Fifty years after Alfred Kinsey, what more do we know?

State of the sexual union.
Sept. 26 2007 7:34 AM

American Sex Portrait

Fifty years after Alfred Kinsey, what more do we know?

Read more from Slate's Sex Issue.

(Continued from Page 1)

Most importantly, in terms of the development of the field, Laumann used up-to-date, rigorous methods to collect his data. He and his team selected a representative sample of American households, and then tried to interview one adult between the ages of 18 and 59 in each of them. The researchers scored an impressive 78.6 percent response rate, interviewing a total of 3,342 people. If the number of respondents was one-fifth Kinsey's total, it was still a better snapshot of the nation.

Laumann wasn't perfect: His team conducted a small number of interviews with the subject's partner in the room, reducing the likelihood of truthful answers to certain questions—involving affairs, say, or homosexuality. After the interview, the team also asked for written responses to selected questions—about masturbation, for instance—that were to be entombed in a sealed envelope, a setup that might have telegraphed extra sensitivity and led to underreporting. There was also the nagging question, and one that haunts any sex survey (or a survey of any sensitive issue, for that matter), of whether people were really telling the truth. Still, Laumann points out that data collected in 2002 by the National Center for Health Statistics corroborated some of his basic findings about the prevalence of homosexuality and the number of partners people tend to have.

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So, where's the Laumann biopic? Kinsey came first, and being first at anything always helps in the fame department. And he was promptly martyred by conservatives—his legacy is still dogged by unfair accusations of pedophilia—paving the way for progressives to lionize him later. Laumann, by contrast, showed up at a relatively blasé moment, and his findings had less shock value. His work was also more formally academic, employing a team of more than 150 interviewers. (Kinsey had just a handful, and did a large number of interviews himself).

But Laumann says he and his colleagues also shrank from pop stardom and tried to "downplay who we were as individuals." Working intensively with media handlers, Laumann's team didn't advertise results that would rile conservatives (for instance, that 17 percent of women said they'd been sexually touched by an older person during childhood). Instead, they emphasized the least threatening findings (that married people reported the highest levels of sexual satisfaction).

Having mastered the art of the huge sex survey, and calmed conservatives, Laumann now argues that the questions most worth exploring are the fine-grained ones: how sexual expression plays out locally, for instance, or among different ethnic groups. Or what circumcised men do differently from uncircumcised ones (Laumann found that they tend to masturbate more), or how women's and men's arousal differs. He's also interested in international comparisons of sexual satisfaction and has worked on that issue with money from Pfizer, makers of Viagra. Laumann also had a hand in the research on sex among older adults recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Laumann's recommendations make sense; still, the allure of a bigger, better American sex survey endures. Laumann's 1994 findings are recent compared with Kinsey's, but no longer new. For lofty abstract reasons—self-understanding—and more practical ones—better sex ed and STD prevention—we could do with an updated snapshot. Where better to look for it than the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University, which Alfred Kinsey founded in 1947? Researchers there are exploring the possibility of a big survey, and testing an approach that would make greater use of computer responses (while trying to ensure that precocious 13-year-olds won't sneak on to pose as hypersexed adults). Let's hope they scrape up the roughly $2.7 million they need for the project. 

Meanwhile, other researchers continue to mine the Kinsey data to test their own hypotheses—for instance, whether men who have more older brothers are more likely to be gay, or a new project on how prison time affects men's and women's sexuality. Kinsey's data aren't the last word on matters sexual, but they're sometimes still the first.

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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