Birth: 23rd June 1894

25th August 1956, New Jersey

In their eagerness for knowledge, scientists have researched, theorised and tried to understand the world around us. We know why the sky is blue and the grass is green, why strawberries taste sweet and lemons taste sour. But for many years, one of the most basic areas of life remained hugely under explored. For this month’s Gay Great, the previously taboo area of human sexual behaviour became a scientific playground.

Alfred Charles Kinsey was born into a poor family in 1890’s New Jersey. His father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey, was a professional academic at Stevens Institute of Technology who ruled the house with an iron fist. He was a devout Christian and the Kinsey children were expected to attend church up to four times a week and spend their Sundays learning about the Bible. The children were always expected to be meticulously tidy and remain ‘decent’ and ‘moral’ at all times. Friendships with members of the opposite sex were banned and sexual matters were certainly a banned subject. Kinsey’s early years were further hampered by illness. Medical records show the young boy suffered rickets, rheumatic fever and typhoid fever in his early years and that these conditions were exacerbated by poverty and poor living conditions. Kinsey also failed to receive proper medical treatment, which led to several complications later in life.

Despite his illnesses, Kinsey developed an interest in nature and the great outdoors. But his curiosity went beyond that of other boys his age. Whilst he was still of primary school age, he had made a detailed study of the way birds behaved in the rain. His work was even published in a nature journal. When he was slightly older, he embraced his love of the great outdoors by joining the Boy Scouts, where his enthusiasm ensured that he became an Eagle Scout within only two years instead of the usual five. He also began to work with the YMCA, taking groups of boys into the countryside and teaching them about the plants and animals.

As a student, Kinsey was naturally conscientious and methodical. For a while, he toyed with the idea of becoming a concert pianist, but later focused his attention on scientific subjects. Biology, botany and zoology became his favourite studies. Although he expressed an interest in moving on to study botany at college, his father was determined the young Kinsey would follow in his footsteps and study engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. Kinsey took the place at Stevens and grudgingly worked hard, but he was deeply unhappy. After two years, he’d had enough. He plucked up the courage and told his father, in no uncertain terms, that he was leaving Stevens and taking a place at Bowdoin College in Maine to study biology instead. His father was outraged, but realised there was little he could do. The whole incident cast a shadow over their relationship and things between father and son were never the same again.

But it wasn’t just his father’s disapproval of biology study which was troubling Kinsey. Since a young age, he had fought against his own homoerotic thoughts. Kinsey’s upbringing dictated that even thinking about sex was a sin, let alone fantasising about homosexual acts. He threw himself completely into his work as a convenient way to take his mind away from these disturbing thoughts.

Soon after beginning his studies, he was invited to join the exclusive Phi Beta Kappa organisation, a true mark of academic achievement. Several years later, he left Bowdoin with degrees in biology and psychology, both passed with high honours. Kinsey was keen to carry on studying and attended Harvard University. There he began a doctorial thesis which involved a massive research project to capture and intricately detail thousands of gull wasps, a previously unstudied insect. His detailed methodology was groundbreaking and made a significant contribution to the field of entomology. The work culminated in his being awarded a Sc.D in 1919 and offered a place as a lecturer at Harvard.

It was at one of his first Harvard social events – a staff picnic – that he met fellow lecturer Clara McMillen. He fell for her charming ways and as he was keen to carve out a ‘normal’ life for himself, the couple were married in 1921.

During the 1920s he transferred to Indiana University and continued his work with gall wasps whilst also producing a high school text book entitled An Introduction to Biology. The text book was unique for its time in that it combined the previously separate subjects of biology and zoology. Kinsey also indulged his love of nature and co-wrote a book on the edible plants of North America. He also had several of his gall wasp papers published too.

But the 1920’s weren’t all plain sailing for the Kinsey family. The couple’s first child died at a young age from juvenile diabetes complications. Although they went on to have three healthy children, the death of their young son haunted both Kinsey and his wife for many years. But there was also another issue. In 1924, Kinsey fell in love with a student called Ralph Voris. His long suppressed desires returned, but this time he acted on them. He and Voris had an affair for several years, even after the younger man became married as well. Biographers have suggested both wives knew about their relationship but chose to stay with their respective partners.

His affair with Voris was the start of a much wider sexual revolution about to take place in the Kinsey household. In 1933, Kinsey was asked to conduct a lecture on sex for students considering marriage. Kinsey was amazed at how ignorant the young people were about sexual matters and began to wonder if the rest of America was so badly informed.

