexuality is the study of the sexual behavior of humans.Open marriage: An open marriage is one in which each partner may have sex with people outside of the marriage.Gall wasps: Gall wasps was the species that Alfred Kinsey studied before studying human sexuality.Masturbation: Masturbation is self-stimulation for sexual pleasure.Sodomy: Sodomy, as studied by Kinsey, is oral or anal sex.Kinsey scale: The Kinsey Scale measures a person’s sexual orientation on a scale of 0 to 6.Kinsey Reports: The Kinsey reports are also known as the two books Kinsey wrote titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished going over the lesson, test your capacity to:

  • Recall the background of Alfred Kinsey
  • Explain the Kinsey Scale
  • List some of the works of Alfred Kinsey
  • Discuss his legacy

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