Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was a biology professor at Indiana University who developed a strong interest in the sexual behavior of humans. Through his efforts to develop and expand upon this interest, Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research where he conducted personal interviews with many individuals, both male and female, in order to learn about various sexual behaviors (Gebhard & Johnson, 1979). From 1938 through 1956, Kinsey and his associates were able to gather 18,000 individual records. The use of the personal interview allowed Kinsey to interact directly with his subjects and gather an expansive record of their sexual history. The breadth of the information gathered during these interviews was increased because of the ability of Kinsey and his associates to encourage subjects to expand upon and divulge the entirety of their past sexual experiences (Robinson, 1976). However, his focus in these interviews was primarily on sexual behaviors rather than on the motivation or meaning of these behaviors to the individuals (Brown & Fee, 2003). This reflects the behaviorist approach that Kinsey takes to examining sexuality.
Through his interviews, Kinsey was able to challenge the idea that women were asexual beings. Instead, his findings on women showed that they were sexual beings who were able to enjoy sexual activity and ultimately achieve orgasm. Among those women that he interviewed, 25% of the sample had achieved orgasm by age 15, over 50% by age 20, and 64% before marriage (Bullough, 1998). Kinsey also interviewed married women to determine the amount of time they needed in order to achieve orgasm with their husband. 40% of married women had achieved orgasm within the first months of marriage while 67% had within the first six months. By the end of the first year of marriage, 75% of women had experienced orgasm (Bullough, 1998).
One of the issues that Kinsey focused on was the effect that social class had on types of sexual activities which women were engaging in. He found that an individual’s social class did have an effect on the types of sexual activities that they would participate in (Robinson, 1976). Women’s social class affected two areas of sexuality: extramarital intercourse and homosexual relations. Lower-class women were less likely to engage in extramarital intercourse than upper-class women, while upper-class women were more likely to engage in homosexual relations than lower-class women (Robinson, 1976). Other areas of women’s sexuality such as premarital sex, nocturnal sex dreams, masturbation, and marital coitus did not appear to be affected by social class.
Another issue that Kinsey examined was the susceptibility of women’s sexuality to changes in the historical atmosphere. Women’s sexuality was more susceptible to these changes than men’s sexuality (Robinson, 1976). In comparing females who entered adulthood after World War I to their mothers, Kinsey found that the women who came of age after the war showed a higher incidence of extramarital intercourse, premarital sex, nocturnal sex, dreams, masturbation, and marital coitus (Robinson, 1976). The only area of sexuality that did not have a higher incidence rate was homosexuality. Although women were showing an increased participation rate in various sexual activities, they did not show an increased frequency of engaging in these activities. Kinsey attributed this higher incidence to several factors which included the Progressive campaign against prostitution, the ideas of sexual modernists such as Ellis and Freud, and the liberalizing effects of World War I (Robinson, 1976).
Kinsey’s findings were published during the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s (Brown & Fee, 2003). During this time, little research had been done on women’s sexuality. By performing research that showed women as sexual beings and helped bring light to issues affecting women’s sexuality, Kinsey helped to bring more attention to the idea that sex and sexuality was important towards women’s overall wellbeing and happiness (Bullough, 1998). This helped to encourage more research to be done in this area, thus creating a higher social awareness of women’s sexuality.
By Larisa Kerrigan
Brown, T.M. & Fee, E. (2003). Alfred C. Kinsey: A pioneer of sex research. American Journal of Public Health, 93 (6), 896-897
Bullough, V.L. (1998). Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Report: Historical overview and lasting contributions. The Journal of Sex Research, 35 (2), 127-131.
Gebhard, P.H. & Johnson, A.B. (1979). The Kinsey data: Marginal tabulations of the 1938-1964 interview conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Robinson, P. (1976). The Modernization of Sex. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.
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