Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
Alfred Kinsey, Paul Gebhard, Wardell Pomeroy & Clyde Martin
The famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey actually spent more than half his professional life as a zoologist studying gall wasps. He was known on Indiana University's Bloomington campus as a rather haughty middle-aged professor who knew more about bugs than people.
How, then, did he go from this to being held partly responsible for ushering in the sexual revolution?
In the late 1930's, the University's Association of Women Students made a petition for a course for married students or those contemplating marriage, and the job fell to Kinsey to run it.
The students had questions such as: what would the effect of premarital orgasm or sex have on later married life? What is normal or abnormal in sexual activity? The little knowledge they did have had been shaped by religion, philosophy or social mores, and Kinsey quickly found out that there was more scientific information on the behavior of small insects than there was on the sexual behavior of human beings.
The English physician Henry Havelock Ellis had produced the first dispassionate treatment of the subject, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (published in seven volumed between 1897 and 1928), but it was banned by the British government. And of course Freud had made sex less of a forbidden subject, but had never conducted large-scale scientific research. In 1938, Kinsey began collecting his own data. His research aims included:
· To end the false distinctions between 'normality' and 'abnormality' in statute law, which could make a person a sexual psychopath in one US state and not in another one.
· To improve the situation of unmarried youth, who reach sexual coming of age years before society says they are allowed to express it.
· To improve marriage by improving the sexual relationships within it.
· To increase people's knowledge about their own sexual anatomy and functioning
In 1948, Kinsey and his team published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male which, written for a university audience, became a surprise national bestseller (over half a million copies). He became a national figure, and the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research became famous.
It was followed five years later by the 800-page Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The two volumes, probably because their titles were embarrassing to ask for in a bookshop or library, became known simply as the 'Kinsey reports'. In the year of its release, 1953, Kinsey appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Getting the stories
The research that went into the Kinsey reports was one of the great scientific projects in history.
Funding came from a combination of Indiana University and the National Research Council's Committee for Research in Problems of Sex, guided by Robert Yerkes (known for his work in intelligence testing and animal behavior) and backed by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The research coincided with advances in research methods that allowed reasonably accurate sampling of large populations, instead of having to rely on a few case histories. But given the closed-door nature of sex, how was Kinsey going to get reliable information? The laws in different states of America would have meant possible incrimination of people who submitted their stories. So his team had to develop a method of interviewing which would ensure people remained anonymous and secure in their confessions. They were asked 350 questions on their sexual history, and some provided diaries or calendars recording sexual activity on a daily basis. All aspects of sexual behavior were investigated in reference to age, marital status, educational level, socioeconomic class, religious background and status as a rural or urban dweller.
From 1938 to 1956, an incredible 17,000 people were interviewed, with Kinsey himself doing over 5,000 of the interviews. The others involved were Paul Gebhard, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin. Sexuality in the Human Female was based mainly on the case histories of 5940 white American females, and informed by the histories of 1849 women who fell into other categories. The book includes a long list of the occupations of female subjects, everyone from army nurses to high school students, dancers to factory workers, economists to gym instructors, movie directors to office clerks. The wider pool included women prisoners.
Along with the huge amount of raw data, insights from the fields of psychology, biology, animal behavior, psychiatry, physiology, anthropology, statistics and law made its way into Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, making it a more well-rounded work than the first Kinsey report with more effort to look at sexual taboos and history through the ages. Despite the dry scientific language and endless pages of graphs and tables, it also seemed more shocking, since women's sexuality did then and still does involve more taboos - and here was startlingly frank information on deep personal secrets.
Remember that in 1940s America, the average person had to depend on his or her own experience, or what they heard from others, for their sexual knowledge, and doctors themselves had been restrained in their investigations because of the sensitive nature of the subject. Many people had not heard of nor uttered the word 'orgasm', but Kinsey's discussion of it as a normal physiological response gave women in particular a sense of entitlement; if they were not experiencing it in their marriage, why not?
The book covers a great array of subjects and presents thousands of findings. Among them we find the following.
Masturbation, orgasm and dreams
· Children as young as two masturbate.
