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.

Alfred Kinsey.
Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey spent 25 years conducting his famous sex surveys. From 1938 to 1963, he and his staff interviewed more than 18,000 men and women, asking about the relative frequency of practices like masturbation and premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sex. And almost half a century later, many of his results are still embedded in the public imagination. The great man's research methods have been called into question—in the 2004 biopic Kinsey, for example—and yet, who hasn't heard that 10 percent of men are gay, or that half of married men have had adulterous affairs? (For more Kinsey stats, click here.)

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

Kinsey's pioneering work is still one-of-a-kind because in all the time since, only a handful of sex researchers have even tried to match his breadth, depth, and scale. For all our obsession with sex, we're skittish about studying it. There's one major exception: a large survey, conducted in the 1990s, that far outdid Kinsey in terms of statistical reliability. It's the most authoritative sexual self-portrait the country has. But you've probably never heard of its author, because unlike Kinsey, he has worked hard to keep it that way.

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As a pioneer in the field, Kinsey had methodological strengths. To begin with, he was a counter, to the core. He gathered his data by conducting detailed, face-to-face interviews, occasionally lasting six hours or longer, and then tabulating how many people said they did what. He was an innovator in this regard, zeroing in on behaviors (whether a person had a homosexual experience or response, for instance) rather than identities (whether a person described himself as gay). That more concrete, less subjective approach has largely endured.

But Kinsey is a famously flawed icon. His subjects were not representative of the population at large, and his data probably erred in the direction of the sexually active and adventurous. He and his staff met some of the people they interviewed in bars or at parties, and got them to recruit their friends. Those most eager to talk about their sex lives—perhaps because they had sex lives—were probably overrepresented.

The same problem plagued the next wave of sex surveys. Researcher Shere Hite is a cultural critic whose 1976 treatise on female sexuality, The Hite Report, became a rallying cry for feminists and an international best seller. Hite found that 82 percent of women said they masturbated, and of these, "95 percent could orgasm easily and regularly, whenever they wanted." This was in contrast to the stereotype that "women are slow to become aroused and are able to orgasm only irregularly." In an interview last year looking back on her heyday, Hite said that she trusted her survey respondents because they often told her they took her survey "after they put their whole family to bed and they were answering on the kitchen table." But her results were, if anything, less scientific than Kinsey's. Though Hite tried to include women of many different backgrounds—drawing on the mailing lists of feminist organization, women's magazines, and some religious groups—her overall response rate was low, making it hard to generalize from her numbers. Highly publicized surveys in the 1970s from Redbook, Playboy, and others had similar problems.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that sex surveys caught up with statistics, in the work of Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago. Laumann is a former provost of the university, a venerable sociologist, and an expert on social networks. He's wary of negative press, likes to downplay controversy, and giggles disarmingly over the boring headlines he's generated over the years. In the mid-1980s, with the threat of HIV looming, Laumann's interest turned to sexual networks and the need for better data on sexual behavior. By this time, conservatives were heading off sex studies, afraid that the results would show high rates of homosexual and premarital sex and so make them seem normal. If, God forbid, a government-sponsored study had echoed Kinsey's findings, the results would have been hard to dismiss. Thus, Congress withdrew funding for a large-scale survey that Laumann had begun preliminary work on. But a smaller, privately funded version proceeded, in part because of the HIV imperative. 

In the end, conservatives had less to fear from Laumann than from his predecessors. Among his most famous results, published in 1994: Less than 5 percent of men said that they had had a same-sex sexual experience since the age of 18, half of Kinsey's 10 percent figure. As writer Katha Pollit quipped in The Nation, "It isn't 10 percent of Americans who are gay, it's 10 percent of New Yorkers." Laumann's adultery number for men was also half the Kinsey figure: Only 25 percent of married men (and roughly 15 percent of married women) reported having had extramarital sex.

Laumann's work countered the fond image of a national sex party. More than 80 percent of his interviewees said they'd had either one or no sexual partners in the prior year. If Kinsey made people think about the elephant in the master bedroom that at the time no one talked about in public, Laumann reeled us back in from the Madonna sex-is-everywhere idea. Kinsey may have reassured people that their taboo practices were not so taboo; Laumann helped the more conventional among us take comfort that the neighbors weren't having all that much fun, either.

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