Kinsey Reports did little more than reset expectations

Time magazine: Aug. 24, 1953 The key message of the Kinsey Reports (1948, 1953) — that there is a wide range of “normal” sexual behaviours — has been lost on contemporary society, according to a BBC documentary aired as part of the new Medical Matters podcast.  Instead, the teenage “average” of 1950 has become the “minimum expectation” of today… for everyone.  The result?  Performance anxiety: no one can measure up.

If there is a stronger populist argument for a having firm grip on our history, I haven’t seen it.

Get the MP3 here.  (Resources and related coverage below.)

Alfred Kinsey.

  • Bullough, V. L.  (1998).   Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Report: Historical overview and lasting contributions.  Journal of Sex Research, 35(2), 127-131.

Presents an overview of the history of sex research and the contributions of A. Kinsey to the study of human sexuality. The modern study of sexuality was dominated by the medical perspective before 1940. Kinsey, a biologist, brought to the study of sexual expression a taxonomic approach (i.e., an interest in classification and description). His initial efforts were supported by an exploratory grant in 1941 and by the administration at Indiana University. Kinsey developed his interview methodology and conducted over 8,000 interviews himself. His results challenged many widely held beliefs about sexuality, including the belief that women were not sexual. His work contributed to both the feminist and the gay/lesbian liberation movements. He was determined to make the study of sex a science, and in large part he succeeded.

  • Stuart, M. & Giami, A.  (1999).  The polls–review: Sexual acts and sexual relationships: Asking about sex in surveys.  Public Opinion Quarterly, 63(3), 401-420.

In order to investigate the influence of historical and social context on the design of surveys on sexual behavior, 6 surveys spanning the years 1948-94 (e.g., A. Kinsey et al, 1948 and 1953) were selected and analyzed. Changes in definition of heterosexual and homosexual acts and relationships were also explored. The review demonstrates significant changes in the conceptualization of sexual activity and sexual relationships. In the Kinsey reports, heterosexual intercourse was implicitly assimilated to marital sex, that is, an essential link was established between this sexual practice and the institution of marriage. Moreover, marriage served as the normative framework for the understanding of other types of sexual relationships (premarital and extramarital). In the 1970s, with the appearance of oral contraceptives and the increased visibility of other kinds of relationships such as nonmarital cohabitation and other forms of noncohabitational relationships, there is a greater dissociation between heterosexual intercourse and the marital context: intercourse is disconnected from a specific type of social relationship. It is concluded that there is no longer a taken for granted link between sexual acts and sexual relationships in sex surveys.

See also:

  • Bullough, V. L. & Bullough, B.  (1997).  The history of the science of sexual orientation 1880-1980: An overview.  Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 9(2), 1-16.

Gives a brief historical overview of research into homosexuality and lesbianism from its beginnings in the 1860s to a change in paradigm in the 1970s. The authors emphasize how the social and cultural assumptions of the researcher and his/her time influence research findings, and how difficult it is to make breakthroughs once certain assumptions are accepted. For much of the period the research was dominated by physicians who subscribed to the pathological model. This model was only replaced in the last part of the 20th century, in large part because of the influence of Alfred Kinsey and the entry of a generation of researchers utilizing the statistical methods of the social sciences. The authors point out that it is important to allow challenges and reinterpretations and not try to establish an orthodoxy of interpretation, whether biological, psychological, or sociological.


Related coverage at AHP:

  1. “The Military, Psychiatry, and ‘Unfit’ Soldiers”
  2. Podcast: Psychiatry and Homosexuality
  3. Bibliography: Histories of Homosexuality
  4. 40 Years Since Homosexuality Decriminalized

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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