In a real sense, it was the development of safe and effective antibiotics that helped spur the sexual revolution Alfred Kinsey documented in his research. Fear of syphilis and gonorrhea had contributed to the repressed sexual culture characterizing much of American society up to that time. When sulfa drugs were introduced in 1935 (followed by penicillin after World War 2), the stigma associated with "loose living" began slowly lifting. There was still the risk of pregnancy though the release of the first oral contraceptive in 1960 helped change attitudes about that as well.
Alfred Kinsey's research study began at the perfect time to catch the slow evolution of American society along with the birth of the sexual revolution. And he was definitely a pioneer. Not only did Kinsey insist on treating sexuality as a serious scientific subject (and not the object of moralizing that many of his predecessors did), but he would eventually create one of the world's great resource libraries on the subject.
The key to his research rested on the more than 18,000 in-depth face to face interviews that he and his research assistants collected. To ensure absolute confidentiality and to provide a permanent home for his interview data, the Institute for Sex Research was founded in 1947 with Alfred Kinsey as Director. Still affiliated with Indiana University, the Institute was housed on campus in the Biology Hall. After selling all of his research materials to the Institute for the sum of one dollar, Kinsey carefully trained all of his interviewers in the rigorous interview methodology he developed.
Knowing the sensitive nature of the questions he and his interviewers would be asking and sensitive to the likelihood of deception, Alfred Kinsey set up a careful coding system to detect fraud or exaggeration. Despite later criticisms of his research methods (especially by conservatives), many of Alfred Kinsey innovations are still used by researchers today. He also insisted on face-to-face interviews since he felt that mail surveys were not as reliable in measuring sexual behaviours. Through direct interviewing, participants could be carefully questioned about inconsistencies or possible exaggerations in their sexual histories. He also developed a procedure for cross-checking responses over time by interviewing the same subjects on different occasions (with an average of four years between interviews). When married couples were separately interviewed, the responses were also cross-checked between spouses.
Recognizing that interviewer bias could skew the results, all interviews were conducted by four interviewers: Kinsey himself, Ward Pomeroy, Clyde Martin and Paul Gebhard. Not only did Kinsey train the other interviewers but they met regularly to ensure they all followed the same rating scheme. Though Kinsey had originally intended to gather 100,000 interviews, his Institute would only complete 18,000 during his lifetime.
The basic interview covered anywhere from 350 to 521 items depending on the sexual history of the respondent. No question sheets were used since the interviewers memorized all of the items and asked their questions as directly and non-apologetically as possible (a major innovation in itself). Beginning with simple demographic questions, the interview shifted to more personal questions about sexual history with numerous redundant items to check for consistency.
Since some of the items dealt with homosexual behaviour (which was still illegal at the time), special delicacy was needed with extra questioning for participants admitting to repeated same-sex experiences. That also meant longer interviews with extra questions to cover less conventional aspects of sexuality. Though children were interviewed as well, the questions were different and one parent was always present.
The longest interview involved an admitted pedophile and required both Kinsey and Pomeroy asking questions (it was over seventeen hours long). That was an unusual case since Kinsey had deliberately included him in the study due to his sexual proclivities. At one point, having expressed skepticism over the participant's claim of being able to masturbate to ejaculation in ten seconds from start to finish, the interviewee in question provided them with a spontaneous demonstration. Pomeroy would later add that it was the only actual demonstration of sexual behaviour ever occurring during the thousands of interviews conducted. That particular interview would also generate severe criticism afterwards since Kinsey and his colleagues failed to provide the information to police (having promised the participant confidentiality).
There was also the question of how representative the participants were of the general population. Since all the participants were volunteers, there was no way to be certain whether they were as "typical" as Kinsey would later claim. Considering the sensitive nature of the questions being asked, there was likely no practical way of getting a more representative sample based on the interviewing method that Kinsey used (and it is still a major problem for sex researchers today).
To avoid concerns about his unrepresentative studies, Kinsey pioneer what he terms "100 percent sampling" where all members of organized groups he approached for his sex studies would be interviewed, be they college fraternities, residents of a particular building, etc. That helped counteract critics who argued that Kinsey's researchers were only interviewing "less inhibited" members of society and skewing the research results. Kinsey also carefully described the sampling methods in his books and he also eliminated some of the controversial data that he obtained from prisoners.
Whatever the scientific issues surounding his sampling methods, it was his insistence that homosexual and bisexual behaviour were part of the normal range of human sexuality that likely provoked the greatest controversy. With the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953 (both books later became known as the Kinsey Reports), Alfred Kinsey became a public figure and the best-known sexologist of the 20th century.
Not only were both books best-sellers but Alfred Kinsey and his Institute immediately faced a storm of controversy over the results of their research. Not only was homosexuality far more prevalent than anyone previously admitted but many heterosexual men and women were shown to experiment with homosexuality as well. The Kinsey Reports also provided considerable ammunition for early gay rights activists, many of whom used the research as part of their own campaign for full civil rights. Depending on how the Kinsey statistics were used, the proportion of homosexuals in society could range from one in twenty to one in ten (though these statistics were far lower for women than men). Still, the "one in ten" statistic became a staple of gay liberation campaigns for decades afterward.
Along with his radical reinterpretation of homosexuality, Alfred Kinsey and his researchers also challenged many of the common myths surrounding sexuality up to that time, particularly female sexuality. With nearly 25 percent of female respondents reportnig having at least one orgasm before the age of fifteen and more than 64 percent before the age of marriage, the prevailing view of sexuality as being something restricted to married couples suddenly seemed antiquated. Especially since nearly half of the orgasms reported by men and women occurred outside of marriage.
Still, the sexual behaviour that Kinsey included in his research was hardly as varied as it could have been. He specifically exclused sado-masochism, voyeurism, "swinging singles" and transsexuals, among others, possibly because he considered them to be statistically insignificant. He also downplayed many of the consequences of greater sexuality such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Whatever the limitations, the revelations provided by the Kinsey Reports were earth-shattering enough. That rampant homosexuality and extramarital intercourse were happening despite the diligent efforts of a society that supposedly frowned on such things seemed like heresy. For Alfred Kinsey to insist that the premarital abstinence urged by religious and moral authorities was actually unhealthy was essentially a declaration of war against the conservatives who opposed him.
And the backlash was only just beginning.
To be continued