· More significant than genital stimulation in the reaching of orgasm, for both men and women, is rhythmic thrusting. The muscular tension involved in the sex act is a vital part of the overall physiological response
· The vaginal walls have very few nerve endings. Female masturbation focuses on the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, more so than actual penetration.
· Since 1900, masturbation had declined, corresponding with the increase in orgasm through petting and premarital sex.
· However, 2% of women had experienced orgasm through fantasy alone. Generally, men are more inclined to fantasize to achieve masturbatory orgasm, while most women relied on the physical sensations alone.
· 36% of women reported having had no orgasm at all before getting married, and a substantial number never achieved it even during marriage.
· Women as well as men have orgasms during dreams. 65% of all women had had sexy dreams, while 20% had actually experienced nocturnal dream orgasm. In women prisoners, deprived of the opportunity of heterosexual experience, the incidence of sex dreams rose dramatically while behind bars.
· The common view was that women are slower than men in terms of sexual response and time needed to elapse before orgasm, but the evidence was that in masturbation, women reported an average time to achieve orgasm of 3-4 minutes – not much longer than a man usually takes.
· Despite a history of assertions going back thousands of years that masturbation damages your health, Kinsey found no evidence. The only damage that is done is psychological, that is, anxiety caused by guilt.
Non-coital sexual relations and petting
· In many species of mammals, there is a lot of sex play that does not actually end in sex. Human 'petting' or 'necking' should therefore be understood as an end in itself, and not, as every worried parent believes, merely a prelude to or substitute for sex. Kinsey discusses the various types of tongue kissing.
· Males are easily moved to an erotic state through petting, but a surprising number of women do not get 'turned on' sexually by the activity. Generally, while a man cannot help being turned on if give the right physical stimulation, a woman's erotic feelings depend more on her feelings about the situation.
· Men's sexual feeling starts suddenly in puberty and rapidly climbs through the teenage years before leveling off in the 20s. A woman's sexual feeling is more like a slow climb, and her responses are more psychological.
· Of the 64% of married females who had experienced orgasm prior to marriage, only 17% of their orgasms had been experienced through actual penetrative sex. The rest occurred through petting, masturbation, dreams or homosexual contact. In 1950s America, the taboo against sex before marriage was often interpreted as meaning only actual coitus. Young people in particular felt that 'anything else goes', including lying naked together.
· Women are less aroused by breast stimulation than men are by giving the stimulation. Only 50% of women said they ever stimulated their own breasts as a form of sexual pleasure.
· The desire for oral genital contact is much greater among males, and male stimulation of the female partner's genitalia is much more common that a woman's stimulation of the man's. This is the case for all mammals and suggests that, rather than being prudish, women are biologically less interested in men's anatomy.
· By the 1940s, much had been written alleging that premarital sex led to lasting regrets and psychological damage, particularly among women. Kinsey's research found that 77% of women who had engaged in unmarried sex did not, in fact, regret it.
· Those who had had unmarried sex with more than one man were even less likely to regret their experiences. Kinsey concluded that some degree of premarital experience – 'promiscuity' – could actually bring a healthier relationship when the woman did marry, as she would have less of the usual hang-ups about sexuality. Interestingly, 83% of women who had become pregnant as a result of premarital sex did not regret what they had done either.
· This part of the research shattered the myth that premarital sexual relations damaged married relationships, particularly if they were with the partner they would marry.
· By age 40, a quarter of all married women in Kinsey's surveys had had extramarital sex. The incidence of extramarital sex reached its zenith in the 30s and early 40s.
· Younger women's lower interest in sex outside the marriage was put down to greater sexual interest in their partner, and their young husband's demand for sexual exclusivity in their wife.
· Despite the common perception that men like to have sexual affairs with younger women, many actually preferred them with older or similar aged women, partly because they were more sexually experienced.
· Among women who had not had extramarital sex, 17 per cent said they would consider it actively or at least not rule out the idea. But among those women who had already 'strayed', 56% said they would probably do it again.
· Kinsey noted that interest in a variety of sexual partners is common in the mammalian world, and not only for males. The introduction of a new bull into a corral sees a resurgence of sexual activity among the bulls. Monkeys in a cage over time become less aroused by each other, and need a longer time in foreplay before sex, and then the coitus is less intense.
