In 1948 Alfred Kinsey published his first research findings on human sexuality. Entitled, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and funded largely by the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), the work was widely read by academic and popular audiences, and inspired both praise and condemnation. Ultimately, the work transformed American society by challenging American perceptions and attitudes toward sex.
Funding the Work
Kinsey’s research was funded by the RF through the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee for Research in the Problems of Sex. Established in 1921, the NRC Committee originally operated with funding from the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH). When the BSH ceased operations in 1933, the Committee continued to fund projects with direct support from the RF. Prior to their support of Kinsey, Committee members had typically been conservative in their funding decisions, opting to support studies of animal rather than human sexuality. Their decision to support Kinsey was a radical move.
Kinsey received his first grant of $1,600 in 1941. By 1947 Kinsey’s project was allotted $40,000 annually in RF support. At their peak Kinsey’s grants amounted to half of all RF contributions to the NRC Committee. These grants helped to fund a team of assistants who conducted, collected and analyzed thousands of interviews with men and women meant to represent a social and economic cross-section of America. Kinsey used these interviews to build a set of case histories that provided a statistical basis from which to draw conclusions about the sexual experiences of Americans.
Descriptions of Kinsey’s work frequently comment on his interview techniques. NRC Committee member George Corner volunteered as an interview subject in order to familiarize himself further with the project. In a memorandum that followed the interview, Corner remarked:
These experiences made me quite confident that Dr. Kinsey is able by his methods of questioning, to elicit frank, full and complete histories of sex conduct. The expertness of the questioning becomes even more apparent on thinking it over afterward. In the first place, the subject is made to feel that Dr. Kinsey is disinterested and sympathetic at the same time. It is disarming to be asked innocuous questions first – what work, for example, one’s father did, and where did one live in childhood. The intimate questions slip in sideways and by degrees. When at last the subject realizes that he is speaking of things he perhaps never put into words before, he is relieved to find that his questioner evinces neither surprise, amusement, nor condemnation.
The scope and promise of Kinsey’s work elicited great interest from RF officers, perhaps none more so than Alan Gregg, then Director of Medical Sciences. Gregg supported and encouraged Kinsey. The relationship between Kinsey and Gregg was so strong that in 1947 Gregg agreed to write an introduction to Kinsey’s forthcoming publication.
Publication and Reception
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was a commercial success that ignited the ire and interest of the scientific community as well as the general public. While many reviews praised Kinsey’s findings, others were quite critical of his work.
Some psychiatrists complained that Kinsey, as a biologist who had previously focused on insects, lacked the requisite background to understand the complexity of the sexual issues he studied. In a letter to Gregg, psychiatrist Lawrence S. Kubie wrote of Kinsey that “… the main defect is that he has not understood the problems of sex deeply enough even to know what the questions are which should be asked in such a study.”
Other academics questioned Kinsey’s methodology and argued that his interview subjects did not come from sufficiently diverse backgrounds. Those willing to be included in the study were most often white and college educated, while religious conservatives, working class whites and African Americans were under-represented. Critics argued that probability sampling, which uses smaller but more representative samples, would lead to more accurate conclusions. Kinsey argued that a greater number of subjects led to better conclusions. In response to these criticisms, the RF sent a team of statisticians to Indiana University to review Kinsey’s methodology. While Kinsey and the statisticians agreed on a number of points, Kinsey rejected the recommendation that he work with smaller sample groups.
Given the commercial success of Kinsey’s first publication, the RF questioned whether the project merited further funding. Writing in his officer diary, Gregg noted the uniqueness of the circumstances – never before had a grantee produced a best-seller whose royalties dwarfed the grant that helped produce it. Based on the book’s earnings, Gregg warned Kinsey that further grants were unlikely, since the Foundation would expect that royalties would be used to produce further work.
Internally, Gregg suggested a gradual decrease in support for NRC sex research. When Kinsey heard of the plans, he contacted Gregg to argue for continued support, writing that the “[d]iscontinuation of Rockefeller Foundation support at this juncture of our program will be taken by the population at large as a vote of no confidence in the research.” Kinsey further outlined aspects of the project requiring additional funding, including data yet to be published.
In May 1949 members of the RF board agreed to continue NRC support for the next three years. Stating his approval for the decision, RF Trustee Walter W. Stewart wrote to RF President Chester Barnard:
Personally I have no doubt as to the wisdom and appropriateness of continued support for the work of Dr. Kinsey. Even though some of the publicity attending the publication of his Report may have been unfortunate, the Foundation is not responsible for that. It is not improbable that these studies in the field of sex may come to be regarded as one of the great contributions of Foundation work. As you point out in your letter, work in this taboo area is certain to arouse emotional attitudes. I am glad the Committee did not let this consideration prevent it from granting the additional financial support called for in the resolution.
In 1953 Kinsey published his second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This volume, which dissected the sex lives of American women, provoked even more interest and outrage in the general public than did the previous one. The book also became a political weapon. Published in an era of suspicion and anti-communist hysteria, the Kinsey reports were used against the RF in congressional investigations. Citing Kinsey, one congressional committee accused the RF of helping to weaken American morality, thereby aiding the cause of communism.
Both worn down by the controversial nature of Kinsey’s research and influenced by Kinsey’s financial success, RF funding for sex research projects came to an end in 1954. While Kinsey’s royalty profits were considerable, he scrambled to find alternative sources of funding after the RF withdrew its support. Kinsey died in 1956, leaving much of his research unpublished.