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The Kinsey Report of 1953:
Media Reaction to Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

Alfred C. Kinsey and his staff
Releasing findings to the media
Newsworthy Events of 1953

Alfred C. Kinsey and his staff

Fifty years ago Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey and his research staff at Indiana University published a book that focused the attention of the world on Bloomington. By the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, popularly known as the Kinsey Report on Women, appeared in print in September 1953, the public had already read a great deal about it-in newspapers and in popular magazines such as Collier's, Life, Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, Modern Bride, Redbook, and even U.S. News & World Report. The anticipation had been building for five years, from the time of the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948. August 20, 1953 was "K-Day," when magazines and newspapers were first allowed to run their stories revealing the results of Kinsey's long-term study of female sexual behavior. Through magazine covers, news clippings, cartoons, photographs, and other materials, this exhibition will examine this pivotal moment in American history.

When Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey arrived in Bloomington in 1920, he had no idea that he would become a world-famous authority on human sexual behavior. As a professor at Indiana University, Kinsey taught biology courses and collected specimens for his study of a small insect called the gall wasp.

In 1938, he was asked to coordinate a course on marriage-it was taught by a half-dozen members of the IU faculty, but Kinsey's lectures on the biological aspects of married life were by far the most popular with the students. When students asked Dr. Kinsey for further information about sexual behavior, he realized that there was "a gap in our knowledge" of this most basic human activity. Convinced that sex research was an important and long neglected field of study, Kinsey began to collect research data through sexual history interviews.

The first publication to feature the results of Kinsey's research was Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which appeared in January 1948. Kinsey and IU President Herman B Wells had agreed the previous year to create the Institute for Sex Research as a private institution affiliated with Indiana University (the institute was renamed The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction in 1982). The male volume surprised everyone when it quickly became a bestseller, and Dr. Kinsey's name suddenly became synonymous with sex in the minds of many Americans.

Alfred Kinsey began his research on human sexuality alone, but he soon realized that the project was too immense for one person to handle. By 1942, Kinsey had set a goal to collect 100,000 interviews, and as each session lasted at least an hour, he clearly could not do it all himself. However, only a few other people would ever be trained to conduct interviews, partly because of the months of work required to learn Kinsey's method of interviewing. Clyde Martin, Wardell Pomeroy, and Paul Gebhard were the primary researchers hired by Kinsey to assist with the project.

Martin's first job with Dr. Kinsey was tending his garden, but by 1940 the Indiana University undergrad had become the professor's research assistant. He was responsible for computing and statistical analysis of the data produced by the sexual history interviews.

Pomeroy was an Indiana University graduate who was working as a clinical psychologist in South Bend when Kinsey asked him to join the research team in 1943. He was the first person trained by Kinsey to conduct sexual history interviews. Following Kinsey's death in 1956, Pomeroy served as director of field research until 1963.

Gebhard joined the research staff in 1946. A Harvard-trained anthropologist, he conducted interviews and also devised the classification scheme for the Institute's extensive collection of photographs. After Kinsey's death, Gebhard became executive director of the Institute, a position he held until 1982.

Although the four primary authors of the female volume were men, several women on the Institute staff contributed to the book. Jean Brown, Cornelia Christenson, Dorothy Collins, Hedwig Leser, and Eleanor Roehr were all acknowledged as research assistants on the book's title page. Alice Field was a sex researcher, criminologist, and social scientist in New York; as a research associate for the female volume she provided assistance with legal questions

Releasing findings to the media

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male sold more than 200,000 copies when it was published in 1948. Kinsey and his publisher knew the new book on women would likely create a sensation as well. Journalists frequently asked Kinsey when his findings about American women would be revealed. It was clear that the publication of this book would be widely covered in the press, and Kinsey was concerned that misinformation about the research would appear in print before the book was ready.

In the summer of 1953, several months before the release of the book, Kinsey invited selected journalists to come to Bloomington for a preview of the contents of the female volume. He decided that this would be the best way to control the expected onslaught of media attention directed at this scientific report on women's sexual behavior. Several four-day sessions were held for about 60 magazine writers and newspaper reporters from the United States, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Australia.

