Alfred Kinsey—who was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 23, 1894—grew up in early 20th century America, in a cultural climate that regarded concepts like homosexuality, masturbation, and the female orgasm with ignorance at best and revulsion at worst. He died in 1956 just as the Sexual Revolution was poised to take hold of the nation. Today many historians credit Kinsey with setting the event in motion. Here are some things you may not know about the controversial figure.
1. Alfred Kinsey was one of America's first Eagle Scouts.
Alfred Kinsey joined the Boy Scouts of America in 1911 when he was about 17. At the time, the club was barely a year old. After just two years of participation, he had earned the ranks required to become one of the young organization's first Eagle Scouts—the program’s highest achievement.
2. Alfred Kinsey grew up in a religious environment.
Kinsey was raised in a devout Protestant household. Every Sunday the Kinsey clan attended Sunday school followed by a church service in the morning and a prayer meeting at night. His father’s religious beliefs were so strict that he forbade his family, including visiting relatives, from doing any work on Sundays that didn't involve eating or going to church. Kinsey’s upbringing did little to dissuade him from publishing sex research later in life that directly contradicted the conservative principles he learned in Sunday school.
3. Alfred Kinsey considered becoming an engineer, a concert pianist, and a YMCA employee.
A career in human biology wasn’t always what Kinsey had in mind for himself. In high school, he was a dedicated piano player and even dreamed of becoming a concert pianist as an adult. But his father had other aspirations for him: He insisted his son go to college to study engineering. Alfred complied but never warmed up to the idea of working as an engineer full-time. Even as he was earning his degree, he entertained the idea of going to work for the YMCA (something he’d done in his youth) after finishing school. All of these plans fell through when he ultimately switched his educational focus to entomology, the study of insects
4. Alfred Kinsey collected millions of wasps.
Before Kinsey revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality, he studied the reproductive habits of gall wasps. The two subjects have some major differences: As just one example, gall wasps breed by embedding eggs into plants, causing growths to form that offer shelter and nourishment to their young. While his wasp work was a far cry from his later studies, it did help him develop his obsessive research style. Kinsey collected 7.5 million wasps during his time as an entomologist. Today those specimens are housed in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology of the American Museum of Natural History.
5. Alfred Kinsey taught a course on marriage.
During his wasp days Kinsey worked as a professor at Indiana University. There, he made the academic leap from insects to humans when he was asked to lead a class on marriage. In addition to covering subjects like family relationships and economics, he guided his students through the practical sciences of sexual stimulation, intercourse, and contraception. Kinsey sought empirical evidence to explain familiar sexual conventions and social mores, but he found little that was scientifically sound. He sensed a new challenge—one that would confront the repressive sexual attitudes he had experienced in his own family. As he had in his studies of insects, Kinsey launched a rigorous method of inquiry into the dynamics of human sexuality outside the classroom.
6. Alfred Kinsey asked thousands of people about their sex lives.
To conduct the groundbreaking sexology research, Kinsey and his colleagues interviewed more than 18,000 men and women. Their questions touched upon subjects like sadomasochism, extramarital relations, frequency of masturbation, and number of partners of the same or opposite sex. Once all the data had been gathered, Kinsey was able to break down sexual trends by age, socioeconomic status, and religion to assemble a portrait of human sexuality. The study demonstrated that some practices (like homosexuality, for example) that were considered socially unacceptable were actually quite common. Alfred Kinsey became a household name following the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), two books that are together known as the Kinsey Reports.
7. Alfred Kinsey had an open marriage.
In an era when divorce and premarital sex were judged harshly, Kinsey veered from the norm in his own life. He encouraged the scientists who worked for him to have open marriages, and he was no hypocrite. After he and his wife Clara wed in 1921, the couple agreed to open up their relationship to outside sex partners. In addition to being polyamorous, Kinsey was bisexual, having affairs with both men and women during his lifetime.
10. Alfred Kinsey left his mark on pop culture.
Thanks to the salacious nature of his work, Kinsey achieved pop icon status. One example of his fame is the tongue-in-cheek song “Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!” by comedian Martha Raye. The tune, whose lyrics include “Ooh Dr. Kinsey, I just read your essay on men’s behavior today, and men are great … like a hole in the head,” sold half a million copies. The Kinsey Reports are also mentioned in the song “Too Darn Hot” from the musical Kiss Me Kate, and a fictional portrayal of the scientist made an appearance on The Jack Benny Program.
9. Alfred Kinsey was no stranger to controversy.
Despite his success (or perhaps because of it), Kinsey attracted more than his fair share of angry critics during the 1950s. Scandalized conservatives claimed he was supporting a communist agenda by eroding sexual morality and family values in America. The controversy surrounding his name hasn’t let up since Kinsey’s death in 1956. One area of research in particular, his findings on sexual behaviors in children, remains the subject of intense scrutiny today. He gathered the information used in these sections from interviews conducted with a serial child rapist. The man agreed to speak with Kinsey under the condition that he wouldn’t be turned in for his crimes. In a possible move to protect his subject’s identity, Kinsey credited his data on children to many sources instead of just one, undermining the integrity of his work in the eyes of many scientists.
10. The Kinsey Scale inspired other ways to measure sexuality.
Kinsey was one of the first scientists to suggest that sexual identity exists on a spectrum. According to his scale, people are either a zero (totally straight), a six (totally gay), or some number in between based on past socio-sexual interactions. The scale was radical for its time, but in the years since, many sexologists have taken the concept and expanded upon it. In 1980, psychologist Michael Storms introduced a two-dimensional grid that includes asexuality. Even more variables were introduced with Fritz Klein’s sexual orientation grid, including erotic fantasies, emotional preferences, social preferences, and self identity.
This story has been updated for 2020.