Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956)

Alfred Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey was a 20th century sexologist whose studies of human sexuality are still used to understand human sexual behavior. 

Early Life

Alfred Charles Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 23, 1894, the first of three children. Kinsey’s father taught at the Stevens Institute of Technology and emphasized the value of education. Kinsey was afflicted with various illnesses throughout his childhood, leading to a spinal deformity. This condition allowed him to avoid the draft in 1917, but did not limit his participation in outdoor activities, including camping with the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. Kinsey developed a keen interest in biology, zoology, and botany, but his father pushed him into studying mechanical engineering at Stevens. 
After a couple of years, Kinsey and his father compromised, allowing Kinsey to pursue his love of biology at Bowdoin College. He graduated with a BS in biology in 1916. Next, Kinsey continued his studies at the Bussey Institute at Harvard, where he wrote a thesis on gall wasps. Kinsey graduated with an ScD from Harvard in 1919 and went on to teach at Indian University in 1920. In 1926, he wrote An Introduction to Biology, a textbook that was widely accepted and integrated into high school academic programs. Kinsey’s work in entomology continued into the 1930s.

Kinsey’s career shifted toward the study of human sexuality when, in 1938, he began teaching a new course on marriage. He began to survey students, colleagues, and local communities about their opinions, attitudes, and experiences with regards to sexual behavior. The then-controversial sexual case histories that Kinsey recorded opened the door for the acceptance of sexual dialogue and the study of sexology in modern times. Kinsey developed the Kinsey Reports and the Kinsey Scale, and he founded the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University in 1947.

Kinsey and his wife, Clara Brachen McMillen, were polyamorous, and Kinsey identified as bisexual. The couple had four children, one of whom died in childhood. Kinsey died in 1956. 

Contribution to Psychology

Kinsey is recognized as the first person to explore sexuality from a scientific perspective. He began this examination while studying gall wasp mating patterns and later extended his work to human subjects. Kinsey's collection of studies are widely known as the Kinsey Reports. He argued that sexual ignorance was widespread and that delaying sexual experience until marriage was psychologically harmful.

Kinsey trained each of his researchers in interview techniques designed to elicit honest answers from research subjects. His subjects came from virtually all walks of life, and many were referred to him by his researchers. The subjects anonymity was preserved throughout Kinsey’s research. Although he obtained sexual histories on numerous subjects, his sample was not random or representative. Notable discoveries of Kinsey's research include:

  • The revelation that homosexual behaviors were significantly more common than previously thought. Homosexuality was particularly common among men, and almost 1/3 of Kinsey's male subjects reported a homosexual experience. 
  • The discovery that infidelity in marriage was widespread. 
  • The realization that masturbation was widespread and almost universal among men. 
  • The discovery that intercourse prior to marriage was common, despite cultural taboos forbidding it. 

Kinsey developed the Kinsey Scale to codify sexual orientation. His scale is notable because it does not create a strict dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality; the scale relies on a combination of behaviors and feelings rather than a person's self-identified sexual orientation. A 0 on the Kinsey Scale indicates complete heterosexuality, while a 6 indicates complete homosexuality. A three indicates bisexuality, while other numbers on the scale indicate a mix of heterosexual and homosexual orientations. Kinsey's colleagues later added an X to the scale to denote asexuality.

Kinsey is still a popular figure, and has been the subject of documentaries as well as a common reference in popular culture. Sex researchers still use much of his data, although some have argued that his data was skewed toward select populations, such as prisoners, who might not be representative of the general population.

Criticism and Controversy

Kinsey's books were wildly popular, but also the subject of much controversy. Some people argued that his reports were scandalous, biased, or immoral, and Kinsey is often credited with beginning the sexual revolution. Kinsey was also the subject of controversy due to his research into orgasms among pre-teens. He also studied adults who claimed to have had sex with children.

Notable Publications

  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953)


  1. Alfred Charles Kinsey. (1980). Dictionary of American Biography. Biography In Context. Retrieved from
  2. Schaffer, A. (2007, September 26). Fifty years after Alfred Kinsey, what more do we know? Slate Magazine. Retrieved from

Last Update: 07-08-2015

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