Participants were required to sign a contract in which they agreed to write stories no longer than 5,000 words that would be submitted to Kinsey prior to publication to be checked for factual errors. They also had to agree that their stories would not appear in print until August 20, 1953, a day that became known as "K-Day." No photographs could be taken during the press briefings. Instead, the reporters could purchase staff photographer Bill Dellenback's portraits of Kinsey and his Institute colleagues to illustrate their articles.

When K-Day finally arrived on August 20, 1953, many people rushed to their newsstands to find out what Dr. Kinsey and his colleagues had discovered about the sexual activities of American women. It was undoubtedly a popular topic of discussion at the workplace and at home-although many agreed with Kinsey's scientific findings, there were also plenty of people who argued that the statistics couldn't be accurate because "good" women would not have engaged in such activities, and if they had, they would not have revealed their experiences to Dr. Kinsey.

Five national magazines hit the stands on K-Day-Collier's, Time, Life, Woman's Home Companion, and Newsweek. Redbook and McCall's appeared the following day. Articles about the book as well as the media frenzy it was creating were published in newspapers around the country and the world, from the Bloomington Herald-Telephone, the Indiana Daily Student, and the Indianapolis Star to the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the London Sunday Dispatch.

On September 14, 1953 the wait was over, as copies of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female went on sale at bookstores around the country. Published by W.B. Saunders, a Philadelphia company that specialized in medical texts, the hardcover book sold for $8.00. This was a high price, but the book quickly made it to the bestseller list.

As expected, the public reaction ranged from admiration and gratitude to horror and disgust. Letters to the editor praised and denounced the book-even members of the clergy differed widely in their opinions, some saying that Kinsey's work would benefit humanity because increased knowledge of our sexual natures could only improve people's lives, while others called the research ungodly and amoral.

Reverend Billy Graham declared that Dr. Kinsey "certainly could not have interviewed any of the millions of born-again Christian women in this country who put the highest price on virtue, decency and modesty."
Both Kinsey and President Wells received numerous letters from former IU students, parents, and the general public. Many people wrote to thank Kinsey for his work and to commend Wells for supporting the research, while others complained about the validity of the study and pledged to withdraw all support for the university as long as Dr. Kinsey remained on the faculty.

In 1948, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was a bestseller in the U.S. and quickly become an international sensation. The book was translated and published in Germany, Sweden, France and elsewhere. Although both the male and female volumes used data collected from interviews with American men and women, the rest of the world was fascinated by the findings of the Kinsey Reports.

Interest in Kinsey's statistics on female sexual behavior was widespread by 1953. Journalists from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, and England were among those who visited Bloomington that summer to be briefed on the contents of the upcoming book. Numerous international papers covered the story before and after the publication of the first American edition of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in September.

A London tabloid called The People conducted its own survey of more than 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 50 and found "indications that British women are much more moral, more conventional, and more faithful to the marriage bond than the American women of the Kinsey Report." The paper implied that its data, obtained via an anonymous questionnaire given to randomly-selected women, was more reliable than Kinsey's, because the latter's subjects were volunteers and "therefore the type who were likely to boast about their sexual excesses or abnormalities."

Newsworthy Events of 1953

1953 was a remarkable year, with many stories competing for attention in the local and national press. When people weren't talking about the Kinsey Report, they were probably discussing some of these significant events:

  • Indiana defeated Kansas 69-68 to win the NCAA men's basketball championship
  • The Biblical epic The Robe and the World War II drama From Here to Eternity were the top films of the year
  • Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky on "I Love Lucy"
  • Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary-General of United Nations
  • The double-helical structure of DNA was discovered
  • IBM entered the computer business with the first of its 700 series of machines
  • Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted hearings on communist subversion in the United States
  • Josef Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union, died
  • Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage and were executed in Sing Sing Prison
  • Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest
  • A ceasefire in the Korean War was signed
  • New York Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series
  • TV Guide and Playboy began publication
  • The first Soviet hydrogen bomb was developed
  • President Eisenhower delivered his "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations
  • Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published in the United States

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