Lie back and think of Kinsey

January 21, 2005

What is the legacy of the pioneer of sex research? asks Anthea Lipsett

UK sex researchers lay bare their work and its problems as they reassess the legacy of Alfred Kinsey, the pioneering researcher whose two books in 1948 and 1953 were the first to portray the real-life sexual behaviour of everyday Americans and whose life is now the subject of a film.

Let's Talk about Sex , which stars Liam Neeson as Dr Kinsey, is due for release in March. It has prompted scientists to re-examine the pioneer's work, which changed the face of sex research for ever. It has also led them to compare the problems that Dr Kinsey faced with those that people studying sex and sexuality face today.

Sex researchers now are far less likely to be publicly vilified in the same way as Dr Kinsey, whose books on the sexual behaviour of men and - far more explosively - women outraged US authorities who were gripped by a virulent anti-Communist paranoia.

Western societies' public attitudes towards sex have changed significantly since the Fifties, an era when on-screen kisses were strictly time-limited.

Today, nudes in the morning newspapers go unremarked.

The shift in social mores does not mean that hurdles have disappeared, however. Ironically, one of the problems is that society's easier relationship with sex means that academics often find that their rigorously scientific research is simply not racy enough for it to be picked up and discussed by the media.

While the attitudes towards sex of the public at large appear to have changed, many individuals seem still to be intolerant of behaviours that differ from their own.

The Times Higher asked leading academics in the field to lift the lid on the ups and downs of sex research.

Petra Boynton, sex and relationship psychologist and lecturer in health services research, University College London

"We cannot underestimate Kinsey's work whether we like what he did or not," said Petra Boynton.

"What he did was ask matter-of-fact questions about sex. There are flaws in his research, but there are in anybody's."

Although 50 years has passed since his groundbreaking work, sex researchers still face big hurdles. One problem is that research must be approved by university ethics committees.

"The casualty of ethical awareness is the sex survey - committees assume it will cause distress," Dr Boynton said. "There are some people (on ethics committees) who think that sex is a personal issue."

But although academic researchers must operate within such ethical boundaries, journalists do not face such restrictions.

Dr Boynton said: "There's so much good-quality sex research that doesn't hit the headlines and so much rubbish that does. Kinsey nowadays wouldn't be asked about his surveys or social questions but rather about how to pull at the office party.

"If I go on a TV programme to talk about sex research, all they want to hear about are celebrities or about myself."

It is not just the media that personalise the work conducted by academics such as Dr Boynton, sometimes it is university colleagues.

"I was looking at pornography as part of my PhD, and one day I arrived in my office to find all the magazines missing. When I reported it, it was a case of 'well, if you will study this sort of stuff'," she said.

"I was seen by some as either an anti-porn campaigner who hated men or a slut and was doing this only to entice people to have sex with me."

Gary Wood, social psychologist carrying out qualitative and quantitative research into sexuality, Birmingham University

"The interesting thing about (Kinsey's) research is that he was doing it 50 years ago, and we are still hooked on the theory if you're not gay, then you must be straight," Gary Wood said. "It's like Groundhog Day without the learning curve."

In the Aids epidemic of the Eighties, Wood said, the Government prepared information leaflets for gay men, but many men having sexual relationships with other men did not see themselves as gay.

"Kinsey was thinking about all this in the Fifties. It took a serious health issue to make us start discussing what he was talking about. It's a testament to him to have been looking so far ahead."

Dr Wood anticipated a reappraisal of Kinsey's work.

"I think it's great that this film is coming out. It's important to recognise that Kinsey's book was academic but also a bestseller. Only Lady Chatterley's Lover was as popular in the Sixties."

Dr Wood was inspired by Kinsey's research and the need to escape black-and-white categories, so much so that he did his doctorate on Kinsey's work.

Kinsey introduced a complex coding system that allowed for ambiguous sexual preferences. "In some ways, he was the only one to view sex not just as something where you tick a box. You can have two people who call themselves gay or straight but who are very different."

"In Western society, we are locked into binary categories. We are a secular society, but the way we view the world and its structure is still religious. This does not allow for the reality of ambiguity."

Dr Wood has turned his PhD into a self-help book, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes , which is due out in March.

Anne Johnson, head of the department of primary care and population sciences, Royal Free and University College MedicalSchool, London

Anne Johnson trained in general practice medicine and then in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has worked in research in epidemiology and prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections since 1985 and was principal investigator on the groundbreaking first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natssal 1990) and the follow-up Natssal 2000 . Some 19,000 people were questioned on their sexual behaviour for the survey.

According to Professor Johnson, the UK is the only nation in the world to have carried out two such large sexual behaviour surveys. "With the Aids epidemic, there were no data on patterns of behaviour," she said.

The first survey was famous for being refused public funding by Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time, but the second found establishment favour and was funded by the Medical Research Council.

"In the mid-Eighties no one knew what proportion of people were gay or had male partners or were drug users," she said. "Sexual behaviour research has become much more respected since the HIV epidemic."

Iain Morland, doctoral student, department of English, Royal Holloway, University of London

Iain Morland, who is working on a PhD on narrating intersex experiences that focuses on ethics, said the professionals who deal with intersex, in which people have ambiguous genitalia, fall into two camps: clinicians who advocate surgery and ethicists who favour more psychology-based support.

"I'm looking at ways that these kinds of debates connect with literature and philosophy so more people can contribute rather than just seeing it as a surgical or medical arena.

"Kinsey's concepts overlap this idea of a scale or continuum of sexual desire," Mr Morland said.

This is tied up ideologically with sexual preference. For him, ambiguous sexuality is now more accepted as a fashion choice. "It's more about how good you are at accessorising than whether you are in touch with your sexual essence."

Julie Fish, senior lecturer in social sciences, De Montfort University

In 2002, Julie Fish completed the UK's biggest survey of lesbian healthcare. The research work has led to six academic papers and a publishing contract.

"It's a new field, and the UK is playing catch-up with the US," she said.

Hostility to homosexual sex research had been replaced by disinterest, Dr Fish said.

"At a conference a few years ago, people got up and walked out when I presented my findings," she said. "The reason is generally one of 'it's not important, it's a small area'. As such, it's more difficult to get support."

Kinsey left a substantial legacy, said Dr Fish, and he is most cited in lesbian and gay research.

"He was conducting research in the McCarthy period, when homosexuality was seen to be an un-American act. Many (gays) were imprisoned. Between 1947 and 1950, 4,954 men and women were dismissed from the US armed forces for being homosexual.

"The heterosexual-homosexual scale is still used in some research in the US, and there's a move towards seeing sexuality in this continuum.

"There's much more fluidity now. Things have changed, but in some respects it has come full circle."

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