It’s now more than 50 years since the revolution began. Sexual “liberation” has been endlessly ballyhooed by the national media, promoted in the movies, embraced by Playboy guys and Cosmo girls as a freedom more delicious than Eden’s apple. No American under 40 can honestly remember a time when sex on TV was taboo, when “living together” meant married, when “gay” meant happy, and when almost every child lived with both parents.
If truth be told, the revolution has been a disaster. Before the push to loosen America’s sexual mores really got under way in the 1950s, the only widely reported sexually transmitted diseases in the United States were gonorrhea and syphilis. Today we have more than two dozen varieties, from pelvic inflammatory disease (which renders more than 100,000 American women infertile each year) to AIDS (which presently infects 42 million people worldwide and has already killed another 23 million). According to a report by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, a woman who has three or more sex partners in her lifetime increases her risk of cervical cancer by as much as 1,500 percent. In another finding that runs contrary to all that the sex researchers preached, a survey at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center showed that married men and women, on average, are sexually happier than unwed couples merely living together. And even if live-in couples do marry, they’re 40 to 85 percent more likely to divorce than those who go straight to the altar.
So what happened? Was science simply wrong? Well, not exactly — the truth is more complicated than that.
Alfred C. Kinsey had a secret. The Indiana University zoologist and “father of the sexual revolution” almost single-handedly redefined the sexual mores of everyday Americans. The problem was, he had to lie to do it. The weight of this point must not be underestimated. The science that launched the sexual revolution has been used for the past 50 years to sway court decisions, pass legislation, introduce sex education into our schools, and even push for a redefinition of marriage. Kinseyism was the very foundation of this effort. If his science was flawed — or worse yet, an outright deception — then our culture’s attitudes about sex are not just wrong morally but scientifically as well.
Let’s consider the facts. When Kinsey and his coworkers published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, they turned middle-class values upside down. Many traditionally forbidden sexual practices, Kinsey and his colleagues proclaimed, were surprisingly commonplace; 85 percent of men and 48 percent of women said they’d had premarital sex, and 50 percent of men and 40 percent of women had been unfaithful after marriage. Incredibly, 71 percent of women claimed their affair hadn’t hurt their marriage, and a few even said it had helped. What’s more, 69 percent of men had been with prostitutes, 10 percent had been homosexual for at least three years, and 17 percent of farm boys had experienced sex with animals. Implicit in Kinsey’s report was the notion that these behaviors were biologically “normal” and hurt no one. Therefore, people should act on their impulses with no inhibition or guilt.
The 1948 report on men came out to rave reviews and sold an astonishing 200,000 copies in two months. Kinsey’s name was everywhere from the titles of pop songs (“Ooh, Dr. Kinsey”) to the pages of Life, Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker. Kinsey was “presenting facts,” Look magazine proclaimed. He was “revealing not what should be but what is.” Dubbed “Dr. Sex” and applauded for his personal courage, the researcher was compared to Darwin, Galileo, and Freud.
But beneath the popular approbation, many astute scientists were warning that Kinsey’s research was gravely flawed. The list of critics, Kinsey biographer James H. Jones observes, “read like a Who’s Who of American Intellectual Life.” They included anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict; Stanford University psychologist Lewis M. Terman; Karl Menninger, M.D. (founder of the famed Menninger Institute); psychiatrists Eric Fromm and Lawrence Kubie; cultural critic Lionel Trilling of Columbia University, and countless others.
By the time Kinsey’s volume about women was published, many journalists had abandoned the admiring throngs and joined the critics. Magazine articles appeared with titles like “Is the Kinsey Report a Hoax?” and “Love Is Not a Statistic.” Time magazine ran a series of stories exposing Kinsey’s dubious science (one was titled “Sex or Snake Oil?”).
That’s not, of course, to say that the Kinsey reports contain no truth at all. Sexuality is certainly a subject worthy of scientific study. And many people do pay lip service to sexual purity while secretly behaving altogether differently in their private lives.
