SURVEYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
Once Upon a Time, Long Before the Arousing Arrival of the Almighty Internet...
...and thus also our beloved online surveys, two reports based on thousands and thousands of face-to-face interviews caused a huge storm of public reaction in the United States of America. The reports were from a team of four researchers led by Indiana University zoologist Alfred Kinsey, and are now simply known as the Kinsey Reports.
The outcomes caused uproar of such a scale that it would be hard to believe today.
The aim of the surveys was to establish America’s attitude towards sex and their sexual behavior. They did that at a time when public discussion of sex was considered taboo and people were very much at ease with the conventional beliefs of sexuality.
The first survey, released in January 1948, examined the frequency and the type of sexual experiences of American men, while the second, released five years later in September 1953, did the same for women.
Together they sold more than three-quarters of a million copies. Together they were translated into thirteen different languages. Together they triggered an international debate on sexuality that has since transformed the very character of the United States of America.
But let’s not get carried away. Let’s start from the beginning.
How the Kinsley Surveys Were Conducted
The two surveys were based on thousands of face-to-face interviews. That was the most common survey technique at the time, as phone and online survey techniques were still years away. In the first survey 5,300 white males were asked a set of questions about their sexual behavior. The second survey sampled 5,940 white females on the same subject.
Today’s survey users, particularly those used to the efficient online survey technique, will be surprised to know that the respondents in the Kinsey surveys did not actually fill in a questionnaire. They didn’t even get to see the survey questions. Instead, the researchers asked them the survey questions and wrote down the answers – which were encoded to maintain confidentiality – before being computerized for processing. They did this for all those thousands of interviews.
The data, including the researchers’ original notes, are still available at the Kinsey Institute.
The Results of the Kinsey Surveys
The results were thrilling. Virtually all national newspapers and magazines and even some major international newspapers reported the results extensively, and the editor was flooded with letters from both admirers and adversaries. Some expressed respect and support, while others were horrified and enraged. Even religious people were divided; some thought the survey was a service to humanity that would increase knowledge and improve lives, whereas others called the research ungodly and amoral.
In the male survey the outrage was over the finding that approximately 50% of married men – amongst which 1 in 6 of age 26 to 50 – engaged in extramarital sex at some point in their marriage. To put this into perspective, for females this only counted up to 26% of women by their forties, amongst which 1 in 10 of age 26 to 50.
In the female survey the storm was over the finding that American women had sex an average of 2.8 a week times in their late teens, 2.2 times a week by age 30, and 1.0 times a week by age 50.
An important side note here is that Kinsey classified couples that had been living together for at least a year also as married, which raised the numbers for extramarital sex.
The largest rage, however, was about sexual orientation. Kinsey’s survey results reported that 10% of American males were ‘more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between ages 16 and 55’ and that 46% of males had ‘reacted’ sexually to persons of both sexes during the course of their lives. That finding caused shock and outrage, and has since become a much-quoted reference in debates and arguments about sexual orientation. Ironically, this infamous 10% figure became the prime focus despite the fact that Kinsey himself disapproved of the tendency to classify people as either hetero or homosexual.
Instead, he believed that sexuality was prone to change over time, and is as much about physical tendency as it is about desire, attraction and fantasy. This was the base for his Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, also known as the Kinsey Scale, in which he had 6 classes raging from Exclusively heterosexual to Exclusively homosexual, with an added class X for Non-sexual.
Criticism and Controversy of the Kinsey Reports
It wasn’t just the conservative religious types that were outraged by Kinsey’s surveys. The first report was strongly criticized by prominent mathematician John Tukey, a member of a committee of the American Statistical Association founded to produce an opposing report to Kinsey’s. He exclaimed that ‘a random selection of three people would have been better than a group of 300 chosen by Mr. Kinsey’. The Association was also critical a year after the release of the second survey, this time arguing that the survey’s conclusions were not based on data or clear evidence and was therefore ‘below the level of good scientific writing’.
The main criticism was based on the survey’s sampling. It was argued that the sampling of respondents was biased because 25% of the respondents were prisoners or former inmates and 5% were male prostitutes. It was also argued that the survey suffered from volunteer bias, meaning that the survey only captured the views of the minority who dared to discuss this taboo topic, and were therefore the type with sexual excesses or abnormalities.
This controversy raged for over 30 years and only appeared to settle down when Paul Beghard, a Kinsey research associate and later director of Kinsey's Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, re-evaluated the data from the 1948 survey in an investigation in 1979. He removed the contested responses from prisoners and male prostitutes and, to his surprise, found that all of Kinsey’s conclusions were in fact correct. For example, the infamous 10% number for homosexuality only shifted to 9.9%, and all other figures only shifted in similarly small margins.
The Impact of the Kinsey Reports
The Kinsey Reports started a public storm across the United States of America. Not only did they challenge the long-standing conventional beliefs on sexuality, but they also dared to discuss matters that were at that time still considered taboo. Strange as it may seem now, back then sexuality was a topic that was not discussed openly, even among friends and family.
But it was that very same reason that made the reports so influential. Not everyone agrees whether or not the surveys actually produced a change in public perception of sexuality or if they merely expressed a perception that already existed. But there is little doubt that the surveys provoked a national debate on sexuality at a time when the topic was still a taboo – and, besides the arrival of the first oral contraceptive pill, paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
For that reason alone, the Kinsey surveys stand out as some of the most influential surveys ever taken. If they did not change America, they at least communicated the change.
Oh, and they lived happily ever after. I mustn't forget that.
Do you know of an important survey that you would like us to cover? Feel free to send us your suggestions.
Photo credit: Bahman Farzad and again (thanks, Bahman)
Gebhard, P.H. (1972) Incidence of overt homosexuality in the United States and Western Europe, National Institute of Mental Health Task Force on Homosexuality: Final Report and Background Papers, edited by J.M. Livingood, Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health
Gebhard, P.H. & Johnson, A.B. (1979) The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of 1938-1963 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders
Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W. & Martin, C. (1948) Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders
Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., Martin, C. & Gebhard, P. (1953) Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders
Jan 14, 2014