Did we really know more about the sex lives of animals and insects than we did about our own? Kinsey had suddenly found a new project which he started right away by setting up the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. This was to be his base for the huge amount of research he needed to do.

Kinsey knew he needed to get to the truth and so he carefully planned a series of mass interviews all across the USA. He carefully recruited a team of interviewers and taught them various ways to make the subjects feel relaxed and open. Kinsey himself even took up drinking and smoking so he could partake in a social cigarette or shot of whiskey with his subjects. Radically, Kinsey also developed a complex code in which the researchers were to record the data. The code was never written down and existed only in the minds and memory of Kinsey and his team. This meant the subjects could be sure of their confidentiality.

But Kinsey controversially looked to other sources of information too. He collected and analysed diaries of paedophiles, talked to prostitutes and lingered in well known pick up joints. He also found his way onto the underground gay scene, and the friend who introduced him to the scene claims there was certainly an amount of personal pleasure in this particular area of his research. But a more sinister side to Kinsey’s research has often been hinted at. Suggestions have been made that not only did Kinsey research the stranger aspects of homosexuality, he also participated in some of them. Some biographers suggest he would take groups of young men into the countryside and encourage them to sit around the campfire, naked, and reveal their innermost sexual secrets. Others claim he used his home as a ‘studio’ in which he filmed a few of the more obscure sexual fetishes he came across. Certainly his relationships at that time seem to be ‘unconventional’ and more sexually liberated than those around him. After his relationship with Voris ended, he embarked upon a three way relationship with his wife and another man called Clyde Martin. Perhaps knowing the truth about what humans got up to sexually gave Kinsey new confidence to fulfil his desires.

In 1948, the first results of his research were printed. The book in itself was nothing special. Keen to preserve the scientific basis of the work, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was a scientific book with dry language and lots of statistics. But while the words may not have been dramatic, the content was explosive. The initial modest print run sold out quickly and a further run was swiftly organised. Word got around and the book became a best seller. Kinsey himself became infamous as a ‘sex scientist’ and whilst some denounced his ‘depraved’ work, others heralded it as the catalyst for a sexual revolution.

But what was it that made the book so shocking? Kinsey’s research showed that America may have had problem talking about sex, it was certainly not inhibited when it came to actually doing it! Half of men had experienced sex outside of their marriage. The average married couple had sex 2.8 times a week. Most men masturbated on a regular basis. Behind the neat curtains of suburban America, things weren’t what they seemed!


But the most significant findings were much closer to home for Kinsey. His book became one of the first pieces of scientific literature to suggest homosexuality was not an illness, nor a choice, but something people were predestined for. More radically, he suggested that few of us are born either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. Instead, there was a range of sexualities for which he devised a scale from 1 being largely heterosexual to 6, largely homosexual.

His results angered many and critics rushed to discredit his work. Some highlighted the geographical clustering of his research and his high reliance on prisoners as subjects. Others objected on moral grounds, that he had dared to ask paedophiles or homosexuals about their orientation as if it were acceptable behaviour. Many were simply angry at the body of work as a whole and felt Kinsey had spoken a secret out loud. Nevertheless, Kinsey continued with his work. His next body of research into female sexual habits revealed that far from being a catalyst himself, the sexual revolution had in fact begun some time after the Second World War. Attitudes towards relationships and love were very obviously on the turn.

In his own life, things were strained. Kinsey worked 13 hours a day, every day, neglecting old hobbies as well as his wife and family. His health was suffering too. Kinsey developed heart trouble and despite being told to slow down, pressed on with his work as hard as ever. His health declined further when he struggled to turned down J Edgar Hoover’s appeal for help in rooting out homosexuals within the state department. Being loyal to his subjects was important to Kinsey and the documents remained coded and locked away to keep them secret forever.

In 1953, his research into female sexuality was published under the title Sexual Behavior in Females. It too was a best seller. His books are still some of the best selling science titles of all time. Three years later, Kinsey developed pneumonia. His heart was too weak to take the strain and he died at home with his wife 25th August 1956.

Kinsey’s work called for a fair judgment of sexual orientation, a judgement which came in 1973 when homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. From that moment onwards homosexuality has been regarded as a valid human condition rather than an illness.

Kinsey’s work was born of frustration. He was a man who was stifled by his father both academically, morally and sexually. But he was intelligent enough to know he needed information to fill the gaps in his on understanding. Why did he have this irresistible urge to touch another man? Was it natural to feel like this? How many others felt the same? Like any good scientist, Kinsey saw a question and answered it the best way he knew how – by methodical scientific study.

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