'50s Sexuality Research Still Causing a Stir

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

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."

Berman recently completed two projects that aim to do just that. The first is a national study of women looking at the health and sexual benefits of sexual aids and devices. "We want to get the conversation started that this is not dirty and embarrassing and that 30% of women are using these devices," she says. According to her work, women who use such aids report higher levels of sexual function and overall quality of life.

The other study is a national survey about how women feel about their genitals and how these feelings impact their sexual life and overall quality of life.

"Higher-educated African-American women have the best genital self-image," she says. "One of the biggest predictors of poor genital self-image is usually based on having a partner who said something negative [about the genitals]," she says.

Genital self-image is connected to overall body image and plays a role in sexual function, Berman says. And "genital self-image is something that most obstetricians don't think to address with patients." Berman's latest project is a big study on the role of vaginal lubricants in younger women.

Casualties Remain

Much of the ire surrounding Kinsey's human sexuality research involves his thoughts on the sexual activity of children. Critics contend that Kinsey's data are based on reports from co-workers who sexually abused more than 300 minors to prove that children 'enjoy' sex with pedophiles. In the "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," Kinsey reports on sexual activity involving girls younger than age 4. It also indicated that sex between adults and children could be beneficial.

It was later shown that he incorrectly used data from prisoners, prostitutes, pedophiles, and other sexually promiscuous people to explain the behavior of all Americans. These are some of the main reasons that abstinence supporters are planning to protest the movie.

"The most devastating part of this whole new resurrection of Kinsey is that it is occurring at a time when we have people dying from sexually transmitted diseases," says Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. The organization advocates sexual abstinence until marriage. "When I bring up Alfred Kinsey today, many people don't realize that he is where a lot of this came from," she says. "It's important for people to know how we got to where we are now."

The recent presidential election should speak volumes about what people want and it's not what Kinsey is selling, she tells WebMD. Exit polls showed moral values concerned more voters than either the economy or Iraq.

"Morality moms want health for their children -- emotionally and physically. They don't need more lies and deception," Unruh says. She also says "[Kinsey] was a fraud." While at first Unruh's group and many others across the country were outraged by the movie, they are now "making lemonade out of lemons."

Unruh's organization has put together a booklet called Casualties of Kinsey, which contains stories about how Kinsey's human sexuality research affected the lives of participants and their offspring. One story depicts a woman whose father and grandfather were data collectors for Kinsey and molested her on a regular basis.

"It's absolutely twisted that these things went on and that it was called research," Unruh tells WebMD.

Published Nov. 11, 2004

SOURCES: Laura Berman, PhD, LCSW, clinical assistant professor, obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry, Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University, Chicago; and director, Berman Center, Chicago. Ruth Westheimer, PhD, sex therapist; and radio and TV personality, New York City. Leslee Unruh, president, Abstinence Clearinghouse, Sioux Falls, S.D.

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