April 8, 2014

The Value of Kinsey: Transforming Sex Research In The 20th Century

Alfred Kinsey's research helped dismantle sterotypes about sexual orientation and what is "normal."

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If, like many of us, you’ve seen the biopic “Kinsey,” starring Liam Neeson as famous biologist and human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey, you know that his work was groundbreaking for making information about sexual behavior accessible and acceptable.  What you may not know is that in his time, Kinsey wasn’t just fighting against ignorant attitudes toward human sexuality.  He also devoted much of his attention to defending against pseudoscientific research that sought to shore up accepted beliefs about human sexual behavior.

Dismantling stereotypes about sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is presently understood as an identity category:  people are most often understood to be gay or straight.  This identity affects other aspects of their lives, but arises from sexual orientation.  Less often, people are understood to also possibly be bisexual or asexual.  Other categories exist, but each of these identity categories is complex and nuanced enough to deserve its own article, and it’s the continuum of heterosexual and homosexual behavior that provided the focus of both Kinsey’s work and the prior research he often fought against. No one can completely avoid sexual identity politics in our culture.

These identity categories often come with a set of assumptions referred to as behavioral stereotypes, the most common form of which is the expectation that a homosexual person will adopt some habits of social interaction generally understood to belong to another gender category. That is, the stereotype for gay men is that they will behave in more feminine ways, whereas the stereotype for lesbian women expects masculine behavior from them.

Several people are, no doubt, presently thinking of examples in which this stereotype holds true.  Other people are likely also thinking of several examples in which this stereotype is pointedly the opposite of reality.  This is the nature of a stereotype: it is an assumption based on someone’s “firm impression” of a category of people.  This is, in fact, the original meaning of the word. In some cases a stereotype may be true, in other cases nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem with stereotypes is in accepting them as foregone conclusions, and using them as a basis for future judgments.  This is exactly what was done in the research Kinsey helped to disprove.

Sexual orientation: a type of person, or a type of behavior?

Jennifer Terry, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at UC Irvine, devotes a chapter in her book Deviant Bodies to these research projects and Kinsey’s response to them. Terry presents the example of a study conducted by the Commission for the Study of Sex Variants in New York City from 1935 to 1941 – just seven years before the first Kinsey Report was released.

One of the primary goals of the Sex Variant study was to craft an accurate and scientific description of the physical characteristics of homosexuals.  It was believed that homosexuals – described as “sexual inverts” in the parlance of the time – constituted a specific taxonomic “type.” Another such study performed enzyme assays on homosexual men, examining levels of estrogen and androgen in these individuals. The hypothesis was that homosexual men would have lowered levels of androgen, and elevated levels of estrogen.

Kinsey criticized not only the inconsistent results of such studies, but also their initial position, the starting assumption from which all other judgments were made.  He claimed that their most basic error was “the assumption that homosexuality and heterosexuality are two mutually exclusive phenomena” which originate in “inherently different types of individuals.” Further, he insisted that any study that began with this assumption also carried the implication that heterosexuality was normal, and that homosexual behavior was an abnormality.

According to Terry, Kinsey’s preliminary research did find that there are some individuals who were almost exclusively heterosexual, as well as some who were almost exclusively homosexual. Interviewing a wide sample of the population, Kinsey also concluded that it was most likely that at least 50% of adult males had engaged in at least one homosexual experience to the point of “full climax” by the time they reached 30 years of age.

Here is the crux of the issue:  while it is fair to say that some people fall at or near either end of the spectrum of human sexual orientation, Kinsey’s research revealed that in the majority of cases, sexuality is just another behavior that human beings engage in.  It is not a physiological type that can be consistently predicted by observing someone’s visible features or performing enzymatic tests on their bodily fluids.

There is no such thing as “normal” sexual orientation

With his research, Kinsey created a brief moment in which this conclusion could be widely understood. This understanding spread through the scientific community and, to a somewhat lesser degree, through popular culture as well. Gay and straight identities still exist, and perhaps for very good reasons. It’s fair to acknowledge that.

What is not only unfair, but incorrect, is the long-standing assumption in our culture that heterosexual behavior is normal, and homosexual behavior is not. The scientific undertakings which sought to support this view began by taking this assumption as a foregone conclusion. There is, however, no more evidence to support this conclusion than there is to support the opposite:  the assumption that people are naturally homosexual and that heterosexual behavior is the aberration.

Kinsey’s work taught us that.

Jain Waldrip is a recent graduate of Indiana University.  She previously served as the vice president of SAGE (Sexuality And Gender Equality) and majored in linguistics and history.

This post originally appeared at the SAIU blog

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