Nevertheless, Kinsey’s version of the truth was so grossly oversimplified, exaggerated, and mixed with falsehoods, it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction. Distinguished British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer put it well when he called the reports propaganda masquerading as science. Indeed, the flaws in Kinsey’s work stirred up such controversy that the Rockefeller Foundation, which had backed the original research, withdrew its funding of $100,000 a year. A year after the book on female sexuality came out, Kinsey himself complained that almost no scientist outside of a few of his best friends continued to defend him.
So, what were the issues the world’s best scientists had with Kinsey’s work? The criticism can be condensed into three troublesome points.
Problem #1: Humans as Animals
Before he began studying human sexuality, Kinsey was the world’s leading expert on the gall wasp. Trained as a zoologist, he saw sex purely as a physiological “animal” response. Throughout his books, he continually refers to the “human animal.” In fact, in Kinsey’s opinion, there was no moral difference between one sexual outlet and any other. In our secular world of moral relativism, Kinsey was a radical sexual relativist. As even the libertarian anthropologist Margaret Mead accurately observed, in Kinsey’s view there was no moral difference between a man having sex with a woman or a sheep.
In his volume about women, Kinsey likened the human orgasm to sneezing. Noting that this ludicrous description left out the obvious psychological aspects of human sexuality, Brooklyn College anthropologist George Simpson observed, “This is truly a monkey-theory of orgasm.” Human beings, of course, differ from animals in two very important ways: We can think rationally, and we have free will. But in Kinsey’s worldview, humans differed from animals only when it came to procreation. Animals have sex only to procreate. On the other hand, human procreation got little notice from Kinsey. In his 842-page volume on female sexuality, motherhood wasn’t mentioned once.
Problem #2: Skewed Samples
Kinsey often presented his statistics as if they applied to average moms, dads, sisters, and brothers. In doing so, he claimed 95 percent of American men had violated sex-crime laws that could land them in jail. Thus Americans were told they had to change their sex-offender laws to “fit the facts.” But, in reality, Kinsey’s reports never applied to average people in the general population. In fact, many of the men Kinsey surveyed were actually prison inmates. Wardell B. Pomeroy, Kinsey co-author and an eyewitness to the research, wrote that by 1946 the team had taken sexual histories from about 1,400 imprisoned sex offenders. Kinsey never revealed how many of these criminals were included in his total sample of “about 5,300” white males. But he did admit including “several hundred” male prostitutes. Additionally, at least 317 of Kinsey’s male subjects were not even adults, but sexually abused children.
Piling error on top of error, about 75 percent of Kinsey’s adult male subjects volunteered to give their sexual histories. As Stanford University psychologist Lewis M. Terman observed, volunteers for sex studies are two to four times more sexually active than non-volunteers.
Kinsey’s work didn’t improve in his volume on women. In fact, he interviewed so few average women that he actually had to redefine “married” to include any woman who had lived with a man for more than a year. This change added prostitutes to his sample of “married” women.
In the December 11, 1949, New York Times, W. Allen Wallis, then chairman of the University of Chicago’s committee on statistics, dismissed “the entire method of collecting and presenting the statistics which underlie Dr. Kinsey’s conclusions:’ Wallis noted, “There are six major aspects of any statistical research, and Kinsey fails on four.”
In short, Kinsey’s team researched the most exotic sexual behavior in America — taking hundreds if not thousands of case histories from sexual deviants — and then passed off the behavior as sexually “normal,” “natural;” and “average” (and hence socially and morally acceptable).
Problem #3: Faulty Statistics
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that Kinsey’s statistics were so deeply flawed that no reputable scientific survey has ever been able to duplicate them.
Kinsey claimed, for instance, that 10 percent of men between the ages of 16 and 55 were homosexual. Yet in one of the most thorough nationwide surveys on male sexual behavior ever conducted, scientists at Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers in Seattle found that men who considered themselves exclusively homosexual accounted for only 1 percent of the population. In 1993, Time magazine reported, “Recent surveys from France, Britain, Canada, Norway and Denmark all point to numbers lower than 10 percent and tend to come out in the 1 to 4 percent range.” The incidence of homosexuality among adults is actually “between 1 and 3 percent;” says University of Delaware sociology and criminal justice professor Joel Best, author of Damned Lies and Statistics. Best observes, however, that gay and lesbian activists prefer to use Kinsey’s long-discredited one-in-ten figure “because it suggests that homosexuals are a substantial minority group, roughly equal in number to African Americans — too large to be ignored.”
Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s numbers showing marital infidelity to be harmless also never held up. In one Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy study of infidelity, 85 percent of marriages were damaged as a result, and 34 percent ended in divorce. Even spouses who stayed together usually described their marriages afterwards as unhappy. Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, M.D., estimates that among couples who have been married for a long time and then divorce, “over 90 percent of the divorces involve infidelities.”
Speaking at a 1955 conference sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Kinsey pulled another statistical bombshell out of his hat. He claimed that of all pregnant women, roughly 95 percent of singles and 25 percent of those who were married secretly aborted their babies. A whopping 87 percent of these abortions, he claimed, were performed by bona fide doctors. Thus he gave scientific authority to the notion that abortion was already a common medical procedure — and should thus be legal.
Living With the Wreckage
When Reader’s Digest asked popular sex therapist Ruth Westheimer what she thought of Kinsey’s misinformation, she reportedly replied, “I don’t care much about what is correct and is not correct. Without him, I wouldn’t be Dr. Ruth.”
But Kinsey’s deceptions do matter today, because we’re still living with the Kinsey model of sexuality. It permeates our entire culture. As Best observes, bad statistics are significant for many reasons: “They can be used to stir up public outrage or fear, they can distort our understanding of our world, and they can lead us to make poor policy choices.”
In a 1951 Journal of Social Psychology study, psychology students at the University of California, Los Angeles, were divided into three groups: Some students took an intensive nine-week course on Kinsey’s findings, while the other two groups received no formal Kinsey instruction. Afterward, the students took a quiz testing their attitudes about sex. Compared with those who received no Kinsey training, those steeped in Kinseyism were seven times as likely to view premarital sex more favorably than they did before and twice as likely to look more favorably on adultery. After Kinsey, the percentage of students open to a homosexual experience soared from 0 to 15 percent. Students taught Kinseyism were also less likely to let religion influence their sexual behavior and less apt to follow sexual rules taught by their parents.
Influencing Court Decisions
Kinsey’s pseudoscience arguably did the most damage through our court systems. That’s where attorneys used the researcher’s “facts” to repeal or weaken laws against abortion, pornography, obscenity, divorce, adultery, and sodomy. In the May 1950 issue of Scientific Monthly, New York City attorney Morris Ernst (who represented Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Planned Parenthood) outlined his ambitious legal plan for Kinsey’s findings. “We must remember that there are two parts to law,” Ernst said. One was “the finding of the facts” (Kinsey’s job); the other was applying those findings in court (Ernst’s job). Noting that the law needed more tools “to aid in its search for the truth,” the attorney argued for “new rules,” under which “facts” like Kinsey’s would be introduced into court cases in the same way judges allowed other scientific tools, such as fingerprints, lie-detector results, and blood tests. The inexhaustible Ernst also urged the courts to revise laws concerning the institution of marriage.
The legal fallout from Kinsey’s work continues. The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 2003 decision striking down sodomy laws was the offshoot of a long string of court cases won largely on the basis of Kinsey’s research. And 50 years of precedents set by Kinsey’s “false 10 percent” are now being used in states like Massachusetts to redefine marriage.
A Sorry Legacy
Inspired by the first Kinsey report, Hugh Hefner founded Playboy in 1953. A decade later, Helen Gurley Brown turned Cosmopolitan into a sex magazine for women. Even today magazines like Self and Glamour continue to quote Kinsey with respect, never acknowledging the grave errors riddling his research. An estimated 30,000 Web sites offer pornography, and U.S. producers churn out 600 hard-core adult videos each month. Although reliable figures are difficult to come by, the U.S. sex industry pulls in an estimated $2.5 billion to $10 billion a year. Clearly, we’re living Kinsey’s legacy.
In his book The End of Sex, an obituary of the sexual revolution, Esquire contributor George Leonard accurately observed that “wherever we have split ‘sex’ from love, creation, and the rest of life . . . we have trivialized and depersonalized the act of love itself.” Treasuring others solely for their sexuality strips them of their humanity. When Kinsey tore the mystery of love from human sexuality, he abandoned us all to a sexually broken world.
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.