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'50s Sexuality Research Still Causing a Stir

The new movie on controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey has sex experts and protesters talking about what he did for human sexuality -- and morality -- in the U.S.

WebMD Feature

It is a rare lecture in which Dr. Ruth Westheimer, PhD, does not pay some type of homage to famed 1950s sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, PhD.

"In the Jewish tradition, we are taught that if you stand on the shoulders of giants, you can see farther, so I do mention Kinsey," Dr. Ruth, the famed New York City-based sex therapist and radio and TV personality, tells WebMD. "I think we have to be grateful to Kinsey because 50 years ago, he was willing to talk about a subject matter that was really taboo," says Dr. Ruth, the author of many books including her most recent, Dr. Ruth's Guide to Talking about Herpes.Now the subject of a major motion picture starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, zoologist-turned-sexpert Kinsey published two major studies -- "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" in 1948 and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" in 1953 -- that are still considered, by some, to be the foundation of human sexuality research. In addition to the new film, his work is also the basis of a new fictionalized novel by T.C. Boyle called The Inner Circle, a musical that is Broadway bound, and two television documentaries. Dr. Ruth recently saw a screening of the new movie Kinsey, which is set to open nationally Friday. "It's definitely worth seeing and it should be celebrated," says Dr. Ruth, who mentioned that she did get kissed by Neeson at the premiere. But as much as Kinsey's work has its advocates, it also has its critics, both then and now.

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Human Sexuality Legacy Looms Large

Kinsey based his work on interviews with 5,300 white men and 5,940 white women. These interviews serve as the foundation for his published works. Each interview comprised up to 521 questions that touched on anything and everything sexual including bestiality, pedophilia, extramarital sexuality, homosexual tendencies, masturbation, and penis size.

As a result of these interviews, Kinsey promoted a seven-point scale of normal human sexuality, with bisexuality the most "balanced" state. Kinsey said that 37% of adult males had had at least one homosexual experience. The apex of controversy surrounding his research, however, stems from material he gathered from the diaries of convicted pedophiles and applied to typical Americans.

When his books were first published, many critics immediately assailed his methods. Were these people telling the truth? Says who? Are they a random sample? Others saved their venom for his subject matter -- calling it obscene. In fact, a scene from the new movie depicts government agents seizing and then impounding a box of study materials en route to Kinsey.

"All of the criticisms about his methodology and personal life and if he was sleeping with men or not is of no interest to me," Dr. Ruth says. "What is interesting is that he gave us data that Masters and Johnson can now use in their studies."

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