Kinsey: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
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Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia : W.B. Saunders Company, 1948. xv + 804 pages, 182 tables, 173 figures, bibliography, and index.
It would be intimidating to read a book that is surely on everyone's list of most influential science books of the twentieth century, if it weren't so interesting to read. As a presentation of the results from a novel and extensive socio-biological experiment it's fascinating and informative, but at this distance from its publication and immediately aroused controversy, one necessarily reads it in the context of decades of discussion, disapproval, and celebration. Alarm over, or interest in, certain famous results color our impression of what the book was about. So much "common knowledge" has accumulated around this work that it is refreshing to read it and see what Kinsey actually said.
He certainly had a lot to say, and the scope of his presentation can easily seem daunting. Therefore it comes as some relief early on in the book to discover that Kinesy's narrative voice is quite readable and that the material is carefully and clearly organized. His writing is a shining example of what good scientific expository writing can be.
Kinsey's goal in his research was simple and precise: to find out, by measuring it as accurately as he could, what forms of sexual outlet are actually experienced by the American male, and with what incidence. Modern interpretations might imply otherwise, but he had no interest in whether his subjects were heterosexual or homosexual, which he saw as imprecise, unmeasurable categories, nor what his subjects thought appropriate or normal, nor what they thought other people did do, or should do, or should not do. Instead, he studied what his subjects actually did. He had no interest in what was thought "normal"—or in what was legal. Instead, he demonstrated that "normal" men engaged in a wide variety of sexual outlets over the course of their lives.
Publication of the Kinsey Report got people talking about sex. Again, Kinsey set the tone by writing in clear, precise, straightforward language without euphemism or unwieldy circumlocutions. He did this in the interest of precision, so that he and his readers can know precisely what is being discussed. "Self-abuse" can easily be misconstrued; "masturbation" is definite and unambiguous. To avoid ambiguity and establish the quantifiable, Kinsey counted sexual events that led to orgasm. For instance, he never measured the incidence of "homosexuality"; instead, he gives statistics for instances of sexual encounters with other males that led to orgasm.
Some wonder whether Kinsey realized, before he published the book, whether his results would be controversial. It's evident that an abundance of scholarly apparatus in the book is there partly to counter criticisms before they arise, and probably partly to deflect accusations that he was appealing to the readers' prurient interests. Nevertheless, Kinsey's care in applying the scholarly trappings makes it interesting and the data informative and useful.
There has been a persistent stream of criticism about Kinsey's statistical methods, generally along the lines that his sampling was skewed and not representative of the average American male. This argument can seem particularly beguiling to the modern reader who gets a daily diet of opinion surveys and political polls. However, it's a misguided criticism since Kinsey was not using a statistical sampling method. Rather, he collected an enormous number of individual results that were carefully categorized into numerous break-out categories, so that he could draw valid statistical samples from these larger, well characterized populations. This approach allowed him to take his statistical measurement one step further: by resampling from his population he could measure the quality and stability of his statistical sampling empirically rather than relying on mathematical estimates of, say, the deviations in his sample averages. This is a superior method of statistical measurement and Kinsey describes his methodology and its virtues quite clearly—provided one is willing to read without a preconceived agenda.
To illustrate my point about Kinsey's precision in quantifying only what could be quantified, here is an excerpt that includes the notorious result that "10% of the population is gay", except that he never says that. I suspect that Kinsey would have found such a statement hopelessly vague and devoid of useful meaning. Instead, this is how he presents his results on the incidence of homosexual activity (boldface in original):
18 per cent of the males have at last as much of the homosexual as the heterosexual in their histories (i.e., rate 3—6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. This is more than one in six of the white male population.
13 per cent of the population has more of the homosexual than the heterosexual (i.e., rates 4—6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. This is one in eight of the white male population.
10 per cent of the males are more or less exclusively homosexual (i.e., rate 5 or 6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 35. This is one male in ten in the white male population.
8 per cent of the males are exclusively homosexual (i.e., rate a 6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. This is one male in every 13.
4 per cent of the white males are exclusively homosexual throughout their lives, after the onset of adolescence." [pp. 650—651]
There is an important theme that runs throughout the book, that we can't have useful discussions about sex if we don't know what we're talking about. Time and again Kinsey's results run up against what "everyone knew was true", underscoring the fact that most of what passed for knowledge about sexual behavior at the time was based on myth, wishful thinking, naïve analysis, and projection. This conflict comes out in this excerpt from the chapter on "Marital Intercourse" (boldface in the original):
But although marital intercourse thus provides the chief source of outlet for married males, immediately from the time of onset of marriage, it fails considerably short of constituting the total outlet of those individuals. In the married population taken as a whole, it does not ordinarily provide more than about 85 per cent of the total sexual outlet (Table 56). The remaining orgasms of the married male are derived from masturbation, nocturnal emissions, petting and heterosexual coitus with partners other than wives, the homosexual, and, especially in some Western rural areas, from intercourse with other animals (Figures 131-133). There is no pre-marital sexual activity which may not continue into marriage, although the frequencies of all these other activities are almost invariably reduced.
The percentage of the total outlet which the married male derives from intercourse with his spouse varies considerably with different social levels. For the lower level group it provides 80 per cent of the outlet during the early years of marriage, but an increasing proportion of the outlet as the marriage continues (Table 97),. By 50 years of age the lower level male is deriving 90 per cent of his outlet from marital intercourse. On the other hand, males of the college level derive a larger proportion of their outlet (85%) from intercourse with their wives during the early years of marriage, but a smaller proportion of their outlet in later years. Not more than 62 per cent of the upper level male's outlet is derived from marital intercourse by the age of 55. At no time in their lives do college-bred males depend on marital intercourse to the extent that lower level males do throughout most of their marriages.
These data will surprise most persons because there seems to have been very little comprehension that marital intercourse provided anything less than the total outlet for married males at all levels. Several scientific and sociologic investigations have been based on the assumption that a a study of marital intercourse was the equivalent of studying the sexual lives of at least the married portion of the population. This accords, of course, with the emphasis placed in Anglo-American ethical systems on marital intercourse as the goal of all sexual development; although there are some cultures in which a history of sexuality would be primarily a history of non-marital sexual activities.
The general opinion that males become increasingly interested in extra-marital relations as they grow older, thus proves to be true only of the upper level male. The explanation of these differences between upper and lower educational levels is not immediately available. [pp. 567—568]
The two excerpts above are also interesting because they constitute the only text in the entire book where Kinsey used bold-face type. Clearly he knew that these results would face controversy, and he probably feared that they would be quickly misquoted, too, thus the unusual recourse to bold-face type emphasis.
Imposing as it is, the book still seems unassuming. We have some sense of its influence precisely because it has merged so fully into our cultural history. Recall that it was only published in 1948, by a company known for publishing medical textbooks. It became a New York Time's number-one bestseller on 23 May 1948. Before the end of the year it had sold over 200,000 copies. In that same year Cole Porter referred to "The Kinsey Report" in the lyrics for "Too Darn Hot", which he wrote for his musical "Kiss Me, Kate!". Kinsey himself became a celebrity: his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine for 24 August 1953. Its considerable influence is still being felt today.
I don't know that I would recommend the book for the general reader—too many books, too little time!—but it is a significant document and eminently readable, rewarding its reader handsomely for the effort.
-- Notes by JNS