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?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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