The Kinsey Scale: Its Purpose And Significance

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The work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, including his Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale ("the Kinsey scale"), continues to be significant in society and culture.

A sexual history codesheet, 1948

Photo: Kinsey Institute

Determining statistics on homosexuality was challenging back in Kinsey's time, and is still controversial.

Over 60 since the publication of his first book on sexuality, and over 50 years since he passed away, Dr. Alfred Kinsey continues to shape what we know and how we think about sexuality.  Of course, there is work to be done to fully utilize the findings and implication of Kinsey and his colleagues’ research.  Yet, the significance of Kinsey’s work is indisputable, including mentions of his findings in the media, blogs, and popular culture (sometimes even criticisms).  Equally significant is his Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, often referred to as the Kinsey scale.

Kinsey’s Research

In their research, including two books (one on male sexuality and one on female sexuality), Kinsey and his fellow researchers found that the dualistic way of thinking about sexual orientation did not reflect Americans’ actual sexual practices and desires.  While many before Kinsey and his team had defined sexuality as two distinct categories – heterosexual and homosexual – their research found a great deal more of a gray area between these two opposing poles.  They noted in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948):

“Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats…The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

And they noted further in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953):

“It is a characteristic of the human mind that tries to dichotomize in its classification of phenomena….Sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual; and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one to the other extreme.”

Thus, Kinsey and his colleagues criticized two components of the understanding of sexuality at that time that they saw as problematic.  First, that society held tightly to an either-or way of thinking of sexual orientation — one is either heterosexual or homosexual.  And, second, that society has placed clear values on these categories — to be heterosexual is normal, natural, and good, while to be homosexual is abnormal, unnatural, and bad or immoral.  Their work, including estimates of the prevalence of same-sex sexual behavior (e.g., 37 percent of white men who have same-sex contact that led to orgasm) and the creation of the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale has helped to challenge these past, problematic ways of thinking about sexuality.

What Is The “Kinsey Scale?”

Moving away from the dichotomy of heterosexual or homosexual, Kinsey and his colleagues developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, a seven-point scale ranging from 0 to 6.  The scale runs from exclusive heterosexuality (0) to equally heterosexual and homosexual (3) to exclusively homosexual (6):

  • 0- Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual
  • 1- Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
  • 2- Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
  • 3- Equally heterosexual and homosexual
  • 4- Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
  • 5- Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
  • 6- Exclusively homosexual

In their research, Kinsey and his team found that most people actually fall in the middle categories, 1-5, indicating that bisexuality (note, as a continuum, rather than a distinct category) is more of the norm rather than a rarity.  For the majority, one’s sexual behavior (i.e., gender of one’s sex partners) and one’s sexual arousal and desire were congruent; however, a number of individuals experience incongruence among these dimensions of sexuality.

How Should The “Kinsey Scale” Be Used?

The Kinsey Scale was designed by Dr. Kinsey and his colleagues to offer a model to better understand the complexity of sexuality.  They offered this model, notably as a guide rather than a rule, to highlight the continuum that exists between different-sex (heterosexual) and same-sex (homosexual) sexual behavior and desire.  The scale accounts for sexual activity with and arousal toward women and/or men across one’s lifetime.  Kinsey and his colleagues, however, did not intend for this scale to account for individuals’ sexual identity (e.g., lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual).  This scale was not designed to be a test or quiz to determine one’s “true” sexual orientation.  Also, the scale is designed to allow for change and fluidity in individuals’ sexuality, for Kinsey and his colleagues were aware that sexuality is not fixed or static from birth to death.

You can see more about the Kinsey Scale at the Kinsey Institute and order your Kinsey Scale t-shirts here!

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

received his PhD in sociology at Indiana University. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman's research interests lie in medical sociology, social psychology, sexualities, and race/gender/class. You can see his personal blog at http://egrollman.com.
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