August 6, 2015

Necking, Petting And Hot Petting: Surveying Sex In The 1930’s

Guest blogger Donna J. Drucker discusses what college students in the 1930's told journalists about sex and romance - and what Alfred Kinsey learned from them.

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Photo of Kansas State University college students at a Halloween Party, in Manhattan, KS in the late 1930s

Photo of Kansas State University college students at a Halloween Party, in Manhattan, KS in the late 1930s

American college campuses in the 1930’s were sites of social and cultural change, and many outside observers were interested in what students were thinking, feeling, and doing. Some began asking students intimate questions about their personal lives. The Indiana University biology professor Alfred Kinsey, who would later publish the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953, was one of them. From reading as many sources as he could find, Kinsey learned how he wanted to conduct his own research with students and non-students alike. He also learned that students were asking their own questions that their questioners were unprepared to answer.

One of the sources Kinsey read as he was preparing to lead a marriage course was Dorothy Dunbar Bromley and Florence Haxton Britten’s 1938 book Youth and Sex: A Study of 1300 College Students. Kinsey signed and dated his copy of Youth and Sex June 30, 1938, only two days after the first session of the marriage course, indicating his eagerness to stay up-to-date on the latest scholarship. He also acquired the original handwritten survey responses after Youth and Sex was published. (Those responses are now part of the Dorothy Dunbar Bromley Papers in The Kinsey Institute Archives. All quotations from the surveys are courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.)

Bromley and Britten were journalists who sent six thousand three-page paper surveys to college students across the United States, and received thirteen hundred in return. They compiled the results of the surveys into Youth and Sex. Despite the provocative title and rich data set, their book received poor reviews, as they attempted to group the student replies into categories that did not hold up to close scrutiny. For example, a reviewer in The Spectator wrote that “the authors could have made fuller and better use of quotations from actual replies. Instead they give us yet another set of ‘types’ and write up the material in a readable extempore style which occasionally lapses into unhappy generalisations.”

Bromley and Britten entirely omitted questions on behaviors they disliked or did not want their subjects to imagine. They did not ask directly about masturbation, stating only that the 11 of 122 girls “who admitted to sexual desire confessed to finding an outlet in the practice.” Kinsey wrote next to this statement in his copy, “hence inadequacy of data.” Their only definition for the practice, in a chapter on women, was “those turbulent physical sensations which trouble so many boys in adolescence” (page 67 of their text).  Only 42 of 592 male subjects admitted to being so troubled, far short of the 92 percent of males who would later tell Kinsey that they masturbated.

Furthermore, Bromley and Britten used slang in their surveys that students did not understand. The authors wrote in the published version of their work that “the idioms employed were the natural idioms that young people use in discussing the subjects on which they were questioned” (page 39 of their text). Contrary to the author’s expectations, a twenty-three-year-old Fordham University male student wrote on his survey, “your terms are too vague. I do not understand the distinction between necking, petting, and ‘hot petting.’” Another engaged twenty-three-year old male student at the University of Wisconsin addressed the authors directly: “Throughout your questionnaire you use the terms ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘sexual relations.’ I see a difference between them—the latter consisting of sex play (petting), the former consisting of actual intercourse, and I have answered accordingly.” Neither did the authors explain the language of their questionnaire in the published version Youth and Sex. Kinsey himself found that misuse or misunderstanding of language could diminish rapport and could lead to the misinterpretation of data.

Much of the humor and liveliness of the surveys was also left out of Youth and Sex. For example, a nineteen-year-old male Amherst College student wrote about a scare he had with a female partner when the condom that they were using broke. “What was done?” asked the survey. “We just prayed,” he responded. To the question “What is your present sex situation?” a twenty-one-year-old male student in Chicago answered “dying of atrophy.” An eighteen-year-old woman at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University) answered the question “Is the average boy anxious to give a girl equal satisfaction?” with “I doubt it.” A twenty-year old woman at the same college, asked whether she minded if her future spouse was not a virgin, retorted: “There isn’t any choice.” To that same question, an eighteen-year-old student at Sarah Lawrence College replied, “One of us has to know something about it.”

In summation, Kinsey learned how not to interview subjects from Youth and Sex and the students’ comments on their questionnaires. He preferred oral to written interviews for the flexibility of language, clarity that all questions were fully answered, checking the interviewee’s honesty, and their ability to capture the richness of individual responses. Most of all, he realized that people (and not just college students) were interested in and willing to talk about their sex lives with others in the name of scientific research.

Donna J. Drucker is a guest professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany. She is the author of The Classification of Sex: Alfred Kinsey and the Organization of Knowledge and The Machines of Sex Research: Technology and the Politics of Identity.