Other fascinating points
· The 'missionary position' was simply a European and American cultural norm (why, Kinsey didn't know). It was not so favored in other cultures, and was little used by other mammals. The Western world continued to favor this position, even though a woman is much more likely to experience orgasm if she is on top, because she is free to move as she wants.
· Men and women, if in a state of deep sexual engagement, have exactly the same facial expression as people who are being tortured.
· As the sexual act reaches its climax, in both sexes the sense of touch and pain diminish and the vision narrows.
· Educated women generally had more sexual experience, possibly because they considered themselves more 'enlightened' and less subject to taboos about female sexuality.
· Kinsey concluded that the more sexual experiences a woman has had, the more she is likely to repeat those experiences. Whatever she has tried she comes to see as normal, not a taboo.
· People are generally less irritable and happier when they have recently achieved an orgasm, whether by themselves or with a partner.
· The motor car played an important role in modern sexual behavior, providing a movable room for petting and other private activities.
If Kinsey was a biologist, why is Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, and its brother volume, considered a classic in psychology? In 1950s America, psychology was equated more with behavior than what went on in the mind, and his work was about human sexual behavior. His team wanted to show that humans could not escape their mammalian (read 'animal') heritage; in relation to sex, we were bound by our physiology to have certain responses in relation to stimuli. Although we like to think of the sexual act as being about love, Kinsey aimed to show that it was less about the higher mind that we liked to believe. Perhaps this was the reason why the book seemed so shocking – the clinicalness of it all.
Yet for a scientist, Kinsey made the fundamental mistake of blurring the line between his subjects – the people he was interviewing – and his private life. Those around him, including his wife and colleagues, found themselves in steamy and unorthodox situations in the name of 'research'. This less admirable aspect of the Kinsey phenomenon is shown to good effect in the 2004 film Kinsey starring Liam Neeson, and chronicled in James H Jones's monumental biography.
Having said this, the chapters on human sexual anatomy and on physiological response during sex and orgasm, in their explicit detail, did more to educate Americans about their own bodies than anything which had come before. Even today, it will be the rare reader who does not learn something from these sections.
As well as a whole chapter on homosexuality and one on pre-adolescent sexual play, Kinsey also addressed such subjects as pornography (in the days before Playboy), sex grafitti, sado-masochism, erotic stimulation by animals, group sex and voyeurism. For conservatives, Kinsey's work was the beginning of a downhill slide for civilization, and they have made much of his inclusion of sex offenders (1300 were interviewed) in his studies.
Yet Kinsey saw himself in the same light as Copernicus and Galileo, reporting what he saw in the physical world irrespective of theological or moral dogma. He went from knowing more than anyone else in the world about an obscure insect, to knowing more than anyone else about human sexual behavior. Given that we are a species obsessed with sex, his fame was virtually guaranteed.
“One may become conscious of an increase in temperature in his own or the sexual partner's body surfaces, partly due to this peripheral circulation of blood, and perhaps in part due to the neuromuscular tensions which develop when there is any sexual response. Even very cold feet may become warm during sexual activity. The identification of sexual arousal as a fever, a glow, a fire, heat, or warmth, testifies to the widespread understanding that there is this rise in surface temperatures...”
Alfred Charles Kinsey
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1894, Kinsey was the oldest of three children. His father, who taught engineering at a local college, was a devout and domineering Methodist, and the young Alfred grew up in an environment that outlawed any talk or experience of sexuality. He was an active Boy Scout, and loved camping and being outdoors.
Following school Kinsey obeyed his father and took engineering courses, but was desperate to study biology. After two years, and against his father's wishes, he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he graduated magna cum laude in biology and psychology. He received his doctorate in biology at Harvard in 1919, and the following year obtained a post as assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University. In 1921 he married Clara Bracken McMillen; they had four children.
In the last years of his life Kinsey had to fight to continue his research. His goal was to interview 100,000 people, but in 1954 pressure from religious groups influenced the Rockefeller Foundation to cancel its annual funding.
Other books include a widely-used school textbook, An Introduction To Biology (1926), The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of the Species (1930), and The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (1935).
Kinsey died in 1956.
Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on the mind, personality, and human nature by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)