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Meet Alfred Kinsey: The Accidental Sex Researcher

By Brittany Risher

How did a man who set out to study wasps become known by some as the father of the sexual revolution? Blame his students.

After earning his doctorate in biology from Harvard, Alfred Charles Kinsey became a professor at Indiana University in 1920. For about two decades, he researched gall wasps. Then in 1938, he agreed to teach a new course on marriage “intended to help family conditions”.

bee and flower

From bees to "birds and the bees"

While that seems very G-rated, Kinsey's students wanted to know more than the typical advice on having good marriages. So he expanded his lectures to discuss the biology of sexual stimulation, the mechanics of intercourse, and the techniques of contraception. And, since there was no data on human sexual behavior, he decided to lend his researcher skills to the field and began giving students a questionnaire on their sexual histories.

Although most students raved about his marriage course, some faculty, religious leaders, and parents expressed concerns over Kinsey's teaching. Eventually, in the summer of 1940, the university president asked Kinsey to resign. But that didn't stop his work. Instead, Kinsey continued to collect sex histories and eventually received grants from the National Research Council’s Committee for Research on the Problems of Sex. Later, on April 8, 1947, he founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University.

The Kinsey Reports

The information he amassed over these years from more than 5,000 sexual histories led to his 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. This 804-page book was quite dry but opened readers' eyes to the prevalence of masturbation, adulterous sexual activity, and homosexuality. No wonder it reached the the No. 2 spot on the New York Times Bestsellers List. And, as with many things about sex, the book also received much criticism, particularly from religious leaders as well as scientists who pointed out Kinsey's poor sampling techniques and background as a biologist rather than a psychiatrist.

But these naysayers didn't stop Kinsey from doing more research and, in 1953, Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. As before, this volume discussed masturbation, premarital sex, and orgasm, all from the female perspective. And again, the information identified a gap between social attitudes about sex and what people actually did—and therefore received the same criticisms as the as first book.

Kinsey book

Both of these books—together considered the “Kinsey Reports”—also included the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale or “Kinsey Scale”. Kinsey and his team created this after noticing that people's sexual behavior, thoughts, and feelings towards the same or opposite sex were often inconsistent over time. They were not necessarily attracted to just men or just women 100 percent of the time. While not exhaustive of all the sexual identities that exist, the Kinsey Scale was the first of its kind. Since its creation, other researchers have adjusted the scale to develop alternative ways to measure and describe sexual orientation.

After the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey faced a congressional investigation of the financial support for his research. This resulted in the loss of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Not long afterward, Kinsey died in August 1956.

Kinsey today

Today his work continues to live on at the Kinsey Institute, which is now the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Many credit Kinsey with helping to build the momentum that lead to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. And while his work may not have been conducted to the utmost scientific rigor, he certainly connected science and sexuality and opened people's eyes and minds to the wide array of pleasure.


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