From the Kinsey Scale to Homosexualities: Studies of Same Sex Desiring Persons at the Institute for Sex Research, 1955–81

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Thurgood Marshall East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Hallimeda E. Allinson, Indiana University
Alfred C. Kinsey studied the activities, including same sex contacts, of all people, and railed against identity categories, suggesting that they were used to exert social control over particular groups. But when anthropologist Paul H. Gebhard took over directorship of Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research (ISR), he along with sociologists John Gagnon, William Simon, and Martin Weinberg and psychologist Alan Bell began studying people identified as homosexuals. They studied, first, people who were understood in the 1960s as pathological deviants, and then, in the late 1970s, people who inhabited a particular identity category. Why did the ISR begin studying homosexual people instead of the activities of average Americans? What factors impacted ISR researchers’ understandings of homosexuality?

This paper examines Kinsey’ studies of same sex desiring persons from the 1955 “Heterosexual-Homosexual Balance” project alongside the ISR’s later studies of “deviant” adjustment and socialization in the late 1960s and “typologies” and etiologies of homosexuality in the late 1970s. The ways that ISR researchers understood same sex desiring persons paralleled, and sometimes lagged behind, changes in American culture at large. As Americans began to understand sexuality exclusively through the lens of identity, so too did many sex researchers. Changes in language and conceptualization reflected both the influence of gay liberation and the goals and purpose of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the ISR and which sought practical solutions to the “problem” of homosexuality. At the same time, the backgrounds of staff researchers—anthropology, sociology, and psychology—resulted in set of research methodologies that contrasted starkly from those of Kinsey himself. The evolution of studies at the ISR offers important insight into larger changes in sex research as well as the increasing importance of identity categories during the so-called “sexual revolution.”