Feature Archive

'50s Sexuality Research Still Causing a Stir

The new movie on controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey has sex experts and protesters talking about what he did for human sexuality -- and morality -- in the U.S.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

It is a rare lecture in which Dr. Ruth Westheimer, PhD, does not pay some type of homage to famed 1950s sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, PhD.

"In the Jewish tradition, we are taught that if you stand on the shoulders of giants, you can see farther, so I do mention Kinsey," Dr. Ruth, the famed New York City-based sex therapist and radio and TV personality, tells WebMD. "I think we have to be grateful to Kinsey because 50 years ago, he was willing to talk about a subject matter that was really taboo," says Dr. Ruth, the author of many books including her most recent, Dr. Ruth's Guide to Talking about Herpes.

Now the subject of a major motion picture starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, zoologist-turned-sexpert Kinsey published two major studies -- "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" in 1948 and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" in 1953 -- that are still considered, by some, to be the foundation of human sexuality research. In addition to the new film, his work is also the basis of a new fictionalized novel by T.C. Boyle called The Inner Circle, a musical that is Broadway bound, and two television documentaries. Dr. Ruth recently saw a screening of the new movie Kinsey, which is set to open nationally Friday. "It's definitely worth seeing and it should be celebrated," says Dr. Ruth, who mentioned that she did get kissed by Neeson at the premiere. But as much as Kinsey's work has its advocates, it also has its critics, both then and now.

Human Sexuality Legacy Looms Large

Kinsey based his work on interviews with 5,300 white men and 5,940 white women. These interviews serve as the foundation for his published works. Each interview comprised up to 521 questions that touched on anything and everything sexual including bestiality, pedophilia, extramarital sexuality, homosexual tendencies, masturbation, and penis size.

As a result of these interviews, Kinsey promoted a seven-point scale of normal human sexuality, with bisexuality the most "balanced" state. Kinsey said that 37% of adult males had had at least one homosexual experience. The apex of controversy surrounding his research, however, stems from material he gathered from the diaries of convicted pedophiles and applied to typical Americans.

When his books were first published, many critics immediately assailed his methods. Were these people telling the truth? Says who? Are they a random sample? Others saved their venom for his subject matter -- calling it obscene. In fact, a scene from the new movie depicts government agents seizing and then impounding a box of study materials en route to Kinsey.

"All of the criticisms about his methodology and personal life and if he was sleeping with men or not is of no interest to me," Dr. Ruth says. "What is interesting is that he gave us data that Masters and Johnson can now use in their studies."

William Howell Masters, MD, a gynecologist, and Virginia Eshelman Johnson, a psychology researcher, teamed up in 1957 to build, rather fruitfully, on Kinsey's initial work.

As a result of Kinsey's work, "there are less unintended pregnancies and more women do know how to have an orgasm," she says. But more work is still needed. "We do need a new study as this study is 50 years old and things have changed," she says.

What has changed most is not what Kinsey found, but how he found it, explains Laura Berman, PhD, LCSW, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago, and director of the Berman Center in Chicago.

"The methodology has changed the most," she says, "I don't know that what he found is that different but now we have the technology and the scientific ability and we know how to do things in a more scientifically rigorous way," says Berman, who has yet to see the movie. "Instead of interviewing people, we have access to random samples, phone numbers, addresses, and we can do surveys by mail, in person, or online."

Kinsey "set the foundation for taking human sexuality out of the realm of morality," she says. Before his work, "the only discussion was what sex should be or is supposed to be, not what actually happened." In a nutshell, Kinsey said there was a wide gap between what people thought was normal and what they actually did in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Human Sexuality Research Still Flourishes

So much sexuality research is going on now, she says. "One of the goals that I have that is similar to Kinsey is to demystify elements of sexuality as well as to remove taboos and misunderstandings around sexuality."