The Kinsey Revolution (Part 1 of 3)

One of my favourite I Love Lucy scenes features Lucy going door to door pretending to be taking a public opinion poll.   At one door, the woman answering looks at Lucy with suspicion and asks, "Your name isn't Kinsey, is it?". 

Though situation comedies during the 1950s could only get away with snide references like this, the social and cultural revolution launched by Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking studies into human sexuality was already shaking American society to its roots. 

In a real sense, there was nothing new about exploring sexuality from a scientific perspective.  Along with early sexologists such as Richard Krafft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, and Magnus Hirschfeld, various psychoanalytic and anthropological resarchers attempted to present sexuality as a natural part of human behaviour although they tended to be largely ignored by the mainstream culture.   While Margaret Images[1]Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa was a bestseller when first published in 1928, her (now controversial) findings seemed to have little relevance for the Americans of her generation.   Various animal behaviour studies showing similar findings were also largely dismissed as not being generalizable to human beings,  

And then came Alfred Kinsey...

Although his early devout Christian upbringing showed no indication of the path he would later take in life,  Kinsey's fascination with science and nature led him to pursue an academic career in biology.  While this meant defying his father, an engineering professor who insisted that his son study engineering as well, he eventually managed to graduate magna cum laude from Bowdoin College with degrees in biology and psychology.   Continuing on to Harvard University, Kinsey did his graduate work almst exclusively in entomology (specializing in gall wasps) and received his Sc.D. degree in 1919.   

Over the next few years, Alfred Kinsey expanded the gall wasp collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and wrote a widely-used high school textbook in biology which he published in 1926.   He also married Clara McMillen in 1921 and they would eventually have four children together.   

Though at the height of his career during the 1930s, Alfred Kinsey's abrupt transition from entomology to the study of human sexuality may not be as surprising as it seems.   In his private life, he was bisexual with numerous affairs with both men and women (apparently with his wife's full consent given the open nature of their marriage).   Part of his research into gall wasps focused on mating strategies which, combined with his own fascination with human psychology, led him to speculate on how scientific methods could examine human sexuality as well.  Delivering his first public lecture on human sexuality in 1935, he denounced the "widespread ignorance" surrounding sex and the psychological harm stemming from "delayed sexuality", i.e. abstinence.  

In a real sense, Kinsey's transition to sexology may have been spurred on by changes happening at Indiana University where he taught.   When the university introduced a new course on marriage in 1938, Alfred Kinsey acted as the course coordinator with professors from different faculties (who all happened to be men) providing insights.    In running the course, Alfred Kinsey added to his own knowledge of human sexuality by interviewing his students about different aspects of their sex lives.  That included age of first sexual experience, number of partners, frequency of sexual activity, etc.   It was during this same period when he first developed his classic Kinsey scale ranging from 0 for exclusive heterosexuality to 6 for exclusive homosexuality (X for total asexuality was added later).   The concept that all humans fell somewhere on a continuum of sexual orientation was only the first of the startling revelations that Kinsey would reveal during the course of his research.

Along with interviewing students, Alfred Kinsey also read extensively on the subject of human sexuality and built an extensive library on available works relating to the scientific study of sex, many of which were extremely hard to find (sexuality being a largely taboo topics in those days).   One of the most valuable libraries on sexuality in the world, which was part of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin, Germany, had been destroyed by the Nazis just a few years earlier, in 1933.    

To supplement his growing library and the information from his students, Alfred Kinsey conducted field trips to Chicago in 1939 to conduct more interviews and also interviewed inmates at the Indiana State Penal Farm and their families.   Though the university backed his research (with some reservations),  Kinsey already faced controversy from several colleagues who had decidedly different views on sexuality.  One of them, Thurman Rice, was a professor of bacteriology at the same university where Kinsey taught.   Rice had written extensively on sexuality and eugenics and regularly lectured to students on sex as part of a mandatory course in hygiene taught at the university.Very much part of the old mentality when sex was concerned, Rice's lectures on sex focused on issues of morality including the harmful nature of masturbation and premarital sex.  He even provided separate lectures for male and female students.   As you might guess, Thurman Rice was outraged by Alfred Kinsey's more liberal take on sexuality and argued that his new marriage course violated academic standards. 

Rice also opposed Kinsey's attempt at a scientific analysis of sexuality since it maintained that it was a purely moral issue.   Not only did he accuse Kinsey of inappropriate behaviour (such as asking female students about the length of their clitorises) but also demanded the names of his students so he could question them himself about possible infractions.   His complaints helped stir up controversy and parents of students began asking awkward questions as well.   Indiana University president Herman Wells finally offered Alfred Kinsey a choice: either continue teaching the marriage course or end his sexology research.   Kinsey chose the second option.

Armed with a research grant from the Committee for the Research in Problems in Sex,  Alfred Kinsey launched what would be a revolutionary research project into human sexuality.   As far as the Committee was concerned,  Kinsey seemed the perfect candidate for such a project.  Not only was he an established scientist, but he was also married with children (his bisexuality being a carefully guarded secret).  The Committee chairman,  Robert Yerkes,  was especially open to Kinsey's reputation as a serious researcher who could be counted on to carry out such a project to completion.    Kinsey, for his part, had very definite ideas on how his sexual research should be carried out.   He felt that most previous reseearh studies were either grounded in abstract theories with little real-world value (including Freud) or too afraid of offending morality to ask the hard questions.

In many ways, it was an ideal pairing.  Both Kinsey and the Committee were a perfect fit and Alfred Kinsey's ambitious research project was fully funded.   As the Committee's lead researcher, he would eventually receive more than half the research money in their budget and the sexual revolution that Alfred Kinsey would launch was underway.

To be continued

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