Kinsey report at 70: A sober researcher on a (still) hot topic | Lifestyle | DW | 31.01.2018
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Lifestyle

Kinsey report at 70: A sober researcher on a (still) hot topic

What are Americans like in bed? Posed by wasp researcher Alfred Kinsey, those questions and answers appeared 70 years ago in the first Kinsey report. A look back at the sensation with sex researcher Jakob Pastötter.

The first Kinsey report, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," was like an earthquake when it was published 70 years ago on January 31, 1948. The mammoth project sought answers to questions like: How often do men masturbate? How many stray from their long-term partners? Do they have sex with animals? Five years later, the Kinsey report provided answers to the same questions posed to women.

The project arose quite by accident: Alfred Kinsey, a scientist previously working as a wasp researcher, had discovered while lecturing at Indiana University for a course called "Marriage and Family" that there were hardly any numbers about the sex lives of Americans. His interest as a scientist was aroused. Over a period of 15 years, he and his team interviewed 5,300 men and 5,940 women anonymously, asking hundreds of questions about their sexual behavior.

Alfred Kinsey (picture-alliance/dpa)

Alfred Kinsey in August 1953

Previously taboo topics came out into the limelight as his report revealed the citizenry's predilections. His findings included that half of the population is bisexual to a degree, almost everyone masturbates and 22 percent of people find sado-masochistic practices thrilling.

Read more: Sex in Germany: Study opens a window into German bedrooms

A sex research 'milestone'

The Kinsey report is a milestone of sexual research — though it has been met with heavy criticism. Among them is a critique of how interview partners were selected, with imprisoned people overrepresented and with Kinsey's uncritical handling of the subject of pedophilia. Still, the book became an international bestseller. Many today see it as an impetus for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

On the 70th anniversary of the first report's release, DW looks back at what the scientist and his reports uncovered with the cultural anthropologist and sex researcher Jakob Pastötter, who leads the German Society for Social Scientific Sexuality Research (DGSS) in Dusseldorf.

DW: Mr. Pastötter, how does one become a sexual researcher?

Pastötter: (laughing) I started out as a cultural anthropologist. And there is a branch of cultural anthropology that studies sexuality. And then we land in the midst of the history of sexual studies.

When the Kinsey report was first published 70 years ago, Americans knew more about the coupling and pair relationships of wasps than they did about the relationships between people. What taboos did Alfred Kinsey, who originally studied wasps, shock the world with?

He shocked people in that he saw people through the same lens as he saw wasps — namely, looking at the group without a view to morality and only interested in the quantity.

A scientist's perspective?

Dr. Jakob Pastötter (privat)

Sex researcher Jakob Pastötter

Absolutely, a purely researcher's perspective. And Kinsey was able to help as he was viewed as someone who was harmless, not pursuing an agenda.

Sexual research had always had a bit of a handicap as it was seen as being ideological. It had always been centered around those from the underprivileged classes and was concerned both as something leftist and something to be wary of. The most interesting part about Kinsey was that there had been money set aside for this research at the Rockefeller Foundation some 30 years before. They had family interests in the subject area. But it was above all a research project for which they needed to find someone who was able to approach it from a sober, dry and boring manner.

Read more:  Internet, Ageing Can't Take Fun Out of Sex, German Expert Says

Sex: It's political

Sexuality research was highly political?

Absolutely, from the get-go. Even, by the way, in Germany. The beginnings of the research were done here by German-Jewish dermatologists. Strangely, in Germany, the subject of venereal diseases is studied as a skin condition, so it falls under dermatology. From its start, sex research was very left-wing, with socialist ideas regarding contraception and abortion.

The Kinsey report was released at a time of puritan conservativism. Was Kinsey a forerunner of the sexual revolution?

Yes, that's something he himself noted, as he suffered under these puritanical notions. But also because of his own studies. He interviewed around 20,000 people, which is a completely different approach than what is the standard today. He did not create a sample from the outset, but took large amounts of one group, say a "prison population" or the "Protestant parish population," the same as he had done with wasp research. And then he sought to find out: What can we say purely empirically about the sexual behavior of man?

Read more: Does the penis ever get bored?

Imagine yourself as Kinsey. What would the questions in your report, say the Pastötter Report be?

Scene from Das Wunder der Liebe (picture-alliance/Keystone)

Scene from Oswalt Kolle's film 'Das Wunder der Liebe II"

(laughing) Totally different questions. What Kinsey did not know and what is still relatively unknown in the sexual sciences today because they're so focused on quantity and not as much on quality. What I would like to know is how different couples experience sexuality with each other. The Chinese are light years ahead of us, as they began to look at sexuality research seriously already 5,000 years ago. Instead of thinking that good sex comes when you have a good relationship, they looked at it the opposite way, saying, "Having a good relationship means having good sex." So I would ask: What are you doing to have good sex?

But hasn't that always been a question of interest for researchers to uncover how people do this?
Yes, but only in respect to quantity, not quality. Kinsey had a big problem determining which objective parameters to set. He then set as his parameter the orgasm. But as everyone knows from experience, an orgasm can be flat or deep or it can be deeply fulfilling. And these questions were never posed by Kinsey.

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