Discovering Sex

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Then, in 1938, a group of his students came to him and asked questions about marriage. He was touched by their innocence. At first he refrained from answering, fearing he knew too little. Then he went out and read everything he could on the subject and was appalled by the available material—in both quantity and quality. Some of the students petitioned the university to start a course on sexuality and marriage. From the start it was Kinsey’s course. He was one of eight faculty members who taught it, and he gave three of the basic lectures. The course was a huge success. It soon became an obsession with him. Clara Kinsey was known on occasion to tell friends. “I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex.”

When he began his studies of human sexuality, one of his oldest friends, Edward Anderson, by then the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, wrote him: “It was heartwarming to see you settling down into what I sup pose will be your real life work. One would never have believed that all sides of you could have found a project big enough to need them all. I was amused to see how the Scotch Presbyterian reformer in you had finally got together with the scientific fanatic with his zeal for masses of neat data in orderly boxes and drawers. The monographer Kinsey, the naturalist Kinsey, and the camp counsellor Kinsey all rolling into one at last and going full steam ahead. Well, I am glad to have a seat for the performance. It’s great to have it done, and great to know that you are doing it.”

He began by taking the sexual histories of his students. He conducted the interviews in his tiny office, where he locked the door and sent his assistant elsewhere. The enrollment for the class grew every year; before long four hundred students were signing up for it. But his heart was in the research. Soon he was not only taking the sexual histories of his students but traveling out of town on weekends to find additional subjects. As the project took an increasing amount of his time, there was an inevitable conservative reaction against him in Indiana.

In 1940 Herman Wells, the president of Indiana University, who was largely sympathetic to Kinsey and his work, called him in and, citing complaints from local ministers, told him that he would have to make a choice: He could either teach the course or take his histories, but he could not do both. Wells assumed that Kinsey would give up the case histories. Kinsey resigned from the course. Those who thought he would do otherwise, he noted, “do not know me.” From then on he devoted himself exclusively to his research.

The study of American sexual habits was a delicate business. Kinsey wanted a certain bland neutrality to his researchers. Though he was a generous, abidingly tolerant man, he did not hire Jews or blacks or those with names that were not distinctly Anglo-Saxon. He knew the prejudices of the time and wanted no distractions from the already sensitive job that his interviewers faced.

During the forties, while much of the rest of the country was going off to war, Alfred Kinsey and a handful of assistants set off to interview as many men and women as they could on their sexual habits. At first they had limited resources; Kinsey used part of his own small salary to hire others.

In 1941 he got his first grant from a foundation, for sixteen hundred dollars; in 1943 he received his first grant from the Medical Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, a gift of twenty-three thousand dollars; by 1947 that figure was forty thousand dollars. The foundation thereby became the principal financial backer of his studies. By 1947 he was preparing to publish the first book of his results—a simple report on the human animal studied in one of its highest-priority biologic acts. His conclusions do not seem particularly startling today: that healthy sex led to a healthy marriage; that there was more extramarital sex on the part of both men and women than they wanted to admit; that petting and premarital sex tended to produce better marriages; that masturbation did not cause mental problems, as superstition held; that there was more homosexuality than people wanted to admit.

President Wells had made a few minor requests of him: He asked Kinsey not to publish during the sixty-one days that the Indiana legislature was in session, and he asked him to use a medical publisher in order to minimize sensationalism. Kinsey chose W. B. Saunders, an old-line firm in Philadelphia. The original printing was slated for ten thousand but as prepublication interest grew, Saunders increased it to twenty-five thousand. The book cost $6.50, had 804 pages, and weighed three pounds. Kinsey had received no advance against royalties, and whatever money he made, he turned back to his own think tank, which by then was known as the Institute for Sex Research of Indiana University.